The Problem of Positive Thinking

Paul writes: I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want to do; instead, I do the things that I hate.  Romans 7:15

Have you ever found yourself thinking the same thing?  You make a decision, you say “I’m going to change my life for the better”, you say “that’s it’, I’m going to take charge; I’m going to start exercising, I’m going to watch what I’m putting into my body.  I’m going to take control of my attitude, I’m going to let go of the anger over things I can’t control, I’m going to stop reacting to those around me and start making my own decisions”.

…Or maybe it’s much more basic than that: we repent from our sins, we ask for forgiveness and decide to follow Jesus – no turning back, no turning back.  But then, a little ways down the road, we find ourselves right back where we were.

This is exactly what St. Paul is speaking about in his letter to the Romans.  Much like ourselves, the citizens of Rome considered themselves to be educated, sophisticated people.  When Paul was writing, there were a number of very popular philosophies, particularly among those who viewed themselves as up-and-coming, enlightened people.

Some taught and believed that true happiness could only be found in gaining control over your emotions, in learning to overcome your gut reactions and your own desires, and instead being guided by pure reason and rationality.[1]  Others taught that it wasn’t our actions towards others, it wasn’t right or wrong that mattered, but whether we had gathered up the right knowledge: knowledge is power, so the goal of life is to find the right teacher and gather up as much knowledge as possible, and then you’ll be in control of your destiny.[2]

And, honestly, we find ourselves in much the same situation today.  Those claiming to be the spiritual guides, teachers, and counsellors of our own day offer much the same as Paul found in his day.  Some live by “the power of positive thinking”, or what mental health workers now call “toxic positivity”: the idea that we should repress our actual feelings and our real-life situations, and just be positive instead of calling it like it is.  (Thankfully, the health care community is now speaking out about just how dangerous this positive thinking can be!).

On the other hand, plenty today would choose to reject their emotions altogether and instead live by knowledge, science, and reason alone – and it only takes a visit to the bedside of a dying person to show that, yes, knowledge indeed looks like power when you’re strong, when life is going your way, and when you seem to be in control.  But when faced with things that you can’t change, when faced with situations that you didn’t choose, and circumstances beyond your control – when faced with the harsh realities of real life – all the knowledge in the world only serves to remind you how very powerless you are to change anything that really matters.

There are all sorts of would-be spiritual guides or teachers of the right knowledge all competing for our attention, all competing to gather us as followers.  But, as attractive as an idea might be on the surface, anything that’s lasting, anything that’s good, true, or beautiful shouldn’t just sound nice in our ears today – it should bear fruit.

…and at the end of the day, how many of those resolutions, those decisions to take charge and change your life have actually stuck?

A Sin-Sick Soul

Paul’s message is an unpopular one, precisely because it’s true – uncomfortably true for each and every one of us.  At the end of the day, I cannot carry out the decisions I make.  I know what is right, I know what I want to do, I decide how I want to live, but time and time again, I look back and I see myself doing the very things I hate, the very things I detest in other people, the very things I declared I would give up.

Paul’s message – and the message of the Gospel – is that there’s more to us than just our mind.  As one theologian famously put it, humans are not just a brain on a stick.[3]  It’s not like we can just jam our minds full of the “right stuff” and then be set for life, in spite of all the self-help books or YouTube documentaries we might turn to for knowledge.

We’re more complex than that: we are spiritual beings.  Alongside our knowledge of right and wrong, of good and bad, of what is healthy and what leads to destruction, we find ourselves face to face with passions and desires and emotions that seem to run entirely against what we want for ourselves.  

The Christian faith confronts this head-on.  No, we don’t choose what we know is right – and it’s not because of a lack of knowledge or opportunity.  It’s because, deep down, my soul – that part of me that gives me emotions rather than instincts, that part of me that lets me love, and hope, and dream, that part of me that is made in the image of God – is sick.  My soul, your soul, is sick with sin.  Some of it is our own doing – like an upset stomach is our fault when we sit down and eat a family size bag of chips by ourselves, even though we know it’s not a great decision.  (Not that I’m speaking from experience…)

And some of that sin-sickness isn’t our fault, but inherited from our parents, like a family history of poor digestion; and some of it is caused by our environment, like allergies that crop up in response to the pollen in the air.

Some of this “sin-sickness” is our own doing, and some of it isn’t, but either way, it’s there.  And, we read in Romans, the reason I cannot carry out what I decide to do, the reason I keep on doing the things that I hate in others and the things I know are bad for me is because my passions, my emotions, my desires, the things my soul loves are working against me – and no amount of knowledge or positive thinking in my rational mind can change that fundamental problem.

Our problem isn’t a lack of knowledge.  We know it’s wrong.  We know smoking, or drinking that half case of beer, or going back for that second slice of cake, or taking that second or third glance at that person who caught your eye, or obsessing about your bank account, or holding that grudge, or pretending we know all that’s going on in another person’s life are all destructive behaviours.  But we persist against our own will precisely because it’s not our mind, but our soul that is sick.

A Spiritual Problem needs a Spiritual Remedy

That’s half the battle – you’ve got to know the illness before you can find the remedy.

If I break my leg, the remedy isn’t positive thinking: it’s a cast. 
If I have cancer in my body, none of the theories about the big bang and evolution are doing to fix it: I need to cut it out.

The truth of the Gospel is that Christ entered into that frustration shared by all humanity, that sin-sickness that wars against our mind and our body, not just so that we can calm ourselves by knowing he has shared our weakness.  The solution isn’t knowledge: it’s a transplant!  The truth of the Gospel is that Christ wants us to accept a transfusion, to allow God’s own Spirit to heal our sin-sick soul.  It’s a process.  Sure, it might seem faster if he could just swap our sick one for his own, but just as a doctor must carefully give us the right dosage of our medicine over time, God’s will is that the ongoing indwelling of the Holy Spirit would, over a lifetime, begin that process of healing our desires, our emotions, our passions, our longings, until that day when we share in Christ’s likeness, and are no longer torn between what we know is right and what our bodies desire; until that day that we are fully known, that the effects of our own sin, as well as the sin of the world around us are done away, and we can be as we were intended: fully alive, and united with one another in the presence of God himself.

So, the next time you find yourself kicking yourself because you just don’t understand why you did the thing you hate, first, remember you’re in good company.

Then, more importantly, acknowledge that you’re not a brain on a stick.  It’s not that you don’t know right from wrong; it’s that your soul, our souls, my soul is still sick.  And as we repent and return to Christ, as we resolve to follow Him, pray not just for more understanding, but pray for a transfusion of the Holy Spirit.  Positive thinking or all the knowledge in the world can only get us so far: a spiritual illness needs a spiritual remedy, and Christ the Great Physician offers it to all of us… We just need to follow the doctor’s orders.


[1] Yes, this is a gross over-simplification of Stoicism.

[2] A sloppy but apt description of the mindset behind gnostic movements.

[3] James K.A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom, and the popular adaptation You are what you love.