“The power of positive thinking”

Have you heard this phrase before? It means that if you can think positively—put a positive spin on your problem, it won’t be so hard. As you know if you’ve tried this, the effect can be good, but it is rarely a lasting one. You can “think positive” about something for a time, but reality usually dictates that when something is difficult, one’s thinking about it can’t stay positive for long.

So, what’s the alternative to positive thinking? Well, in my business, it is biblical thinking. When we choose to think biblically about our problems, it changes our perspective, enabling us to see things from an eternal point of view instead of a temporal one. Today, I’d like to share with you three examples of how to turn positive thinking into biblical thinking.

“You can do it! You’ve got this!”

This little phrase is intended to encourage the person who is doubting her ability to do a task or achieve a specific goal. It implies that the speaker believes in the person, or believes the person is able to accomplish what she is considering doing. The problem with this is that it is not necessarily true. No matter how much someone says to me, “You’ve got this! You can do it!” there is still a possibility I will fail. For example, I would really love to publish a book of devotionals about God’s faithfulness through chronic pain and disability. However, there are many such books on the market, and mine may not be published. No matter how positively I think; no matter how much my friends believe that I’ve “got this,” it still may not happen.

However, if the Lord sovereignly ordains that I write a book, and that it is published, it will happen for sure. So, the biblical thinking to answer this particular encouragement would be, “If the Lord wills, you will publish your book.”

Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” Otherwise you are boasting about your own plans, and all such boasting is evil. (James 4:13-16)

Of course, encouragement from our friends is always helpful when there’s a big task before us, so I’m not saying you shouldn’t offer it. It just needs to be in a form that agrees with Scripture, and it needs to be accompanied by prayer. There is nothing more encouraging to me than to know that people are praying for me as I strive to do those things to which I believe He’s called me.

“Cheer up! It’s bound to get better!”

This positive statement is meant to help the person feel better by looking past their trial or affliction to a time when it will have passed, or at least the impact of it won’t be so hard. But this, too, may be a lie. What if it doesn’t get better? What if the person is in so much pain that she can’t see past this moment? What if she can’t just “cheer up” based on the fact that her pain will one day end? Well, then this bit of encouragement is really the opposite.

So, what biblical boost can we give our friend who is sad or struggling? The best one I know of is to remind her that God uses all kinds of things in our lives for our good and His glory. The purpose of our trials may seem mysterious, but we know one thing for sure: It is always for our growth. Our trials are sovereignly ordained by God, ultimately to make us more like His precious son. And that is always good. Here are a few passages from Scripture to show you that everything that is happening is working together for good:

First, my favorite, and my go-to encouragement when a friend is down:

And we know that God causes everything to work together[a] for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And having chosen them, he called them to come to him. And having called them, he gave them right standing with himself. And having given them right standing, he gave them his glory. (Romans 8:28-30)

Here, Jesus reminds the sufferer that her response is a testimony to her faith:

Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:16)

And finally, a biblical boost for the sister who is suffering physically, to remind her that her body and its afflictions were the ones ordained for her:

For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:20)

“It’s not so bad. Lots of people have it worse!”

This is my least favorite of all the positive thinking phrases. First of all, this is simply a denial of the person’s suffering. In her mind, it is indeed “so bad,” and all this does is confirm the idea that the person who is trying to encourage her has no clue how bad it is. Additionally, the idea here is to compare oneself to others who are suffering more than the person, and this is supposed to make them feel better. I don’t know about you, but thinking of people who are worse off than I am usually leads to one of two things: A prideful attitude that thinks maybe God favors me over the other person; or further despair, because maybe this will get worse, and I could end up like that person. Either way, this encouragement is no encouragement at all!

A better, more biblical consolation would be to affirm the person’s suffering: “This is terrible, and hard, and I will do my best to understand!” Then, point the person outside of herself, to Christ and others:

Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:1-3)

Rather than telling the person to look at others and remind herself that she’s better off than they are, she needs to look to Christ and think of eternal realities, like the “well done” that awaits her after she has responded biblically to her suffering. The best encouragement for a suffering sister, after you have affirmed and grieved her suffering with her, is to point her to her Christian privilege and obligation to reach out to another sufferer to offer the strength and comfort she has received through Christ.

Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. (Philippians 2:1-4)

You will never hear me offer any of these “positive thinking” statements in our counseling sessions, because, frankly, they are not positive. They are lies, meant to steer you toward self-reliance, placing your hope in circumstances, or comparing your suffering to that of others. None of these will lead to lasting joy, because none of them look to the source of it! I will always point you to where your real hope is, and that is only, ever in Jesus Christ, who…

… for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2)