When Positive Thinking Doesn’t Work

I hate positive thinking emergencies. They creep up on you at your worst moments.

You stand at cliff’s edge, vicious barbarian armies closing in on you. In front of you lies the ocean. Even if you were to survive the positive thinkingsharp rocks that stud the cliff side, there is a sea monster waiting below, his gaping maw revealing rows upon rows of pointy teeth. You feel panic grip your chest, your throat. Your hands shake. Then out of nowhere, you feel the hand of your co-worker gently squeeze your shoulder. “Try to think positive thinking,” he says, meaningfully and with sincere sympathy.

“That’s it!” you think and begin to hum The sun will come out tomorrow all the while clicking your heels thinking, “There’s no time like 5:00 pm. There’s no time like 5:00 pm.” The brutish hordes halt, suddenly confused. Leviathan starts to whimper like a kicked puppy. You have done it! You have vanquished your enemies with the mere power of your thoughts. You rise up, leap onto your desk, and give a mighty war cry.It’s an epiphany!

Or not.

Sometimes I think positive thinking should be renamed denial.

In the throes of an anxiety attack, in the vast ocean of grief, or the tar pits of shame and depression, positive thinking, as it is suggested by so many well-intentioned Job’s comforters, is a bandaid that doesn’t stick.

Worse, when we try to stand on the Word or proclaim affirmations and they simply fall into the void, we are left feeling inadequate and unworthy. It is easy for Christians to offer each other truisms instead of empathy. God is in control. Worry is a sin. God is good all the time. All the time God is good. Often we use these phrases as a way to distance ourselves from other people’s pain, afraid it will remind us of our own.

So here is my observation about this phenomenon. Many of us have a tendency to separate our head from our hearts. We are walking, talking brains, dragging our hearts behind us as an inconvenient afterthought. This is why you can declare God’s faithfulness all you want, but still feel utterly abandoned. Or why you can look around you, assessing the security fortress of your home, and still be waiting for the bad guys to break down the door.

Please don’t misunderstand. I am not suggesting that it doesn’t matter what you say or think. But our minds are more complex than that. A fully alive human thinks…and feels. Unfortunately, the two trains of thought and emotion are often going in opposite directions.

Saying you are happy when you are not does not make you happy. It makes you a hypocrite.

There are two ways of knowing. Our minds run on two different train tracks. One is analytical; the other is emotional. Memories only occur when Girl Standing Between Two Train Tracks Positive Thinkingthose tracks cross. You must have experiential knowledge that things are going to be ok. Think it all you want, but your body knows better. The deep wagon train grooves in your neural pathways remember all the times it went badly, remembers the pain of rejection and abuse. And those wheels are buried to the axle on the roads in your mind. Jumping them takes time, effort, and some seriously good times.

It says in Proverbs that as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he. Interesting that we must think with our hearts. This is why, despite our reading Bible verses or telling ourselves that life will be good, our hearts are not following along. If your heart is in exile, it is even worse. Up to this point, you have been constructing a reality, a belief system with your body, soul, and spirit. To dismantle anxiety or shame, both of which are possible, requires teaching your body what it means to feel loved, to feel confident, and to have a sense of well-being.

Sometimes this requires calling professional troops. But I created this blog to give you a tool in your arsenal called imaginative prayer. Your imagination sparks both sides of the thinking/feeling conundrum. Prayer engages the spirit. Exercising the imagination comes easier for some than others, so I am gradually creating a series of prayerful imaginative experiences for your heart to live out in the presence of God. It is all a part of renewing the mind, the dianoia, which includes the imagination whose job is to engage the heart.

Take a little time to assess your heart. Can you locate it? How does your heart feel? How do you picture it?

My own heart has appeared at different times in my imagination as inaccessible behind three inch aquarium glass, a brittle glass heart, and a bloody mess as if it was removed in an awful surgery.

Each of those has served as an important metaphor for my emotions. So take your fragile, hidden, or bruised heart into your hands. Today, you are going to begin to teach your heart to rest. Ask Jesus to come hold your heart for you and imagine him carefully taking it from your hands. He takes your heart, which he loves, and He puts it to rest, without care or sorrow, in the very heart of his Heart.

Your heart, the very center of who you are, is hidden in Him. Spend time like this and you will find that your heart has begun the process of beating in time with his. Your positive thinking will come because you have Christ within, not because you mouth happy words.

positive thinkingLittle children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.
By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him;
for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.

John 3:18-20

This book has done more for me than almost any other Christian book. My prayer times are more transformative than I could ever have imagined. Thank you, Gregory Boyd.

Want to teach your child to connect with God? Try this.


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Declutter Your Soul with Imaginative Prayer


5 Replies to “When Positive Thinking Doesn’t Work”

  1. Beautiful! Proud you know what you love to do and the opportunity to live it!

  2. Yes! There are many times when we are in denial and call it positive thinking or just “trying”.

  3. And it’s confessing the Word instead of just positive thoughts that makes the difference

  4. I like the idea of imagitive prayer. Can’t wait to hear more! Great post!

  5. Yes! Yes! Yes! Keep speaking these life-giving and life-changing truths!!

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