Like many avid PBS viewers, my husband and I were in for quite the experience this week when we sat down to watch their annual coverage of “A Capitol Fourth”, the live broadcast of D.C.’s Independence Day concert and fireworks. Since we were splashing around town with our toddlers in downpours earlier that day we knew it would be a miracle if the fireworks proceeded as planned. Imagine our surprise when not only did the fireworks begin, but we were treated to occasionally marvelous aerial coverage of the event featuring crisp monuments, clear skies, and picture perfect displays of pyrotechnic celebration.
Instead of watching a live dud of a display as one would would expect at the conclusion of a rainy day, or seeing some sort of notice announcing that this was a previously recorded display due to inclement weather, we were given an odd amalgamation of both.
While no disclaimer was made during the broadcast, we apparently weren’t the only puzzled residents looking for clarification. PBS tweeted an explanation of the broadcast the next morning, confirming that they used a mixture of old and new footage in order to improve our viewing experience.
On one hand I totally get it. The eerie scenes that were obviously live looked more like coverage of the bombing of Baghdad than the happy celebratory pictures we all hope for on the 4th. However, the cognitive dissonance they created with their creative presentation of truth was ultimately a disorienting and disappointing lie.
Like many lies in our own lives, it wasn’t all fake. Only key parts of the finale were made up of recycled footage while the bulk of the presentation came live as advertised. Such combinations of truths and lies are often presented in a positive light, as PBS tried to do the morning after. Isn’t it for the best when we cover over our darkness and disappointments with something more beautiful or appealing?
The difficulty comes when we sprinkle falsehoods in with truth as an attempt to recreate our reality. Once combined, it becomes challenging to separate one from the other. We start to loose touch with what is true and what is false.
Such is the kind of experience I had in reading through The Power of Positive Thinking. As Peale quotes a psychologist friend in his opening chapter, “Attitudes are more important than facts” (22). When this perspective becomes your maxim, “reality” is based less on truth and more on how you choose to perceive your circumstances.
PBS invited viewers to perceive the reality of this year’s national fireworks as one filled with sparkling excitement and clear skies. Peale invites us to perceive our reality as a one where we can attain anything our heart desires so long as we come to believe in ourself.
Chapter 1: Believe in Yourself
We are justified by Christ, believe in Him. I suppose it comes as no surprise that a book described in big bold letters on the back cover by the line, “Faith in yourself makes good things happen to you” would open with a chapter entitled Believe in yourself. As Peale explains, “A sense of inferiority and inadequacy interferes with the attainment of your hopes, but self-confidence leads to self-realization and successful achievement” (13).
In fact, he argues that “Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy” (13). To help us meet this goal of earthly success, Peale outlines 10 steps comprised mostly of various forms of thought conditioning designed to keep us positive.
Since he was a pastor, Peale’s message is often riddled with mentions of the importance of a belief in God and in the help found in scripture for daily life. This is the truth he offers. In fact, some of his prescriptions are fairly good ideas for all believers, like reading the Bible regularly, praying fervently, memorizing verses, and seeking out counseling when facing struggles from your past. If we take Donald Trump as his word, he loves reading the Bible. That is no surprise for a follower of Peale’s teachings.
However, the fissures and falsehoods appear as we examine how Peale advocates using scripture and a belief in God for our own gain and self-fulfillment. Take, for instance, his promise that “You can develop creative faith in yourself – faith that is justified” (13). To be clear, when Peale says justified here he is referencing a faith is justified by a realistic appreciation of yourself. This is not a theological truth, it is a pep talk.
Of course, to the self-centered soul this is also a core foundational belief. I am right, I am worthy, I will do all things well. So the mantra goes. Once self justified, you can do no wrong. Add God to that picture and you’ve found the makings of a monstrous deformation of what God creates us to be.
It should go without saying that this teaching of self justification is the antithesis of Christianity. Ironically, one of Peale’s favorite scriptures to quote comes from a key passage dealing with justification. For Step 5 of his assured ways to build self confidence he suggests: “Ten times a day repeat these dynamic words, ‘If God is for us, who can be against us?’ (Romans 8:31) (Stop reading and repeat them NOW slowly and confidently)” (25).
I realize that Romans 8:31 is a favorite verse for many believers, and for good reason. It is, as Peale notes, encouraging and even empowering. But we need to ask the question: WHY is God for us? Who is God in the first place? In Peale’s world, to the fundamentally self-centered, he’s whatever we need him to be to support our inner power and outward success.
Contrast that to what the Bible says in full. Leading up to the beautiful claim of God’s support and love for His children, we find one of the most crucial passages of scripture on the nature of salvation, justification, and the elect in Romans 8:
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. 31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
First, it is clear that God justifies us. God is the actor. Through Him, through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, we are justified. Not by who we are. Not by what we do. We are justified by Christ.
Second, because we are foreknown, predestined, called, justified, and glorified through the great love and grace of God, we now know that “if God is for us, who can be against us.” The first part of verse 31 is important as it references the powerful statements of truth that proceed it. We can’t start with the premise that God is for us, rather it is merely the conclusion drawn from all “these things” about who God is and what He has done for us.
True teaching reveals that you don’t learn about God and his nature by looking primarily inside yourself, and you definitely don’t partake in the promises of God by purely inward thinking. It is by looking up and out to God that we learn more clearly about who we are and what we can do.
Third, God is on our side so that we shall not be separated from His love. We are more than conquerers, but not in the sense that we are actually guaranteed protection from hardship, failure, or even tragic death. We are more than conquerers because of the promises regarding the ever present love of God, our salvation, and eternal life.
In fact, because of how we are foreknown, predestined, called, justified, and glorified we are told that we may be killed for the glory of God. Not exactly a winning premise for “self-realization and successful achievement”, especially if your idea of achievement is based primarily in the events and currency of this world.
On a certain level it is a good idea to heal our wounds and believe in what we can achieve with God’s help. But this belief is only worthwhile when it is grounded in a firm notion of who God is, of the great things He has done, and of who He created us to become. We are justified by Christ, believe in Him.
God strengthens us to do His will. In Step 7 Peale tell us to repeat “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” 10 times a day. Then he commands, “Repeat these words NOW. That magic sentiment is the most powerful antidote on earth to inferiority feelings” (25). Aside from his appeals for repetition starting to feel like a youth camp gone all wrong, his use of this verse throughout the book as a hallmark feature of building self-confidence is troubling.
Like we saw with Romans 8, the entirety of a passage matters in clarifying what followers of Christ are actually promised in this life. Can we really do anything we set our minds to, without limits? Can we use God to achieve something contrary to His teachings? What happens if we fail? Was God not on our side that time? Did we not have a sufficiently large enough faith? Consider these preceding verses in Philippians 4:
8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 14 Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble.
God strengthens us so that we can put into practice that which is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise, no matter the circumstances we find ourselves in. We are not kept from storms, but we are strengthened to weather them.
Also, we can do these things because of who God is. God is great. God is good. God is love. God is Lord. Therefore we can do amazingly powerful things for Him. Note, he doesn’t strengthen us so that we might be great. As the Eucharistic liturgy exhorts, “Through Him, with Him, in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is Yours, almighty Father, forever and ever.”
It can be as much a struggle to excel in these things that bear righteousness in times of plenty and success as in times of famine and failure. Yet God gives us the strength to follow Him, and in turn to bring Him honor, glory, and praise. God strengthens us to do His will.
Our insecurities should encourage compassion, not contempt. Peale identifies the root of our individual problems as our own inferiority complex, or “deep and profound self-doubt” (17). Note that our struggles, fears, and problems do not come from any particular acknowledgment either of sin or satan.
A cure for inferiority is to “fill your mind with to overflowing with faith” and to “Develop a tremendous faith in God and that will give you a humble yet soundly realistic faith in yourself” (17). Ok, so that doesn’t sound bad, right?
Caution friends, this is a trap. As much as it might be helpful and healing to develop a “humble yet soundly realistic” view of ourselves, especially one that begins with a faith in God, it is severely damaging to make faith in ourselves and our capabilities a chief goal in life. Why? Because it makes our faith in God fundamentally about us and our well-being, not about God and how He calls us to serve one another. This is what it looks like to build your house upon the sand.
Peale’s own derision toward those who have yet to find self-confidence comes to the surface in ugly ways. He notes, “It is appalling to realize the number of pathetic people who are hampered and made miserable by the malady popularly called the inferiority complex” (13). One can almost see Trump’s now infamous remark “Sad!” after that comment.
Peale’s message rings hollow for his sights are set so low. Consider this advice given to a middle child who underperformed in school in contrast to his high achieving older brother, “Just because somebody gets an A in college doesn’t make him the greatest man in the United States, because maybe his A’s will stop when he gets his diploma, and the fellow who got C’s in school will go on to get the real A’s in life” (17).
First, the ‘real A’s’ he is talking about aren’t about character, the pursuit of righteousness, or eternal life. He is depicting a story like that of the biography of Donald Trump. You might not be the top of the class, but you can still be more successful and more wealthy than your older brother when you enter the real business world. Take heart! Your success is yet to come! You can still be the greatest, the best, and the brightest. Just believe in yourself. Yuck.
Second, note how he turns the predicament of one person’s weakness into a story of pitting one brother against the other. It’s not enough to suggest that those who get average grades can still be successful later on in life, he also has to point out that the older brother might start tasting failure after school ends. The confidence of one is built upon the potential failure of another. Such is the rotten fruit that comes from attempts to justify ourselves.
Moreover, consider this observation from Step 4: ”Do not be awestruck by other people and try to copy them. Nobody can be you as efficiently as YOU can” (25). Let Trump be Trump? Anyone? Anyone?
“Remember also that most people, despite their confident appearance and demeanor, are often as scared as you are and as doubtful of themselves” (25). Well then. Guessing those confident people aren’t really true positive thinkers, they are just fakers waiting to be revealed.
The dummies. The losers. Like you. Like me. For here is a central problem of the theology presented by Norman Vincent Peale: mere positive thinking and attentive effort at building self-confidence isn’t actually all that fulfilling. It isn’t really the answer to all of your problems or the healing balm to your deepest wounds. Not only will you find the need to justify yourself through your superiority to others, but you will still be fearful inside that someone might find out that you are actually faking your way through life.
Stop trying to justify yourself, for we are all sinners who will endlessly come short. Belief in yourself, when placed at the center of your life, is tremendously hollow and disappointing. Belief in yourself, which is rarely humble or truthful when exercised apart from an active relationship with Christ, can lead to great evil. We are justified by Christ, believe in Him.
Our belief in God and His love for us is not primarily designed with earthly success in mind. God may gift that to us, but we will all have our crosses to bear, thorns in our flesh, and disappointments in life. God’s help is offered so that we may love Him more fully. His promise is that once adopted as co-heirs with Christ we will never be separated from His unconditional love and saving grace. God strengthens us to do His will.
As we seek to grow and heal we will discover the places in our hearts that are wounded and sinful. Recognizing these scars and faults in ourselves ought to lead us to a place of empathy where we can enter into the pain, fears, and failures of others. We are meant to build up, not tear down. Our insecurities should encourage compassion, not contempt.
If you missed my opening, check out Part I on the backstory of blogging through this book and my summary thoughts on Peale’s Preface. I never set out to take this review as a chapter by chapter guide, but I was so struck by the ideas listed in the first chapter I wanted to spend extra time on some of what he writes there. As we go on in the coming week or so, and these assertions are repeated time and time again, I will address groups of chapters together and cover new or different areas for further thought.
∗ I am using the 1992 edition of The Power of Positive Thinking printed by Fawcet Crest/Ballantine Books. All citations reference this copy.