Our Dysfunctional Family Values: On Believe Me by John Fea

img_9395.jpegThere is nothing quite so painful nor so beautiful as delving into the study of your own family.  Where there are wounds or unresolved questions, such study becomes all the more necessary yet somewhat halting and – even, at times – haunting. As Oscar Wild wrote in his classic The Picture of Dorian Gray, “I can’t help detesting my relations. I suppose it comes from the fact that none of us can stand other people having the same faults as ourselves.”

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, by John Fea, offers fellow white American evangelicals a chance to study the harsher realities of our family legacy by illuminating the detestable parts of our past and laying bare the faults of our present.

For many of us within the church the current era of Trumpism has confirmed our worst fears and challenged our most defensive reflexes about the faith community we call home.  This has been a time of reflection and repentance, but also one of bewilderment.

In describing his first reaction on election night Fea shares his emotions, which to many of us are all too familiar. “I was shocked. I was saddened. I was angry.”  Trump’s victory brought about disillusionment not really because of who lost, but rather because of who and what so many of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ appeared willing to endorse, enable or empower.  As Fea notes, realizing that eight out of 10 of his fellow church goers most likely voted for Trump “seemed to reflect deep divisions in how we understand the world, and it was deeply distressing.” (5)

For those who, like me, share these sentiments of shock and uncertainty, Believe me offers a renewed explanation for why this happened and sketches tentative suggestions for the road ahead.  He offers us a historical framework mixed with contemporary analysis through which to understand our present time, particularly by focusing on the religious leaders and prominent Trump supporters Fea terms “Court Evangelicals.” In all, the book reads as a satisfying catharsis for unresolved questions about why and how we got to this point in our family history.

Grounded in an overview of the modern dance between evangelicals and the Supreme Court, Fea describes how and why evangelicals have turned to political solutions as a means for devotional salvation, especially in the second half of the 20th century. Also acting as primer on the darker moments in religious American history, from the faults of Salem and Massachusetts Bay Colony, to the theological justifications of slavery and Jim Crow, to the rise of the “Know Nothing Party”, the Scopes Trial, Operation Wet Back and many more, Fea’s book offers us a colorful family album of evangelical foibles, sins, and woes.  He explains:

“Evangelicals have worried about the decline of Christian civilization from the moment they arrived on American shores in the seventeenth century.  They have celebrated values such as ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ while simultaneously building exclusive communities that do not tolerate dissent.  They have revealed their fear in the ways they have responded to the plight of the people who do not share their skin color.  White evangelical fear of newcomers – those who might challenge the power and privilege that white evangelicals have enjoyed in a nation of Protestants – has been present in every era of American history.” (65)

Seen in this light, the voting habits and rhetoric of the 2016 election were a continuity of our worst impulses, an almost inevitable outcome for a people who have yet to reckon with the their own darker past.

Playing up the thesis that the evangelical embrace of Donald Trump is driven most prominently by fear, Fea recounts the events leading up to the election by wryly noting, “The evangelical candidates stoked fears of a world they seemed unfit to tame.” (33) The rhetoric, developed over almost forty years by the leadership of the Religious Right, mixed with age-old concerns about foreigners, criminals, and encroaching secularism, is not to be seen as an abrogation but rather as a continuation of the more troubling legacies within the American church.  As Fea explains: “In a sin-cursed world, we should expect anxiety-induced emotions to rise in response to social change.  But evangelicals have not always managed their fears in a healthy way.” (65)

Crucially, he identifies how the over glorification, or nostalgia, of our past has led to a confused mentality of how best to confront the concerns of the present.  While addressing the complex historical implications of the controversial campaign slogan Make America Great Again, he asks for us to question more deeply what message that fourth word conveys.  Which America, which season of American evangelicalism, do we wish to reclaim? What is meant by great AGAIN?

“It is easy for white evangelicals to look back fondly on American history.  There is, of course, a lot to celebrate… At the same time, America is a nation that has been steeped in racism, xenophobia, imperialism, violence, materialism, and a host of other practices that do not conform very well to the ethical demands that Christianity places upon our lives.”  (137-8)

Looking back to this darker past is the key to understanding a path to a brighter, more hopeful, future.  It also helps us put in perspective the widening political gap between white evangelicals and our minority brethren in the faith.  As Fea pointedly queries, “Why would any African-American want to ‘reclaim’ a history steeped in racism?” (134) Yet somehow these voices remain unheard or unheeded and the sins of our forefathers, or perhaps the sins of our own hearts, are the reality we still must confront, repent, and mourn.

What then should we do about these dysfunctional family values?  Fea ultimately concludes with a call to hope over fear, humility over power, and history over nostalgia.  Through further self-reflection and an embrace of values exhibited in the civil rights movement, he thinks we can find creative and faithful ways to respond to the unique (and not so unique) challenges of our times.

Moreover, Fea suggests that we should respond in such a way that is inclusive and welcoming of the entire multi-racial, multi-ethnic body of Christ, seeking after an understanding of the great promise offered by this land of the free that is relatable to all.  “For too many who have been the objects of white evangelical fear,” he says, “real American greatness is still something to be hoped for – not something to be recovered from an imagined past.” (154)  Adopting a posture of humility, we should therefore see both the future of our faith and the future of our polis as one in the making, a work in progress ripe for healing and new growth.

While Believe Me is a helpful and insightful addition to the burgeoning literature seeking to explain how a thrice married, notoriously bankrupt (in more ways than one) former reality tv star ended up as President of the United States of America, I do have three critiques to offer.

First, for a book that proclaims to specifically offer an understanding of the evangelical embrace of Trump or Trumpism, Fea fails to adequately define the distinct roots and branches of our family tree.  Since the 2016 election there has been an ongoing discussion, particularly among scholars of theology and church history, regarding the meaning of the label “evangelical” and the authenticity of the poll numbers which Fea readily cites as the basis of his book.  Not only did Fea choose to overlook this discussion about the contemporary use of the term, but his historic examples of “evangelicals” are quite generous in definition, including faith groups as diverse as puritans, members of mainline protestant denominations, prosperity gospel preachers, and pentecostal churches, among others.

The closest Fea comes to defining what he means by American evangelicalism is found in his categorization of the so-called “court evangelicals” who “come from three primary streams of American evangelicalism: the Christian Right, the followers of what has come to be known as the ‘prosperity gospel,’ and the Independent Network Charismatics.” (106)  While I found this to be a helpful way to group the personalities he features, I am certain some of his peers will question if these are all fair representatives of evangelicalism as a historically defined religious movement.

Even if these are all fair representatives of white evangelicalism, Fea still fails to define with greater clarity what he means by the term. (Personally, I am inclined to give him some latitude for accepting this type of self-identified “evangelicalism” as representing an important sociological grouping, if not a precise theological label.)  A significant part of reflecting on our family roots is looking into our DNA, the unique genetic ties that connect us together throughout time.  In Believe Me, Fea fails to even attempt to make these ties apparent.  He uses the term “evangelical” so broadly at times it ceases to mean much more than just a generic, interchangeable, title for the American Christian.

Second, I am afraid this book is not written in a way that makes it fully approachable to the 81% who voted for Donald Trump.  While the dedication “to the 19%” who voted for someone (or no one) else in 2016 seems quite fitting, this book offers an opportunity to bridge the political divide and invite us all onto a mutual path of familial reflection.  Unfortunately, where Fea diverges from the necessary detachment of historical inquiry, there is a touch of off-putting bias.  More than once I caught myself noting how he describes the fears of those who have embraced Trumpism as merely reacting to perceived threats, while at the same time he qualifies the prejudices of both the present and the past as definite and real.  This pattern is particularly evident in his discussion of the Obama presidency where, for example, he fairly critiques the racism behind birtherism but understates both the political and judicial threats to religious liberty posed by the Obama administration both at home and abroad.

While I concur that the Christian Right, among others, ginned up excessive hyperbole and fear in our recent history, I also think that Believe Me as a whole misses the mark in examining the trends in European and American culture that elicited genuine fear and anxiety among orthodox Christian believers.  As many astute observers of our age such as Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option have noted, some evangelicals (presumably including those within the 81%) are responding to shifts in belief and behavior which could lead to actual persecution over time – more than mere social change or inflexibility as Fea implies.  We certainly need to debate the best, most Christ-like way to respond to such threats, but it is folly to gloss over the actual ways these changing public policies and mores may inhibit our freedom of religion in the days to come.

Fea’s overarching thesis, that our fears should be met with hope and humility, remains timely and significant.  Yet by discrediting most of these fears as over exaggerated, or simply as part of a legacy of religious bigotry, he limits his most likely audience to those already inclined to agree with the prescient warning that fear and nostalgia can all too easily lead to ungodly racism, bigotry and exclusion.

Finally, any great examination of family history eventually needs to look fully and fairly at the entire family tree.  When newly exposed to the foibles and abuses of our elders or peers it is only natural to want to keep digging, to find all the hidden or forgotten skeletons, and to reflect upon them through grief.  This process of emotive truth-telling is an important part of healing, but it is not the entirety of the healing process.  What Believe Me starkly overlooks, a bit oddly given the intended audience, is the historical context for evangelicals who currently dissent.  Be they the 19% who didn’t vote for Trump, or part of an unknown percentage who cast their votes for him but still vocally object to policies and behavior which run counter to the Christian Faith, these white evangelicals are standing in an important tradition that also reaches back before our founding.

Family histories are complex, and any readings that are all positive or all negative tend to miss the mark and fail to give complete justice to the truth of our heritage.  Where Fea fairly derides the positive revisionism of David Barton and his ilk for an all-too-simple storytelling of a mythic Christian America, reading Believe Me in insolation risks leaving us with the impression that the legacy of white evangelicalism is mostly negative: a long, sad, solitary tale of bigotry and hypocrisy.

Such a uniquely sordid picture could not be further from the truth.  Look to every moment of ugliness and shame in our nation’s history and there you will find evangelical dissenters, missionaries, and advocates.  While the darker parts of our past must be reckoned with, a feat Fea does quite well, we should not lose sight of the many ways throughout our own history that evangelical Christians have stood with the marginalized, the poor, and the oppressed.  That story of compassion and sacrifice is just as if not more significant to tell, not so as to lead us into a nostalgic triumphalism but rather to inspire those who are currently distressed with the knowledge that we are not alone.  Others have stood here before us and stayed faithful to God, upheld human dignity for the downtrodden, and fearlessly spoke truth in the face of persecution, isolation, and apparent powerlessness.

I find Fea’s ultimate answer, for us to look to the civil rights movement as a model to follow in these times, quite compelling.  But I also hope we do not forget the legacy of the abolitionists, the suffragettes, and the urban social movements of the 19th century, among so many others.  The examples of fear and hatred in our past run deep and wide and current events suggest this legacy still lives with us, possibly within each of us, to this day.  But there are also so many examples in our history of rugged perseverance, crusaders for justice, and generous biblical hospitality.  Those saints, many of whom were white American evangelicals, offer us ready examples of what it means to live our lives with a bold, unapologetic, public witness in often dark or confusing times.

These concerns aside, Believe Me is a helpful and ultimately hopeful read worthy of further reflection.  Going into this week of national celebration, I hope we can come to see the role of our familial engagement within the public square not as an opportunity to worship the perfection of what we think our country once was, or what it might already be, but rather, using Fea’s description of the outlook found within the civil rights movement, as “a gesture to what” we hope “the United States might become.” (164)

 

Fea, John. Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2018).

I received a free advanced copy of this book to review.  Special thanks to Eerdmans for this opportunity and apologies for not publishing sooner! Reading and writing with four under five is quite the adventure. 🙂 

 

Wilderness Voices: Repent

repentance_1000A crucial message of the Biblical prophets was for the people to repent.  But is this a message we still need to hear today?

I know I’ve been to plenty of services, prayer meetings, and small groups where the subject was repentance.  Only I’m pretty sure at these events I mostly heard about and prayed for other people’s sins.  Often labeled as the sins of the entire culture or nation, and utilizing the inclusive appeal of “we”, most of the topics covered were about what non-Christians, or liberal Christians, do.  I’m sorry if that sounds harsh, but such has been my experience.

Yes, we need to repent as a nation for abortion, for the acceptance of specific sexual sins and predilections, for the disregard of the glory, worship, and fear of the Lord in public places.  But first and foremost we need to repent for ourselves.  For our personal selves, and then for our own churches and ministry.

I know that I must repent for my self centered wants and desires.  I must repent for greed and an unhealthy desire for worldly praise and acceptance.  I must repent anger.  I must repent pride.  I must repent for the ways I have not represented Christ when I had a chance and I must repent for the risks I never took to share His word when prompted.  I must repent for the ways I have hardened my heart to others.  I must repent for the daily transgressions and temptations that separate me from my holy calling as a child of the King.

Collective repentance is important, but we need to start with a heart of truthful, introspective, contrition for our own personal sinfulness.

The American Church must repent for the ways that we have failed as a body to be good stewards of the gospel.  We must repent for the ways we have divided and broken and looked inward when we should have been reaching out.

We must repent of our own lusts, sexual deviances, and sins: of our own divorces and adultery,  for our own abortions, for our own sexual and spiritual abuse, for our own addictions, and for our own vain glory and pride. We must repent for the ways we have not supported families, for the ways we have not challenged or changed generational sins.

We must repent our racial segregation.  We must repent for each time we have diminished, and not built up, another eternal soul.

We must repent our prejudices, our coarseness of heart, and our weakness of mind.  We must repent our wrath against others, against ourselves. We must repent for sloth in our daily lives and for the gluttony we partake in with our mouths and with our money.

We must repent for the ways that we overlook those in need, and for the ways that we don’t reach out to the lost. We must repent for the times we have turned people away, for the ones we have lost through our own weaknesses and failures.  We must repent for the children who have left the church and for the aged who we never found.

We must repent for the ways we have muddled political aims with gospel witness. We must repent for the ways that we let the desires of our flesh, our greed, trample upon the oppressed around the world.  We must repent our love of power, wealth, and influence.  We must repent our envy of the world and our envy of one another.  We must repent our false idols and for our hypocrisy in how we criticize those who are far from God.

We must repent for the ways we have turned a blind eye to certain transgressions and transgressors when it suits us while harshly condemning others who stand in our way.

We must repent our false teachings and for the ways we lead each other astray.  We must repent our fears, our lack of faith, and for the ways we seek security in anything other than the Lord God Almighty.  We must repent all of our cultural accommodations, which have taken us away from the heart of the gospel.

For all these and more, the American church must repent.

Our nation has many problems.  So yes, let us pray for our nation and for national repentance and national revival.  But first we must pray for a restoration of the American church and for the strengthening of holiness in each person in this country who calls upon the name of Christ.

If we want to see an America that truly honors and glorifies Christ, let us first join together in the spirit and mission of St. Francis of Assisi.  It is time we look to rebuild God’s church, starting first on our knees.

Wilderness Voices: The American Church In the Age of Trump

bedouin_in_wadi_rumWe are a generation that yearns to feel significant and successful.  A people who see themselves as destined for greatness. A nation that believes our unique qualities represent some special place in the gospel narrative.

Perhaps not all these notions are wrong in certain forms, but in recent years we often made an idol out of our own greatness on multiple levels: personally, institutionally, and nationally.  Such idolatry has contributed to the dire straights we find ourselves in today.

No, I am not referencing the impending coronation of Donald Trump as president of the United States of America.  Although carrying with it weighty concerns for the future of believers, the church, and the county, this political development is not what mourns my heart most.  Instead, as I reflect on our present times, I grieve the extreme weakness of the public testimony currently offered up by the Christian church in America.

There is much deliberation in political circles about what comes next for the conservative political movement in this country and the future of the Republican Party.  These discussions are important, but not as significant as another question we should all be asking: What is the future of the American Church in post-2016 America?

I have a few ideas to add to the early stages of this discussion, and I hope you will join with me in engaging these thoughts and suggestions.  This series is meant to be the starting place for a conversation, not a presumption of offering final answers.  If we are serious as a church of maintaining a credible witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ in this country, we need to ask these questions and be open to the idea that some of our long held assumptions regarding our public expression of faith must change.

First, we must acknowledge that our immediate future as a church is drifting toward the role of Jeremiahs, Isaiahs, and Ezekiels; not Davids, Daniels, and Esthers.  This shift in thought will not be easy, and I am sure not all will choose to agree.  Yet if we hope to get anywhere in shining the light of Christ in the darkness of our age we must first deal with the reality of the culture we live in and the role we are called to play in it, not a fantasy of the one we wish existed.

Second, I propose three steps we can take as a community to address the problems that have led us to this very dark place as a society.  We must repent, we must restore Biblical teaching and accountability, and – finally – we must dare to reimagine our political Christian witness.

Jeremiahs, Not Daniels

A common teaching I heard growing up in the church, repeated in a wide spectrum of denominations, is the notion that we are a Daniel Generation.  While the interpretations for practical application vary, most contexts where I encountered this notion charged that we have a fundamental responsibility to influence the powerful sectors of society for the cause of Christ.

While this can be wise advice in a general sense, it seems we have abused the notion, especially in how we form our Christian youth.  Many young Christians are advised and even trained to specifically seek out roles of influence so that they may in turn use the power of the world for the good of the gospel.

Perhaps it is still an ok goal for some, although we have clearly downplayed the temptations to abuse or covet this power once it is within our grasp.  However, I’d point out that in the cases of Daniel, Joseph, and Esther, while they were differing models of empowered members from a captive nation in a hostile land, they also were chosen by God and put in their positions of influence through circumstances mostly beyond their control.

Instead of fantasizing about how we can scheme and manipulate our ways to the halls of power, the church of the future must be prepared to stand on the metaphorical street corners of our communities and do crazy counter-cultural things while faithfully declaring the Word of the Lord to an often ambivalent or even hostile world.

I get why this vocation isn’t all that appealing.  I mean, if I had a choice I’d rather be Daniel (lion den and all) sitting in the halls of the king as a radical vegetarian than a seemly crazed robeless and barefoot messenger wandering about the countryside unable to get the attention of my own people.  But I worry that we have so glorified the goal of being a Daniel that we have lost sight of what might actually be required of us in order to preserve the integrity of the message and testimony of the gospel.

For fellow Christians, particularly us Millennial Christians, the type of public sacrifices to this integrity exhibited by many of our leaders in the past year went far beyond what we will wish to imitate or support in the future.  Some might argue that “dirtying our hands” by defending or supporting undesirable candidates or policies is just the cost of working within a sinful culture, but I think that we have a responsibility to respond with integrity, love, and truth at all times no matter the apparent consequences.

The real sacrifices we are called to make are ones that will set us apart, not lead us to become further intwined with the powers and principalities of this world.  Remember that the ends never justify the means, and far too often unseemly means invariably also lead to unseemly ends – irrespective of initial intentions.

There will still be some modern examples following in the pattern of Daniel, Joseph, and Esther in the years ahead, hopefully even some Davids.  But the true cases will come about by the divine appointment of God, not by the willful scheming of man.  So instead of forcing our way to the king’s table, perhaps we need to take a step back and acknowledge that  – for most of us, at least – our calling is to humbly walk out a radically gospel centered life in the midst of a dominant and often hostile pagan culture.

To do so means embracing the pluralistic reality of our society, not in a way that lessens or damages our theological purity, but rather by amending our expectation that most everyone around us will live and think as we do.  It means risking being the genuine weirdo at the lunch table, in the work place, or with the other moms at the playground, who testifies of a wholistic way of life that runs counter to the driving force of culture.

It might mean choosing to surrender certain things we’ve allowed into our daily lives in order to strengthen our witness: our favorite t.v. shows, our favorite music, our favorite pastime, our love for material goods, our acceptance of worldly philosophy, or the platitudes and policy of our favorite political party.  It also might mean making choices that cost us: financially, professionally, and – on occasion – relationally.  We, as orthodox Bible believing Christians, aren’t a majority in America and it is time to stand out and stand apart because of it.

I know a lot of you have already seen, accepted, and done these things.  But I wonder how many churches preach to this reality of separateness rather than accommodation or prepotence.  I look at most church leaders and public figures today and I see a lot of hip and trendy messages with packaging and even fashion designed to sell or to dominate.

We have our Jesus smiles, our Christian music and our Christian bookstores, our Christian decor and our special Christian conferences, but how radically do the bulk of these messages, products, and events diverge from their secular cousins of community building, generic spirituality, and self-fulfillment?

Surveying the most successful within our ranks I often see the hard things overlooked, while the light and feel good messages of self-help, worldly success, and generic life purpose apart from eternity are raised up and promulgated.  While certain sins are addressed head-on, others are ignored or outright condoned.

Reaching out to where people are is all well and good, but denuding the hardness, mystery, and depth of the message of Christ in the process defeats the point.  Sometimes (perhaps most times) the gospel will be rejected, spat on, mocked, and despised but we still ought to lovingly preach that depth of truth anyway.

I think the question we need to ask ourselves is this: if called to modern day versions of camel hair vests and brutally shaved heads like the prophets, or prisons and persecution like the early church, will you still follow Him?

God most certainly uses people and movements who broker power in and of this world for His good.  But lest we not forget, particularly in this advent season, He Himself came down to dwell and minister among us, to live as one of us.  Not as a king or a conquerer, but as the humble son of a carpenter who rejected calls for temporal revolution and political dominion to instead sacrifice his own earthly life for the eternal gain of all.

The Savior born in the line of David never once sat at a king’s table, lived in a palace, dressed in the finest clothes, amassed a great fortune, or wore a golden crown on his human head.  As we walk forward to herald his birth, let us remember and rejoice in both the humility of the stable and the humility of the cross.

Our callings on earth are often not very grand or marked with the power, wealth, and success of this world.  But as our Savior triumphed over the grave and now sits upon His true throne for all eternity, so shall we triumph when we look past the vestiges of this age and this place and instead work – with true humility and love – to reveal His glory in the lowly places, in surprising ways.

Stay tuned for further posts on repentance, restoration of Biblical teaching, and reimagining our Christian political witness in the next several weeks.  

We welcomed our third child last month, so finding time for writing is even more of challenge but I plan to keep it up.  Many thanks to all who have offered words of encouragement and support as I continue to grow in this writing venture.  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in His sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.

 

A Lament: Evangelical Leaders and the Defense of Donald Trump

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What can I say for you, to what compare you,
    O daughter of Jerusalem?
What can I liken to you, that I may comfort you,
    O virgin daughter of Zion?
For your ruin is vast as the sea;
    who can heal you?

 Your prophets have seen for you
    false and deceptive visions;
they have not exposed your iniquity
    to restore your fortunes,
but have seen for you oracles
    that are false and misleading.

Lamentations 2: 13-14

I am sick.  Weary.  Disheartened.

Our leaders are failing us.  They fuel the fires of partisan hatred and anger.  They instill a culture of fear and distrust.  They undercut the witness of the gospel.  They encourage false teachings and empower ungodly behavior.

They suggest we turn a blind eye to evil.  They suggest we overlook the wicked, to silence the wounded and oppressed for the cause of justice.  They claim we are not called to judge, just as they call out for God’s people to judge their own enemies.

Our leaders lie.  Our leaders prophesy falsely.  Our leaders hold court with the wicked and defend the unrighteous.  Our leaders encourage despair and offer little hope.

Lord have mercy.

They say:

“A lot of people are slamming evangelicals for supposedly giving Donald J. Trump a pass. That’s simply not true. No one is giving him a pass. I’m certainly not, and I’ve not met an evangelical yet who condones his language or inexcusable behavior from over a decade ago. However, he has apologized to his wife, his family, and to the American people for this. He has taken full responsibility…”

How can anyone believe that the dismissal of his words as mere “locker room talk” and “just words” should be construed as taking full responsibility or as an acknowledgment of sin?  Being embarrassed is not the same as being contrite.

Why is deflecting your own guilt on someone else’s sin condoned?  How is this behavior held up as an example of a true apology, as proof of taking personal responsibility, or seen as an appropriate sign of repentance?

As these words were published after allegations that he has actually done what he already confessed to, how can any leader can choose to ignore and not address these actions.

Have you, Rev. Franklin Graham, not heard the comments Trump is now making in reference to the women who claim grievances against him?  These are the words of today, not eleven years ago.  Are those “just words” too?  Must be.

Just like every hateful thing he has said in the course of this election toward more people and groups than I can count.  He hasn’t offered an apology for those words.  He has claimed he doesn’t need to.  Does that make a difference?  Would anything he might do – any sin, any crime – make a difference?

My heart mourns.

“…This election isn’t about Donald Trump’s behavior from 11 years ago or Hillary Clinton’s recent missing emails, lies, and false statements. This election is about the Supreme Court and the justices that the next president will nominate. Evangelicals are going to have to decide which candidate they trust to nominate men and women to the court who will defend the constitution and support religious freedoms…”

Why do we care about the Supreme Court in this land?  For the sake of justice.

But how can you defend the abuser and turn a blind eye to the vulnerable and the oppressed and then claim it is for the cause of justice?

“…My prayer is that Christians will not be deceived by the liberal media about what is at stake for future generations.” – Franklin Graham

So that is your prayer.  That is all you have to offer?  That is your guidance to Christians in this dark and confusing time?  To turn off CNN?  My, what depths of wisdom you have to share.

Are there no words of hope, no eternal truths, no statement of reconciliation to reach across our divisions and to bind up our wounds that you wish to pray in this moment?

What do you have to say to the wounded?  To the victims?  What do you have to say to the abused?  Do they not matter?  Is their pain not important?

The message you send is that people can abuse power so long as they will advance a cause deemed by church leaders as one acceptable to God.  The message you send is that there are no consequences for sin so long as the sinner is promising to protect you and your causes.

Are the oppressed, the victims, and the hurt not supposed to speak out?  Are they now meant to be our sacrifices on the alter of the Supreme Court?

To silence the pain of others.  To turn a blind eye to evil.  To not address the pain and abuse and fear caused by sin.  This is to refuse to minister Christ in this world.

I have a daughter and two sons.  I have Muslim neighbors, whom I love.  I have friends whose families have been harmed and separated by strict immigration policies.  I have friends who have been sexually abused and demeened.

I understand the concern about the future of the Supreme Court.  But do these people, their stories, their past wounds, and their potential for future pain, really not matter to God in this election?  Is the character of the leaders we choose to empower truly insignificant in shaping our future generations?

What am I supposed to tell them?

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end;
 they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in him.”

Lamentations 3:22-24

The words of man shall perish, but the words of the Lord shall reign forever.

Another says:

“First, I do not condone nor defend Donald Trump’s terrible comments made 11 years ago. They are indefensible and awful. I’m sure there are other misdeeds in his past, although as Jesus said, ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.’  I am, however, more concerned about America’s future than Donald Trump’s past. I wonder about how Bill Clinton’s language stands up in private?..”

Stone cast, Dr. Dobson. And the world sees.

“…However, my condemnation of the former president is on an entirely different level. To my knowledge, Donald Trump has never abused women physically or had oral sex in the Oval Office with a vulnerable intern…”

To the knowledge of the nation it now appears likely he has physically abused women for decades.  In fact, those terrible and awful comments were not just words but an admission of behavior.

All abuse of power and influence is a sin.  For someone not looking to cast a first stone, for someone condemning fellow brothers and sisters in Christ for “judging” the character and the past of a presidential candidate, it is clear that you believe yourself ordained to rank and evaluate the worthiness of one sin above another.  Will the hypocrisy never end?

“…Nor has he committed perjury by lying to Congress for many hours. Clinton, on the other hand, lost his license to practice law for that criminal act.  Trump hasn’t been impeached by Congress for his lies…”

I think what you mean to say is not yet.  Trump has not been impeached yet, for he has yet to be awarded power.

Why freely and willfully advocate to give such power to a man who has built his entire career, his entire campaign, on an intricate and never ending web of lies?  One man – who is not on the ballot – lied while serving in the Oval Office.  The other man is lying to get into the Oval Office.

But Trump’s lies are ok?  His lies we should accept while Clinton’s we rightfully condemn?  All because you believe the lies of one man will be in the service of your desired political ends?

“…Donald Trump hasn’t vetoed bills that would have outlawed the procedure known as partial-birth abortion. Bill Clinton alone is responsible for the brains being sucked out of unanesthetized babies during delivery. That nazi-esque procedure continued for years until the Supreme Court declared it illegal. Donald Trump is pro-life…”

How do you know that he is pro-life?  Why do you trust him?  Because he told you so five months ago?  Didn’t Donald Trump support this type of procedure while Bill Clinton was in office?  Didn’t he contribute to the campaigns and politicians who sought to protect partial-birth abortion?

By what evidence other than his word – from the same man who dismissed his own evil confession as “just words” and all his proposals as negotiable suggestions – do you believe that he means any of the things he says to you now?  As some have said, why do you believe that a man who has not been faithful to his own wives will be faithful to you?  What reason do you have to believe he will not turn his back on you and the unborn the minute it is no longer politically expedient?

Do you not understand that your reputation is being used in his service, in the service of evil?

To take a dishonest man at his word is the height of foolishness.

“…Clinton and his wife disrespect the Constitution of the United States, although Trump has promised to protect it, especially the First Amendment…”

If you were truthful about this election you should know that Donald Trump has consistently spoken against the Constitution and particularly the Bill of Rights.  He who would curtail the freedom of one religion would set the precedent to curtail the freedom of all.  He who would disparage and threaten the press does not care about the first amendment.  He who questions the right to due process and the right to an attorney does not value our rule of law or the justice it has to offer our society.  He who would torture for retribution and kill the innocent in vengeance does not respect the sanctity of life.

Who will you stone next?  When Donald Trump looses the election, when a liberal justice is appointed to the court, who then shall you blame?  Will it be me?  Will it be God?

These words of yours are nothing but an excuse.  They are the arguments of a desperate and desolate movement.  They are arguments that willfully choose to ignore fact.

They are lies.

“…Shall I go on?” —James Dobson, PhD

No.  Please stop.  Please, for the sake of the God you say you love.  For the sake of the ministry He built with your hands.  For the sake of furthering the gospel and spreading His word.  Just stop talking and make room for new leaders to arise.

Who has spoken and it came to pass,
    unless the Lord has commanded it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
    that good and bad come?
Why should a living man complain,
    a man, about the punishment of his sins?

Lamentations 3:37-39

God will rise up and lead His Church in this darkness.  God will give voice to the voiceless and a platform to those who will speak His truth.  The word of the Lord is forever, the word of the Lord shall not be cast aside.

Not for the sake of your fears, not for the sake of the Supreme Court, not for the sake of earthly greatness, shall the sin of men like Donald Trump go unpunished.

The punishment of this church and our leaders, the punishment of Donald J. Trump, the punishment of this nation, is just.

“My eyes will flow without ceasing,
    without respite,
until the Lord from heaven
    looks down and sees;
my eyes cause me grief
    at the fate of all the daughters of my city.

Lamentations 3: 49-51

This election may be about justice.  But justice against whom? Adjudicated in what way?

I grieve for all our daughters.  For the abused, the belittled, and the mocked.  I grieve for little white girls and little black girls and little hispanic girls and little asian girls.  I grieve for the daughters of Christians, the daughters of Muslims, the daughters of Jews, and the daughters of Atheists.

Woe to the men and women who would choose the power of the world over trusting in the sovereignty of God.

Woe to the leaders who would stand aside as the world hurts and yearns for the healing words of Jesus Christ – and not offer them.

This was for the sins of her prophets
    and the iniquities of her priests,
who shed in the midst of her
    the blood of the righteous.

They wandered, blind, through the streets;
    they were so defiled with blood
that no one was able to touch
    their garments.

“Away! Unclean!” people cried at them.
    “Away! Away! Do not touch!”
So they became fugitives and wanderers;
    people said among the nations,
    “They shall stay with us no longer.”

The Lord himself has scattered them;
    he will regard them no more;
no honor was shown to the priests,
    no favor to the elders.

Our eyes failed, ever watching
    vainly for help;
in our watching we watched
    for a nation which could not save.

Lamentations 4:13-17

It is God who saves.  It is God who defends.

He defends the unborn, He protects His church. It is the Lord God Almighty who created the heavens and the earth.  It is the Father of all who sent His son for He so loves the world that we might be saved.

It is Jesus Christ who stood before the pharisees and called them lawless hypocrites.  It is Jesus Christ who rejected calls and temptations to seize the powers of this world.  It is Jesus Christ who sacrificed His own life so that we may be forgiven and so that we can all be set free.

The Holy and Everlasting God reigns above.  To Him all kingdoms will bow.  No nation will save us but the ruler of the Kingdom of Heaven.  No court will save us but the mercy seat above.  No judge will save us but the One who is the maker of the laws.  No law will save us but the Word of our Lord.

May a new generation rise out of this wilderness.

Who will stand for all the broken, all the victims of sin, no matter the color of their skin, the religion of their birth, or the political party they represent?  Who will testify of the truth of God, no matter the political or earthly cost?  Who will risk losing the whole world, who will risk losing all the power of these principalities, in order to save their soul?

Let us repent, not for the sins of the world but for the sins of our church.  Let us mourn, not for the ways of the lost but for the iniquities of those who call upon the name of the Lord.  Let us cry out to God and rend our hearts, that He may hear our cry.

From this rubble, from these ashes, O Lord, rebuild your church.

But you, O Lord, reign forever;
    your throne endures to all generations.
Why do you forget us forever,
    why do you forsake us for so many days?
Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored!

Lamentations 5:19-21b

The Power of Self-Centered Thinking (Part 3): On Forgiveness, Prayer, and Eternal Life

9789381841723-ukMy husband and I once found ourselves worshipping with a community of believers who were struggling to pray.  When entreated by the pastor to spend the remainder of a service in small groups of prayer we found ourselves paired up with a group of several elders of the church.  It came to our surprise that almost none of those elders really knew what to say or do, so we all kind of just talked about our concerns, patted each other on the back, and thus concluded the service.

As much as we were perplexed by this experience and other similar ones to follow, we also came to value the human struggles of expressing our thoughts, needs, and desires to God.  In recent years my heart has especially softened to the role of our pastoral shepherds.  It touched me how keenly aware the pastor of this church was regarding his flock’s struggle and how often he taught on prayer and actively sought new ways to encourage each person present to pray.

The patience and love found in a commitment to growth over a long period of time is a beautiful image of leadership.  It is also a beautiful image of Christ’s gentle correcting love for us.  Walking along side several different churches in the last ten years has helped remind me that sometimes the “basics” of our faith are really the deepest and most difficult to walk out.  They can be the hardest to grasp and put into practice, but they also yield the most beautiful blessings when practiced with the truth and love of the Gospel.

Reading through The Power of Positive Thinking I have been reminded time and again of similar experiences at various churches.  The encouraging, the damaging, the healing, the disappointing, the transformational: all parts of trying to live out the gospel of Christ in fellowship with others.

As much as I readily see and acknowledge some truth in Peale’s writings, I also cannot identify with how he sees the purpose for faith or how he explains God’s plan for our lives.  It is like he speaks part of the truth, but can’t or won’t quite make the connection to embrace the fullness of Christ and the freedom found in Him.  The gospel he offers is a cheap one, much like the cheapness famously described by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a comparison to look at more fully in a later post).  I think that is the great tragedy of his work, and by extension a great tragedy of the faith expressed on occasion by Donald Trump.

How sad it must be to dwell so close to true healing and yet not be able to embrace it.  How frightening it must be for all your confident answers to lead you right back to where you started the moment something starts to fall apart.  How desperate it must feel to leave no room for explaining or coping with recurring failure, rejection, or lasting suffering other than identifying yourself as a pathetic insecure loser.  When all that we are is contingent upon all that we do, when all that God offers is contingent on how well off we become in the eyes of this world, life and meaning and purpose are diminished.

I think reading this book is giving me not just an understanding of the false teachings of our times, but it is helping me develop a compassion for ways we get lost in them and the heartbreak it leads us toward.  When we package lies inside of truth we risk not only hurting ourselves, but doing irreparable harm to others.

Here are my reflections on Chapters 2-4: A Peaceful Mind Generates Power; How to Have Constant Energy; Try Prayer Power

We need forgiveness from sin every day.  I was genuinely surprised to discover that Norman Vincent Peale talks about forgiveness in these chapters.  It doesn’t seem to be a primary focus of the book and given Donald Trump’s own admission that he wasn’t sure if he ever asked God for forgiveness I wasn’t expecting to find anything on the subject in Peale’s opus.  While it was heartening to see a flash of deeper truth in these pages, I was struck by how he writes about the subject.

The most gospel laden moment so far was when Peale prayed for healing over a man mired in sin and regret.  As he laid his hands upon him (a practice Peale notes as a exception for his daily pastoral work) he prayed, “Dear Jesus, as You healed people in the long ago and gave them peace, heal this man now.  Give him fully of Thy forgiveness.  Help him to forgive himself.  Separate him from all his sins and let him know that You do not hold them against him.  Set him free from them.  Let thy peace flow into his mind, into his soul, and into his body” (38). So far so good, right?

Well, here’s the thing.  This man, who Peale notes was supernaturally healed from his own guilt, was presented as doing something rare.  In fact, in all cases where something even approaching forgiveness is addressed it is presented almost as a solution for once in a lifetime crises or ailments.  And then, once healed, this man was so aghast by the awkwardness of the prayer (Peale notes how they were both quite embarrassed) they immediately parted ways only to speak again months later where a healing was confirmed.

I don’t disagree with Peale’s assessment that, for some Christians, “They have always sought Divine forgiveness, and the good Lord will always forgive anyone who asks Him and who means it.  However, there is a curious quirk within the human mind whereby sometimes an individual will not forgive himself” (37).  But ultimately he depicts the problem that separates us from God as our own thoughts, our lack of positive thinking, and not our sin.

So when a person is troubled by their guilt, confession isn’t as important as merely being peaceful.  In the teachings of Peale, sin is negated by emptying our thoughts and thinking of good things.  Sure, God helps too, but as far as forgiveness goes that is really just something rare and perhaps even an embarrassing footnote to our daily Christian walk.

Consider this telephone exchange he describes with a city official who was so distressed that he could not sleep.  In an emotional moment of confession, the official cried out “I guess you know what a no-account I am, even though I put up a big front.  I am sick of all this, dear Jesus.  Please help me.”  At that moment Peale prays over him with these words, “Help him now to yield himself and accept your gift of peace” (28).

Not to accept the gift of saving grace.  Not to accept the gift of forgiveness.  He bypasses these crucial aspects of Christian teaching to instead ask this man to accept God’s peace without acknowledging the very sources of our peace.  To Peale, this man’s problem was his attitude, not his sin.

The trouble is there is no peace without repentance.  And if we save forgiveness for only the truly rare or extra bad things we do, whatever that means, then we risk separating God from the reality of our daily lives.  Or, worse still, constructing false images of ourselves as mostly good people who don’t really do anything that bad.

I confess I once saw the Christian life this way.  I grew up in church and I didn’t really rebel against my parents or go to parties and engage in other behavioral sins that a lot of teenagers or young adults struggle with.  I was basically a good person, in my own estimation.  Only that wasn’t the truth of my heart.

As I walked out my own pride and self-righteousness, I closed myself off from a closer walk with Christ.  In that moment, I could have been determined and filled my heart and my head with images of success.  I could have embraced the “peace” offered by Peale, peace designed so I might sleep better at night, get better grades in school, make more money when I start working, and occasionally spend time volunteering in homeless shelters just to show what a stellar person I really was.  I could have accepted this peace so that I might rest assured that I was superior to those poor pathetic losers who didn’t know success and God in the unique way I did.

Yet carefully constructing our self image so that we override our own daily conscience is not peace. It is hell.  The closer I got to this hell the more I found that the only way out was through the cross of Christ.  And not once at a camp meeting, but every day, kneeling before God in confession and repentance for the ways that I sinned against Him.  That is the truth of my heart and my life.  And it was through daily repentance, a daily wrestling with my heart and my mind before the Lord, that I found the peace of Christ.

Russell Moore aptly addressed this reality when he was the focus of one of Donald Trump’s insulting tweets.  Instead of defending himself against the name calling he said he that agreed with Trump’s assessment, for he is a sinner as charged.  The good news, as shared during Moore’s interview on CNN, is that Jesus died for us to free us from our own sin.  It isn’t that He died so that we might be successful.  It isn’t that He died so that we might have peaceful thoughts.  He died to set us free from the bondage created as we hurt, lie, covet, and kill (even if it is in our hearts) on a daily basis.

Unlike my teenage self who believed that merely not doing one of a select few actions made me ok before God, we all sin and fall short of the glory of God on a daily basis.  We need forgiveness from sin every day

We need truth in order to heal.  The hollowness of Peale’s forgiveness goes deeper still.  When we deny reality for the sake of a veneer of peace we loose the opportunity to really struggle with the ways that we hurt one another and to come to a complete and transparent healing in our relationships.  Consider this example of a woman whose husband asked her for a divorce as discussed in Peale’s chapter on prayer.

Through Peale’s counseling this woman was convicted that she needed to change her attitude toward her husband, who she believed to be cheating on her.  Nothing exactly wrong there.  Through utilizing his methods of practical religion she asked her husband to wait 90 days before filing for divorce.  She then spent these 90 days visualizing a better marriage and hoping her husband would wish to return to her.  Once the 90 days were over, her husband told her the strangest thing when she reminded him of their deal.

He replied to her, “Don’t be silly.  I couldn’t possibly get along without you.  Where did you ever get the idea I was going to leave you?” (57).  Now, to Peale this was a miraculous answer to prayer.  And I suppose, in some ways, the saving of a marriage is a good thing.  But the problem is that this resolution wasn’t built on truth.  The husband didn’t admit to his infidelity.  He even denied ever having asked for a divorce in the first place, which is both a lie and an abusive form of communication known as gaslighting.  And yet Peale pronounced that, in this case, prayer “solved her problem and his as well.” (57)

This isn’t the kind of healing that God offers, either to ourselves or our relationships.  When He heals, He heals in truth.  Healing with truth can be messy and painful.  It can take years.  In the case of marriages, where trust is broken, it can take a long time to rebuild that which was damaged even when both spouses are fully committed to the process.

In a similar story, interestingly also involving infidelity, Peale speaks of a man who came to him hesitant to end an affair for fear of the woman’s husband finding out and telling the world in revenge. Peale convinced him to end it anyway and risk the consequences.  The man asked God for forgiveness and was freed from guilt and fear.  What a great illustration of a repentant life!  Only there is a bit of a snag with Peale’s telling.

This man, under Peale’s direction, prayed that he might avoid the consequences of his actions.  “The patient recognized the fact that if the husband became apprised of the situation, it would result in disgrace for him in his community.  He happened to be a prominent citizen and prized his high standing” (48).  In spite of his fear, Peale assures his “patient” that, “whatever he did that was right would turn out right” (49).

In the end, the woman he was cheating with chose not to tell her husband about the affair – possibly, Peale notes, because her affections went elsewhere or “through shrewdness or some expression of her better nature” (49).  This conclusion to the story, a conclusion of further brokenness, pain, and lies, is named by Peale as the hand of God his “patient’s” life.

The man Peale prayed with and counseled used the power of prayer and the power of positive thinking to not only get his old life back, but to do so at no personal cost.  His sleep and energy returned, his business associates and neighbors are none the wiser, and he can go on being an upstanding member of his community guilt-free and reputation intact.  How often do we attribute sad circumstances that help us but hurt others as the hand of God?

The relationship of his partner in the affair was irrelevant in this story of healing offered by Peale.  He actually implies we are to rejoice at the fact that the poor husband remained trapped in a lie and without the potential for healing his own marriage.  Was he not also sinned against by the adultery?  I guess not, perhaps he deserved it.  Sounds consistent for Trump world, for reasons that are too unseemly to note outright.

But what happens if one day that woman does seek her own healing?  What if she confesses to her husband?  What if they confess to the world?  Peale glosses over these concerns.  He fails to address the full cost of this man’s sin, and thereby fails to provide a full healing.

Perhaps this man who ended the affair became just like those people Peale notes in Chapter 1 who look confident and successful on the outside but who are secretly afraid that someone will discover the truth of their own hearts and lives.

Or maybe he will so thoroughly master Peale’s teachings that he looses any sense of remorse over the unresolved brokenness left behind.  Maybe he’d blame the other woman for causing his momentary indiscretions and potentially ruining her marriage with the novel possibility of telling her husband the truth.  Peale does explain that this adulterous man “earnestly besought her to abandon their practice and allow him to return to his former state of respectability” (48), so clearly the woman was the primary sinner in this situation anyway.  Perhaps, once forgiven, he’d be like the husband in the first story who just denies, maybe even to himself, that this affair ever happened to begin with.

The healing Peale speaks of, the peace he encourages, the forgiveness he proffers, is superficial and deceptive.  By minimizing the role of repentance and sin he limits the potential for his message to offer genuine hope to his readers.  He minimizes our own culpability, our daily need for repentance, and most of all the need to be truthful about our indiscretions and sins.  In doing so he minimizes the power and fullness of the gospel message.  We need truth in oder to heal.

Abundant life is eternal life.  According to Peale, “The supreme over-all word of the Bible is life, and life means vitality – to be filled with energy.  Jesus stated the key expression, ‘…I am come that they might have life and that they might have it more abundantly.’ (John 10:10).”  He continues, “This does not rule out pain or suffering or difficulty, but the clear implication is that if a person practices the creative and re-creative principles of Christianity he can live with power and energy” (43).  Well that’s good to know.

Peale tells of a doctor who once explained how one man managed to accomplish so much in business without suffering any physical ailments or tiredness for his devotion.  The doctor observed, “From his religion he has learned how to avoid drainage of power.  His religion is a workable and useful mechanism for preventing energy leaks” (42).  Peale expands, “But if he allows energy leaks caused by hereditary or self-imposed emotional reaction of a debilitating nature, he will be lacking in vital force” (42).  Where there is a depletion of energy there is a depletion of life and a thereby a depletion of faith.  One has to wonder if that also means there is a depletion of salvation.

But what about the chronically ill?  What about those who struggle their whole lives to find success, “power and energy.”  The disabled must just be out of luck, for in this vision they are blocked from a complete partaking of the life offered by God.  Guess they might as well be ridiculed.

Did Jesus come so that we might have endless energy in this world to do whatever we please as we pursue success in our business and personal causes? It is true that in a certain sense we can be empowered by God’s strength to help us through our earthly difficulties. There is a real hope offered to us through Christ and the Holy Spirit for the troubles we face in the land of the living.   Where Peale starts getting a little quacky – and I mean full on New Age oddity – is in how he defines energy and vitality and applies these ideas to God’s will for our lives and the purpose of Christ coming to earth.

For example, he suggests, “in our consciousness we can tap a reservoir of boundless power as a result of which it is not necessary to suffer a depletion of energy” (41).  Therefore, anyone with a depletion of energy is not correctly tapping into the power of God.  Perhaps you can now see why Donald Trump’s criticism of others, most notably Jeb Bush, as being “low-energy” is such a fatal and ugly notion in his ethic.

In counseling his reader to get lost in a cause greater than themselves in order to tap into this limitless energy, Peale notes, “You won’t have time to think about yourself or get bogged down in your emotional difficulties” (45-6).  And there we have it.  The great sin, the great antithesis to Christian living in the eyes of Norman Vincent Peale, is acknowledging and thinking about your problems, pains, and failures for longer than the few minutes it takes to ask God for your rare moments of forgiveness or maybe just His peace.

There is a certain wisdom in pouring yourself out for selfless causes, although selfless is my word.  He advises a more ambitious “something bigger than yourself” (45).  But we are meant as Christians to give out of our own brokenness.  Introspection, when balanced with the spiritual virtues, is a great blessing and a necessity on our path toward contrition, healing, and righteous living.

Without introspection we lack awareness of our own sin and guilt, just as we lack awareness of the fullness of our own pains.  Transparency about our difficulties, acknowledging them yet serving anyway, is meant to be part of our daily life.  We don’t seek to get rid of our problems.  Rather, we let them exist side by side with our callings, our triumphs, and our daily work. Peale, it seems, is leading his followers astray from these vital truths.

Interestingly, he notes that righteousness is not required to taste of the energy and life he promotes.  “Every great personality I have ever known, and I have known many,” (sound like someone else who likes to brag on the greatness of all his acquaintances?),  “who has demonstrated the capacity for prodigious work has been a person in tune with the Infinite.  Every such person seems in harmony with nature and in contact with the Divine energy.  They have not necessarily been pious people, but invariably they have been extraordinarily well organized from an emotional and psychological point of view” (43).  The goal of life, then, is made out to be efficiency, organization, and success.  Achieve these and you will have spiritual life, fail at these and you effectively have spiritual death.

Thankfully, this is not what Christianity teaches.  The word life in Peale’s favored scripture passage on this topic is the Greek word zoe, meaning “the uncreated, eternal life of God, the divine life uniquely possessed by God.” If only Peale urged his readers to ponder more of the passage from John 10:

So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. 11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.16 And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”

Eternal life, the zoe offered through the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ and our adoption as co-heirs with Him, is not dependent on the level of success we achieve in this world or how best we maximize our time, body, and resources.  We can be broken, hurting, and incomplete and still have the life of Christ within us. We can fail – in business, in relationships, in the goals we set – and still be full of the Holy Spirit.

As I noted in Part 2 of this series, we don’t justify our own salvation.  While it is all well and good to build confidence, to use certain tools to stay positive, seek success, and give to others, this is not the essence of the life we are offered in Christ. Abundant life is a sacrificial life.  Abundant life is eternal life.

Prayer is isn’t about what you get, it’s about what you give.  On one hand Peale notes some great ideas about prayer.  He suggests that we go about our day praying through our activities, gives hope that God cares about everything that troubles us no matter how small, and suggests that in praying for others – even silently – we can bless others and encounter God together.  He also offers lots of suggestions for how we can visualize an improvement of our circumstances in order to overcome despair.

None of these perspectives and tools are bad things, but most of them smack of the same level of truth as we find in the contemporary teachings of Deepak Chopra, Eckhardt Tolle, and most Oprah episodes from the last decade her talkshow was on the air.

The main issue is with how he sees prayer primarily as a tool to find success.  He claims, “People are doing more praying today than formerly because they find that it adds to personal efficiency.  Prayer helps them tap into forces to utilize strength not otherwise available” (52).  By utilizing a simple formula, “(1) PRAYERIZE, (2) PICTURIZE, (3) ACTUALIZE” ( 55), he claims that we can achieve just about anything we set our minds to.

For example, he says that “The man who assumes success tends already to have success.  People who assume failure tend to have failure.  When either failure or success is pictured it strongly tends to actualize in terms equivalent to the mental image pictured” (55).  Here we go again, life and godliness determined on the basis of worldly success vs. worldly failure.  Glad to know the only real reason why I have failed at times in my life is because I wasn’t visualizing and assuming properly.

This obsession with the trappings of worldly success as signs of God’s power pervades even how he attempts to entice one businessman back into the church.  “He was the head of a medium-sized business and he fell to telling me how much money his firm took in last year.  I told him I knew quite a few churches whose take exceeded that.  This really hit him in the solar plexus, and I noted his respect for the church mounting by leaps and bounds.  I told him about the thousands of religious books that are sold, more than any other type of book” (58) .  Guess those poor house churches facing persecution around the word are really just not praying effectively enough.

While recounting this conversation he recalls how another man came up to the table to inform Dr. Peale that one of his books changed his life in the course of a single week.  After leaving, the head of this medium sized business noted, “That fellow talks about religion as happy and workable…He also gives the impression that religion is almost a science, that you can use it to improve your health and do better in your job.  I never though of religion in that connection” (59).

Well I’ll be.  All this time we’ve been teaching the gospel as if it was about something more than us.  As if it was about God and who He is and what He has done.  But here is the secret we’ve been missing and the reason people leave the church: we don’t fully grasp how we can USE God for our good.  I don’t quite recall reading this in the Bible, but surely it’s in there somewhere.  At the end of the day Christianity is really just about us, isn’t it?  Or so Peale leads us to believe.

My husband I attended the church that struggled with prayer during a time of extreme uncertainty and pain in our lives.  One Sunday we chose to take up an offer for healing prayer after the service.  Sharing our most vulnerable struggles with another church member who was joining with the pastor’s effort to engage his community in prayer turned out to be a powerfully moving experience for all of us.

I guess not many people in that congregation faced the type of adversity we struggled with at the time, or if they did they mostly kept it to themselves.  But after explaining our circumstances, our needs for provision and healing, all three of us were rendered in tears before the Lord.  The kind man praying for us struggled to find words, and like us, groaned and wept for several minutes before asking God for help.

His eventual words of prayer were an encouragement, but mostly I just remember his tears, his hugs, and how he told us that he had been blessed that day by our willingness to share our pain, loss, and fear with him.  We were all blessed by the encounter with the Holy Spirit in love, in uncertainty, and in heartache.  Coming together before the thrown of God in honest fellowship was suddenly far more significant than any specific words we said or answers we later received.

This is the power of prayer.  But more importantly, this is the power of Jesus Christ.

A great truth is found in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”  

Though we fall short every day, we are daily offered a chance to die to ourselves and be found in Christ.  We need forgiveness from sin every day.

We need not fear our blemishes or our failures, for Christ’s power (not our own) is made perfect through them all.  Our testimony is the full story of our past and present including the messy, undesirable, and less than dignified parts.  So long as we keep hiding those parts in shame we limit the ways God can use and heal us.  It is in admitting our weaknesses and failures that God’s glory shines ever brighter and our souls are made ever stronger.  We need truth in order to heal.

Christ died so that we might live again.  He died so that we may receive forgiveness and be made whole in Him.  God is ever with us, but his healing and love is only made perfect and complete in eternity.  Abundant life is eternal life.

God has gifted us with talents, disciplines, and fellowship, so that we might bless others and bring glory to His own name.  We don’t use God.  Rather, He asks that our hearts become willing for Him to use us.  While calling on his name will help us, while we are promised that He will answer us, the ways He blesses isn’t for our own success and achievement.  Prayer isn’t about what you get, it’s about what you give.

If you are reading these reflections for the first time, check out Part 1 on the backstory of blogging through this book and Part 2: On Justification, Insecurity, and God’s Will. 

 I am using the 1992 edition of The Power of Positive Thinking printed by Fawcet Crest/Ballantine Books.  All citations reference this copy.

 

The Power of Self-Centered Thinking (Part 2): On Justification, Insecurity, and God’s Will

9789381841723-ukLike 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. 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.

 

 

 

The Power of Self-Centered Thinking: Norman Vincent Peale, Donald Trump, and American Evangelicalism (Part 1)

9789381841723-ukOne evening during the 2016 primary season my husband and I were reconnecting, as we often do, through political analysis.  As we discussed the daily rumination on the latest and greatest from Donald Trump’s campaign, we stumbled upon a video from one of his more notorious public appearances: the 2015 Family Leadership Summit in Iowa.  You might have seen clips from this interview as well, for it is when he defended his tweet calling John McCain a loser because, according to Trump, “I like people who weren’t captured.”

Watching his appearance in its entirety, however, I heard something remarkably clarifying about the belief system of Donald J. Trump.   Not only is this the part of the interview where he stated his uncertainty over ever asking God for forgiveness, but he also named his favorite pastor and life-long spiritual advisor who wrote his favorite book.  A book, I’d wager, that represents his personal gospel: The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale.

Now, the astute student of Christian History that I am, I had to get my hands on a copy of this former New York Times bestseller to read for myself.  I’d heard of Peale’s mid-century popularity and was aware of his role as a precursor of sorts to our modern day self-help/prosperity gospel movement, but I had not done much study of his seminal work before this month.  What I’ve found in the pages of his once dominant bestseller concerns me deeply.

Given the importance of so many of the issues and attitudes addressed in the pages of Peale’s crowning achievement, I’ve decided to blog my way through this onetime favorite of the American public.  It is a bestseller that helped fashion the ethic of Donald Trump, but it also helped fuel any number of theological abuses within the Evangelical church.

A few cautionary thoughts: The majority of observations gleaned from this work are not primarily meant as political guidance.  While it is prudent to understand the worldview accepted by Donald Trump, or any other leading candidate for president, these deviations from Christian orthodoxy are not enough – in and of themselves – to deem him unfit to serve as Commander-in-Chief.

In fact, it is likely many other presidential candidates from the 20th Century adopted a Peale-esque understanding of Christianity.  They just didn’t live out this belief system as publicly and unabashedly as Trump does to its inevitably selfish and soulless ends.

If you are looking for reasons to not vote for Donald Trump in November I suggest there are a multitude of other factors that might lead you to that conclusion.  The problem regarding his ambition for the presidency of the United States is not purely his favored spiritual guidance and its lack of Christian orthodoxy, but how it appears that he applies it in the defense and promulgation of evil.  Therefore, consider my musings as one way to contextualize much of Donald Trump’s public behavior, policy suggestions, and persona.

Additionally – I might say, primarily – reading through this book became a self-critique of modern Evangelicalism.  More than a guide for the election in 2016, The Power of Positive Thinking acts as an indictment of our faith community: against the pernicious ways we are all tempted to use our faith in God for selfish and hurtful purposes; against how we often demean His story for personal gain; and against those who devalue the great cost associated with Christian grace.

More than once when reading this work I was struck by just how familiar these ideas and stories were, almost as if I’d heard them all before.  The familiarity almost lent the chapters a sense of compelling legitimacy, even as I identified the problems riddled throughout.  Then it dawned on me. I’ve heard these same talking points in sermons!  Far too many sermons, in churches representing a full spectrum of denominations, scattered throughout our country.

Rather than demonstrating a throwback to old heresies, I found myself staring straight into the mirror of our contemporary American church.  Peale might be forgotten or out of fashion, but the school of thought he promoted certainly lives on.  It is little wonder so many prominent Evangelical leaders now wholeheartedly embrace Donald Trump and even applaud the ways he addresses them and speaks of their all important “power.”  More on that to come.

For those who champion Bonhoeffer’s costly grace, for those who believe words forgotten to history still matter, for those who think what leaders claim to believe is central to understanding how they might act, this series is for you.

As a starting place, let’s take a look at the introduction of Donald Trump’s favorite book:

Introduction: What this book Can Do for You∗

Beware cure-all elixirs.  In Victorian society, both in North America and in Europe, the peddling of health tonics and pills claiming to solve all forms of illness was a fashionable trend and a regular facet of culture for both high society and the emerging middle class.  These cure-all elixirs were typically comprised of anything from mere sugar water, to some kind of oil, to varieties containing high levels of arsenic, alcohol, opium, morphine, or cocaine.

The tonics and cures were often schemes designed to help their creators, and sometimes doctors and pharmacists, get rich quick while fleecing the general public.  Although, I’m sure some producers also genuinely believed in the efficacy of their products. Either way, few “cures” possessed actual medicinal qualities.

In spite of, at-best, minimal legitimate health benefits, these elixirs were considered by many people as a go to cure-all for colds, flus, teething, headaches, toothaches, and just about any other malady of young and old you can fathom.  The more popular varieties continued to be used even when communities were faced with their inability to improve their ailments, or even their potential to harm and kill those who consumed them.

There was always a testimony or three offered of how these tonics genuinely helped cure some great illness or blemish.  No doubt – when not a boldface lie – the testimonial phenomenon is understood by the power of the placebo effect or even, dare I say it, the power of positive thinking.  Unfortunately, many people positively thought their way to the grave.

In his introduction to The Power of Positive Thinking, Norman Vincent Peale offers us a cure-all elixir for the maladies of life.  The back cover of my edition makes tremendous claims about what this book will do for me, but my first thought is that perhaps this was just some marketing strategy by the publisher embellishing the original intent of the author.  But no.  Let me assure you, Peale literally intends for this book to change your life.

His self proclaimed simple work, with “no pretense to literary excellence nor does it seek to demonstrate any unusual scholarship,” was written with the “sole objective of helping the reader achieve a happy, satisfying, and worthwhile life”(x).  Well, what’s wrong with that?

Not only will his book achieve those things but I counted at least six key promises he makes in how our lives will improve by following his understanding of “applied Christianity; a simple yet scientific system of practical techniques of successful living that works” (xi).  By employing these teachings, we will:

  1. Become better liked and more popular
  2. Gain a new sense of well-being, or “new life”
  3. Achieve a new degree of health
  4. Attain more pleasure in living
  5. Transform into more useful and efficient people
  6. Expand our influence and power

All that gleaned from the teachings found in this one little book. Where has it been all my life?

Lest you think Peale overlooks the fact that life can be tragic or difficult at times, he assures us, “I certainly do not ignore or minimize the hardships of this world, but neither do I allow them to dominate.”  Rather, “obstacles are simply not permitted to destroy your happiness and well-being” (ix).

Oh, ok.  Perhaps you are starting to catch on to how someone who is captured in war – and who chose to remain imprisoned when given an opportunity to leave before his fellow POW’s – is, well, a loser.

It turns out our ability to overcome these tragedies and obstacles stems from the realization that “you can modify or change the circumstances in which you now live.”  Tell that to a Syrian refugee child in Lebanon and see how it works out for them. Thus we encounter the opening flaw to Peale’s notion of “Christian” power, success, and happiness.

His is an ethic for an affluent audience, most specifically for his parishioners from the upper crust of New York society (such as young Donald Trump and family).  He is writing for those who can afford to change their circumstances with relative ease, or “will” a better life.  However, if you aren’t already living amidst the trappings of earthly power, just follow his steps and you too will soon attain this level of material success, have no fear. Or so he claims.

Still, who doesn’t want to believe that their “life can be full of joy and satisfaction” (ix), or that it is possible to experience improved levels of “achievement, health, and happiness” (xi) as we walk on this earth?  Maybe, somewhere inside of us we agree that “It is a pity that people should let themselves be defeated by the problems, cares, and difficulties of human existence, and it is also quite unnecessary” (ix).

We’ve all met the “Debbie Downers” of life – maybe we’ve been them ourselves at times – who only see the foreboding or fearful throughout the day and who rarely note the hopeful or positive.  Perhaps you are drawn, as intended, to this idea that if we forgo negative thoughts we will also forgo negative consequences and experiences.

Our life is in our control, so the story goes, and as such we can control where we take it and what we make of it.  This is a pastor writing about the practical applications for Christianity after all.  Doesn’t God want the best for us in this life?

As much as Peale’s promises come across as over reaching, they may also strike you as secretly appealing.  They are meant to.  Beware cure-all elixirs.

 

Also in this Series:

Part 2: On Justification, Insecurity, and God’s Will

Part 3: On Forgiveness, Prayer, and Eternal Life

I am using the 1992 edition printed by Fawcet Crest/Ballantine Books.  All citations reference this copy.