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.