Positive is always good, negative is always bad. According to Joel Osteen. In the opening pages of Your Best Life Now, he says:
“In each of these areas, you will find practical suggestions and simple choices that will help you to stay positive in your lifestyle and believe for a brighter future…To do that, you may have to rid yourself of some negative mind-sets that are holding you back, and start enlarging your vision, seeing yourself as doing more, enjoying more, being more.”
Here and elsewhere, Joel Osteen challenges our passivity, our defeatism, our fatalism. He calls us to rid ourselves of negativity and build more positive thought habits.
So what’s wrong with that? For some people, it’s exactly what they need to hear. We’ve all met them haven’t we? Sometimes we’ve been them. Recognize this description from Osteen?
“Many people go through life with low self-esteem, focusing on the negative, feeling inferior or inadequate, always dwelling on some reason why they can’t be happy.”
A pretty miserable existence isn’t it, both for the person and those who have to live, work, and worship with them.
They do need to be confronted with their unhealthy and unhelpful negativity, and called to be transformed by the renewing of their minds. That isn’t a call to false optimism, but a call to true realism.
However, Osteen goes further than this, way further, and sees all negativity as bad and positivity as only good. That is not biblical, truthful, or helpful.
First, some negativity is accurate, true, good, and beneficial. It is right to examine ourselves for sin and ignorance, to repent of it when we find it, confessing it, humbling ourselves, and seeking forgiveness. This process of spiritual humiliation may not be a pleasant experience for us, but it is pleasing to God and necessary for any progress in the Christian life.
Second, some positivity is false and harmful. For example, if you tell a small man with short legs that he can do anything, even leap a 20 foot gap between buildings, his positive self-image is going to be splattered all over the pavement in short order.
Similarly, if you tell a sinful woman that she is essentially good, and can do good and be good unaided by God, then she will positively go to a negative eternity with a lie in her right hand.
Third, Osteen says that in his book “you will find practical suggestions and simple choices that will help you to stay positive.” But his proposed suggestions and choices are neither biblically accurate nor scientifically proven.
Over the last 20 years, a popular new science called “positive psychology” has produced many studies and books that claim to have found empirically proven ways to happiness. Although they won’t admit it, and they probably don’t even know it, many of them line up with the Bible’s teaching. But Osteen’s teaching lines up with neither the Bible nor science. Its only and shaky foundation is his own enthusiasm and sales skills.
Fourth, Osteen’s positivity is completely unrealistic. For example, he says:
“I’m confident that if you will take these steps along with me, you ultimately will be happier than ever before, living with joy, peace, and enthusiasm—not just for a day, or a week, but for the rest of your life!”
To paraphrase a little, “If you will take these steps, then you will be happy, joyful, peaceful, and enthusiastic for the rest of your life.” These kinds of cast-iron, unqualified guarantees litter the whole book. If he’d said “you can” or “you may” be happier, etc., then that would be more acceptable. But he doesn’t; he says “you will.”
This totally fails to take account of the fallen world and the fallen human condition. Yes, we are called by God to grow in gifts, in grace, in joy, peace, and other fruits of the Spirit. But what happens when our teen is killed in a car crash, our husband gets ALS, age devastates our minds and bodies, our best friend dies of cancer, our daughter is raped, thousands are killed in acts of just war and evil terrorism, and so on?
Take a few simple steps and you will be happy, peaceful, and enthusiastic for the rest of your life? That may be true of Joel Osteen’s world, but it’s not living in the real world. Such a shallow and false message can only lead to disillusionment and demoralization.
Some well-founded and biblically grounded negativity can help us prepare for these inevitable days of pain and suffering, and get us through them to the place of eternal and unmixed positivity.
This is the second post in a series on Joel Osteen’s book, “Your Best Life Now.” The first post was A Book That Begins With A Lie.