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Christians, positive thinking, and prayer
by Lou Bloss
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I've become curious lately about Facebook messages asking for thoughtful assistance. The messages often look something like this: "My brother is sick. Please say a prayer and send positive thoughts out for him." I understand the power of prayer, but mere thought as a method of physical remedy didn't make sense to me. It seemed foolish, especially when used by people professing to be followers of Jesus Christ, so I set out to understand the origins and concepts behind these requests.

At about the same time, a Christian friend suggested I read "The Secret" by Rhonda Byrne. My friend has adopted the principles from the book and applied them to her own life. She is very enthusiastic about what it teaches, and she is a very positive person. She is, in fact, the most positive person I know.

I quickly realized I had been asleep under a large, heavy rock and had completely missed the wave of popularity created by "The Secret." I missed the movie; I missed the Oprah Winfrey Show features, the web site, the teen version of the book, and many other things. I came to the party late. So now that I was at the party, I wondered what was being served and was it worth it for me to stay awhile?

I started doing some research. I looked through a copy of the book, read reviews, checked out the web site, and found some source material I wasn't really looking for. The popularity of the book is on par with Rick Warren's "The Purpose Driven Life." The theme of "The Purpose Driven Life" is how you find where you fit for service in God's universe. The theme of "The Secret," on the other hand, seems to be how the universe can be fit to serve you.

Byrne claims there is a three-step process to getting what you want, and the secret is found in Matt. 21:22, "And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive." The three steps are to ask, believe, and receive. Quoting the bible is a method to lend credibility to an argument. The implication is that God said it, so it must be true. However, just because God said it doesn't mean the person quoting it is using what God said correctly, and Byrne makes that mistake when she lays down the foundation of her book. She fails to acknowledge the qualifying phrase "in prayer" which makes this verse more than a simply ordering at the spiritual drive-through window. You've got to have the authority to make the request, ask from someone who can deliver, and be authorized to receive it when it arrives. When you ask in prayer you are asking through an authoritative legal process.

Byrne simply ignores the in prayer clause and substitutes the law of attraction in its place. Prayer and the law of attraction are not the same. To put it simply, prayer is a legal remedy applied in the spiritual realm. I would characterize the law of attraction as myth. Unlike the law of gravity, it cannot be proven scientifically. It is something people have conjured up in their minds to explain how things work. It bears a striking similarity to Karma. The philosophy of Karma states that the good (or bad) you do will be returned to you in some measure. To put it another way, “What goes around comes around.” The law of attraction merely replaces “do” with “think”: The good (or bad) you think will be returned to you in some measure.

By invoking the law of attraction, Byrne claims that human thoughts go out into the universe and the universe is obliged to arrange itself to deliver the appropriate reality, or manifestation, to the thinker. The concept is said to be based on something akin to magnetic principles: Good thoughts attract good results.

If all it took to gain our desires was concerted thought, then there would be no need for prayer. In fact, there would be no reason for the God of the universe to be active in his universe. The law of attraction acts as an auto pilot. The pilot doesn't even need to be in the cockpit; the passengers will bring it safely to its destination simply by thinking it there. My mother would call the law of attraction "wishful thinking." It is Jiminy Cricket's "When You Wish Upon A Star" fed to people as an answer to life's difficulties. It is Norman Vincent Peale's "The Power of Positive Thinking" on steroids. It offers no real solutions.

I believe Christians who use the positive thinking method are attempting to solve problems by avoiding personal responsibility or relying on God. They instead rely on the universe (an entity without will or power to affect independent change) to respond to their thoughts.

Can the universe respond to a single person? Is the universe capable of willful response? If an asteroid could avoid slamming into a moon, would it? I maintain that the universe is a thing that runs like a wind-up clock. It proceeds according to its inner workings (laws of gravity, physics, mathematics, etc.) and is powerless to do otherwise. It is as dead as the stone in your shoe. The universe is a bunch of gas rocks (some of which burn), dense rocks (which are frozen), and the space between rocks. How can it return anything to us?

Now, if the universe is some force, then we are talking about something other than the universe. We are talking about something within, or living in, the universe. Are we talking about God? I don't think so. God doesn't operate on the "three good thoughts equal one good thing" currency exchange. So if we aren't talking about rocks and space between rocks, and we aren't talking about God, what are we talking about?

I would submit that the only alternative would be deceptions of the enemy of both God and mankind. The Devil and his legions can influence physical reality and even deceive the elect in Christ. So this very seductive philosophy of "The Secret" is designed to lead people away from God and into delusion through deception. It is a modern form of old-fashioned paganism, except the physical world around us is our totem pole. Instead of praying to an idol, we pray (through our thoughts) to the universe. It is anathema to everything Christ did on the cross for you and me.

I am not saying that a positive outlook is a negative thing. Having a positive attitude is essential for seeing things from God's perspective. Consider Phil 4:8, "Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." Christians are commanded -- not suggested -- to "think about these things." When your mind is focused on things of this nature, you are focusing on the character of God, for God is all these things. What better way to develop a positive mindset?

Col. 3:1-2 goes further: "If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth." We are told not only to think about positive things, but to set our minds -- make it our constant, daily practice -- on heavenly things; things like those listed in Phil 4:8.

Romans 12:2 tells us "Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." Our minds are to be renewed by the transformational power of God. Our natural tendencies are to conform to worldly practices of gloom, pessimism, and negativity. Those things prevent us from doing the will of God.

Nowhere in the bible does it say to think positive thoughts in order to receive positive results. The concept is totally opposite to both Old and New Testament teachings. The bible clearly tells us to be positive, but to do that by meditating and dwelling on the character of God as revealed in the word of God.

The bible commends two courses of action when individuals or groups are doing some problem solving. Simply put, it says change what you can change, pray about what you can't. We all are given a measure of personal responsibility, and we must act upon it. Many people call this "being real." It could be called the doctrine of realism.

An example of realism in practice can be found in the story of David and Goliath. David did not think victorious thoughts. The giant did not fall due to mental exertion on David's part. But David thought, determined what God's will was, and devised a plan in his mind to defeat the enemy. He had an idea! Other people had other ideas. They gave him tools -- weapons and armor -- that were unsuitable for him. He discarded them. They were not part of his plan. Instead, he gathered ammunition (five stones) for his weapon (a sling) and ran toward the enemy. He shot his sling and the stone caused the giant to fall to the ground. David then took Goliath’s own sword and killed him. David thought, planned, acted, and triumphed.

Thinking and taking action is biblically acceptable. "But the noble man makes noble plans, and by noble deeds he stands," is written in Isa. 32:8. Making a plan and executing that plan in order to bring about change is a prescription for success given by God. Here are some other exhortations to plan and act from the bible:

  • Commit your work to the LORD, and your plans will be established. (Prov. 16:3)

  • The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to want. (Prov. 21:5)

  • For I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. (Jer. 29:11)

According to Jer. 29:11 even God makes plans and carries them out. If that is something he does, shouldn't we follow his example?

The other prescription to change your reality is prayer. Prayer is not simply asking God for something and holding out your arms like you are holding a basket, waiting for God to drop the goodies in it.

Prayer, at its heart, is a legal process. We bring our prayers before the Throne of Grace. We are bringing legal petitions before a judge, asking for a legal remedy (Heb. 4:16). In order to do that successfully, certain criteria must be met.

First, we must have the authority to make the request. This is why we say “in Jesus’ name” before we say “Amen.” Those three words before the Amen tell the judge on whose authority we make the request. The authority belongs to Jesus; he allows us to use his authority. We act as his power of attorney. (John 16:24, “Hitherto you have asked nothing in my name; ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.”)

Second, the request must be a legal request. It must be in harmony with the law. For example, two guys rob a bank, but one runs off with the money and leaves his partner without anything. The robber who didn’t get any of the loot cannot go into a courtroom and sue his partner to get his half of the stolen money. Why? Because the money was obtained illegally. The money belongs to the bank and its depositors. It does not, nor will it ever, rightfully belong to the robbers. Our requests must also be legal requests. It would not be a legal request to ask God to kill your neighbor so you could then buy his estate. Or how about, “God, don’t let me be caught making meth tonight.” It’s like telling the chief of police not to send out patrols in an area of town because there will be a big drug deal going down. If he’s a good chief, the SWAT team and every available policeman will be there to make the arrests. (I John 5:14-15, “And this is the confidence which we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him.”)

Finally, we wait for the outcome. We make the request, it is done in legal order, and now all we can do is wait for the ruling. The ruling can be yes, no, or postponed to a later date (wait). A ruling is always forthcoming. It may not be immediate, but it will come. The key I have found to waiting is not to sit idly by twiddling my thumbs, or to do something to give the outcome a little nudge in the right direction. I have found that when I thank the judge who sits on the throne for his time and effort, and praise him for his person and position, the waiting seems to shorten and I receive the ruling with an appropriate attitude. (I Thess. 5:16-18, “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”) We are required to express gratitude to the one who is making a ruling on our case.

There is a movement in Christian circles called “word of faith”, or what some may call “name it/claim it” religion. I believe it can be misused in a very similar to way the law of attraction teaching found in “The Secret.” But instead of throwing positive thoughts into the universe and expecting it to deliver, some Christians throw out verses to God and expect him to act on their behalf in a specific way. An example would be if you donated $100 to a church and told God that you were planting seed like the sower in the gospel of Matthew, expecting Him to return to you $3000, $6000, or $10,000 because that would be 30, 60, and 100-fold, just like in the story of the sower.

I would consider prayer of this type a form of spiritual extortion. The person offering prayer or acting in faith is essentially saying, “God must return specified results because of these certain conditions. If he does not, he proves himself to be either unreliable in his nature or unable to control what he has created. Since God is reliable and in control, the outcome I desire is certain.”

It is flawed logic because God is not legally bound to perform up to our standards. God is not manipulated by our wrongful application of his word. This is exactly the same technique Satan used when he tempted Jesus three times in the wilderness. Satan quoted God’s own words back to Jesus. This is a form of prayer. When you speak God’s word back to him, you are praying. (Are you disturbed by the thought of Satan praying? Praying is merely talking to God. Satan was once an angel in heaven. Why then, would he not know how to pray?) When Christians pray prayers of this type they are, in my view, doing the same thing Satan did. They are tempting God to prove himself according to their rules. 

In conclusion, I’d like to tell a story that illustrates the true spiritual realities of both positive thinking and prayer.

I was asked to pray for a friend’s relative recently. He was unresponsive to any outside stimulus. My friend did not ask for positive thoughts. She asked for prayer. She knows how I pray and understands the concepts behind it. She was not relying on the teaching of “The Secret” to change her reality. If she had been, it wasn’t working and she realized it.

So I came to the hospital and prayed, using the authority of Jesus’ name. Because I was using my God-given authority as an ambassador for Christ, I didn’t have to make an appeal to the judge. I was executing a warrant on his behalf. I told death to leave, sickness to leave, and addressed the physical ailments specifically. I commanded life to come, health to come, and angels to watch over him. Some of those praying with me felt, as I did, some sort of power flow through us into the sick relative. He opened his eyes and said loudly, “I’m okay. I’m fine.” It took several months, but he has made a complete recovery. He was on his deathbed, but today he lives.

Positive thinking was never the cure. Your thoughts are your own until you put action behind them. That’s the reality of positive thinking.

The doctors did everything they could. Sometimes acting on what you know in the best way you know how isn’t enough. That’s the reality of personal responsibility.

Prayer goes beyond mind and body. Prayer does the impossible. But prayer which results in miracles and healing when there is no cure must be done correctly to be effective. The answer we receive isn’t always the answer we want, but we are confident that the Great Judge who presides over our prayers is more than able to make the right ruling in every circumstance, and for that we can rejoice always, give thanks, and praise him continually.

That, my friend, is reality.

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