When Negative Is Positive

Negativity is everywhere. The world is a negative place because of a system wide curse placed on the earth. Theologians say that the human apparatus is not built to live in a cursed world. Constant negativity is draining to be around and certainly we need more positive people in a negative world.

But there are some who are so positive that they exist in a bubble of unreality; they have gilded over their lives a veneer of false positivism. This phoniness is suspicious because it doesn’t seem to match our experiences with difficulty. They’re like grandma’s delicate living room with the plastic covers over the furniture: the arrangement looks good from a distance but don’t be yourself and get anything dirty.

This frailty has crept into the church as one Christian radio station advertises only “positive music, all the time.” There is a church with a billboard that says “Come hear positive, uplifting messages.” Really, is “only positive all the time” biblical? If we can’t take ourselves, warts and all, to the body of Christ where can we go? Out of a desire for order and simplicity, many churches are negligent as to the complexities of human ills and the resources of soul care. Emphasizing only positive things sounds non-judgmental and grace oriented, but there may be a suffocating unreality to this approach. And the church may be reflecting a soft culture more than influencing it.

The truth is there is more press devoted in the gospels to the trial and crucifixion of Jesus than any other event of his life. The disproportion is because sin characterizes life more than we realize. The process was messy because the curse is so bloody; the cruelty was great because our defiance is so layered and impacted. The scenes documented by the gospel writers are meant to elicit our deepest feelings of horror, shame, injustice, and grief. There is no other way to interpret them. Though it ended up being good news for us, bearing the dark sins of the world was anything but positive. Like a battery, the positive is worthless without the negative.

Ironically, Solomon advocated that attending funerals can be more healthy than parties: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to a house of feasting, because that is the end of every man and the living takes it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for when a face is sad a heart may be happy. The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning, while the mind of fools is in the house of pleasure.” Ecclesiastes 7: 2-4

Positive? Not really. But healthy? Yes. A macabre sadness is not the goal of the Christian life, a “happy heart” is as Solomon said. The issue is the means in getting there. How is this best accomplished? There are times in our lives when the negative verses of Scripture mean more than the “positive.” In a strange back door kind of way, the negative verses comfort because we realize our suffering isn’t as bad as a particular character of Scripture. We didn’t come to Christ because somebody told us life would be a piece of cake. We came because the Christian life rang true. Even when Scripture tells us that judgment is coming upon all men, it comforts us because there is a place in our hearts where we know this is true. The deep things of God call forth to the deep things in our hearts. One man calls this “the Holy Land of a Broken Heart.” Truth is our greatest need, not deceit.

Biblical figures are archetypes of the highest expression of the human experience, so we feel better because of their struggles. The depression of Jeremiah or David comforts us because they went through it in a fuller sense than us. The loneliness Jesus felt when dying a horrifying death comforts when we feel isolated. The betrayal Joseph experienced nurses us when we’re written off by family members.

By entering their pain, we get in touch with our own. The Christian life has a bloody, violent aspect to it- not against others, but against ourselves, against the carnal thoughts and attitudes that continually surface. Too much of contemporary Christianity is about crucifying others and not being sensitive to the selfish ambitions creeping into our motives. The more tightly knit we are to our sin nature, the more the cross will hurt and seems as though God is attacking our identity. He is attacking our identity if that imposter called the flesh has never been burned off. If what Calvin said was correct, that our hearts are idol making factories, then continually putting to death this false self should be a lifestyle. “Only positive all the time” doesn’t get that job done. The cross is not an obsolete theological concept. It’s a present tense reality for all believers. Paul said that the only way to experience the power of his resurrection is through the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to his death so that he may attain to the resurrection of the dead, suffering the loss of all things so that he may gain Christ (Philippins 3). Stunningly, the cross of Christ has become counter-cultural in cultural Christianity.

Only then through the negative does Scripture ushers in the positive. Ours isn’t so bad because the suffering of those in Scripture was worse. “By his stripes we are healed” wrote Isaiah (53:5). Every role model in Scripture proved victorious through the context of suffering and vindicates the law of reality that suffering precedes stature.

God is a God of reality. If there’s a discrepancy between what we see played out in church and what is in Scripture, go with the Scriptures. These role models of Scripture are the authentic, who bypassed many other false prophets for the honor of being read by people everyday around the world in the best selling book of all time.

Airbrushing over our flaws to be positive is like running to home plate and forgetting to touch first base. Something’s missing. A root canal is effective only when the decay is scraped out in the deep crevices of the tooth. The resurrection looks good because depravity looks so bad. Salvation looks so good because our sins feel so bad. Flying in the face of pop psychology that says to never admit wrong and always build yourself up, John Calvin wrote , “He who knows his own nakedness [and] misery…has made the greatest progress in the knowledge of himself.” Only positive all the time?

Scripture only sticks when it’s accessed through our story, even if that story is negative. Shallowness occurs when we don’t drill through the mire of our lives with the sustaining resources of God’s word. To be sure many of us have boatloads of negativity from our past, and if we were to go into it we might be depressed for years. But the denial of our story maybe keeping us in stagnation. There are times to tap into our stuff and risk becoming deeper and more authentic believers. We know Scripture allows for it and can accommodate those who do. Getting in touch with our own depravity may be the only way to depth with the savior. And depth is not an elective in the Christian live, it’s a required course.

A couple of warnings here: This is not say we should force it. We may be doing well having come to Christ out of brokenness and experiencing the joy of the Lord. Great. Don’t open the can of worms of depravity, because it’s a dark and endless cesspool of negativity. We only do it if we’re stuck and we can hold the hand of Jesus through those terrifying corridors of degeneracy. And in the name of being real, some advocate expressing every depraved impulse of the heart. ‘Nothing sacred’ they call it. Wrong. Depravity is not the deepest thing about us and expressing our every impulse is not what is meant by being real.

But others of us are so encrusted with religious piety and heartless devotion that we’re critical and suspicious of everybody, especially those “ignorantly happy” ones who have just come to Christ. “If you only knew what the Christian life entails, you’d get rid of that smile real fast” we snide in our prodigal son big brother voice.

To these it may be time to crack open the door of depravity as an antidote to pride. Salvation is great but it’s only a first step. There are still dark chambers of the heart that have yet to be redeemed and see the light of day. If we accuse others of slander, maybe we need to tap into our own “sanctified slander”, the kind Christians do in prayer meetings. If we have been secretly indulgent in the faultfinding of others, maybe we need to roll around the dust of our own criticalness for a time. This kind of negativity can be wonderfully positive in a back door way as we see our sin and repent in humility. The darker the night the greater the light. When we point the finger at ourselves, we cultivate a need for the savior again in mini salvation experiences.

Copyright 2010 by Scott Chandler. All rights reserved.

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About Scott Chandler

As a trained academician, Scott speaks to the issues of our culture with an emphasis on apologetics.
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