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When I walk down the Christian books aisle of my local bookstore, I am often overwhelmed with books like “The Power of Positive Thinking,” or “Faith Over Fear,” or the literal hundreds of books on being “more grateful.” I’m not hating on the authors of books with titles like that. In fact I’m sure some of them are good books. What I do see is that just like many secular self-help authors and influencers, Christians tend to spread around a Pollyanna outlook on life and wave it around like it is gospel truth. This, consequently, leads to many of us getting terrible advice when it comes to dealing with the struggles of life. This kind of sugar-coated outlook on the world is referred to as “Toxic Positivity.” We as Christians need to confront it.
Of course, the Bible also talks about the power of your thoughts, just look at Romans for that. So yes, there is some benefit to having a positive outlook on life. The problem some in society and the church have is when we are so stuck on looking at the good things that we ignore the bad things. In many ways, this kind of behavior has been normalized in our Christian culture that we may not even know. Before we can tackle the issue of toxic positivity in Christian culture, we need to understand what it actually is.
What Is Toxic Positivity?
According to verywellmind, toxic positivity is defined as the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset. It can sound innocent when it’s put like that, but let’s look at it in some real life examples.
Let’s say you’re meeting a friend for coffee and they ask how your week has been. You tell them the truth, which is that it has totally sucked. Your child was sick, the transmission went out on your car, your cat threw up on your brand new rug, and your mother in law is coming to town. Someone who is prone to toxic positivity may respond with something like, ” just look at the bright side,” or “it could be worse.” Or they could simply deflect from the conflict altogether and steer towards a more positive subject. People with toxic positivity tendencies tend to deflect the negative thoughts, and make habit of imposing positive thoughts only.
That sounds like a good thing in theory. But when we get to the heart of it, we’ll see that ignoring true feelings doesn’t make them hurt less. As Christians, we were never meant to ignore the struggles of life, nor were we meant to ignore the struggles in others lives. In fact, we’re supposed to “bear one another’s burdens” (according to Galatians 6:2)
Is Toxic Positivity Really A Problem Christians Need To Address?
Though toxic positivity is a problem that people of many varieties deal with, it is quite prevalent in our religious culture. Just a walk in a Christian bookstore, or reading the lyrics of the latest CCM hit can show the prevalence of it in Christian culture. Though it may not be intentional, Christian culture has made a way of using positive Bible verses as a weapon against a person having a hard time. Unfortunately, the good news of the Gospel has often been used to diminish mental health issues and the genuine struggles of different emotions.
As Christians who were meant to bear one another’s burdens, that burden may be challenging life experiences. If we make habit of gaslighting others out of their heartfelt emotions, are we really bearing the burdens we’ve been commanded to?
So yes, toxic positivity is an issue we need to understand as the Church. Because in a hurting world in desperate need of the God of hope, we can’t be offering a toxic solution. We must be offering the Good News of the gospel in its entirety, not just the good parts.
Toxic Positivity, even from a secular perspective, is ineffective at easing the struggles of life
The best argument against toxic positivity in any sense of the matter is that it is simply ineffective. Lots of research has shown that when we ignore our emotions, whether it’s by forcing positive attitude or not, actually increase our emotional disregulation. On the other hand, when we practice validating our difficult emotions, negative thinking was shown to decrease. You can find sources for these studies at the bottom of this post.
This isn’t to say that you should throw positivity completely our the window, nobody is asking you to turn into a grumpy cynic! But that research has shown that when we repress negative emotions in favor of only the positive, we actually just make the negative worse.
So what does that mean? It means that positivity can be effective in times of adversity, but not when it comes at the expense of shoving the negative away.
For example, when you’ve experienced a frustrating situation, do you sometimes find yourself saying “well, I should just be grateful for what I do have.” Do you ever find yourself really more grateful? Perhaps you do, but more often than not, toxic positivity tends to put a magnifying glass under the struggles of life, not eliminates them.
ignoring or gaslighting the realities of life doesn’t result in positivity
As stated before, only “good vibes all the time” has shown to actually increase negative emotions. So when we make habit of ignoring or gaslighting ourselves or others into positivity, we’re keeping our brains from its natural instinct to process negative experiences in a healthy way.
For example, if you’re afraid, our brains NEED the ability to think, “this is scary. This is a situation I need to analyze and approach in a way that protects me.” If we were to approach fear from an extreme end of toxic positivity, we may convince ourselves that we should never be afraid. If we’re looking at this from a Christian perspective, we may throw out “Faith over fear!” When we do that, we’re stopping our brains natural way of processing risks. Research has shown that this kind of thinking is actually more likely to increase stress and anxiety, not lower it.
When we look at the entire story of the Bible, we see that the power of a persons positive thinking was not what got them out of a sticky situation. Instead, it was a persons realization that the power wasn’t in their positive thinking, it was in the Lord. You only have to read the book of Psalms to see this in full display. Psalm 55 is a beautiful example of the overall theme of total reliance on God instead of the power of self thinking.
Simply shoving away the bad thoughts and only thinking on the good is, simply put, ineffective. God has given us beautiful examples in the Bible of how people have experienced a full array of emotions and experiences. It would be immature of us to assume God only wants us to experience the positive emotions.
Toxic positivity is not a biblical concept
Perhaps not all Christians grew up in a more fundamentalist background such as I. But some of us have had the perfect word of God weaponized against us to shut down our negative feelings. Yet when I read the Bible, I encounter God doing the exact opposite.
Perhaps you have heard a fellow Christian weaponize the positivity of the Bible against you in ways such as these:
- “Just have faith over fear!”
- “All you gotta do is believe!”
- “A cheerful heart is good medicine!”
There’s plenty of examples I could cite, but those are the firsts to come to my head. The problem with these one-liner rebuttals to the actual struggles of human existence is that they don’t take the entire Bible into account.
Before a Christian can make the comment “all you gotta do is believe,” they may need to go read Job, or Lamentations, or Psalms. If you’re unfamiliar with the story of Job, he was a wealthy, God fearing man who experienced sudden great tragedy. In one day, he lost his wealth, health, all of his children, and his wife told him to forsake God and die. Job did believe, but he also wept, complained, lamented, mourned, and cried. Job was the exact opposite of toxic positivity. Yet he is displayed as an example of someone in the Bible who experienced the full array of human tragedy, yet endured with the Lord. Even Job had a friend who made habit of dismissing his painful emotions. Yet God’s love was evident in Job’s struggle. The story of Job is a prime example of how someone can sit in their traumatic experiences and uncomfortable feelings, yet still encounter the healing power of the Holy Spirit.
Lamentations is exactly as the title says, it’s a book of laments. The author of Lamentations, wrote line after line of heartbreak for his city falling into sin and despair. I hardly doubt God would condemn the laments of His people if he were a toxically positive God.
The pages of Psalms are lined with some of the most heartbreaking words one could write. David, the author of many of the Psalms, experienced much pain. From confronting his own sins, to losing his son, to trying not to get killed by his enemies, David didn’t hide his emotions. He literally soaked his pillows with his tears! You can’t read through Psalms without seeing a variety of authors displaying their heartfelt, authentic feelings on full display. Yet such a display isn’t condemned, but it’s celebrated.
For us to use the Bible as a weapon to only think positive is a decimation on the entirety of scripture. God gave place for all of people’s experiences, not just the positive ones. We should do the same.
There is a time to grieve and mourn, and god tells us to give space for those times
When we look at the entirety of scripture, we see the scriptures that the toxic positivity police use, but as we also see instructions for what to do in times of mourning and distress. If God didn’t want us to experience the negatives of life, would he bother displaying the entirety of human emotion, and not condemn it?
The Bible makes it abundantly clear that exhibiting negative emotions is completely normal. In fact, God makes it clear that He is with us in those painful moments.
So not only is validating your own vast array of emotions scientifically healthy, but it is backed by the Bible as well. So next time you may feel tempted to follow a positive Bible verse that was more than likely ripped out of its intended context, remember that the Word of God gives space for the entirety of the human experience. Not just the good moments.
the solution to toxic positivity
I don’t think that people who sling around toxically positive sayings mean to be toxic. If anything, I think it’s the only way they’ve been taught to process the challenges of life. If you find yourself being given lots of toxic positivity, or you’re the one touting the toxicity, there are solutions.
First, investigate the why behind the toxic positivity. Have you or that other person been conditioned through life to never give space to undesirable feelings? Have you or others been gaslit to believe that God doesn’t condone anything except for good vibes?
Second, embrace the power of validation. Validating how you or someone else feels is key in being able to handle the struggles life throws at you. Even in the Bible, God never shuddered at the genuine struggle of the human life, and God is found to validate other people’s struggles many times. Practice validating your feelings or someone else’s feelings, even when they’re not positive.
For example, the next time you find yourself crying over a bad day, instead of telling yourself, “I just need to be grateful, my life isn’t that bad!” Flip the script and give yourself some validation, such as, “Today sucked. Days are allowed to suck. Not everyday will suck.”
Remember the many examples the Bible gives us of healthy positivity. Those like Job, Jeremiah, and David show us that we as Christians are allowed to experience a wide range of emotions. We see so beautifully throughout the Bible that God’s love is with us in all of people’s experiences. Not just the good ones. God never ignores the existence of certain feelings, but instead shows us how to lean into those experiences the right way. The right way being that it was never about our positive thinking, but it was always about God’s faithfulness to us.
How else can we flip the script on toxic positivity?
Resources On Toxic Positivity And Emotionally Healthy Christianity
If you’re looking for more information on combating toxic positivity, I highly recommend checking out these books.
- Get Out of Your Head: Stopping the Spiral of Toxic Thoughts – by Jennie Allen
- Emotionally Healthy Spirituality: It’s Impossible to Be Spiritually Mature, While Remaining Emotionally Immature – by Peter Scarzzero
- Campbell-Sills, L., Barlow, D. H., Brown, T. A., & Hofmann, S. G. (2006). Acceptability and suppression of negative emotion in anxiety and mood disorders. Emotion, 6(4), 587–595. https://doi.org/10.1037/1528-3522.214.171.1247
- Lukin, Konstantin Ph.D. Toxic Positivity: Don’t Always Look on the Bright Side. August 1, 2019. Psychology Today.