The power of the positive

Cheshire CatWould you tell me, please,” Alice asked the Cheshire Cat, “which way I ought to go from here?” “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” the Cat replied, stating the obvious. “I don’t much care where —” said Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

Most of us do care where we get to in life, and it matters a great deal which way we go. Two years ago New York Times columnist David Brooks asked his readers to describe their purpose in life and how they found it. Thousands responded. “I expected most contributors,” Brooks wrote, “would follow the commencement-speech clichés of our high-achieving culture: dream big; set ambitious goals; try to change the world. In fact, a surprising number of people found their purpose by going the other way, by pursuing the small, happy life.” (David Brooks, “The Small, Happy Life,” The New York Times, 29 May 2015)

One person wrote “that his purpose became clearer once he began to recognize the ‘decision trap’: ‘This trap is an amazingly consistent phenomenon whereby “big” decisions turn out to have much less impact on a life as a whole than the myriad of small seemingly insignificant ones.’” Decisions, especially all those small ones that we make day-in and day-out, shape our lives today, and they’re a huge factor – though certainly not the only one – in determining the future.

One of the most important decisions any of us make is one we usually make unconsciously when we decide how we will think about life and our experience of life, positively or negatively. In 1952 Norman Vincent Peale wrote a book that has sold millions of copies, The Power of Positive Thinking, in which he described how the roots of success are in how we think about life and the world around us.

One of Peale’s key points was that the outcome of your life is really a self-fulfilling prophecy. What you choose to believe about the future is what will become the future. So stay focused on what you want your life to be like and on how you will overcome the problems and obstacles you might face. Paul had something like that in mind, I think, when he wrote: Seek the life God offers, set your mind on things that are above, and clothe yourself with the person you’re becoming in Christ (Col. 3:1-2, 10). “Fix your attention on God,” he wrote. “You’ll be changed from the inside out” (Rom. 12:2 The Message). That’s the power of the positive.

Another point Peale made was that your attitude determines your entire life. Remember the paralytic by the pool at Beth-zatha (John 5:2-9)? He had lain there for thirty-eight years, waiting for someone to help him to the water when it was disturbed so he could be cured, thinking the source of his healing was outside himself, in someone else’s hands.

But Jesus asked him the question that changed everything, including the man’s life and future, “Do you want to be made well?” And when the man began to make excuses, Jesus said simply, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” Jesus redirected the man’s attention to the healing power that was inside himself. Healing for that man did not come from Jesus; it came from within himself when we changed his way of thinking about his condition in life. Fix all your attention on the person God is creating you to be, and you will start to become that person. “So if you have been raised with Christ,” Paul wrote, “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1).

But here’s the important point. Christ is not where we usually think Christ is, not high and lifted up. Christ came to live among us as one of us. Here is where Christ is, in all the beautiful and terrible things of this life of ours. The reign of God, Jesus said, the heavenly banquet, the more and better life than we ever dreamed of, is not reserved for later, for some afterlife, or for some heavenly realm apart from this one. It has come down and drawn near to us (Mark 1:15). It is spread out on the earth and we don’t see it (Gosp. Thomas 113).

So the place to look for that life is not “out there” but “in here.” Remember what Carl Jung said: “Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” To see the life God promises, we don’t need to seek some mountaintop experience in the spiritual life or climb the ladder of success in this life. Ladders lead down as well as up. You can fall off a ladder.

To have the life God promises, we need to stop climbing and keep our feet on the ground. We need only to wait patiently until all the voices around us that clamor for attention grow quiet. We need only to let go of the achievements the world tells us are so important, until the life God tells us is important appears before our eyes. And we need to follow Christ to Jerusalem.

Two weeks ago I wrote that in the journey of discipleship, Christ will lead us into wilderness, the place in life where we have lost our way and don’t know where to turn, don’t know which path to take, where there are no recognizable landmarks or signposts that will guide us to where God is leading us. In the wilderness, God tests us to see what we’re made of, how we will choose, what values will take their places at the center of our lives. Wilderness reveals who we are.

Last week I wrote that following Christ will take us to Samaria, beyond the boundaries of the familiar world we have known, the one we call home, into a place where we are strangers in a strange land, where those we encounter live by foreign customs that may seem threatening to the way of life we have known, but where the ancient source of our nourishment is to be found. And there we will discover an abundant harvest of God’s reign on earth.

Finally the life of Christian discipleship, if we follow it all the way, always leads us to Jerusalem. After Jesus had been transfigured and his true God-nature revealed (Luke 9:28-36), “he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). He made up his mind to accept the fate that lay before him and to go to the very heart of his and his people’s identity, to the place where all the spiritual and political power of his way of life was centered. And we must go there, too.

We don’t go to Jerusalem literally, of course. But we go to the place within us where all the authority in our lives is grounded and enthroned. We go to the place where all the voices that speak to our hearts are found, the voices of family history and parental influence, of cultural training and socialization, of peer pressure, of the demands of our employers, of political biases, of national allegiance, and so many others. And in that place, we say “no” to those voices, “no” to those allegiances, so we can hear the still, small voice of God and pledge allegiance to God alone. And there we find all the fullness of life that God has created us to have.

There’s a high price to pay when you decide to go to Jerusalem. It’ll cost you your life, the life you have known, the life that has defined who you are up to now. But the gain is also high. The gain is more and better life than you ever dreamed of having, all packed into the kind of small, happy life that David Brooks’s readers described.

Which way should we go from here? That depends a good deal on where you want to get to. If you want to get to the life God promises, “seek the things that are above, where Christ is.” ▪

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