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Toxic positivity and Christian hope

Thursday, 17 September 2020  | Cheryl McGrath


I don’t particularly like the term ‘toxic positivity’. Like other similar phrases (‘toxic masculinity’, for one), it’s become a bandwagon term that over-simplifies as much as it clarifies.

But the term, which has existed for a while, has gained enormous traction during the COVID-19 pandemic. ‘Toxic positivity’ is described by the Psychology Group as

The over-generalisation of a happy, optimistic state that results in the denial, minimisation and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.

Toxic positivity is distinct from positive thinking strategies, the type you’d learn with your psychologist. These positive thinking practices help you acknowledge negative emotions and work through them in a healthy way. Toxic positivity, on the other hand, is a mindset that says that ‘thinking positive’ is the right way to live life, and ‘negative vibes’ are weakness. For example, when we might:

      Bottle genuine grief to try to ‘just get on with it’.

      Feel guilty for experiencing ‘bad’ emotions.

      Minimise other people’s experiences with ‘feel good’ quotes or statements.

      Try to give someone perspective (e.g. ‘It could be worse’) instead of validating their emotional experience.

      Look down on others for expressing frustration or anything other than positivity.

      Brush off things that are bothering you with a ‘It is what it is’.

Toxic positivity is nothing new – in fact, it’s been rife in Western culture and in social media for many years. But as we bunker down in a pandemic, the lie of toxic positivity is clearer than ever. We know that posting ‘live, love, laugh’ online isn’t going to help. We realise how insensitive it is to seek ‘positive vibes only’ during a global pandemic. Not only that, but experts are warning that too much forced positivity is counterproductive and stressful and can keep us from dealing with genuine issues.

All of this got me wondering if there’s a type of Christian toxic positivity.

So often, we as Christians can pretend that we need to smile through every trial, because that’s what ‘good Christians’ do. We compartmentalise our sadness, confusion or anger because ‘we just need to trust God’. And we scrupulously ignore the truly negative aspects of our lives, our relationships, our church and our faith community.

We say things like ‘I’m so blessed that I shouldn’t be sad’, or ‘If I’m a real Christian, I’d feel God’s joy in my heart’, or ‘Faithful Christians don’t get discouraged’.

Being someone who is peacefully trusting God isn’t the problem here. The problem is when we equate ‘faith’ with ‘constantly happy’, and ‘trust’ with ‘never feeling sad, angry or afraid’. Is it possible – or even desirable – to achieve positivity all the time? And is that what God wants us to do?

Here are some reasons why Christians need to avoid the trap of toxic positivity.

1. Anger and lament are part of the faith experience

Christians don’t grieve like ones without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). But surely, that doesn’t mean we don’t cry at all.

We will experience pain, just like anyone else. And while the Bible can help us navigate our trials, it doesn’t suggest that we cloak genuine pain in religious-sounding patter. In fact, one of the most theologically informed actions we can do is bring our genuine feelings to God and lament. By doing so, we are putting our faith in God and asking him to act in a way that we never do by avoiding the subject.

Our models for this are David (the ‘man after God’s own heart’) and Jesus himself, who both lamented. (For example, Psalm 13 and Matthew 27:46.)

And interestingly, putting our cards on the table before God helps deepen our faith and our joy in him – not shrink it. As Michael Jinkins puts it,

If we remove lament, we forget why we praise God.

But toxic positivity doesn’t just harm our own spiritual life.

2. Toxic positivity dismisses the experiences of others.

Toxic positivity can be a defense mechanism to keep us from dealing with things that make us uncomfortable.

We can easily believe that fear and anger are somehow not respectful to God. We may not know how to help or why a friend is suffering, and we fall back into the comfort of clichés.

Telling a friend ‘They’re with Jesus now’ or ‘Everything happens for a reason’ isn’t wrong. But, before we do that, have we validated the friend’s pain and ‘mourned with those who mourn’? Unlike Job's friends, who prove themselves to be ‘miserable comforters’, we need to make room for the wrestling of those around us. Our religious-sounding patter might ease our existential discomfort, but we also need to encourage each other to acknowledge our hurts and be honest with God. That, after all, is what vindicated Job.

In his book, Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering, Tim Keller reflects on the story of Job:

It is not right... for us to simply say to a person in grief and sorrow that they need to pull themselves together. We should be more gentle and patient with them. And that means we should also be gentle and patient with ourselves. We should not assume that if we are trusting in God we won’t weep, or feel anger, or feel hopeless.

Genuine hope in God is good. But we’re not promised a rosy future. God doesn’t always take away the ‘thorn in our side’ and we don’t always know why seemingly random evil happens. We are told to point to hope, yes, but there’s more. What we need to offer is (as Tim Keller puts it) ‘a mixture of truth and tears’.

What ultimately can we take from all this?

3. Hope is more than just optimism.

Look at 2 Corinthians 1, where Paul begins his letter by talking about the comfort the followers of Jesus share because of their mutual suffering. He then adds:

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.

‘Despairing’ is almost taboo for Christians today. But Paul is getting at something greater, something more than putting on a happy face. Paul’s hope was strong enough to acknowledge pain and know that the treasure is elsewhere.

If something good can come from this pandemic, let it be that we can learn how to be ‘salt and light’ while still acknowledging the hardships we face – to ourselves, to each other and to God. After all, as we live through anxiety and fear, I have to ask myself if I am hanging onto my ability to turn each negative into a positive. Instead, I have an opportunity to acknowledge the frustration, pain and grief of 2020, praying about it with honesty and trusting that God can carry it for me.


Cheryl McGrath is a writer and editor from Melbourne, Australia. She is a content producer at Keypath Education Australia, and she blogs on Christian culture, creativity and psychology at TwentySixLetters.org.

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