In the past year, I’ve had a lot to give thanks for. After several years of renting, the Lord blessed my family with a home of our own. Shortly after moving, we had a healthy baby boy, our second child. These are amazing and wonderful blessings, undeserved gifts of God’s grace! I do my best not to take them for granted, and sometimes when I’m feeling down or overwhelmed, I remind myself how blessed I am.
We hear a lot about the power of gratitude from therapists, psychologists, and scientists. Expressing gratitude is healthy for our spiritual, emotional, and even physical wellbeing. In addition, thankfulness is at the heart of the Christian life. Believers are encouraged to have a thankful heart in all of life. As Christians, we can give thanks in all things because God has redeemed us, sustains us, and guides us safely to eternal life.
Yet, despite the importance and benefits of expressing gratitude, it’s possible for giving thanks to become toxic.
I was intrigued when I first heard the term “toxic positivity.” How could positivity be a bad thing? The phrase refers to times when being positive (expressing thankfulness or gratitude) is used to ignore or suppress hard, negative aspects of life, rather than focusing on and acknowledging hardship or pain. The fact is many parts of life are difficult because we live in a fallen world. Even the blessings in our life are tainted by the effects of sin. A new house is a blessing for my family, but that blessing comes with increased work and financial responsibility which, to be truthful, is tiring and frequently stressful. A new child is a wonderful and gracious gift from God, yet taking care of a newborn is no easy task. It’s demanding and exhausting. Every blessing, in a fallen world, has its challenges and difficulties.
This isn’t to say that it’s bad to focus on the good things we have in life. Finding what’s positive in dark and painful circumstances is a helpful and healthy way to work through hard times in life. As the saying goes, “Every cloud has its silver lining.” This becomes problematic, however, when we focus on the “silver lining” in order to ignore the cloud. Sometimes we need to focus on the cloud and acknowledge that it’s there and it’s affecting us. If we don’t, our positivity can become toxic. Gratitude becomes toxic positivity when it’s used to suppress negative feelings and thoughts about our lives, rather than accept that those thoughts and feelings are present, and that they may be very valid.
Both/And: Expressing Thankfulness & Lamentation
The Bible takes a more holistic approach to life. God’s word looks at the best and the worst aspects of the human experience and gives us divinely inspired, truth, wisdom, and language for them. For example, the author of Psalm 42 longs to be satisfied by God’s presence but finds this longing unmet, like a thirst that’s not quenched. In this state the Psalmist writes things like, “My tears have been my food day and night,” or, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” (Ps. 42:3, 5). Yet, at the same time he’s expressing struggle and pain, the psalmist can say: “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (Ps. 42:11). Though the psalmist hopes and trusts that suffering will pass and God’s presence will return, he doesn’t minimize or ignore his feelings of loneliness, abandonment, sadness, depression, and angst. These feelings are given full, rich, and meaningful expression in this poem. The psalmist isn’t embarrassed by them, nor is he keen to make them disappear. While he certainly wants them to give way to joy and worship, he doesn’t simply “count his blessings” in order to get rid of negative emotions. He acknowledges them, and then he turns to God in hope. Thankfulness isn’t a key to getting rid of negativity, it’s the path through those feelings.
The Path of Thankfulness
We see this in another psalm, where David dramatically and vividly describes a time of intense turmoil (see Ps. 7). He doesn’t take stock of his blessings in order to ignore the pain he’s in. Rather, he prays to God and asks that the injustice he’s experiencing be righted.
In the closing lines of this song, David reveals the way he can endure this hardship. He writes: “I will give thanks to the LORD the thanks due his righteousness, and I will sing praise to the name of the LORD, the Most High” (Ps. 7:17). His path through his negative feelings and experiences is thankfulness. Not a thankfulness that discredits or ignores the very real suffering in his life, but a thankfulness that acknowledges the reality of life in a broken and sin-ridden world, as well as the goodness of God and his blessings. David can fully lament his situation, pray for change, and express thankfulness in one song. This thankfulness finds its ultimate expression in worship. David concludes by saying that he will sing praises to God. Even as his soul feels like it is being ripped to shreds, thankfulness leads him to worship.
Toxic positivity will only lead to bitterness and cynicism because it offers no path through trials. It merely denies them, and denying them doesn’t change the fact that they’re real. Biblical positivity, or thankfulness, leads us to God in worship, even amidst the real trials and pains we experience. It allows us to be realistic and honest about our pain, while also finding hope and healing in Christ who suffered and died for our sins so that we might be eternally blessed.