Between Toxic Positivity and a ‘Deus Remotus’: Getting the Balance Right

By: Brian Harris

Toxic positivity is a new buzz word which rightly laments the irritating habit of attributing something positive to everything that happens, the kind of “if life serves you lemons, make lemonade” mindset which undergirds most bumper stickers and many sermon slogans.

It’s an attitude that makes it near impossible to own failure, unless it is spoken of in the past tense: “Once long ago, before I solved everything.” It leaves us viewing lament with suspicion, and blocks attempts to face and own the pain of life.

You can find it in the workplace, in churches and in many relationships where only positives are given a voice, and reservations or serious questions are viewed as, at best, misguided, and at worst, as acts of betrayal and insubordination.

The Oppositive End of the Positivity Pendulum: Cynicism

In the interest of their mental health and staying in touch with reality, some wisely flee from toxic positivity but, as frequently happens when we are in reactionary mode, then go too far in the opposite direction.

Cynicism is often embraced as a sign of maturity and intellectual rigour, while the view of God often shifts from God as Father Christmas to God as a Deus Remotus (or if you are a purist, a Deus Otiosus) – a hidden, disinterested God who having put the world into place, now leaves it to its own resources.

Rather than urge you to pray for parking bays, better health and an amazing bank balance, in the reactionary swing we doubt that God would have the slightest interest in our trivial concerns.

“Is there a mediating position where we are faith filled but sober; hopeful but realistic; prayerful but tentative? Of course there is…”

Indeed, if God is involved in the world (and at the far end of this stage, we would stress the “if”), we assume that it would only be with lofty and enormous projects like ending world poverty and reversing climate change. Little old you and me are not going to appear on God’s to do list, not even in the tiniest of footnotes.

It changes the agenda for prayer, and any talk of intercessory prayer is scowled down, and we are reminded that prayer is about getting us to change our attitude, not God’s. It is about transforming us, not the Divine.

While that’s an often valid point, when prayer is about getting me to change my perspective it’s usually a short step away from prayer dropping off my “what I do on a daily basis” list. After all, I want things on a daily basis, but significant personal change is something I’m only up for every decade or so.

Finding the Middle Ground

Is there a mediating position where we are faith filled but sober; hopeful but realistic; prayerful but tentative? Of course there is. It is the normal Christian life… It is obeying the invitation of 1 Peter 5:7 “Give all your worries and cares to God, who cares for you.”

Implicit in the invitation is the acknowledgment that life is filled with worries and cares. We all have them, and while those who don’t might have found a temporary oasis from life struggles, it is unlikely to last for long. That’s not cynicism, that’s realising that we live in an “already but not yet” world.

We can say, “Christ has come; Christ has died; Christ has risen” – all past tense, until we add the last claim – “Christ will come again.” Will come again – hasn’t happened yet, and so we wait. And as we wait, sometimes we struggle, and sometimes we don’t… and when we do, there is no need to pretend, for we don’t fool God, and usually we don’t fool each other.

I’m trying to trust God with both my hopes and my fears – and some days I do that better that others. Some days my prayers are noble and expansive, other days my own needs flood the agenda. I imagine it is like that for you as well. No need for toxic positivity and pretence, nor for cynical resignation.

Article supplied with thanks to Brian Harris.

About the Author: Brian is a sought-after speaker, teacher, leader, writer and respected theologian who has authored 6 books. After 17 years as principal of Perth’s Vose Seminary, Brian is now founding director of the AVENIR Leadership Institute, fostering leaders who will make a positive impact on the world.

Feature image:  Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash  

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