I’ve observed a great danger among Christians during moments of tragedy, injustice, and difficulty. It’s something called toxic positivity.
How could being positive be a bad thing? How could something good ever be considered toxic?
But toxic positivity has less to do with having an optimistic outlook on life and more to do with using feigned optimism as an excuse to ignore genuinely negative aspects of life, relationships, the Church, and the community at large.
According to one definition, “toxic positivity can be described as insincere positivity that leads to harm, needless suffering, or misunderstanding.”
For the non-Christian, an attitude of toxic positivity might be marked by phrases like “good vibes only.” But for the Christian, we tend to hide behind bible verses like “Rejoice in the Lord always,” so that we don’t have to experience pain–whether someone else’s or our own.
Toxic positivity perpetuates harm. Here are a few reasons why everyone, but particularly Christians, need to avoid it at all costs.
1. toxic Positivity is a shallow substitute for hope.
The main reason toxic positivity is damaging is that it’s a shallow substitute for biblical hope in Jesus. It can serve to hurt others and make them feel disconnected from us when they sense that we are disconnected from reality.
This often comes in the form of trite sayings, said with a plastic smile and dead eyes.
“Everything happens for a reason. God is in control.”
“Everything will be fine. Don’t worry. Jesus tells us not to worry.”
“Jesus is the answer. We all just have to love him and love each other.”
These sayings may very well be true, and the person saying them might have pure intentions. However, for someone experiencing a true moment of crisis, these pat responses delivered with a cheerful grin can be quite jarring. They cause cognitive dissonance and can make people wonder if you’re even listening to them at all.
Sometimes we think we’re conveying a sense of hope and optimism, when really we’re coming off as clueless and tone deaf. Hope and positivity are two very different things.
Hope acknowledges struggle and pain, while pointing to the promises that Jesus has given to us. Positivity simply tries to make the problem go away (or at least to get you to stop talking about it) by saying things that sound nice. And that can be very harmful.
2. Lament is a biblical category we too often ignore.
A common misconception of Christians is that we’re always supposed to be happy and cheerful. Regardless of what you’re feeling, you have to act happy.
Anger, fear, outrage, terror, and sadness are often portrayed as the enemies of faith. But they aren’t. They’re just part of being human. And when we suppress or ignore them, we often end up worse for wear because of it.
In one psychological study, a group of researchers showed two different groups disturbing footage of medical procedures. For one group, the researchers encouraged the participants to express what they were feeling as they saw it. For the other, researchers instructed them to refrain from showing any emotion at all. Based on physiological indicators, the group that suppressed emotional expression actually had more of a stress response than the group that was encouraged to emote.
That’s why we often see the psalmists giving full vent to their emotions–it helps. And not only do they express everything they’re feeling, whether it’s “nice” or not, but they direct it in authentic prayer towards God. Psalm 43 is a perfect example of this.
“You are God my stronghold.
Why have you rejected me?
Why must I go about mourning,
oppressed by the enemy?
Send me your light and your faithful care,
let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy mountain,
to the place where you dwell.
Then I will go to the altar of God,
to God, my joy and my delight.
I will praise you with the lyre,
O God, my God.”
It’s healthy to be upset about everything that’s wrong in the world and in your life. God allows that. You can express your negative emotions authentically both to him and to others. It’s biblical to do so.
It's healthy to be upset about everything that's wrong in the world and in your life. God allows that. You can express negative emotions authentically both to him and to others. It's biblical to do so. Click To Tweet
3. Toxic positivity suppresses justice and disregards the experience of others.
Toxic positivity is a defense mechanism to keep you from feeling uncomfortable emotions, which is unhealthy in itself. But the thing about being emotionally unhealthy is that it causes you to hurt other people in the process.
That’s exactly what happens when you use toxic positivity to dismiss the experiences of others when those experiences make you feel uncomfortable.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen this happen often with regard to issues of social justice, and particularly racial justice. I hear people say that God loves everybody, and so we just need to love each other. “It’s a sin problem and not a skin problem.” They might even quote the children’s song Jesus Loves the Little Children or Galatians 3:28, where Paul says that we are all one in Christ Jesus. And, again, these are all true things.
However, when you use platitudes as a cover, rather than sitting in the uncomfortable moment of feeling someone else’s pain or being willing to do anything about it, you’re not helping. The truth isn’t helpful unless it guides action.
And the worst part is that we often do it because the feelings we experience are that of guilt and shame for not having done anything to help, or not knowing how to help. But as difficult as that may be, it’s still not an excuse.
This is what James talks about when he says that faith without works is dead.
“Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16)
Take care that you don’t tell someone to be warmed and filled if you aren’t willing to give them a warm blanket and a hot meal. Don’t gloss over the pain of injustice, betrayal, or any of the hardships of life by reciting lines from greeting cards. In that case, it’s better to say nothing.
Have the courage to be real.
Despite what it might sound like, I’m not trying to suck all the optimism out of the room. So please don’t read this post as permission to be overly negative and critical in the name of “authenticity.”
And you certainly shouldn’t walk around like a basket case, unloading all of your emotional problems on any unfortunate passerby. We’re called to encourage one another, not to simply wallow in our pain together.
But encouragement isn’t the same as just saying something nice. True encouragement comes when we enter into a painful moment, acknowledge the weight of that pain without dismissing it, and then point to the hope we have in Jesus.
So I encourage you to practice empathy. Be aware of your feelings and the feelings of others. Running from them or covering them with feigned positivity is to refuse God’s grace.
And that’s because it’s the grace of Jesus that carries our burdens. Jesus carries the burdens of our sins. And he carries the burdens of every hurtful thing that we have a tendency to hold onto. Toxic positivity stuffs our burdens deeper into our backpack. Biblical hope gives them to Jesus.