Finding the Middle Ground Between Toxic Positivity and Toxic Negativity

As we continue to process the reality of a global pandemic, an economic crisis, social unrest–and oh, by the way, acts of insurrection in our nation’s capital–I’ve noticed two opposite yet equally unhelpful reactions. They are toxic positivity and toxic negativity

In other words, some of us Christians tend to see the world through rose colored glasses, while others see it only through the lens of apocalypse. 

As I outline in a previous blog post, toxic positivity refuses to acknowledge the seriousness of the problem. On the other hand, toxic negativity chooses only to see the seriousness of the problem.

Each version of toxicity is never more poignant than when we experience a collective tragedy or scandal. And in the past year or so, those haven’t been lacking. 

For the person trapped in a mindset of toxic positivity, their social media feed features flowery posts littered with happy axioms and uplifting bible verses. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself. But when you turn on the news and see reports of violence and mayhem on a national or even global scale, it comes across as a bit bizarre. And the worse things get, the more they deflect. 

But for the person trapped in a mindset of toxic negativity, these moments of crisis only serve to stoke the flames of vitriol in their hearts. Their posts are full of calls for justice, but typically laced with alarmingly vengeful language. And they hurl insults at those who don’t view the situation exactly as they do. 

The toxically positive person avoids the conflict through blame shifting and willful ignorance. The toxically negative person runs toward the conflict in order to inflict pain in the name of justice. Both miss the heart of God. 

What Jesus wants us to do is to be rooted and grounded in a sense of hope and justice that are both centered on who he is. 

Be angry but sin not. Pray for your enemy, but do not neglect justice.

Here are 4 suggestions for you as you seek to find the middle ground between toxic positivity and toxic negativity. 

1. Don’t gloss over the problem with platitudes and bible verses. 

Christians are notorious for offering simple answers to complex problems. 

  • When the issue of generationally engrained systemic racism is brought up, we say that we just need to love each other. 
  • When white nationalism (and, in particular, white Christian nationalism) rears its ugly head, we urge one another to see the issue from both sides. 
  • When a global pandemic strikes our communities, we laugh it off with a joke about toilet paper and a bible verse that encourages us not to worry. 

For every difficult situation, we have a bible verse that keeps us from asking ourselves difficult questions. But the fact of the matter is that, if you try hard enough, you can make the bible say anything you want. 

So instead of using the bible to soothe our feelings of discomfort, we need to discipline ourselves to look to the bible to guide us through the uncertainty of the situation. If we’re willing to do that, we will emerge from the crisis different–both as individual followers of Jesus, and as churches and movements of churches. 

And that would be a genuinely positive thing. 

Instead of using the bible to soothe our feelings of discomfort, we need to discipline our serves to see it as our guide through the uncertainty of the situation. Click To Tweet

2. Don’t use a single action or event to determine people’s character and destiny. 

For the online social justice warrior, the cardinal sin is disagreement. Unless you completely, wholeheartedly, and unilaterally agree with what they’ve said, you are a part of the problem. Even if you agree, but you’re less angry about it than they are, you are part of the problem. You should be canceled. 

This is completely insane. And it gets us nowhere. 

There are certain issues on which there can be no middle ground. But that doesn’t mean that there is no room for nuance or grace. Perhaps another person isn’t as informed on a situation as you are. Maybe they’re on a journey to more fully understand your point of view. Roundly condemning anyone for even slightly stepping out of line with your beliefs ensures that they will likely never join you. 

Cancel culture leaves no room for grace, forgiveness, or growth. 

If you look at the life and ministry of Jesus, you’ll notice that he offers stern words and rebukes for those who spiritually or physically marginalized others. But what you’ll also notice is that Jesus’ whole ministry was about invitation. 

Come and see. Follow me. 

May we have the same attitude. Unwavering in our convictions, but always making room for others to grow up alongside us.

There are certain issues on which there can be no middle ground. But that doesn't mean that there's no room for nuance or grace. Click To Tweet

3. Seek to understand every point of view, but realize that not every opinion is valid. 

I’m a type 9 on the enneagram personality profile. And what that means is that I excel in my ability to hold multiple perspectives in tension. I can often intuit how a person is feeling about a particular issue based on what I know about them, and I can empathize with it. 

Empathy is an important muscle to build and develop. I hope that I’m a far more empathetic person 5 years from now than I am right now. 

But as Trey Van Camp points out, empathy, as an end unto itself, can lead to apathy. And when we are apathetic about the truth because of our loyalty to our friends and allies, it leads us to saying foolish things like this. 

  • There’s blame on both sides.
  • There are two sides of the story.
  • You have facts. We have alternative facts. 

There’s often some truth in these phrases (the first two, not the last one). The problem is when we use phrases like these as a weapon or shield to protect ourselves. 

These sentiments are often used to shift blame, excuse injustice, and give the appearance of not taking a side. Because we fear that if we unequivocally side with what we believe to be true and just, we’ll lose respect and friendships with people on the other side. 

But in so doing, we equivocate on what is good and pure. 

It’s important to understand and humanize people with differing opinions. It truly is. But not every opinion is valid or should be given equal weight. And you’re allowed to love and care for someone while at the same time diametrically disagreeing with their stance on something. 

It's important to understand and humanize people with differing opinions. It truly is. But not every opinion is value or should be given equal weight. Click To Tweet

4. Never lose sight of hope. But root any optimism you have in reality.  

Hope in Jesus will never put us to shame. But that doesn’t mean that life will be easy. 

So we should never be so bizarrely and blissfully disconnected from the suffering of the moment that people expect our heads to start spinning around 360 degrees. Nor should we sound the alarm bells so violently that it seems Jesus has no peace to offer. 

Life is hard. But God is good. Affirm both of those truths as appropriate. 

Don’t cover up your pain or the pain of others with a pie-in-the-sky platitude. But don’t become so bogged down in the pain that you lose sight of the end of the story either. 

Jesus has already won. And he will bring everything that is broken in this world aright. 

Life is hard. But God is good. Affirm both of those truths as appropriate. Click To Tweet

Jesus offers a better way. 

When we lean on toxic positivity or toxic negativity, we’re trying to soothe the discomfort of our negative emotions using broken means. What’s worse is that we often baptize these broken methods and attribute them to Jesus. 

But Jesus offers a better way. 

As we walk with him, we can step into a process of healing. And as we begin to be made whole, we inspire others to turn toward him and be made whole as well.

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