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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

The Power of Negative Thinking

By Don Meyer
Sept. 28, 2014

The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” —William James

Just about everyone has heard of Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking. Since it was first published in 1952, this self-help classic has sold about 20 million copies in 42 languages.

For more than half a century untold millions have been transformed by this book, including me. My maternal grandmother introduced me to Peale’s writings in my teenage years, and the positive effects remain with me to this day.

Yes, there is power in positive thinking. There is also a power in negative thinking. No, I am not referring to the dangers of being a negative thinker. I am instead referring to the positive effects of saying no.

Winston Churchill used to quote Alexander the Great who said, “The Persians would always be slaves because they did not know how to pronounce the word no.”

Yes, there are times we must learn to say no. Accentuating the negative can be enormously positive. Life is made up of these kinds of choices. Here are two categories.

Right versus wrong

These decisions are usually obvious. Debate is not necessary. We know the catastrophic consequences if we place a toe over certain lines. One stupid decision can ruin an entire life. When avoiding such circumstances, saying no is extremely positive.

From the Garden of Eden to the Book of Revelation, the Bible challenges readers with the power of negative thinking. Over and over God declares the benefits of saying no to sin. Again and again the Bible documents our notorious habit of ignoring God’s prohibitions.

Adam and Eve ate the fruit. Cain killed Abel. Noah’s generation was wicked. Disobedient people built a tower. Abraham lied. Isaac lied. Jacob was a deceiver. Judah committed adultery. And that’s just the Book of Genesis.

We can go on. In Exodus, Israel doubted God, and Moses struck the rock. In Joshua, Achan took what was not his. A whole generation arose who did not know God and they did “that which was right in [their] own eyes” (Judges 21:25, KJV).

What more could we say of Eli, Saul, Solomon, Jeroboam, Manasseh, Jezebel, Judas, and Ananias and Sapphira? The list could go on and on.

Lest one become discouraged, however, another list could also be compiled of those who, with God’s help, exercised the power of negative thinking. They said no to that which displeased God. Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Deborah, Gideon, Samuel, David, Hezekiah, Daniel, the three Hebrew children, Peter and Paul. They, along with scores of others, show us how possible it is to say no to sin.

Perhaps the greatest example of the power of negative thinking took place in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus prayed for relief from the burden of the cross. “Take this cup from me,” He asked the Father. But He concluded with, “Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36, NIV). The power to say no to His own will and yes to His Father’s became the greatest positive power in the world.

Without exaggeration, our entire eternal destiny was dependent upon those two choices of two men in two gardens. The first Adam and the second Adam responded differently to the power of negative thinking. One’s choice resulted in our condemnation, and the other’s resulted in our salvation.

Good versus the best

Some choices can get very complicated because principles are involved and we must decide between the good, the better and the best. Priorities matter. I may be concerned with developing a career or running a marathon or acquiring a degree. How do those priorities blend with other life priorities?

Rather than explicit biblical imperatives to guide these choices, we must look to biblical principles. For example, consider the principle of excellence. Second Corinthians 8:7 says, “But just as you excel in everything — in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us — see that you also excel in this grace of giving.”

Excellence. Now that is a challenging principle. We can strive for the good, the better or the best, but what does that mean? Absolute definitions are often impossible, yet the Bible clearly expects choices that move us to “excel in everything.”

That kind of priority can never be cultivated without discipline. In his book Alternative to Futility, Elton Trueblood eloquently says, “Any man can pull a bow over violin strings, but it takes years of restraint on fingers and ear to make really excellent violin music when the bow is drawn. ... The price of excellence is discipline and the continuance of discipline.”

Jim Collins begins his well-received book Good to Great with these words, “Good is the enemy of great.” He goes on to say that we don’t have great schools, great government, or even great people because we settle for having good schools, good government and good people.

I remember some years ago when I was research deep in my Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Minnesota. My schedule was full and running over. Frequently my sons would ask, “Dad, can we go play tennis?” I had my academic goal to finish in five years. I was also working full time. I was focused and immersed in the tasks at hand. To what should one say no?

A friend told me, “There are a lot of good things that need to be done in the world, but you can’t do them all.” To this day I do not regret taking seven years to complete my degree rather than sacrificing my best years with Darin and Kevin.

Pecan pie is good, but is that best if I’m trying to lose weight? Watching a favorite TV program or playing a video game may be good, but is that best if I’ll have no time for reading God’s Word? Making lots of money by working overtime may be good, but is that best if it will cause me to lose touch with my spouse?

The power of negative thinking. The gardener says no to the wrong plants (weeds) and grows a horticultural masterpiece. The author says no to the wrong words and writes a literary masterpiece. The sculptor says no to the unnecessary stone and carves an artistic masterpiece.

Even Norman Vincent Peale’s wife said no to him. Peale was in his 50s when he wrote his famous book and had received nothing but a stack of rejection slips. Dejected, he threw the manuscript into the wastebasket and forbade his wife to remove it. She took him literally, and the next day presented the manuscript inside the wastebasket to an accepting publisher. The rest is history.

We should always remember that the ultimate reason for exercising the power of negative thinking is our own good. Our compassionate Heavenly Father cries out, “Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children forever” (Deuteronomy 5:29). God always knows what is best.

The power of negative thinking. Learning to say no may be one of the most positive things we could ever do.

This article was originally published in the Sept. 19, 2004, Pentecostal Evangel.

DON MEYER, Ph.D., is president of the University of Valley Forge (Assemblies of God) in Phoenixville, Pa.


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