The power of positive thinking is a phrase popularised by Norman Vincent Peale in his book by the same title, written over fifty years ago. The Power of Positive Thinking was written in 1952 and has now sold over 20 million copies in forty-one languages, easily making it the model for the flood of self-help books that followed in the wake of its initial publication. Although Peale claimed to have been religious—even claiming “Christian” sympathies—the title of the first chapter of his most celebrated book revealed a definite tension with basic Bible teaching: “Believe in Yourself”. This is not to deny that in a very basic way we all need to have a degree of self-confidence or self-respect of the type that gives us the conviction to take a positive attitude toward our self and have confidence that we can perform a number of daily tasks successfully: “I know I am safe driver”, or “I’m confident that I am a good typist”. However, this kind of reasonable self-assurance is not as large as the dictum popularised by Peale. We can grant also that taking a “positive” outlook in daily living—even for one who has absolutely no religious convictions—is still healthier than viewing life as a drudgery and being an addictive complainer or negativist in the company of others. But the modern trend set by Peale has made many today obsessively and godlessly concerned about the related notions of “self-discovery, self-help, and self-esteem”.

The Scriptural Perspective

Peale’s approach to “positive thinking” works from a different base from that on which the God of the Bible builds encouragement for His people to be “positive” in their daily living. The Lord Jesus knew the need to give assurance to his disciples that they were very much “worth” something to both him and his Heavenly Father. Christ lovingly affirms:

  • “Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows” (Matt 10:31).

Here is the Biblical alternative to the world’s way of pumping up human self-esteem. The basic need for assured, comforting “worth” is clearly the Master’s aim in this exhortation to his disciples. Of course, “He knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust” (Psa 103:14), but those who are members of His family are “worth” much to God and His Son. Malachi describes the assembling of God’s people at the time of the end as making up His “jewels” (Mal 3:17), and jewels have value, in fact, they are precious! Now here is a key motivation for “positive thinking”—of the Biblical kind. The most demonstrable proof that God could ever have given to His people that they are of value to Him is the basic fact that He gave His only begotten Son for their salvation—emphatically stressing the great cost of this gift by affirming that the redeemed are saved by the “precious blood of Christ” (1Peter 1:19). Grasping the reality of these basic truths of redemption should be both humbling and elevating. They assure us that God has provided a comforting sense of Divine worth—the very best reason for “positive thinking”. This is not to elevate human salvation above God manifestation, but in affirming that important truth, we must not conclude that God’s children are only like a bag of nameless sparrows in the market place.

David’s Struggle

Our series has been concentrating on the theme of “songs for the night seasons”, as developed in the Psalms especially. Some of the earliest Psalms in our Bible deal with trials that faced David toward the end of his life, in particular, Psalms 3 to 5. Many consider that these three Psalms were written at the time of David’s flight from Absalom1. We believe it is most helpful to bear in mind the backdrop of this distressing period in David’s life when we note the declarations of his positive (spiritual) thinking:

  • “I laid me down and slept” (Psalm 3:5)
  • “I will lay me down in peace, and sleep” (Psalm 4:8)
  • “My voice shalt thou hear in the morning… in the morning will I direct my prayer unto thee, and will look up… let them also that love thy name be joyful in thee” (Psalm 5:3, 11).

David had committed and confessed to the greatest error of his life. Long term consequences, as predicted by Nathan, were now bedevilling David at every turn. He endured treachery from family and old friends, conspiracy to usurp his leadership, and insults hurled like the dust and stones thrown up by Shimei’s fury. David was crawling through a gloomy cloud and once again he was the hunted and haunted in Israel’s wilderness. But David, now humbled, now contrite and repentant, rested his burden on positive, godly, thinking. This was not the “believe in yourself” dictum of Peale’s “Power of Positive Thinking”—but it was truly positive thinking! It wasn’t David’s confident “self” that was discovered and “realized”: his esteem was focused on the sovereignty of the God of Israel and his trust was in Yahweh’s loving care for David, the sinner. Yes, the King had failed miserably, but he was confident that as a humbled, repentant sinner, he was worth more than baskets of sparrows from Jerusalem’s market. David’s “worth” or “value” was fixed on the fact that he was, and could remain, “a man after God’s own heart”. God’s esteem for David the disciple (though fragile and failing) is what gave David a heart that was confident and joyful—Divinely positive. David the forgiven sinner would not be a slave to his human failings. In this sense, David did not let “King Sin” chase him from “the throne of grace” and hold “dominion over” him ((Heb 4:16; Rom 6:14). For a time David would be a fugitive from the palace, but not a stranger from the “Prince of Peace”.

Setting of the Psalms

Now let’s look at our selected Psalms more closely. In relation to our theme of “songs for the night seasons”, Psalms 3 to 5 have a common link in that the first two of the three are prayers of David upon his bed: “I laid me down and slept” (Psa 3:5); “commune with your own heart upon your bed” (Psa 4:4). The last one speaks of David arising in the morning: “my voice shalt thou hear in the morning” (Psa 5:3). Peaceful sleep and rising joyfully at the start of the day (5:11) describe positive states of mind—but how amazing when the author is David at the time of his flight from home and throne. So, how could a disgraced fugitive find this kind of solace in the “night seasons” when all around him was confusion and uncertainty? Let David answer:

  • “But thou, O Lord, art a shield for me; my glory, and lifter up of my head” (Psalm 3:3)
  • “the Lord will hear when I call unto him… put your trust in the Lord… Thou hast put gladness in my heart… for thou, Lord, only makest me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:3,5,7,8)
  • “For thou, Lord, wilt bless the righteous; with favour wilt thou compass him as with a shield” (Psalm 5:12).

David has trust in God as a Divine shield (3:3), and belief that happiness has its source in God’s favour and goodness toward those who truly love Him and put themselves into His care (5:11). Despite our own tendency toward unbelief and nagging doubts, it is extra difficult to do what David did when we are painfully conscious of recent failings, or when others are throwing the dusts and stones of Shimei in our face: “Many there be which say of my soul, There is no help for him in God” (Psa 3:2). Given all these circumstances, David is the ideal example for those who seek for peace and positive thinking in “the night seasons”.

Reasons for David’s Positive Outlook

Returning again to David’s immediate circumstances at the time of Psalms 3 to 5, there is an interesting link with the double reference to David upon his bed (Psa 3:5; 4:4). In a gracious response to David’s needs as he fled Jerusalem for “the way of the wilderness” (2 Sam 15:23), a faithful clutch of friends braved the risks of loyalty and intersected David’s troop near Mahanaim with enough provision to feed an army (2 Sam 17:27–29). Notice that besides the generous grocery list, the friends brought “beds” (17:28). This is not just Bible trivia. If we take this detail back to the Psalms we are considering, it testifies that even the very bed on which David lay down to rest and pray (Psa 4:4,8), was providentially furnished by his Heavenly Father. God gave David a mattress and a meal to help assuage his fears giving him a solid reason for faith: “I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people, that have set themselves against me round about” (Psa 3:6).

It might be said that a key message from this group of three Psalms is that if we “look up”, Yahweh will “lift up”. David affirms: “in the morning will I direct my prayer unto thee, and will look up” (Psa 5:3). This connects to two earlier statements in Psalms 3 and 5: “But thou, O Lord, art a shield for me; my glory, and lifter up of my head” (3:3); “and lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us” (4:6). Simply summarized: if we make the effort to “look up” to God in prayer, He will respond by “lifting up” his face upon us, which is a key phrase taken from the “priestly blessing” of Numbers 6:26. Consistently, this phrase conveys Yahweh’s promise to redeem His people—His shining face or glory, from the “Mercy Seat” radiates the blessings of fellowship through atonement.2 Given the sinful failings that had been racking David’s mind at this time in his life, his confidence that God would lift up His face upon him (4:6), helped David to “lift up” the head that had been bowed in shame and remorse (3:3).

As we join David in the night seasons of our lives, may the Almighty help us to think positively on His Divine assurances of loving care, despite our failings and the gloominess of this dark world. We cannot presume on His grace, but we can be positive that when approached with David’s spirit of humility, honesty, and trust, our Heavenly Father will lead us in His righteousness and make His path straight before our face (Psa 5:8). Reflecting on David’s exhortation and example to think positively in a Scriptural way will help us believe more in God and less in the notions of human self-help.