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Why Christians Should Beware the Trap of Toxic Positivity

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.
(Psalm 43:2-4)

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.

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)