Peale and positive thinking


In July 2022 there was a “blast from the past” on the Publishers Weekly Religion Nonfiction bestseller list. The number two title was Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, a book originally published in 1952 that was celebrating its seventieth anniversary.

Peale (1898-1993), who was born in Bowersville, Ohio 125 years ago, pastored Marble Collegiate Church in New York City from 1932 to 1984 and was a founder and editor of Guideposts Magazine. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan in 1984.

According to a Wikipedia “List of best-selling books,” The Power of Positive Thinking has sold around 20 million copies over the years. After reading the book recently, I can understand its continuing popularity. Peale wrote in a lively style, and he filled the book with anecdotes about people who improved their lives by adopting a more positive attitude.

Peale promoted the value of choosing to be happy and striving for a peaceful frame of mind. He advocated minimizing fear and anxiety and eliminating resentment and hatred. All of these things accord with biblical wisdom. “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot,” we read in Proverbs 14:30. Verse 15 of chapter 15 adds that “the cheerful of heart has a continual feast.”

As a Christian, I appreciate the fact that Peale urged his readers to seek God in faith and develop a relationship with God through prayer and the study of Scripture. He highlighted God’s desire for our success, quoting Jesus’ statement in John 10:10: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

Peale emphasized that we should pray according to God’s will and pointed out scriptures on the power of prayer, like the words of Jesus in Mark 11:24: “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”’

On the other hand, I am uncomfortable with “new age” aspects of Peale’s thought. At times he seemed to imply that positive thoughts generate a kind of power of their own.

Key aspects of the Christian Gospel are also absent from the book. There is no discussion of the Cross or the fact that Jesus called each of his disciples to “deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Surprisingly, his chapter on life after death made no mention of resurrection.

The Power of Positive Thinking, then, should not be mistaken for a presentation of the Gospel and presumably was not intended to be one. But as a book on the application of biblical wisdom and the practical value of a life of faith, it succeeds admirably.

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