[A reading from The Little Engine That Could—ending with “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.”]
In 1952, minister and author Dr. Norman Vincent Peale published the book The Power of Positive Thinking. To date, it has sold millions of copies and influenced countless lives. In it, Peale stresses the importance of faith and optimism to mental health and to personal and professional success. He says, “Change your thoughts and you change your world.” Peale might have resonated with the little blue engine—“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”
But Jeremiah did not think he could. In fact, almost everyone that God calls in the Bible responds the same way—“I can’t!” And yet God does not go in search of someone with a more positive attitude or someone more confident or someone better prepared. Because when it comes to God’s call, it is not about what that person can’t do; it is about what God can and will do.
As it turns out, positive thinking may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Peale’s critics pointed out that his techniques were backed up by vague anecdotes from unnamed sources, and some noticed that his method was really a form of autosuggestion, or self-hypnosis.
This approach might make an impact on a person, but in a very superficial way; it does not get at the depth of what it means to be human. Put simply, “I think I can” is all well and good, but it is not enough.
The subject of the song “Lonesome Whistle” certainly thought he could—“just a kid actin’ smart.” He thought he could do what he wanted with impunity, and it landed him in Georgia doing time.
Jeremiah did not think he could.
Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber talks in her memoir about a time when she was overtaken by a defeatist attitude. An outreach event at her church had flopped miserably, and she was feeling sorry for herself. She felt like a failure as a person and as a pastor. She felt like she had nothing.
In reflecting on that experience, Nadia remembered the story of the feeding of the 5,000, when Jesus told the disciples to feed the people.
“What do we have?” they asked. “We have nothing. Nothing but a few loaves and a couple of fish.” And they said this as though it were a bad thing. The disciples’ mistake was also my mistake, [Nadia says]: They forgot that they have a God who created the universe out of “nothing.” I mean, let’s face it, “nothing” is God’s favorite material to work with. Perhaps God looks upon that which we dismiss as nothing, insignificant, and worthless, and says, “Ha! Now that I can do something with.”
God is not in the business of recruiting people with that special something. God seeks out those who have nothing, who are nothing in the eyes of the world. A young shepherd becomes king of Israel. A protesting boy becomes a great prophet. A teenage girl becomes the mother of God.
Mary does not say, “I think I can.” Mary says, “Be it unto me.”
God’s call is not to more optimism and positivity, nor is it to live Your Best Life Now. Toquote another Lutheran, Dietrich Bonhoeffer—“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
There’s a saying that “God does not call the equipped; God equips the called.” God gives us gifts and talents that we should use for the good of the kingdom, but that does not mean that we are to rely on ourselves to improve our lives and the lives of others. God makes everything out of nothing. God works resurrection out of death. Positive thinking won’t get us there; only surrender will.
There’s an old joke about Rene Descartes, the French philosopher most famous for the phrase “I think, therefore I am.” As all good jokes do, this one starts with him walking into a bar. Descartes takes a seat, and the bartender says, “Hello Rene! Will you be having your usual?” To which Descartes responds, “I think not,” and promptly vanishes.
James K. A. Smith is a philosophy professor at Calvin College in Michigan, and his bookDesiring the Kingdom has this as a core premise: we are not thinking things; we are desiring beings. Our culture often assumes that the way we think is at the heart of who we are, but Smith argues that what trumps that are our desires, our loves. We might correct Descartes by saying, “I love, therefore I am.”
Of course, just as our thoughts can become twisted, so can our desires. We don’t have to look far in our society or even in our own hearts for evidence of this.
Sometimes we think that if we could just temper our desires, reign them in a little, then we would be all right. But C. S. Lewis says differently in The Weight of Glory:
It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
God “finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.” We are not thinking things; we are desiring beings. Positive thinking will not get us to God; only a revelation of the true source and object of our deepest desire can do that.
Last week, I saw the movie 12 Years a Slave. It is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man in the 19th century who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. The film is brutal to watch at times, but I think it is so important.
In thinking about that movie and this sermon, I was reminded of another train—the Underground Railroad. I’m sure we’ve all heard stories of the courage of Harriet Tubman and others who helped slaves escape to freedom in the North. These people were not optimistic; they were desperate.
What I learned recently is that although we sometimes think of the Underground Railroad as this mass exodus from slavery, in reality it could only help a small number of people. The slaves that escaped were still outnumbered by the natural annual increase of the slave population. If we just looked at the numbers, we might say that the Underground Railroad did nothing.
But of course, the psychological impact of the Underground Railroad was immense, not only on slaves but also on slaveholders. What’s more, the Railroad affected Northerners, because now slavery was no longer just a Southern problem. Out of a relatively small effort, out of nothing, a dramatic statement of protest and hope was made.
Harriet Tubman had no reason to think she could. Neither did any of the countless people who put their lives on the line to serve along the Underground Railroad, nor did the slaves who escaped. They were driven not by thoughts of success but by a desire for freedom and justice, even if it cost them their lives.
Jeremiah did not think he could. And in fact, he couldn’t. Jeremiah had nothing; he was nothing in the eyes of the world. And God looked on his nothingness and said, “Ha! Now that I can do something with.”
There is a light at the tunnel, and the good news is, it’s a train.