James 4:8-10
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
February 14, 2024 – Ash Wednesday

Three years ago, journalist Mark Ellwood called out a social phenomenon he calls the “cult of positivity”.  It demands folks be upbeat and avoid negativity.

An over-emphasis of looking on the bright side and maintaining a sunny outlook can, however, lead to unintended, unfortunate outcomes.  Here are just two:  First, those who, either by personality or by upbringing, struggle with staying buoyant, may grow depressed with their sense of failure in keeping constantly cheerful.  Second, those who force themselves to focus on the positive may ignore negative realities – say, an odd-looking mole that’s growing or a felt sense of distance in a close friend – and that can make a small problem a big one.  Feeling good then is not always good!  For example, high altitude mountain climbers can, from oxygen deprivation in the thin air, fall into a mental state where everything strikes them as funny.  A delusionary giddiness comes over them so that they chuckle at even grave dangers and dismiss them as jokes.  They can end up growing oblivious to risk, and literally die laughing. So, while we can certainly be inappropriately negative, we can also be inappropriately positive!

From a Christian perspective the main problem with the cult of positivity is that it fails to appreciate how often positive things result from negative things.  The Bible tells us we can best be built up in righteousness by being broken over our unrighteousness, best gain greater pleasures by denying ourselves lesser ones, and best be raised to a bigger and better life by dying to our smallness of heart.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, that season of the Christian year that most emphasizes the positive negatives.  Lent asks us to own up to where we’ve fallen short and to make sacrifices in the pursuit of a higher way of being; but it asks us to practice these negative things in the hope of God’s fulfilling his promise to bring us thereby into a more positive place.

This short excerpt from James sums up the positive negative that is Lent.  Though this scripture tells us to “lament and mourn and weep” and to let our “laughter be turned into mourning and [our] joy into dejection”, it also tells us that by such humbling of ourselves God exalts us!  The essence of Lent is that, if we grow downward in lowliness, we grow up in the Lord who lifts us up in His mercy.

Lent humbles us because its practices bring us before the reality of our limited capacity for self-improvement and the fact we’re not the solution but the fundamental problem in our life. It opens our eyes to the negative truth that our issue is not just that we do wrong things, but that we are wrong at our core.  There is something wrong with our heart.

In his book Discovering the Joy of a Clear Conscience, Christopher Ash helps us wrap our heads around this negative reality we’d just as soon deny.

To use his analogy, suppose I’m walking while carrying a glass of water.  I stumble, lose my balance and slosh the water so some spills on the floor.  If you ask me why there’s a spill on the floor, I might say I was careless.  Of course, I might blame my carelessness on my circumstances, noting I’ve been under a lot of stress and am worn down from all the demands.  But might not I also say, with equal validity, that there is a spill on the floor because there was water in the glass?  After all, if I’d been carrying an empty glass, there would’ve been no spill despite my clumsiness.  There’s a problem with what’s in the glass.

Then Ash asks us to think about David after he’d sinned in the Bathsheba business.  If we asked why he fell, he might have said, “I was under a lot of stress and grew careless as a result.  The unrelenting pressure I was enduring knocked me off balance.  It wearied and weakened me to such a point that I let my guard down for a second – and, well, one thing led to another.”  But what David in fact said, in his confession in Psalm 51, was this:  “I did wrong because my heart was wrong.  I committed adultery because adultery was in my heart and had Bathsheba’s husband killed because cold-blooded selfishness was in my heart.  What I did expressed who I am.  Evil came out of me because evil is in me.  I am the fundament problem.”  Yet, in the lowliness of his humble recognition that he himself was his fundamental problem and thus he himself could not be the solution, David accepted he needed help from outside himself, a Savior who could save him from himself.  When he entered into self-despair, David turned away from self-reliance and turned to God, and relied on God as his only hope, that God might do for him what David could never do for himself – because what David most needed was a do-over of himself.  That’s why in the Psalm David prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right Spirit within me.”

True repentance, the essence of Lent, is not making a supreme effort in self-improvement, but giving ourselves over to the Supreme Being who alone can do the job.  David saw the sufficiency of God’s grace because David passed through the negativity of seeing the insufficiency of his best efforts.

In her blog Nadia Bolz Weber notes how when Mary praised God for giving her the privilege to bear the Messiah, she did not speak of how God had looked with favor on her virtue, on her activism or on her hard work to become the best version of herself – but of how God had looked on her lowliness.  For it’s by our growing humble that we give God opportunity to exalt us.  It’s by our admitting our best work can’t do the job that we let God to do His best work in us and lift us up.

Sometimes weeping is more appropriate and helpful than laughing; and lamenting, than staying upbeat.  By undergoing the negatives, we obtain the greatest positive!  Let us repent, believe and rejoice in hope!

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