THE AFFIRMATIVE ATTITUDE
Horatio W. Dresser
Spiritual Health and Healing
LORD, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.–Mark ix., 24.
Without question, most of us who are endeavoring to live the spiritual life, frequently find ourselves in the state of spirit indicated above. “Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth. And straight away the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help then mine unbelief.” We see clearly that without childlike- ness of heart, no one may enter the heavenly life. In our desire to maintain the right kind of simplicity of spirit and of life, we often look back to a period in the life of the soul expressed by the fidelity of young Samuel, when in entire responsiveness of heart he said, “Here am I. . . . Speak, Lord; for thy servant heareth.” Inasmuch as the natural man is strongly self-assertive, we wish to avoid any claims in our own behalf, that we may learn to walk in the way of the Lord. Therefore we ask, “What wilt thou have me to do?” Again, we are taught that there is but one source 108 of life or power, that man is a recipient of the Divine Love and Wisdom. As instruments of life, we wish to be true in every way to the heavenly standard. We realize that “all things are possible to him that believeth,” but the question is, How may we acquire the right attitude without making too much of ourselves?
It requires little observation, however, to discover that as some men err in self-assertiveness, so others overdo in their endeavors to be receptive. Our belief concerning man as a receptacle of life often leaves us in a state skin to passivity, as if our part were merely to receive and retain. Inasmuch as no man can serve two masters, he who is not actively working to serve the cause of righteousness may be virtually against that cause, like the pacifist in war time who merely stands apart in protest. “He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth.” So-called passive obedience is not true responsiveness. What is demanded of us is not merely recognition but co-operation. They really stand for and serve the kingdom who actively put themselves in line with work that is in progress. No half-way measures suffice. We are bidden to serve with all our might, just as we are bidden to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.” This is very emphatic language. He who is trying in every way to be true to this commandment, earnestly desires to know what kind of social activity should spring from true interior receptivity. For he wishes to be a man in full spiritual right.
A direct clue to the affirmative attitude is found when we regard it in the light of victory over temptation. The negative attitude is due in part at least, to doubt or hesitancy. Naturally those who wish to tempt us do whatever is in their power to keep us in a state of suspense. Thus dark influences have access to us. On the other hand, the power of the good with us tends to dispel doubt, hence to overcome the negative attitude, that the door may be closed to all undesirable influences. While in temptation, man hangs between the negative and the affirmative. To become actively responsive to the divine Life, we must be strong in our hope, firm in faith, that we may be helped into a spiritual state, in which we are habitually in the affirmative. In war time we saw the importance of the affirmative attitude. We declared with entire conviction that the right would win, that it must win. We could not afford to doubt.
“Assurance respecting the result precedes the victory and belongs to the victory.” This assurance bespeaks the moral attitude. By holding to what we believe to be the right with strong conviction, we launch our energies with carrying power, we call our reserves into play. As matters go in the world, we need some great incentive, we need to face a crisis or disaster in order to be called into fulness of action and show what we are able to accomplish. Only by adopting the affirmative attitude in full strength, is man able to depend on the powers of the moral order to the full. The man who thus acts is not active in his own might. Although apparently acting as if all power were his own, he is in reality co-operating with the divine will.
Again, we note the power of the affirmative attitude when it is a question of spiritual truth. We may not as yet be able to grasp a principle as true. We may desire to accept it, but objections may arise. If, however, we are willing to make the venture on faith, noting the practical results, it may forthwith become a truth to us. Our teachings far surpass our power of present verification, but we can at least be affirmative in regard to them. If we hold to a principle because we believe it is divine, this fidelity will bring its reward in the shape of sure convictions. It is the affirmative attitude which quickens us to gain spiritual wisdom. By wisdom in contrast with mere knowledge, we mean truth that has borne the test, knowledge we have dared to live by. It comes forth from our lips with the power of life behind it. We have ventured to stand by it and it has stood by us. Seldom do we grow in spiritual truth without an act of faith. And faith is an efficient, constructive power in the spiritual life.
The affirmation of spiritual truth “that it is so” because of the source from which it came, is indeed the beginning of the mind’s regeneration. By taking this step, even when we cannot see clearly, we ally ourselves with the constructive powers. The human part consists in making the venture. Only when thus left free to choose and to venture, could we be morally free. Our human situation often seems uncertain. So indeed it is while we waver between the negative and the affirmative. Yet a slight effort may turn the scale. Even in our uncertainty we may test the great promises. To cry out in our uncertainty, “Lord, I believe; help thou nine unbelief,” is to change from weakness to strength. Much depends on willingness to cast the die. The result is a new centre of equilibrium.
We hardly need to be told that “the good cannot flow into what is negative.” The good, we know, comes to us to accomplish results, to operate through us. It is with us to flow from the inmost to the outmost, to take form in practical service enlisting our social nature. Granted the expression of what has come, although it be a mere beginning in the life of charity, more can be added. While our minds dwell upon the abstract or general principle, we still belong with people classified as negative. We often meet people who are in a vague intellectual state. There is much scattering of force among those who try to believe so many things, those who are merely liberal, broad-minded; hence indefinite. “He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth.” To be affirmative is to come out into the open, to take sides, show our loyalty, speak out. It is to adapt ourselves to our age at a promising point, where activities are in process and people are testing out what they believe.
We often look with a feeling akin to envy on people who are cultivating their powers with no thought for the time being save for self-expression. There seems to be an advantage in this form of concentration. No energy is lost in self-disparagement. There is no effort to be self-sacrificing. There is expression, life, energy. In contrast with this free self-development, people who are trying to be good Christians frequently lose headway by undue self-examination, by the effort to be duly humble, contrite. The highly conscientious person may spend most of his energies trying to learn in advance precisely what he ought to do. Others discount every talent they possess in their zeal to overcome the self. Christian self-sacrifice, as many pursue it, is chiefly negative.
Yet why should we discount the self in this way? Is there any real conflict between the cultivation of our talents to the full and their use for divine ends? What more could God ask of us than that we should be productive individuals, expressing character to the utmost? For no one can endeavor to express himself to the full without considering what he can do best in the world, what he can contribute to society as it exists today, how he may best realize a definite purpose. Man in deepest truth is “an organ of life.” He cannot underestimate the prompting to come forth and live out his life to the full without disparaging his Creator. Self-sacrifice is not the end; dedication to a purpose, devotion to an ideal, is the standard. Devotion is a positive term. It is affirmative.
The older theology was nearly always negative in emphasis. It dwelt overmuch on the sinfulness of man, the depravity of human nature, and the weakness of the flesh. It painted the world in dark, lurid colors, and had more to say about hell than about heaven. It condemned the world and found fault with even the simple natural pursuits. It dwelt on the sufferings of the cross, the atoning blood, the sacrificial death, as if the race were to be saved by these negative considerations. It emphasized the resurrection instead of the glorification and the saving life that went forth into the world. The human self was supposed to emulate the Saviour in all these negative ways. The goal was escape from the woes of the flesh through mere acceptance of the Redeemer as having died to save us from our sins, as if mere faith were adequate to save. Thus while it apparently called upon man to choose the difficult way, the way of the cross, the old theology really exacted little of man; it was content with the milder or negative virtues.
The newer theology expects everything of man, just because it is positive. We now see clearly that only so far as we come out of the strongholds of our self-righteousness and really live by the faith we profess, do we make any true headway, For no one died to save us from making this effort. There is no salvation through death alone, It is not a question of the sufferings upon the cross, or even of the resurrection; but of what followed through the triumphant life of the living Lord, whose second coming is through the inner Word. The union of the divine with the human was positive. It was dynamic, life-giving unity. It meant a new centre of action in the spiritual life of the race. We have been waiting all through the centuries for the time when Christianity should be put to its true test as a dynamic faith.
So, too, the new birth is a positive event in the life of the soul. It begins in all seriousness when we come out into the clear light of day, out of hypocrisy, and every device through which we pretend to be what we are not. Through the new birth, man is made constant. The will and the understanding are brought into efficient unity. Love comes to its own as the greatest power. To love in fulness or consistency means to set ourselves in motion to achieve what we love, namely, to attain truth, to work for it; to serve our fellow men, to show by our conduct that we really love the Lord. In short, the new birth comes, not to destroy, but to fulfil; and to fulfil is to attain the affirmative.
Since so much depends on this advance from the subjective into the objective, every constructive thought, emotion or act of will, is a help. Strictly speaking, every thought is negative or affirmative. By shifting the emphasis or even by changing a word in a sentence, we can change from the negative to the affirmative. With a mere word or intonation, as we address ourselves to a person in spiritual need, we may turn the tide. The idle words for which we are called to account are the negative words, the quick, harsh judgments, the adverse criticism, the hate, anger, jealousy, bitterness, complaint, fault-finding.
Everyone whom we thus condemn needs our encouragement and love. A mere hint, a word of good cheer or wise counsel, will sometimes give the impetus. Idle indeed are many of our utterances in comparison with what our language might be.
A mother’s loyalty to her children under condemnation is a typical instance of the affirmative attitude. When the heart is affirmative, its power is carried to another, though no word be spoken. We feel the adverse influence of one who does not understand and is condemnatory, one who stands off and inspects. But sympathy is affirmative. We are quickened into productivity by those who believe in us, who call us out and encourage us to do our best without bestowing credit which does not belong to us.
To take the affirmative attitude toward people, is to see the good in them, what they are endeavoring to achieve. This is no small attainment, in view of all that we know about human frailties and sins. We have been apt to think that we should dwell on the frailties and sins, condemn people for them, and call our neighbors to account. But we have excelled in negative criticism. We have left people disheartened. Doubtless they were already keenly aware of their failings. Without being blind to their faults, what is incumbent upon us is to see through these to the goal or purpose in life. To dwell on the process instead of the end, is to be negative. After all, what is worthy of us as lovers of our fellow men, is to see the spirit through the flesh and call the spirit into power.
If no man sins with his whole nature, if there is always a secret place where the Lord dwells, where the Lord may be found, then to be affirmative is to see man in the image and likeness of God; to stand for this ideal, to believe in it, help to call it into realization. That surely is what we wish people to do for us. When disheartened, there is help for us if we once more discriminate between the process and the product, if we return to the ideal, rise above the actual, throw off the bondage of circumstance. Accordingly, we recall what we started out to accomplish. We seek the positive lessons of our present experience. Thus we gradually shift the emphasis, gain a new impetus and begin again. What we thus accomplish for ourselves, we may help others to accomplish by regarding them in the light of their aspirations.
In deepest truth, the divine life within us is seeking to lift us into fulness of being. We have made great headway if able in some measure to distinguish between the human and the divine. Thus to discriminate, in the newer sense of the word, does not mean to put God far from us, because unlike us in nature. Although differing from us in power, God is made one with us by His love. The truth of the incarnation, of the Divine in the human, is affirmative. The great truth is that the presence of God is life-giving, dynamic. It is the presence of God, when recognized in this, its vitalizing aspect, which develops the affirmative attitude in us.
People have thoughtlessly fallen into the habit of speaking of evil as if it were a cosmic power, as if it were co-extensive with the good and at war with it, endangering righteousness, making heaven matter of doubt. In contrast, goodness appears to be negative; people who are trying to live righteously are often spoken of with disparagement, as if they had chosen the doubtful side. Now, life is oftentimes a warfare within the soul. But we cannot for a moment entertain the hypothesis of failure. The structure of the spiritual cosmos is moral. Life is for moral ends. The destructive forces of the world are in the last analysis negative, despite all appearances. Over against them is the supreme fact of the incarnation with its victory over selfishness. We renew our ideals, and, by an act of faith, cross from the negative to the positive side and ally ourselves with the powers making for righteousness. We refuse to judge by appearances. Belief in the moral integrity of the cosmos is, we see, essential to victory. We are assured that the right will triumph. We identify ourselves in spirit with it. To make this venture is to find ourselves greatly heartened.
The application of the foregoing to daily life becomes the more plain as we realize our responsibility. Simply to think the matter out, is to make headway. By every constructive thought, we help. By every aspiration in love to the Lord, we put ourselves in line with forces able to resist the negative element in us, to overcome the destructive forces. We realize how true is the statement that man is held in equilibrium between the two groups of forces until he makes the choice. Moral choice is an affirmative. By making it, we put ourselves in line with any number of fortunate consequences. This is where we have the greatest power, in this ability to shift the emphasis, to turn from doubt to willingness to believe, from hate to love, and so on through an almost endless series of contrasts.
The dependence of the human upon the divine is seen at every stage. “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” I do not wholly see. Oftentimes I am very uncertain. I do not know how my wants are to be provided for tomorrow or next year. But there is work on hand for today. Let me act in full faith now. What now seems impossible will prove perfectly possible when the right time comes. I need not hesitate to cultivate and use my powers to the full. Every power is good in its place. The whole of our earthly life is a venture in behalf of faith, to find out what actions are in line with the divine providence and hence are constructive, what ones spring from our self-love and so are destructive. The divine is with us to build us into houses not divided against themselves, to quicken us to serve one Master, one Lord; to guide us into the affirmative, out of all these weaknesses which cause our misery and our discontent. Although we see this great truth only in part and still in a glass darkly, we may declare that we believe. “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”
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