Tag Archives: norman vincent peale

Choosing a Storyteller

An illustration of a scientific use of prayer is the experience of two famous industrialists, whose names would be known to many readers were I permitted to mention them, who had a conference about a business and technical matter. One might think that these men would approach such a problem on a purely technical basis, and they did that and more; they also prayed about it. But they did not get a successful result. Therefore they called in a country preacher, an old friend of one of them, because, as they explained, the Bible prayer formula is, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20) They also pointed to a further formula, namely, “If two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 18:19)

Being schooled in scientific practice, they believe that in dealing with prayer as a phenomenon they should scrupulously follow the formulas outlined in the Bible which they described as a textbook of spiritual science. The proper method for employing a science is to use the accepted formulas outlined in the textbook of that science. They reasoned that if the Bible provides that two or three should be gathered together, perhaps the reason they were not succeeding what the they needed a third party.

-Norman Vincent Peale
Chapter 4: Try Prayer Power
The Power of Positive Thinking

As some of you know who have been reading this blog for a while, I’ve been considering going back to a church. Of course, there are many barriers to this goal, if it is even an appropriate goal for me, so I don’t know if I will end up at that particular destination or not. However, if I ever find myself sitting in a church sanctuary, and the Pastor delivers a message that sounds anything like the quote from Peale’s book I posted above, I would immediately start looking for the nearest exit.


I’ve commented on Peale’s book before, and now that I’m almost a quarter of the way through, I remain dubious of how he treats the Bible and prayer. Can the Bible be reduced down to a “textbook” and can one pray by a formula?

Actually, in Judaism, prayer is a highly formal and routinized matter, so on this point, I guess I can’t complain, since I find Jewish prayer beautiful. But Peale’s presentation makes it sound like some sort of scam. I feel like I’m listening to some slick, phony prayer service headed up by the likes of Benny Hinn. I feel like I’m listening to someone trying to sell me the “name it, claim it” philosophy of God; as if God were Aladdin’s genie and had to do what I told Him to do because of some “magic prayer” in the Bible.

No, really, I’m trying to like this book, but I don’t think it speaks my language. Let’s try a different approach.

During tefillah, you must focus your heart on the meaning of the words your lips are uttering. You must imagine G-d’s presence right there before you. Dismiss whatever thoughts are bothering you until you are left with a clear mind to focus on your tefillah…

This was the practice of inspired and legendary people; they would seclude themselves and focus on their tefillah to the point that they transcended their physical senses, and their mental powers dominated bringing them close to prophecy.

If an extraneous thought comes into your mind during the tefillah, stay quiet until the thought disappears.

It’s necessary to think about matters that subdue the heart and focus it on your Father in heaven. Don’t think about empty matters.

—Tur and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 98:1
as quoted from Chabad.org

Really, what’s the difference here? Peale characterizes prayer as a “scientific formula” while the quote from Tur and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 98:1 presents mediation and prayer as a transcendental and mystical practice. Who is right? Neither? Both? Does it matter?

Maybe it doesn’t matter which approach you take as long as it works for you. I’m not sure that Peale works for me, and maybe my continuing attraction to the various Jewish sages and their opinions is telling me something about what does work for me.

When I started reading Peale’s book, I did a bit of research on the man and, according to Wikipedia, he’s not exactly without critics. Given the various doctors and scientists and scholars to whom Peale refers to in the book I’m reading, there are concerns that these so-called experts may have just been fabricated by Peale for the sake of telling a story. But then, I’m not above telling a tale and having it interpreted as fact if there’s a good reason for doing so, and some moral or lesson is imparted that way. Milton Erickson was the absolute master of the “therapeutic tale” and, when I used to be a practicing family therapist, he was one of my “heroes”. The use of metaphor and storytelling in promoting psychological change can be amazingly effective, so I can hardly criticize Peale if that’s the way he chose to transmit his lessons in his book. It’s the way the tales of the Baal Shem Tov have come to us from ages past, still full of power and wisdom.

I think Peale’s book really has worked out well for thousands and perhaps millions of people, but the reason it doesn’t work for me is that it doesn’t say that thing I need it to say in a language that makes sense to me. One can tell the same basic story in a Saturday morning cartoon or an erudite philosophical tome, and one method or the other will work out better depending on the audience. I know now that I’m an audience looking for the right storyteller. I don’t think Peale is that guy, so I need to find someone else saying the same thing in a different way.

So was the practice of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as they sat in perfect awe beneath the star-speckled sky of the still desert night; so too, the ancient prophets in the Judean hills, strumming musical instruments as they gazed upon the mysteries of heaven and earth, awaiting the vision of prophecy as the morning’s horizon awaits the rising sun; so did the sages of the Talmud, the Bahir and the Zohar lift their souls on mystic journeys through orchards and palaces, chambers and pathways of the spiritual realms, never sure that they could return to their earthly bounds; so too the chassidim were lost in contemplation and the ecstasy of their prayer from early morning until the hours of night.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Meditation’s Hallway”

But if Peale, as the Christian storyteller seems too “phony” and (as I’ve been told) the Jewish storytellers are just for Jews, where is my storyteller?

Finding My Metaphor

Ten times a day repeat these dynamic words, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31) (Stop reading and repeat them NOW slowly and confidently.)

Ten times each day, practice the following affirmation, repeating it out loud if possible. “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” (Philippians 4:13) Repeat those words NOW. That magic statement is the most powerful antidote on earth to inferiority thoughts.

Put yourself in God’s hands. To do that simply state, “I am in God’s hands.” Then believe you are NOW receiving all the power you need. “Feel” it flowing into you. Affirm that you are in God’s hands that “the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21) in the form of adequate power to meet life’s demands.

Remind yourself that God is with you and nothing can defeat you. Believe that you now RECEIVE power from him.

-Norman Vincent Peale
from his book The Power of Positive Thinking
Chapter 1 “Believe in Yourself” (pp 13-14)

This is a continuation of the themes introduced in my blog posts Learning Acceptance and Practicing Stillness. It has been suggested to me recently that I need to learn the difference between what’s important and what’s not important, and then let go of what doesn’t warrant my time, energy, and worry. I tend to make myself busy and then keep myself that way. I even look at relaxing as sort of a “task” and assign it a certain amount of time. Often, when I finally get to bed, I’m exhausted. Then I don’t get enough sleep, get up early, and start all over again.

Something’s got to give.

As part of this “suggestion,” I’ve been given a bit of “homework” (another task) to do. I’m supposed to read Norman Vincent Peale’s classic tome from which I quoted a few moments ago. Naturally, I’ll see this assignment through as I do all my obligations (sounds grim, doesn’t it?) but I have a problem. I hate inspirational books.

Reading Peale’s book isn’t much different than reading other material of a similar vein. There are no end of inspirational blogs on the web, such as morningcoach.com and Dumb Little Man and although I read them from time to time, they don’t do very much for me. I find them just too “fluffy” and “phony” sounding.

More to the point, I don’t find them very practical. Inspirational material almost never meets the person where they are starting from but rather, paints a sort of idealized picture of “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps” just as “easy as pie.” Regardless of whether you’re trying to learn a sport or recovering from a horrible plane crash, these little “sound bytes” of enthusiasm approach the audience’s conflicts in fundamentally the same way. Worse, the comments written in response are almost always stuff (fluff) like, “this helped me so much” or “I tried your suggestion and it was amazing.” No one writes anything like, “I tried what you said and fell flat on my face, ending up a thousand times worse off than I was before.”

Am I being cynical?

Although Peale’s work has been criticized on a number of levels, the vast majority of reviews on “Positive Thinking” are…positive. But although I’ve only read chapter 1 so far, I have a problem with Peale’s approach, especially his use of scripture. Take a look at the quote from the beginning of this blog post again. Do you see my problem? What about the context of what’s being said in those passages from the Bible?

One of the issues I have with some Bible studies is that they tend to take one or two lines from the Bible and build an entire theology around them. It’s as if the words weren’t part of a conversation or an overall Biblical background, but instead, the cornerstone of a complete way of thinking and behaving. Did Paul intend for one sentence in his letter to the Romans to be the focus of his entire message? Was Philippians 4:13 supposed to be a Christian mantra? And when Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21 [ESV]), was he really saying that all Christians “are NOW receiving all the power” they need to accomplish their goals?

And yet, I can’t deny that a lot of people say that reading and studying his book has helped them. I also can’t deny (though I find it hard to grasp) that lots of people find inspirational blogs, books, tapes, and videos helpful in improving their day-to-day lives. There really is nothing new in this material from one source to another. It all seems to say the same things but in different ways (I feel that way about many of the blogs I write, too). It’s no secret that “you are what you think” and this philosophy is the basis for the “positive affirmations” you’ll find in Peale’s book as well as in many other inspirational materials. It all seems so easy, but for me, it’s also so hard to swallow.

Shifting scenes for a moment, most of you may not know that my Mom (Hi, Mom) is a periodic reader of this blog (no pressure). Having perused some recent posts that have expressed my usual angst, she responded in part, like this:

I have read quite a few of your blogs, but not nearly all of them. Although I enjoy reading them you make religion so hard.

Here is what I think not about what you write but about what I believe.

Re read John 3/16 and beyond. It says it all for me.

The church we belong to is like a family, Not to say we haven’t had our ups and downs like families do. Maybe were like a family because most of us are from somewhere else with no relatives near. When Dad had both knees done and I had my surgery. lots of our friends showed up and just sat in the waiting room. We have a prayer chain that prays for the persons who are having difficulties. Of course we know God answers prayers, but maybe not the way we want him too. I love the fellowship that I have with other Christians. It didn’t happen like a fire cracker going off. It came slowly like most good things do.

I send this e-mail with much love. Just wanted to get my two cents in, but do keep writing there are people you are helping. I’m one of them.

Love Mom.

Thanks, Mom.

Naturally, I was captured by the words, “you make religion so hard.” In a later email, Mom told me that:

My faith is so easy, I only have to trust and believe. Because of my faith I will try to do good, which at times I fail miserly and I’m happy that I have more. But I’m a firm believer in everyone has to do what they have to do.

I can’t argue against what Mom says, but as most of you know, it’s hard for me to view religion as easy. But then, is it religion or faith we’re talking about? Is faith easy?

Faith, in terms of accepting the existence of God and the Messiahship of Jesus, isn’t exactly “easy” but it’s quite a bit more approachable than some of the other issues I grapple with such as trust, which isn’t the same as faith, fellowship, and reconciling my Christianity within the context of intermarriage. Digging down into this mud-pie, I find that what I’m really afraid of is getting too comfortable. There are too many Christians (and I suppose too many people in other religious traditions) who just accept what they’re told, never question it, and set their spiritual journey on cruise control. When you take your hands off the wheel, you have no part in where you end up. I suppose letting God take control and “giving it all to Him” is a common refrain in many churches, but did God create us to be little Christian robots with no will of our own and no participation in our relationship with Him? Aren’t we supposed to struggle?

Maybe I don’t like inspirational books and blogs because they suggest that everything is easy and struggle free and that all problems have perfect solutions. If there’s no struggle with life and no struggle with God, where is the spark in that life? Yes, I want peace, and I want to let go of needless worries, but I don’t want to be in a coma. How am I supposed to approach the “peace beyond all understanding” without feeling as if I’ve completely dumbed down my life into a series of Biblical platitudes?

There is only one thing that can put you further ahead than success, and that is surviving failure.

When you are successful, you are whole and complete. That is wonderful, but you cannot break out beyond your own universe.

When you fail, you are broken. You look at the pieces of yourself lying on the ground and say, “This is worthless.”

Now you can escape. The shell is broken, the shell of a created being. Now you can grow to join the Infinite.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Getting Ahead with Failure”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

I’m not all that keen on being broken up in order to find freedom, but is Rabbi Freeman’s rendition of the teachings of the Rebbe really so different than the words of their Christian counterparts? It seems so to be, but I bet if I looked hard enough, I’d find a Pastor or Christian author who has said more or less the same thing. I just like how Rabbi Freeman frames his statements better.

One of the “secrets” to being a successful teacher (or salesperson or entertainer or…) is understanding your students (or audience). Once you get inside their heads, comprehend their language, and grasp the meaning of their internal metaphors, all you have to do is take your message and craft it in a compatible style. Maybe what I’ve been kvetching about isn’t the inappropriateness of the Peale’s message but the style in which it’s presented. He’s writing to an audience of which I do not belong. It’s not that I’m not a Christian, but how I conceptualize my Christianity is very different than most church goers. If I can set style aside or refactor his words into a style that fits me better, will I be able to listen to what he is trying to say?

The concept of tikkun olam or “repairing the world” requires that each person be able to see himself or herself as a junior partner in the task of making the world a better place in which to live. In that manner, Jews believe that every act of kindness and charity brings the Messiah just one step closer to arriving. We don’t have total control, but we have a part to play and without each of us, the Messiah will be delayed, perhaps indefinitely. However, in order for a person to participate in tikkun olam, they must first understand and acknowledge that they actually have a role with God, and then find out what that role is. The role in their partnership with God also has to “fit” who the person is and their relative skill sets, and they have to be able to really see themselves as being able to hold up their end of the bargain, so to speak.

How can you convince a mere mortal human being that they have a meaningful and even indispensable role to play in the plan of God? How do I define my relationship, as an individual, with the unimaginably infinite Creator of the Universe? In trying to make my own peace with God and finding out how to live out my indispensable role in tikkun olam, I need to find the message written in the right language…or be able to write it myself.