Positive Psychology and Jesus

July 3, 2018 at 9:14 am Leave a comment

I heard a radio program in which Martin Seligman, a leading figure in the field of positive psychology, was interviewed.  What he said made a good deal of sense.  He is an American psychologist, educator and author of self-help books such as Learned Optimism, Authentic Happiness and Flourish. I have also been reading Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship and what he says about Jesus’ call to follow him.  I majored in psychology years ago at the University of Sydney and have continued to have an interest in psychology. My major field of expertise is theology having a PhD in that field.  What follows are some thoughts about positive psychology and Jesus’ call to discipleship.


Seligman put forward the acronym PERMA as his latest approach to positive psychology.  The letters stand for the following.  P is for positive attitude.  E is for engagement.  R is for relationships.  M is for meaning and A is for accomplishments.  People who find satisfaction and happiness in life are those who live out of these five aspects to life. It does makes sense that a positive approach to life is preferable to a negative one.  Engagement with people and tasks provides interest and activity.  We all need to have some significant relationships and not feel alone in life.  Humans beings crave for meaning in life, to feel their life has some purpose.  We will think better of ourselves if we can point to some accomplishments that we achieved.  This is all good from a humanistic point of view.


However, as a Christian, as a follower of Jesus, how might this relate to discipleship?  Bonhoeffer says we need to put Jesus Christ at the centre of our lives and live accordingly.  He puts it this way.  “The call goes out, and without any further ado the obedient deed of the one called follows.  The disciple’s answer is not a spoken confession of faith in Jesus.  Instead, it is the obedient deed.” Bonhoeffer stresses that Jesus, the Son of God, is the one who calls.  The appropriate response is not a confession of faith so much as an obedient following.  He goes on to offer two statements which he says are equally true: “only the believers obey and only the obedient believe.”  The first has faith then obedience which if it is meant in a chronological sequence, that faith is first to be followed by obedience, then faith and obedience are torn apart.  He says that faith is only faith in deeds of obedience.  Hence, he also has the second statement which has obedience then faith.  Obedience is a precondition of faith.  A first step of obedience has to be taken.  This first step leads away from one’s current existence to a new state of existence following Jesus.


For Bonhoeffer discipleship meant becoming a leading figure in the Confessing Church at the time of Hitler and the Nazis.  This put him in open conflict with the German Reich Church whose leaders supported the Nazi government and accused the opposition of being disloyal citizens. Bonhoeffer held that the church he knew and loved had turned from the light of Jesus Christ toward a new, glowing light of the nation.  He decried Germany’s revival of triumphalist nationalism. His investigation into the meaning of discipleship was his response.


How does this relate to positive psychology?  I will comment on the five qualities that Seligman offers.  The first is a positive attitude.  While it is appropriate to have a positive approach to life, Bonhoeffer reminds us that we need to confront the negatives we come up against.  Jesus does call us to a positive life, namely one lived under the reign of a gracious God.  We may not have the stark issues and circumstances that Bonhoeffer had to confront.  Nevertheless, the call to discipleship still means putting Jesus first and all other loyalties second.  It involves trusting in Jesus and relativising all other claims on our lives. This is likely to put us in conflict with others who assert a different way.  Disciples of Jesus are to live at peace with others but not if this means compromising or acquiescing to practices that are opposed to the will of God.  Excessive nationalism, militarism, racism and mistreatment of minorities were features of Nazi Germany that needed to be opposed. Our current context still has these realities.  The reign of God affirms all people, treats all with compassion and wants all to have a full life.


The second quality is engagement.  Jesus’ call to discipleship does not mean withdrawing from the world but engaging in it.  We are to use our particular gifts, abilities and opportunities to make a positive difference in the world.  We are to engage with people giving everyone respect and involve ourselves in tasks that contribute to the well being of others.  This includes not becoming involved in activities that have harmful effects on others even if lawful.


Relationships are of primary importance including having a right relationship with God.  Secular people may ignore or reject this but for Christians all relationships with others are connected with our relationship with God.  Jesus commanded us to love God wholeheartedly and love our neighbours as ourselves.  Out of our relationship with God we seek to relate appropriately with others and can bring our concerns to God in prayer.  We know we fail God just as we fail others at times and need to come before God asking for forgiveness and the assistance of God’s Spirit to do better.


Meaning is next.  Christian disciples’ lives are given meaning by being connected to God and God’s purposes.  Despite the negatives in life, God provides hope and encouragement based on Jesus’ life and teaching, his death and resurrection.  We know that evil and death will come to an end and God’s fulfilled kingdom will come.


Finally, accomplishments.  Disciples of Jesus are conscious that real accomplishments have to do with whether we have served God’s purposes and had a positive influence on the lives of others. It is not wealth, status and possessions that are important but living by love.








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Black Preaching World Christianity

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