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“But the men who had gone up with him, said, “We can’t attack these people; they are stronger than we are.” And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” – Numbers 13:31-33

If there is power in positive thinking (especially spiritual positive thinking!), there is also power in the opposite. Of course, this power is satanic in nature, and using it will accomplish his ends rather than God’s. But without question, we are trained by our families and by our cultures to be negative in our evaluations of ourselves, others and circumstances. The most cursory glance at any newspaper will provide plenty of proof for this. Years ago, I vividly remember hearing a radio report of a study that was conducted to evaluate the results of those who characteristically thought negatively and those who thought positively. The findings of the study indicated that the negative thinkers were much more accurate in their assessments of situations, but the positive thinkers were able to produce positive results in negative situations. Even those without true spiritual perspectives have figured out that negative thinking produces negative results.

One of the most graphic Biblical accounts showing the power of negative thinking is Numbers 13, the record of the twelve spies sent to spy out Canaan. In reading this account, several obvious lessons show us paths to avoid at all costs. One lesson is that the negative often excites stronger emotions than does the positive. In spite of the faith-filled pleas of Joshua and Caleb, the two spies with a good report, the nation was easily and strongly swayed by the negative report. They quickly forgot God’s amazing miracles and victories and were absolutely filled with “grasshopper thinking.”

As humans, we are so prone to assume the worst and believe the worst. We focus on what is wrong or on what we are afraid is wrong. Negative thinking is a pervasive tendency. It must be seen as what it is—an unloving, unfaithful response to God’s promises. In terms of Paul’s definition of love in 1 Corinthians 13, spiritual thinking which is loving means that we do not delight in evil but rejoice with the truth—always protecting, always trusting, always hoping, always persevering (verses 6-7).

A second lesson gleaned from Numbers 13 is that a majority of people inevitably practice negative thinking. In this case, the ratio was ten to two among the spies and presumably a million to one in the multitude. We would much rather curse the darkness than light a candle. Those who do not jump to negative conclusions and think the worst are thought to be strange. No wonder so many people reacted negatively to Jesus. He was completely realistic about man’s sinful condition, but he was full of faith and confident that men could be changed by God’s power. The leaders of his time thought that he was demon-possessed. The narrow road of Matthew 7:13-14 is the path of a small minority. Only eight people in Noah’s day were able to rise above the crowd and trust in the promises of God (1 Peter 3:20). In Elijah’s day, thankfully there were 7,000 who had refused to bow the knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:18), but that was a small minority in Israel. In the aftermath of the crucifixion, how many were confident that resurrection would follow? Next to nil. If we are to follow Jesus, we had better get comfortable with always being in the minority and with being thought of as weird by the majority. I’ve got to love the church—it’s the only place where I am really accepted as somewhat normal.

A third lesson from Numbers 13 is that negativism is deceptive to observers. It seems so, well, normal. Since Satan is the great deceiver, this should not come as any surprise. What does come as a surprise is how completely we can all be deceived by sin at times. We can feel that we are doing right with a perfectly clear conscience, only to discover later that we were clearly wrong in the matter. The problem is that the negative view was quite a lot of reality to commend it, and it’s often mixed with some positives.

For example, in Numbers 13:27-28, we read this report of the spies: “They gave Moses this account: ‘We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit. But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there’” (Numbers 13:27-28). Although the negative was prefaced with the positive, the negative carried the day. In our conversation, the content following the conjunction “but” shows convincingly whether we are focused on the positives or the negatives. If we end with the negative, it will lodge in our hearts and the hearts of others. Being realistic with the facts is good, but with faith is better—it’s essential. Note the difference in the two reports given to the Israelites: “Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, ‘We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.’ But the men who had gone up with him said, ‘We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are’” (Numbers 13:30-31).

How are you at being focused on the positives about situations and other people? Do you justify negativity by claiming that you must deal honestly with reality? In Romans 4:19, we find that Abraham faced the facts of his situation, but then he “faithed” them. The facts are the facts are the facts, but God is greater than any reality that blocks what he wants done in our lives. It is not, “God is powerful and good, but look at these worrisome facts.” It must rather be, “the worrisome facts are present, but God is bigger and stronger than any combination of them.”

Faith looks beyond humanistic realities to divine possibilities. The physical components and characteristics of water are such that man cannot walk on it, but try convincing Peter of that one! God is God, and we cannot be deceived into allowing our faith to be destroyed in any situation, however challenging it may seem from a human viewpoint!

A fourth lesson from Kadesh Barnea (where the spies were sent out from) should be quite obvious: Leaders have the most responsibility for determining the thinking of the group they lead. However, the followers who are influenced by them are absolutely responsible for their choices. The whole nation was punished for their lack of faith, not just the leaders. What a tragedy! Just think of what might have been. After leaving Egypt, the Israelites could have gone quickly into the Land of Promise. Forty years of attending funerals could have been averted (all of those twenty years old or older would die before the nation could enter Canaan). Negative thinking shows up first in leadership. Only if leaders are positive do you find out who the negative thinkers are back in the pack (and some are always there).

Leaders have the God-given responsibility to lead, but followers have the responsibility to follow. Hebrews 13:17 says: “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Hebrews 13:17).  The Greek term translated “to submit to their authority” means literally to “be persuaded.” True, leaders must be willing to reason and persuade, but the passage is addressed to followers. They must have a mind to be persuaded, to be open to changing their minds.

This event is a chilling reminder of thinking negatively and unfaithfully. We must see the power of negativity and avoid it like the plague it is. When you begin to lack faith about anything, rest assured that Satan is near. True, we need to recognize when something is wrong, but then we must look for godly solutions. Entertaining negative thoughts with no plan to change the situation is dangerous to our spiritual health and to all the things that God wants us to accomplish in his Kingdom.