The question of suffering and prosperity has been an ongoing discussion within Christianity for many centuries. In fact, Christianity itself may seem to revolve around these themes, since many of the books contained in the Bible, such as Job in the Old Testament and the Gospels of the New, deal so heavily with both. More modern discussion has taken a peculiar shift in thinking. And in this essay, I consider the thought of Norman Vincent Peale and his teaching of positive thinking and its life changing power. I then contrast him with the thought of Saint Catherine of Siena. What I argue is that Peale’s strong focus on success, prosperity and self-confidence neglects the importance of suffering in the Christian life and this neglect can be traced back to his failure to take into account the doctrine of original sin.

Norman Vincent Peale’s focus on living a successful life permeates his bestselling book “The Power of Positive Thinking.” In fact, he calls this book a “personal improvement manual”[1] and as such the purpose of the book is to reveal to the reader Peale’s methods for both inner self-improvement, confidence and peace of mind, and what I will refer to as material success. The goal of his teachings not only promises the attainment of an improved spiritual or mental state, but that with this improved state of the inner being it is said that one can expect to find what one desires outwardly or materially. This is to be the case whether that desire be for health, wealth, fame, a good and honorable reputation among others or just a successful life in general. Whatever the case may be, what matters is that through his methods one is to achieve a “new sense of well being”[2] where both the spiritual and material aspects of life are prosperous and succeed in their own sphere and to the highest possible degree.

Before going into the methods that Peale provides for reaching this new sense of well being, it is important, first, that one understand Peale’s ideological connection with the New Thought Movement and one of its core principles in particular. Among the commonly held beliefs of the New Thought Movement of the mid 19th century none relate as directly to Peale as the belief that there is a direct correlation between one’s own mental or spiritual state and one’s physical state. Most specifically, that all disease of the body comes from an inner disease of the mind or spirit. There is a notion in New Thought that says if a person could only have the correct mindset, outlook, or faith, then all disease could be avoided by consequence of this mindset. Thus, this aspect of New Thought draws a bridge of sorts between the spiritual and the physical and says that they are connected somehow. It says that the spirit can have a direct effect on the material, and, if the spirit is willing, the material on the spiritual.

When one compares the title of Peale’s book, the connection between the two becomes fairly obvious. It becomes clear that, like those of the New Thought movement, Peale believes that the right mindset and the spiritual can have a material manifestation and effect. This is shown by the methods and teachings he employs in his book. He cautions against what he calls an inferiority complex, where one is filled with self-doubt concerning one’s ability to live the best life. This complex works as an impediment to achieving what one desires to achieve. Aside from the material effect that it has, it also compromises one’s spiritual well-being and makes the person emotionally miserable. To combat this, Peale advocates for a method of positive thinking where the goal is to “develop a creative faith in yourself”[3]. And he thinks that this positively oriented faith in yourself will lead to success and prosperity.

The idea of faith in oneself, on the surface, may seem to be an idea which is not genuinely Christian since it usually preaches faith and trust in God. This could be viewed as one of Peale’s shortcomings, not necessarily in his teaching, but in his writing. At times it is quite hard to find Christianity in his message and it often sounds secular. However, if one lends to him a favorable interpretation, one can see the Christian element to his message and of faith in self. To do this, it is important to know why one has this faith in self. According to Peale, the correct form of faith in self stems from a higher faith in God. Only when one’s faith in oneself derives from faith in God can the faith be called humble and not prideful. He instructs “Develop a tremendous faith in God and that will give you a humble yet soundly realistic faith in yourself”[4]. It is because one has faith that God is with them and giving them strength to succeed that Peale believes a person can have a humble faith in oneself. And with this faith in oneself, negative thoughts can be evicted from the mind and replaced with a positive thinking faith in oneself which Peale says will lead a person to success and happiness.

The intense focus on success and happiness in this life, at least in this form, is something of a new phenomenon in Christian thinking and it indicates a shift in thinking that not only focuses on God’s blessing in the next, but in the present life as well. But I am afraid that with such a strong focus on the wealth, health, and the happiness that can be had in this life, someone like Peale begins to lose sight of the importance of suffering as a condition of life itself. Sometimes it might not only be that a saint is to prosper on earth, although some certainly do, but it may also be said that saints suffer in this world and are actually meant to suffer in some cases.

That this is not a new idea is evidenced by the writings of Catherine of Siena, for example. Her writings give a plethora of explanations for why suffering is an important aspect in the life of a Christian. Much of her writing, indeed, seems to be obsessed with suffering. This might be due to the fact that she served as a caretaker throughout her life and helped many who were suffering. Nevertheless, she saw a sort of essential quality of suffering in the Christian life. She sees suffering as such an important aspect, because she sees love of God and patience as being closely tied and inseparable. The idea is that if you love God, then you would be willing to endure suffering in all patience. This is such that “the more the soul endures, the more she shows that she loves me [God]”[5]. So, for Catherine, suffering gives an opportunity to test one’s patience and prove one’s love for God. And there is a sense that in suffering the Christian grows stronger in the love of God as well, and that in the exercise of patience, patience is strengthened and love along with it. In this way, Catherine sees suffering as a part of the Christian life. For, it grants the opportunity to test one’s patience and love of God, and in its strengthening, to come closer to God.

But all of this may not be enough to establish suffering as an essential aspect of Christian life. With this alone, it does not allow us to say that a saint is meant to suffer, only that a saint may if the saint chooses. What I mean by this is that, concerning Peale, one gets the sense that whether or not we suffer is largely up to our choice. We may choose to wallow in an inferiority complex which prohibits us from success and leads to suffering. Or we may choose to have faith in ourselves and reap the benefits of positive thinking. So, it would seem that suffering is dependent on our choosing. So suffering is no longer an essential aspect of life. But, in order to say that, in some cases a saint is meant to suffer, and that suffering is essential in our current state of affairs, original sin must be introduced.

That suffering is essential in this life is mentioned by Catherine when she says that “no one born passes this life without pain”[6]. She attributes this pain and suffering which no one escapes to the introduction of sin into the world by the progenitors of humankind, Adam and Eve. With the first sin of these two parents of humanity, all of the subsequent generations of their kind will face the thorns which the world has “germinated through sin”[7]. Thus, all will suffer necessarily as a consequence and suffering becomes an essential aspect of life. For Catherine, there is no choosing your way out of every trouble. The problem, as far as she was concerned, was not something as small as an inferiority complex, but something larger. What served as a barrier between a person and success was the fact that, due to the permeation sin, all creation groans and must groan until a new order of things is established[8]. That the consequence of original sin has rendered suffering, at least in one form or another, an inescapable reality from which all will suffer. Some may suffer worse than others, but what is important is that there are some sufferings which are essential and inescapable. And if some are inescapable, then there is nothing more but to endure them.

So, as far as Catherine is concerned, the choice is not whether we will suffer or not suffer, but how and in what way we will endure suffering. Here, she makes a distinction. She says that while all will suffer, the saints will suffer only in body and not in spirit.[9] This goes back to her earlier notion of patience and love of God. She says that those who have this patience do in fact suffer, but they do not feel the weariness of pain.[10] For, the will of the saint has been joined with God’s in patience and love. And their wills, being joined to God’s, have what their wills desired, which is God. Thus, a sense of “self-will”[11] is lost, and a peaceful submission to the will of God is achieved and, though the saint walks through the thorns of life, the saint still finds a peace in spirit which is not disturbed.

Hopefully all of this has helped to show the worry that Peale’s positive thinking philosophy might create due to the lack of emphasis on the essential character of suffering. Again, I think Peale’s neglect of this subject stems from his neglect of original sin and its consequences. I think the sharp focus that he takes on prosperity and lack of focus on suffering can be quite dangerous to the individual. In life there are some troubles, some suffering which we will never overcome. This, I think, is as certain as death. And in the face of this notion, that suffering is essential and inescapable, we must turn to someone like Catherine who will help us endure suffering in a way that is brave and honorable. For if there are some sufferings that are inescapable, to endure them to the end is the only option that remains to us.


[1] Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking (London England: The Quality Book Club, 2006), 4.

[2] Ibid,.

[3] Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking (London England: The Quality Book Club, 2006), 6.

[4] Ibid,11.

[5] Catherine of Siena, “Dialog of Catherine of Siena,” Christian Classics Ethereal Library (Christian Classics Ethereal Library), accessed December 4, 2021, https://ccel.org/ccel/catherine/dialog, 24.

[6] Catherine of Siena, “Dialog of Catherine of Siena,” Christian Classics Ethereal Library (Christian Classics Ethereal Library), accessed December 4, 2021, https://ccel.org/ccel/catherine/dialog, 77.

[7] Ibid,.

[8] Romans 8:22

[9] Catherine of Siena, “Dialog of Catherine of Siena,” Christian Classics Ethereal Library (Christian Classics Ethereal Library), accessed December 4, 2021, https://ccel.org/ccel/catherine/dialog, 77.

[10] Ibid,.

[11] Catherine of Siena, “Dialog of Catherine of Siena,” Christian Classics Ethereal Library (Christian Classics Ethereal Library), accessed December 4, 2021, https://ccel.org/ccel/catherine/dialog, 77.

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