Recently, I was in a business meeting in which I represented the organization I work for in a collaborative project with other organizations. The collaborative involved a grant application and therefore was contingent upon receiving those funds to be implemented. While we were putting the application together, at times others involved would assert positive declarations about receiving the funds under the premise that this would happen if we just declare it…in Jesus name.
These folks were acting on a strain of teaching that has infiltrated evangelicalism, that is positive declarations are needed to make circumstances happen. In Positively Powerless, Laura Martin, DTS grad, addresses the foundation and fallacy of this teaching as it contradicts the premise of Christianity. She sketches the historical development, which is built on the Positive Thinking movement that considers the mind a force in which we can “will” events in our favor. She notes this is not found in Scripture but rather has its foundation in Eastern Mysticism (I would have loved to see this built out a little more).
She then provides a snapshot of what Scripture does provide regarding the reality of sin and how that has impacted us. More importantly, Christianity is not built on positive declarations but rather submission to the lordship of Christ. In Jesus’ upside down kingdom paradigm, “success” from a kingdom perspective will sometimes result in our lives not looking successful or at least as the world sees it. We will see complete reversal of the Fall’s effect in the new heavens and new earth, but not entirely now. I love that she brings up Joni Erickson Tada because she is a prime example of what successful Christianity looks like from a Christian perspective, which does not jive with the proclaimers of positive thinking.
The chapter entitled A Christian View of Self is particularly noteworthy. Fueled by the the prominence of self-esteem that took root in Christian teaching in the 20th century, positive thinking places an emphasis on the power of self to create reality in contrast to the emphasis on Christ. She concludes, “When the church came under the power of this movement it had the significant consequence of distracting us from Christ, shifting our priorities, and creating a different gospel entirely.” Indeed, this movement has created a great distraction and emphasizing the wrong things!
Overall, I thought the right ingredients were there to address why this teaching is problematic and how it deviates from the Scriptural witness of the Christian faith. But I did have some frustrations with the book, which will get to the title of this blog post. Please know these frustrations are not rooted in a desire to be critical but because I think the topic she addresses is so critical. Otherwise, I would just say it’s a nice book and move on.
I spent many years under teaching that easily adopted this paradigm, which to me is a subset of prosperity teaching that has reached its tentacles far and wide. It’s important to understand that folks who believe this teaching typically are reading their Bibles and would most likely agree with many of the statements and chapters in this book.
So that leads to my overall impression that I thought the book to be a bit under-developed. Again, I think the foundation is there but there just needed to be more. In many places I was writing in the margins, “explain this further” “build this out” “break this down” and so forth. I would have loved to see original quotes in the historical section. But more importantly, and because this teaching has gained so much attraction in contemporary times, I think it’s crucial to actually interact with what folks who espouse this teaching and provide statement from them, especially how they are using Scripture to justify the position. For instance, in a section entitled We Become What We Think We Are, Laura notes how Rhonda Byrne, author of The Secret misuses Matthew 21:22 but offers no discussion on how this is so. Show us how interpretations are faulty and going against the grain of Christian faith and practice. These types of examples are really important to show how Scripture is misread to support this paradigm. There was also a few generic references to what I can only assume to be Joel Osteen’s The Power of I Am. I think it does a disservice to the topic to not interact with what he says especially when you consider how many of his books are flying off the bookshelves.
Another quibble and perhaps minor, is that Laura disconnected this positive thought paradigm from prosperity teaching. But it is really all rolled up in one. This really became evident to me while reading the chapter on the “already-but-not-yet” reality of living in a fallen world. This chapter issued a direct challenge to the prosperity teaching fallacy. As I wrote about here, I think a misconception of prosperity teaching is that it is only about lining our pockets. No, at the core of prosperity teaching is believing that our acceptance of God and his favor is demonstrated in the positive outcomes in our lives such as job promotions, material possessions, and overall “winning” circumstances or at least what society would define as winning. Positive declaration is a tool to make this happen.
And that leads to my last frustration, which is actually what I think is a key missing component. Again, I say this as one who was immersed in the teaching and embraced it. I know the mindset and argument. One concept that repeatedly comes up whenever I challenge people who believe that faith in their positive words are the key to successful Christianity is simply this: God gives us the ability to take authority over our circumstances, including our words of positive declaration. In other words, there is power in the words themselves just like God’s and God gives us this right. No, of course this is not how the faith of the Bible works and we do not possess the same power as God to create reality. Laura alludes to this in places with respect to living a Christ-centered life and giving God all the glory but this concept really needs a robust treatment, as in it’s own chapter.
As Laura rightly notes early in the book, the forgotten movement that wormed its way into Christianity has produced a “faith in our ability” concept, not the rest and assurance we are to have in Christ. Our faith is not contingent upon our positive declarations but on what God declared through the Son. Living a life with him as Lord will often bring hardships, disappointments and things that don’t look so positive. But God is at work through it all. We have to look to him, not ourselves.
I really do hope that Laura considers developing this book out some more. It’s such a needed topic and she has laid such a good foundation in addressing it. But in the meantime, it is a really useful tool for discussion, especially with those who are attracted to this teaching. There are some good discussion questions at the end of each chapter that a facilitator well versed in positive thinking theology and the prosperity gospel paradigm and having a good foundation of Scripture can navigate.