By Mike Willis
Having given in my last article a brief overview of the historical development of the positive thinking philosophy, I want to call attention to some of the main doctrinal affirmations which have become popular as a result of the movement.
In case some might misunderstand me, I hasten to add that opposition to the positive thinking philosophy is not an affirmation of pessimistic thinking. Each of us needs to have as positive an outlook on life as reality will allow. However, there are certain doctrines of the positive thinking philosophy which need to be assessed. Let us consider some of them:
1. The deification of man. None of the movements that paved the way for the positive thinking philosophy directly affirm the deity of man. Nevertheless, affirmations are made which lead to that necessary conclusion.
Anything you can imagine, visualize, and develop a sincere desire for can be yours if you plan for it and work for it through a program of goal setting (Paul Meyer, Dynamics of Goal Setting, Lesson 2, p. 1).
You can make just about anything of your life – anything you will believe or will visualize, anything you will pray for and work for. Look deeply into your mind. Amazing wonders are there (Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking, p. 176).
. . . God is willing to give you everything you ask for, if you but believe (Peale, You Can If You Think You Can, p. 12).
As I meditated on this, a thought came crystal clear, Whatever you can conceive, and believe, you can do! (Oral Roberts, Miracle of Seed Faith, p. 7)
In order for these statements to be true, man would have to be deity, for only deity can accomplish everything he imagines. That these are over-statements at best and outright deceptions at worst should be obvious. There are definite limitations on man. He is finite, not infinite; he is not omnipotent, omniscient, or omnipresent. Consequently, there are things which no human being can achieve, though he believes that he can achieve them. The account of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11 is conclusive on that point!
Teaching this dogma deceives men and leads him into despair. A man who believes he can accomplish something but is unable to achieve it will conclude that the problem is his lack of faith. The Scriptures teach that “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all” (Eccl. 9:11). Circumstances beyond human control contribute to whether or not men achieve their goals. A young couple who gives birth to a deformed baby should not attribute the deformity to lack of faith. Though they believed they would have a healthy baby, prayed about it, and visualized a healthy baby, sometimes a baby is born without an arm or leg. Experience, as well as the Scriptures, demonstrates the limitations of man.
2. Faith in mind power or “faith,” instead of faith in God. The positive thinking movement teaches faith in “faith” rather than faith in God. Some refer to mind power being released; others speak of the miracle of seed-faith. In either case, the power to accomplish begins in the human mind with unlimited potential.
When people begin to think that they can control what God does for them by prayer or faith, they have slipped into pagan concepts of God. In magic, men manipulate a higher power to obtain things for themselves. Those who promise success to those who believe teach that by believing one can bring God (or some other kind of power) under obligation to provide health, wealth and success. Do you want a raise in pay at the factory, desire a higher paying job, or wish your restaurant sold more food? Believe you can have it, pray, visualize, and receive it. “God answers prayer” ends up meaning “God is at man’s beck and call!”
Anthony Campolo, Jr., author of The Success Fantasy, wrote,
Will Herberg, a contemporary Jewish social philosopher, claims that Americans have “faith in faith.” They think believing in God assures them of economic prosperity and personal achievement. He may be right. But this kind of “faith” makes God a means to our own personal ends and declares that He is there to help us achieve things which society tells us are important.
The eternal God does not exist to serve our ends. He is not an instrument for the fulfillment of our wishes. We exist to serve Him. We are called to be instruments of His will.
Many sociologists differentiate religion from magic by pointing out that in religion people submit themselves to the will of a higher power; in magic, people try to manipulate a higher power to get things for themselves. Many people who think they have true religion transform the Christian faith into a primitive form of magic, treating God as though He were the genie of the magic Imp. Prayer becomes a litany for manipulating God into delivering what the petitioners want. Jesus’ name becomes a magical incantation that must be blasphemously uttered at the end of the prayer if God is to deliver the desired results (The Success Fantasy, pp. 137-138).
3. Eliminate the negative. Even as positive thoughts have power to create, negative thoughts have power to destroy. Hence, according to positive thinking, success depends upon eliminating the destructive power of negative thinking and replacing it with the power of positive thinking.
It is important to eliminate from conversations all negative ideas . . . . Never use a negative thought in prayer. Only positive thoughts get results . . . . Suffice it to say that we manufacture our unhappiness by thinking unhappy thoughts, by the attitudes which we habitually take, such as the negative feeling that everything is going to turn out badly, or that other people are getting what they do not deserve and we are failing to get what we do deserve (Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking, pp. 33, 65, 69).
It was at this moment that I might be able to show him he had sowed seeds of doubt that brought him a harvest of needs, and more needs . . . . With faith you do something first and thereby make your faith an act and release it toward God . . . . On the other hand, doubt is just as real, in a negative way, as faith. Doubt (or unbelief) is the REVERSED FORM of faith. . . . In this negative spirit, you block the flow of God’s intervention in your behalf to turn the tide (Oral Roberts, Miracle of Seed-Faith, pp. 145-148).
As positive thinking has been applied to preaching, the result has been that preachers only preach what is positive. Preaching that condemns others creates a negative impression toward the church and should be eliminated. A “I’m O.K. – You’re O.K. ” disposition arose toward every religion and sin virtually passed from the vocabulary of the preacher. Instead of the preacher being a prophet who called man’s attention to his sins with a message of repentance, the preacher began delivering messages which made a person feel warm inside. Robert Schuller defined sin as “lack of self-esteem” (Self-Esteem: The New Reformation, p. 98); consequently, his preaching was designed to build man’s self-esteem, feeling of self-worth. Anything which attacked the man as a sinner condemned in the sight of God damaged his self-esteem and should be eliminated. Preaching had to address the “human needs” of the non-Christian – to meet his deepest emotional needs.
One needs only to listen to radio and television evangelists or visit any religious bookstore to perceive the influence of positive thinking on preaching. Preaching has turned from theology to psychology. Many seminaries now have a larger staff for pastoral counseling than for biblical studies. Man is more interested in “practical” preaching than “doctrinal” preaching. Preachers rarely preach a “hell-fire-and-brimstone” sermon (indeed, some have renounced belief in hell and others who believe in it do not want to alienate those who might be listening). In the mainline Protestant denominations, any doctrinal belief is accepted, welcomed, or tolerated; only those who are so “narrow-minded” and “bigoted” as to assume “their little group is the only one going to be saved” are openly condemned. Intolerance of other religions and lifestyles is the ultimate – if not the only – heresy in the minds of most social commentators and even some preachers! Positive thinking has eaten the doctrinal heart out of the mainline Protestant denominations and all that is left is a denomination with no specific doctrinal beliefs. Many remain historically tied to their denomination but have no doctrinal ties to it.
4. A gospel of wealth. Men have been taught by the positive thinking philosophy that faith in God and adherence to His word will deliver wealth, power, and status – social success. Gordon D. Fee, author of The Disease of the Health and Wealth Gospel, described this affirmation like this:
God wills the (financial) prosperity of every one of his children, and therefore for a Christian to be in poverty is to be outside of God’s intended will; it is to be living a Satan-defeated life. And usually tucked away in this affirmation is a second: Because we are God’s children, the King’s kids, as some like to put it, we should always go first class – we should have the biggest and best, a Cadillac instead of a Volkswagen, because this alone brings glory to God (The Disease of the Health and Wealth Gospels, p. 3).
While not explicitly saying what Fee has summarized, the television evangelists teach the same message when they bring celebrities to testify how the gospel changed their lives from abject failure to glowing success. They begin by describing the dismal level to which they had sunk – they lost their job, they were poor, they lived in a shack and drove a wreck. Then, they gave their lives to Jesus and since then things have changed. They now have a job paying twice what their former job paid, they have money in the bank, live in a mansion, and drive a Cadillac – because they had faith in Christ.
Another might “testify” that he sent in his donation as seed-faith and God blessed him materially. In Miracle of SeedFaith, Oral Roberts described how God sent his brother-in-law a job, arranged a loan for Oral, enabled two men to become Tulsa’s third-largest builders, etc. as they practiced the principle of seed-faith. Peale publishes many similar testimonials of success in Guideposts. The message of positive thinking is that if you have the proper faith in God, you will be living successfully. In The Success Fantasy, Anthony Campolo, Jr. wrote,
As a boy I remember attending testimony meetings at our church where Christians told how they were poor and beaten people until they accepted Christ as personal Savior and Lord. Then they would relate how, as a consequence of their new lives in Christ, they suddenly experienced prosperity. . . . Sermons from the pulpit, articles in magazines, and testimonies of successful Christian businessmen at luncheon meetings, all reinforce the creed that Jesus will prosper us if we just walk in His ways (The Success Fantasy, p. 11).
Many popular evangelists today seem to promise the world if one will accept Christ. . . . We hear mostly the positive, what one will get: health, success, self-fulfillment, and even wealth, especially if one supports that particular evangelist (George Marsden, “Secular Humanism Within the Church,” Christianity Today Institute [17 January 1986], p. 14).
a. one result of this teaching is that it has sanctified man’s spending upon himself. One is not viewed as a greedy, covetous sinner when he makes a display of his Cadillac, mansion, and diamonds; instead, these displays of wealth become a badge proving that one has faith in God. The Scriptures warn of the danger of wealth (1 Tim. 6:6-10; Deut. 6:10-12). The positive thinking philosophy has made wealth a proof of faith and poverty an evidence of an absence of faith.
b. This gospel makes life’s physical blessings dependent upon faith in Christ whereas Jesus said that life’s physical blessings come upon the just and unjust alike (Matt. 5:45). One of the most distressing things to God’s saint is the prosperity of the wicked (cf. Psa. 73), itself a proof that prosperity is not conditioned on faith in God. Some of God’s most faithful servants were destitute (cf. Heb. 11:32-39).
c. This gospel makes the theology of giving selfish. One gives (plants seed-faith) in order to receive. By giving to the Lord and the poor, one is assuring his own prosperity, producing profit-motivated giving. Jesus taught that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).
5. The gospel of good health. Another tenet of positive thinking is the belief that God blesses those who have faith in Him with good health. “God wills our perfect health” is a presupposition of many television evangelists. If one has enough faith in God, he will be healed by God through a miracle. Any failure to be healed is not the fault of God but of the one who lacks faith.
The Scriptures nowhere affirm that physical healing of the body is part of the atonement of Jesus Christ. Indeed, faithful saints of God suffered physically (cf. Job, Jesus). The Scriptures do not attribute suffering from heart attack or cancer to a lack of faith in God, nor should anyone teach a gospel which drives a man to this conclusion.
This brief summary of some of the prominent concepts promoted by those associated with positive thinking should alarm us of its dangers as a philosophy which will destroy us spiritually. Although every positive thinker does not teach or believe every specific item mentioned, those generally associated with the positive thinking philosophy teach many of the same doctrines. Becoming aware of the danger of these influences may help us avoid being taken captive by the positive thinking philosophy.
Guardian of Truth XXXI: 8, pp. 226, 246-247
April 16, 1987