It was 1994, I was a new Christian, I was tender of heart, and I was impressionable. At the Pentecostal university I attended, not everyone embraced what is known as "the prosperity gospel," but somehow I was drawn to people for whom prosperity teaching—the idea that God wants us healthy and wealthy—was part and parcel of the life of faith.
So, I carefully considered the counsel of a fellow student who told me that if I had faith, I'd never have another cold. I prayed alongside a fellow student who "claimed in faith" that God would provide him with a new Toyota 4x4. Passages like Mark 11:23-24, where Jesus says that anyone who has enough faith can cause a mountain to leap into the sea, began to haunt me as standard-bearers for whether I had faith at all.
And then I lost my faith. I'll not blame prosperity teaching alone for my years of pained spiritual searching. But it was a lie that was hard to shake. To this day, when I have a bad day or a great need, somewhere in my mind is a voice accusing me of not having enough faith.
That is the legacy of the prosperity gospel. It's a perversion of Christianity that encourages empty optimism and false faith. I hope it fizzles out before the end of my lifetime, but indications are that it will only grow.
The prosperity gospel goes by various names (Word-Faith, Word of Faith, and more) and many forms, from Joel Osteen's squishy "Just smile and receive happiness" approach to Creflo Dollar's direct name-it-and-claim-it approach to Bishop Bernard Jordan's "laws of thinking" approach. No matter its guise—and some practitioners, like Osteen, don't admit to being practitioners—Christian prosperity teaching emphasizes one or more of these doctrines:
- God wants to bless you with health and wealth;
- Health and wealth are a sign of God's favor;
- Having the right thoughts and professing the right beliefs are the keys to receiving God's blessings.
In other words, you gotta believe it to receive it. And in still other words, the opposite is true: if you confess the wrong beliefs or think the wrong thoughts, you can expect to get the wrong stuff. What you think and say is what you get.
As Kenneth Hagin, the father of the Word-Faith movement, put it: "Say it, do it, receive it, tell it." As Rhonda Byrne, author of "The Secret," puts it: "Ask. Believe. Receive."
Rhonda Byrne is not a Christian prosperity preacher. But her message is a close cousin of the beliefs of millions of Christians who are influenced by prosperity teaching. Note Ed Gungor, who says that the main problem with "The Secret" is that it doesn't tell people about Jesus. Note Bishop Bernard Jordan, who tells us he affirms Byrne's message, and whose book "The Laws of Thinking" is basically a longer, clunkier, Christian-y version of "The Secret."
Most of all, note the biggest movement happening in global Christianity: the rise of prosperity-oriented Pentecostalism in the southern Hemisphere, where, to be sure, the message that life can be better is a godsend for the impoverished. The current Christianity Today cover story observes this rise, showing how Christianity in Africa has been greatly influenced by the American prosperity gospel and reporting the results of a 2006 Pew Forum survey, where 80-96% of Africans surveyed (in three different African countries) said they believe God grants material wealth to people who have enough faith.
"The Secret" and its Christian cousins are not flash-in-the-pan cultural trends. In some quarters, the Power of Positive Thinking has all the authority of doctrine. "Be optimistic" is the new gospel, and God's core message to humankind is: Chin up!
But such a balanced viewpoint is fair to the whole of biblical witness in a way that prosperity teaching and the Gospel of Optimism almost never are. The idea that positive thinking always attracts good things to you runs smack up against the biblical witness, from (this could be a long list, but I'll keep it brief) Job to David to Isaiah's condemnation of a people who said "peace, peace, where there is no peace" to, most of all, the suffering of Jesus—which, I might note, he prayed to be spared of. (Did his prayer go unanswered because he was being too negative?)
The message of the Bible is not that there is power in positive thinking. The message of the Bible is that sometimes we have power, and sometimes we don't. Sometimes we have plenty, sometimes we have little. In both states, God is sovereign.
The Bible is not a guide to optimism. It is a guide to hope.
What's the difference? The philosopher Cornel West has marked it as well as anyone. West says that optimism is a belief that things will turn out as you want them to—we might say it is faith in the law of attraction. Optimism begins in the self—desire for what you want is the basis for belief and action. Hope is different—it's a conviction that something must be, because it is right and it is just, and you are prepared to fight for it regardless of the circumstances. Hope makes claims on you and pushes you beyond yourself.
Hope is neither optimistic nor pessimistic: it is realistic. With hope, you can acknowledge your current circumstances—Jesus suffering in anguish in the garden—you can want for something better—Let this cup pass from me—and still know that your life has meaning and value beyond your pain—Not my will but yours be done.
Optimism doesn't let you acknowledge what's wrong with your life; it encourages you to lie to yourself, and over the course of the years, to live in willful blindness to your real problems. Optimism tells you to be positive no matter the circumstances—which, if you can't keep it up, is a recipe for depression. Hope lets you be honest about the circumstances, and still urges you to look toward something better. The testimony of the Apostle Paul, Augustine, John Calvin, Flannery O'Connor, Dorothy Day, and many other Christian saints attests to the power of hope.
Hope is part of the longstanding tradition of the Christian faith because it allows you to admit the condition of your life, warts and all, and trust that God can recreate that condition. That's the story that we're invited to participate in: God is at work renewing all things. Some of his work is now, and some of it is eventual, but we're called to have hope and join in that work. That—as I learned in those years of spiritual searching—is what it means to believe. Faith is found not in getting your best life now, but in having hope.