Optimism Is Depressing
'The Secret' and the prosperity gospel teach that what you think is what you get. But that message is unhelpful and untrue.
BY: Patton Dodd
Long before "The Secret" had readers talking about how we attract good or bad things to ourselves according to how we think, I was a young convert to Christianity who believed that the message of Jesus was, well, that we attract good or bad things to ourselves according to how we think.
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 toCreflo 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. NoteEd Gungor
, who says that the main problem with "The Secret" is that it doesn't tell people about Jesus. Note Bishop Bernard Jordan, whotells 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!