By Bruce Epperly
Be not conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind so that you may discern what is the will of God -- what is good and acceptable and perfect. ~ Romans 12:2
The identification of faith or positive thinking with success has been at the heart of the prosperity and health and wealth gospel movements among Pentecostal Christians. The prosperity gospel asserts that God wants believers to be healthy and wealthy in mind, body, and spirit. Prosperity results from our faith -- our willingness to believe, receive, and act upon God's promises of material and physical success. Alongside the Pentecostal prosperity gospel is the new thought or new age affirmation that people can create their own realities by visualization and positive thinking. Most recently, the best-selling new thought text, The Secret, affirmed that prosperity is solely the result of positive imaging and affirmative spirituality. If you get your thoughts right or have enough faith, these respective systems suggest that you will find wealth, health, and happiness.
While there is much to affirm about the relationship of positive thinking, visualization, and heart-felt faith with physical, mental, relational, and spiritual well-being, I believe there are serious problems with both the new age/new thought and Pentecostal understandings of spirituality and prosperity. First, both are highly linear in approach: they assert that right thought or faith alone matters. If you have faith, you will succeed; if you don't, you will fail in every aspect of your life. Positive thinking ensures success; while negativity leads to disease and failure. Accordingly, both approaches neglect the relational and social nature of life. They believe that regardless of our environment, economic situation, physical condition, mental health, or family of origin, we will succeed if we only have enough faith or affirmative consciousness.
Second, both the prosperity gospel and new age optimism are highly individualistic: we succeed entirely as a result of our own faith or positive thinking and don't need the support of others; nor is it necessarily appropriate to interfere, especially in some new age versions, with the negativity that others experience. This viewpoint obviously has political and social consequences: there is a reason people are poor, and that reason is lack of faith or negative thinking. A less sophisticated understanding of poverty identifies the poor as lazy.
Third, both systems blame the victim for her or his failure: you don't get well because you lack faith or failure to plant a seed by a sufficient offering or because you harbor negative thoughts. Over the years, I have heard certain Christians lament, "if I only had enough faith, my child would get well." I have heard similar language for new thought/new age spiritual guides: your child is sick because of your negativity, or you are not recovering from cancer as a result of negative thinking. More than that, the authors of The Secret as well as new age luminary Louise Hay, clearly state that trauma, abuse, and accident are brought on by our negativity and that we choose to attract certain events in our lives.
Finally, most prosperity consciousness and new age positive thinking has little interest in social transformation or issues of justice. For example, there is no mention of justice or social concern in The Secret. In many ways, both perpetuate the rugged individualism and pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps philosophy that has encouraged success, but also doomed others to failure and judgment.
I believe that Christians are called to affirm a new and more compassionate kind of prosperity gospel, one that affirms the life-transforming power of the faith and positive affirmations, but sees our affirmative faith in the context of many factors, including environment, economics, relationships, opportunity, etc. In contrast to linear causation, I assert that our well-being and suffering are the result of many interdependent factors, including God's lively vision for us and the impact of the social structure, and not just our own positive thinking, will, or faith. From a pastoral perspective, this is essential: we are not fully responsible for our success, ability to have faith, or current health condition. This encourages both gratitude for the web of relationships that supports our success as well as appropriate responsibility for our failures. The mind or faith are not omnipotent but always relational and contextual, and to some degree limited in power.