Philippians 4:13 (I can do all things through Him who strengthens me) is used ad nauseam to invoke everything from winning a football game to dealing with crowds of shoppers on Black Friday to baking the perfectly risen soufflé. While God permits us to do every good work (because all good things come from God), this verse is not about being empowered to accomplish what we desire. This verse encourages us to be content in all things despite the circumstances―for example, being shipwrecked, beaten with rods and stones, or thrown into jail for the sake of the Gospel.
To add to the confusion, this verse is often followed by a self-empowered and self-glorifying ‘inspirational’ message such as the ones below:
While there are many ideologies that give rise to this manner of unbiblical thinking, two stand out as having affected the modern church concerning positive thinking and attitude―New Thought and the Human Potential Movement. I will only give a brief overview of each; however, I will include links below the article for further research.
New Thought and Positive Thinking
New Thought has a long history; however, it picked up momentum in the 1800s. This ideology promotes an ‘Infinite Intelligence’ and a divine thought force that can be used for healing. This view claims our mental states manifest our daily living. New Thought can be found in books and the teachings of Chicken Soup for the Soul, The Secret, Oprah Winfrey, Creative Visualization (and Vision Boards), Napoleon Hill, Charles Capps, Kenneth Hagin, Paul Yonggi Cho, Kenneth Copeland, and Joyce Meyer.
Got Questions gives a brief history of New Thought and the Word of Faith Movement:
The Word of Faith movement grew out of the Pentecostal movement in the late 20th century. Its founder was E. W. Kenyon, who studied the metaphysical New Thought teachings of Phineas Quimby. Mind science (where “name it and claim it” originated) was combined with Pentecostalism, resulting in a peculiar mix of orthodox Christianity and mysticism. Kenneth Hagin, in turn, studied under E. W. Kenyon and made the Word of Faith movement what it is today. Although individual teachings range from completely heretical to completely ridiculous, what follows is the basic theology most Word of Faith teachers align themselves with.”
Examples of New Thought in the Word of Faith Movement are Joyce Meyer, who says, “You cannot have a positive, exciting life and a negative mind”, and Joel Osteen, who says, “Start believing today that things are going to change for the better. Your best days are still out in front of you.”
Also popular in Christian circles is author Norman Vincent Peale. His most successful book is The Power of Positive Thinking, which stayed on The New York Times’ list of bestsellers for 186 consecutive weeks and sold 5 million copies, making it one of the best-selling ‘religious’ books of all time. This book is a blend of Christian Science, biblical twists, and psychology that teaches that you can have peace of mind, improved health, and that your life can be full of joy and satisfaction through the power of positive thinking.
This is a telling conversation with Peale, as reported by author Walter Martin:
I will never forget my teacher, Dr. Donald Gray Barnhouse, told me of a luncheon he had with Norman Vincent Peale, who was then riding the crest of the wave on the power of positive thinking. Dr. Barnhouse chatted with him for a few minutes, and Dr. Peale said, “I would like a candid answer, Dr. Barnhouse. I know you will give me one. What do you really think of what I’ve written on the power of positive thought?”
Dr. Barnhouse said, “Well, I can only tell you what a great many clergy-men have said to me.”
“And what is that?” asked Dr. Peale.
Barnhouse replied, “Paul is appealing, but Peale is appalling.”
Dr. Peale just stopped in the middle of his soup and asked, “What?”
“You have forgotten the most important thing,” Barnhouse continued, “Before anyone can think positively, they must think negatively.”
“What do you mean?” asked Peale.
“Look”, said Barnhouse, “I am a sinner–negative or positive?”
“Negative,” said Peale.
“I am a lost sinner–negative or positive?”
“I am going to eternal judgement–negative or positive?”
“Negative,” Peale repeated for the third time.
Barnhouse said, “Here are three negative propositions without which you cannot think positively. ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved’ (Acts 16:31). But if you do not think the first three, you will never get to the fourth.”
“I never thought of it that way before,” Peale replied.
Dr. Barnhouse said, “You must write a new book: The Power of Negative Thinking!
“I couldn’t do that–it would ruin me!” said Peale.
“Get out the truth,” replied Dr. Barnhouse, “and the Lord will take care of it.”
Peale never wrote the book, but he was told what he should do. The truth of the matter is this: whatever the cost, tell the truth. Speak the truth in love, but for the sake of Christ, we must speak it.”*
Shocking and sad―not just for Peale, but for the millions he has deceived.
The Human Potential Movement
This philosophy arose in the 1960s and teaches that we have unlimited potential for happiness, creativity, and fulfillment. Proponents include Brian Klemmer, Forum (Landmark), Stephen Covey, and Anthony Robbins. Popular in Christian circles is author, speaker, and former pastor John C. Maxwell who often misuses Scripture and endorses New Age teachings despite his vast amount of seminary training. His quotes include:
“The greatest day in your life and mine is when we take total responsibility for our attitudes. That’s the day we truly grow up.”
“As a leader, the first person I need to lead is me. The first person that I should try to change is me.”
Terri Savelle Foy is another teacher who promotes human potential disguised in biblical language and misused scriptures. Her purpose is to “teach people how to make their dreams bigger than their memories and fulfill God’s assignment on their lives”. Her quotes include:
“You have to become your own best cheerleader & remember: the secret of your future is hidden in your daily ROUTINE.”
“Do not die with your potential untapped because of something that happened in the past.”
“If you’ll change what you’re SAYING ~ you’ll change what you’re SEEING! (James 3:9)”
She also promotes the use of a vision board to manifest dreams and desires.
Sadly, many women asked Foy about using vision boards, hoping to learn the magical formula to creating the ideal life.
Speculations and Lofty Opinions
2 Corinthians 10:5 tells us to destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and to take every thought captive to obey Christ. We must do that with these teachings from men, which elevate man and make him sovereign and providential instead of God. At best, these teachings promote faith in one’s ability, and at worst, they practice occult teachings. Everything we need to know has been revealed in Scripture; we should not seek out these secret things taught by men. Secrecy is not part of the Christian faith, as Jesus taught in the open (John 18:20).
We are not commanded to ‘fulfill our potential’, we are called to be holy (1 Peter 1:16). Besides, how would we know what our potential is? Are we the Alpha and Omega who sees all things from beginning to end and Who is able to bring everything together for His purposes? Those are large, sovereign shoes to fill! Is suffering (which is beneficial) or persecution (part of the Christian life) on our vision boards? If we were in charge of our potential, I doubt if the spreading of the Gospel or the glory of God would benefit at all!
Assuming that our wicked and deceitful hearts knew what was best for us, we would not need vision boards, positive thinking, or other methodologies to bring about successful living. It is God alone who fulfills our ‘potential’ (Philippians 1:6). As Proverbs 16:9 states, “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” God doesn’t need our help to make anything happen. Tragically, many have forgotten that God alone has complete control, authority, and power:
- Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? (Lamentations 3:37)
- Our God is in the heavens; He does all that he pleases. (Psalm 115:3)
- The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord. (Proverbs 16:33)
- Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand. (Proverbs 19:21)
While I do see value in setting and achieving goals, I sometimes wonder whose goals are being sought. Are we striving for what the world or the flesh tells us to desire? I have a sense that these vision boards would rival Dream Barbie’s lifestyle as opposed to that of Jesus Christ’s.
Instead of striving for worldly success:
Strive for obedience and righteousness:
Friends, search the Scriptures to see if what I say is true. I pray that you will place your faith in your Creator and the Sustainer of life and stay clear of vision boards and the ‘power’ of positive thinking. I would like to leave you with a teaching on biblical thinking in hopes that we might loosen the hold of the world and the teachings of men. May it help us to strive for what is biblical and righteous, such as remaining faithful to biblical convictions, rendering love to others, and cherishing the effects of adversity, all for the glory of God alone.
Soli Deo Gloria,
* Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Occult (Nashville,TN: Jill Martin Rische, 2008), 665-666
New Thought–A Warning for Christians
The Human Potential Movement and Motivational Seminars
The Pagan Mind Techniques of Paul Yonggi Cho
Norman Vincent Peale