A major feature of the Word of Faith movement, and/or the Health and Wealth Gospel, is the emphasis on positive confession. It is a kind of mind-over-matter approach which says that one can command sickness, poverty or almost any other hardship to be gone. The message is this: health, wealth and prosperity are there for the taking, and it is only our lack of belief or negative confession that prevents us from enjoying the blessings. “What I confess, I possess” is a popular catchword often heard.
There are a number of biblical and theological problems with such teachings which I have discussed elsewhere. See for example:
In addition to theological issues, one can also make a sociological assessment of positive confession. That is, how much of the positive confession message is really just a reflection of the “American dream”, of the desire to better oneself and one’s condition? While there is nothing necessarily wrong with wanting to improve one’s lot, much of this gospel can be a masquerade for greed and selfishness.
Such is the cultural climate that we live in that many Westerners want only to hear positive, uplifting and encouraging words. Gloom and doom messages don’t go down well in such a climate. As Quentin Schultze puts it, “America has strongly triumphalistic sensibilities, and televangelists are no exception. Hopeful, joyful, and optimistically prophetic words sell far better than depressing or despairing ones. Even when reporting a moral crisis or social calamity, televangelists offer a solution. Successful TV ministries testify to the American Dream and enjoin viewers to follow and believe it also.”
And at least one former successful televangelist has admitted as much. Former Praise The Lord Club leader Jimmy Bakker remarks several times in his autobiography I Was Wrong about how he would only invite guests to appear on his television show who shared positive and upbeat testimonies. Stories of victory and overcoming were staple fare, while negative and depressing stories were excluded: “I went so far as to refuse to have guests on our PTL television programs whose problems did not have a happy ending. Our programming took on a ‘Pollyanna’ tone, leaving people with the unrealistic impression that Christians did not have to struggle, or at least they lived ‘happily ever after’ if they did encounter troubles.”
He goes on to say that “much of what I had been teaching at PTL had given the impression that unless Christians were extremely successful, they were living a second-class spiritual life. It crushed me as I realized that millions of people might be feeling that God does not love them because they have not been able to attain a happy-go-lucky, pain-free existence.”
David Wells notes that this attitude characterises much of modern evangelicalism. “The wisdom common to many of our marketers is that, if it wants to attract customers, the Church should stick to a positive and uplifting message. It should avoid speaking of negative matters like sin.”
Or as Douglas Webster says “I wonder whether our quest for relevance needs to be in greater tension with faithfulness. Perhaps our preaching of the gospel has become too smooth, too predictable. We have tried so hard to package it for easy consumption that it no longer sounds like Jesus. We have become so practical that we no longer have anything to practice.”
And as Schultze points out, there is good reason for putting on such a positive face. The success of a televangelism ministry especially depends on funds raised by the audience. What better way to keep the funds rolling in than to give the audience what they want to hear? Televangelists “are ultimately dependent on their audiences, particularly their financial supporters, for their own future. They cannot simply preach what people ought to hear, but must preach what people desire to hear. Superstitious and largely ignorant of the faith, millions of Americans are easily persuaded to believe many things that they want to believe and to hope for things that are obviously ‘American’.”
Or as Bakker has said elsewhere: “By and large, most of the church in the United States does not want to hear an apocalyptic message. It wants a message of health and wealth, hope, healing, and financial prosperity mixed with a measure of blathering psychobabble focused on getting our needs met. Rarely does anyone talk about sacrifice, repentance of sin, or our failure to be what God has called us to be. When, for example, was the last time you heard a message on the cost of discipleship? When was the last time you heard someone preach on the judgment of God or the horrors of hell? How often have you heard a message encouraging Christians to bear one another’s burdens? No, we simply want to be happy Christians. Seeds of the prosperity gospel I planted years ago have now borne fruit … and the fruit is poisonous”.
The psychology of all this is straight-forward enough: everyone wants to be popular. We all want to be liked and well-received. No one wants to be the bearer of bad news. Going around all day bearing bad tidings is not the way to win friends and influence people. Indeed, given how much of the message of the prophets involved warnings of impending doom, of coming judgment, no wonder that the only popular prophets in the Old Testament were the false prophets.
In the light of this, one has to ask if some of the positive confessionists do not display some of the hallmarks of a false prophet. By telling people what they want to hear instead of telling people what they need to hear, some of these teachers are at best giving us only part of the gospel message.
Now it is good to be encouraging, uplifting and edifying. We are told in many places in Scripture to be and do just that. However, one is reminded of Paul’s words to the elders of Ephesus: “For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God” (Acts 20:27). Or as the KJV has it, “For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God”. Is the whole counsel of God being proclaimed if we only give good news, upbeat testimonies and words of encouragement?
What about Paul’s instructions found in 2 Tim 4:2: “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction”? We should certainly encourage when encouragement is due. We should always build up when necessary. But we should also rebuke, reprove, warn, challenge, and judge when needed as well. In the attempt to stress positive confession, and banish negative confession from the lips of believers, it is possible we are not hearing the whole counsel of God.
Positive confession may well be an expression of a healthy faith. It may well offer needed correctives to a defeatist and faithless church. However, it may also incorporate somewhat less spiritual motivations. It may also involve baser elements of the human personality.
The truth is, a life of health, wealth and happiness is nowhere guaranteed in Scripture for believers. Those who promise such a life are mistaken. Again, Jesus is our prime example. As the suffering servant, He is our model. We too should expect a life of hardship, difficulty and suffering. The servant is not above his master. No matter how much faith we have and no matter how spirit-filled we might be, suffering will be our lot.
As MacArthur puts it, “Our Lord Jesus Christ, in His own suffering and death, is an unequalled example of the reality that one can be completely in the will of God, supremely gifted and used by God in ministry, and perfectly righteous and obedient toward God, and still undergo tremendous suffering.”
Moreover, one needs to guard against confusing faith with making claims on God. One man’s faith is another man’s presumption. God is not to be told what to do, but is to be submitted to in fear and reverence. Yes, faith pleases God and opens doors. But in the end, what matters is not our great faith, but our faith in a great God. Ultimately, we have to say it is not our faith that heals us or saves us or prospers us. It is God’s sovereign and unmerited love and grace that is responsible for all this.