The Positivity Gospel

It is common on social media for Christians to proclaim that God is going to do something positive for a person. Usually he will help a believer succeed, overcome personal challenges, shame naysayers or bless them in some shape or form. Of course these type of messages are not limited to the digital pulpit. Sunday morning sermons are filled with such talk. This positivity gospel is not limited to the African context. It is a common message with popular international televangelists particular those from America. It has even seeped into pop culture with slogans like “god is love” and “only god can judge me.” People get motivated and uplifted by it but the trouble is the sort of “inspiration” has nothing to do with the God of the Bible.

I understand that people say such things with genuinely sincere hearts, plus it makes you feel good. Also it does have a firm theological presupposition that God is actually good. However, do we have the authority to say what God is doing or going to do? The positivity gospel makes specific statements about God’s present and future activity. For example there are New Year messages like “this year God is going to take you to the next level” and for those a bit more pious they will add “if only you trust in him.” However, has God actually said those things? These are very specific statements and unless we have a solid basis for saying them, we may be found misrepresenting God. Ironically, in the local charismatic context, we are quick to bemoan the epidemic of false prophets. However, how are we any different from them if we say what God has not said? Just because we may do it with noble intent does not mean it is any truer than those who do the same with mischief at heart. They are both falsehoods and accordingly have the potential to cause harm if they are acted on. Perhaps with false prophets the damage they cause is more apparent but a happy lie can be an insidious evil in its own right.

If we take God’s authority seriously, and that authority is invested in his word, we should be very careful about what we say in his name. We know the scriptures are God’s word and it is authoritative so why do we not stick to them? Why do we not say what is written and not presume the particulars. It is not that God cannot do all those wonderful things but making specific declarations about what the only sovereign’s intentions are is just presumptuous. I am a firm believer in prophecy, that God moves people to speak and act his will both knowingly and unknowingly. Yet the difference is that it is a God initiated and executed act from start to finish using human agency. He is authoritatively acting through a representative. That is inspiration in the biblical and not the motivational, feel-good sense. If it is God who has indeed spoken, when we imbibe the living word, the Lord himself is actively at work in us and with us. Ironically, by being so preoccupied with what we want God to do, we might not recognize what he wants to do. So instead of declaring a “year of divine uplifting” why do we not simply testify as the scriptures do that he is good and faithful, year in and year out, whether things go well or not?

When we read in the scriptures a person blessing the people of God it is not without precedence. It is firmly based on faithfulness to the covenant promises. He blesses them because God has blessed them. It was not a narcissistic exercise in well wishing. It was not about them imagining what was good for them and claiming it for themselves. It was about their creator who knows what is best for them, providing what is truly good for them. Of course we can recognize good things without appealing to special revelation but with the positivity gospel goodness is limited to only what we can imagine. Surely our Lord and Maker has better plans for ourselves than we could ever imagine? To presume since it is a good thing and God wants my good, it is therefore what God is saying is wrong. Like in the story of Joseph and countless other times in scripture, our idea of good is not always the same as God’s. When we repeat this way of thinking mindlessly, we become captive to our own imaginations. We just cannot see beyond our ideas of the way things should happen.

Apart from the positivity message being presumptuous and narrow minded, as I have already mentioned, it ignores scripture. I began my argument against it with the question of who has the right to speak on God’s behalf. The Bible is a historical record of God’s activity, providing a standard. In it his actions, character and intent are properly established. On account of those type of attributes, scripture is an authoritative witness of the divine. We therefore cannot gloss over what he has said and claim we are speaking for him. Even with contemporary prophecy, scripture serves as the framework for making sense of it. Since God has shown himself faithful, he cannot say something in the present that is not in concert with what he has said in the past. As benign as we might think these type of statements are, ignoring God’s authoritative word is a serious thing.

Apart from the presumption of speaking on God’s behalf, there is the unexamined belief of the positivity Gospel that God supports everything I do. It is true that the Lord is always with his people but it certainly does not mean he approves of whatever they do. When we make blanket statements like “God will prosper whatever you do” we tacitly assume whatever we want is justified. It’s as if God is simply out to fulfil our agenda, never mind his. Never mind examining whether our motives are just before him and in keeping with his agenda. Just like what inattentiveness to scripture demonstrates, it shows a strong commitment to our pursuits instead of God’s. So when it comes to a lot of these positivity messages responsibility is greatly lop sided, where all the demands are made of God and we carefully sidestep the demands he makes of us. I have already said the way to scripturally encourage someone is in reference to his covenant faithfulness. A covenant implies that there are obligations both parties must fulfil. This is not to say God will only be nice to you if you are nice to him. The cross of Christ firmly denies that. What it does mean is that you should show your gratitude for the one who has given you abundant unmerited favours by being faithfully obedient to him. The appropriate response to God’s enduring goodness in scripture was loyalty.

The final presumption of the positivity gospel I want to address it that our personal success and fulfilment seem is highest good God could offer which we are unreservedly entitled to. This assumption naturally flows from the idea God is my number one fanboy. This highly individualised and self-aggrandising view of human purpose is very deceptive on several fronts. It locates our worth within, depending on what we believe and accomplish. That means our value is in serious jeopardy when things don’t go our way. Life is often difficult, extremely more so for some. With that level of self-interest meeting the harsh reality, your sense of personal worth is constantly under assault. Now the biblical worldview does not romanticise reality. Every time cannot be happy time. It in fact makes you starkly aware of how bad things are but also of how good God is. Both of these things have to be recognised. We should not only hear encouragement but also rebuke, praise as well as lament. The scriptures acknowledge the full spectrum of the human experience and promises a faithful creator who upholds his people through it and not apart from it. As believers in scripture we should acknowledge the same.

So instead of presuming to speak for him with mere positivity, we should learn scripture’s language of blessing. Mind you the word is blessing, in the fully biblical sense, and not positivity. He told Abraham, in you all the families of the earth will be blessed. It was more than an optimistic outlook on life. It is revealed in scripture that God’s good plan is not centred on individuals but a grand cosmic vision of renewal which we are all called to participate in. It is about human flourishing to the glory of God for the entire creation to see and rejoice in. However if we are going to speak faithfully in service of this agenda it means we cannot be presumptuous, no matter how insignificant or well-intentioned our words are.

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