Examining the Prosperity Gospel #4: The Redefinition of Faith

You just need to have enough faith. Boost your faith. Activate your faith. Release your faith so that you may release God to work in your life.

There’s a lot of talk about faith amongst prosperity preachers. While it may sound good and it may have the ring of authentic teaching because of the language that they use, there is a subtle shift in their definition of the word “faith.” This primarily takes place by viewing faith as a state of mind and an emphasis upon the power of faith—as if faith itself were an active force. Let us examine in general how Word of Faith teachers handle the topic of faith.

Faith as a State of Mind

While prosperity preachers do use faith properly in some contexts, in many others their definition has shifted. This ambiguity and equivocation often makes it difficult to determine the exact nature of what it is that prosperity teachers are referring to. 

Faith is often described simply as a state of mind. It is basically a positive mindset by which one believes and declares good things will come to pass. Joel Osteen writes, “You have to stir up your faith. God is not limited by your education, by your nationality, or by your background. But He is limited by your thinking.”[1] Get your thinking in the right spot and you will get your faith in the right spot. If your thinking is not right, God may not be able to work for you. This definition of faith is closely related to Positive Thinking as espoused by Norman Vincent Peale, who had assimilated New Thought ideas into his teachings: “So if you shift your mind from fear to faith you will stop creating the object of your fear and will, instead, actualize the object of your faith. Surround your mind with healthy thoughts, thoughts of faith, and not fear, and you will produce faith results instead of fear results.”[2] This becomes the working assumption for what faith is in the prosperity gospel.

The Power of Faith

Prosperity preachers often present faith as a power, such that by its very nature it causes things to come to pass and changes circumstances. It is the stuff that interacts with the spiritual realm and makes the spiritual act upon the physical; as Paula White states, “faith activates everything in the spiritual realm.”[3] Kenneth Hagin, the father of the Word of Faith movement, defines faith in this manner: “Faith is grasping the unrealities of hope and bringing them into the realm of reality.”[4] Kenneth Copeland, a prominent hard prosperity preacher and the spiritual successor of Hagin, labels faith as a “force.” He says, “Faith is a spiritual force, a spiritual energy, a spiritual power. It is this force of faith which makes the laws of the spirit world function.”[5] 

Faith is so powerful that it may be thought of as guaranteeing you results. As Creflo Dollar says, “You don’t have to base your life on a luck system when you’re a part of God’s system. In God’s Kingdom, faith is the currency, and positive results are guaranteed every time you obey Him and abide by the principles of His Word.”[6]

Soft prosperity preachers don’t often speak in the same glowing metaphysical terms, often softening their expressions of faith, but the assumptions regarding the nature of faith are ever present. Faith is a force that works for you or against you; it is something to harness and use for your benefit. Joel Osteen embodies this expression of faith:

Too often, we say that we are believing God for good things, yet with our actions, we’re doing just the opposite. Understand that your faith will work in either direction, positively or negatively. I know some people who plan to get the flu. At the grocery store, I hear them predicting their future: “Well, it’s flu season. I had better pick up some flu medicine just in case. After all, it was bad last year. I got lucky and didn’t get it. But I’ll probably get it this year.” They talk as though it is sure to happen. They take it even further and put actions behind their negative faith, by purchasing the flu medicine. Not surprisingly, a few weeks later they come down with the flu. Their faith worked, albeit negatively. They expected the flu, made plans for it, and they got it. Remember, your faith will work in either direction.[7]

This sentiment of Osteen’s rings very similar to that of Kenneth Hagin:

Some people say, “Brother Hagin, pray for me. I believe I am taking a cold.” It wouldn’t do any good for me to pray, because if they believe they are taking it, they will take it. “According to your faith be it unto you.” If you keep believing for it, you will get it. Do not consider and see the wrong thing.[8]

The powerful nature of faith in Word of Faith theology finds direct links to the mindpower of New Thought and its advocacy of the Law of Attraction. In New Thought, if your thinking is correctly aligned, you will activate the Law of Attraction and bring good things upon yourself. See Ralph Waldo Trine, one of the early popularizers of New Thought and the similarities in his categories:

We have just spoken of the drawing power of the mind. Faith is nothing more nor less than the operation of the thought forces in the form of an earnest desire, coupled with expectation as to its fulfillment. And in the degree that faith, the earnest desire thus sent out, is continually held to and watered by firm expectation, in just that degree does it either draw to itself, or does it change from the unseen into the visible, from the spiritual into the material, that for which it is sent.[9]

The negative element of faith that Osteen and Hagin both taught—that your faith can work against you if you give yourself to negative words or thoughts—is also a New Thought teaching. See Trine again: “The moment we fear anything we open the door for the entrance of the actualization of the very thing we fear.”[10] Creflo Dollar has imported this idea and provided an out of context Scripture reference as support: “Constantly feeding your spirit fear-based words will inevitably produce fear in your life. At that point, all Satan has to do is get you to speak them. Then he will have an open door to bring to pass what you fear the most (Job 3:25).”[11]

Whereas New Thought views right thinking or a form of faith as the means by which the laws of the universe are activated, prosperity theology teaches that faith is the means by which we allow God to work in our lives. In a sense, faith is so powerful that it gives you power over God and activates him to work for you. Joyce Meyer has written, “We release God to work in our lives as we release our faith in Him.”[12] Osteen writes that once one begins to have a positive outlook, “Your faith will activate God’s power in a new way.”[13]

Prosperity theology’s presentation of the power of faith is nothing more than the metaphysical categories of New Thought dressed up into Christian language and peddled to the masses. It promises that so long as you can think the right thoughts and get your faith focused on the right things, circumstances will start to turn your way.

Developing your Faith 

In order to achieve better results from your faith, you need to build it up. If your faith isn’t strong enough, it may not be ready to handle the type of thing you may be believing for. Creflo Dollar warns, “Acting on the Word prematurely only leads to frustration and is often the result of false thinking and presumption rather than faith. For this reason, it is important that you locate your faith level before stepping out on something.”[14] In order to avoid this type of presumption, Dollar advises that “Confessions such as ‘I’m out of debt. My needs are met. I have plenty more to put in store,’ will always build your faith.”[15]

Part of this development of faith is contained in the idea of “activating” your faith. In order for your faith to be activated and more effective to achieve your desired results, you need to take the appropriate actions. Oftentimes this is by keeping a positive outlook or saying positive declarations, such as those of Joel Osteen’s mantras of “I am blessed” and so forth. Another strategy for activating and growing your faith is by acting as if what you are believing for has already taken place:

If you want to become a better you, it is important to put the right actions along with your faith. It’s not enough to believe, as important as that may be. We have to take it one step further and start expecting. While we are expecting good things from God, we should be making plans. We need to talk as if what we are praying about is going to happen. We should dare to step out in faith and act like it’s going to happen.[16]

Your faith becomes more effective and develops further the more you are able to activate your faith. 

The Biblical View of Faith

As I said, the prosperity gospel makes a subtle shift in its definition of faith; it can be difficult to put your finger on precisely where it shifts. With the preceding look at the prosperity gospel’s New Thought influenced view of faith, I hope to give a contrast here that will better show the deviations.

Faith as a State of Mind?

When one sees Jesus saying “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matt. 14:31) or James’s exhortation to “let him ask in faith, with no doubting” (James 1:6), it is easy to see how faith is framed as a (typically positive) state of mind. In all honesty, I think this problem is exacerbated by a general lack of clarity on what we mean by faith in evangelical circles. For the sake of clarity, I will explain what I mean.

The Greek word translated as “faith” is pistis, with its accompanying verb pisteuo usually being translated as “believe.” The way in which pistis and pisteuo are used in the New Testament are best understood as expressions of belief and/or trust, often in God. I would contend that pistis in places also carries with it a connotation of “fidelity to” in addition to “trust in.” Defining pistis and all its uses in the New Testament could be a long topic and I will perhaps write more in depth on it later, but I will use this as a working definition and understanding.

So is faith a positive state of mind? This is where the subtle difference can be hard to pin down exactly. It is true that an attitude of fear or doubt can betray a lack of faith (Matt. 8:25-26; James 1:6). The difference lies in that faith is more than simply having a positive mind; it is having a confident trust in God. The consequence of the prosperity gospel’s definition of faith is it allows no room for negative thoughts for fear of compromising one’s faith. The Psalms militate against this fear of negative thoughts. Simply look to the Psalms to see that faith does not consist of always being upbeat and keeping negative thoughts out. See Psalm 13, for example:

1How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?How long will you hide your face from me? 2How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? 3Consider and answer me, O Lord my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, 4lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,” lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken. 5But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. 6I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me. – Psalm 13:1-6

The psalmist gives voice to his concerns and complaints, yet he turns back to his faith in the One whom he has trusted. The psalmists show no inclination toward avoiding negative thoughts for fear of destroying their faith. To the contrary, their faith is what allows them to acknowledge their difficulties and complaints, while still returning to what they know about God. Limiting faith to right positive thinking restricts correct expressions of lament and engenders an unhealthy avoidance of negative thoughts for fear of damaging one’s faith.

Faith as a Power or Force?

In the prosperity gospel, so long as you have the proper faith, speak faith-filled words, and act in a faith-filled manner, positive results in life are guaranteed for you. The fact of the matter is, the Bible does not speak of faith as some guarantor of the life you want. Now I don’t want to appear to be dismissing faith as powerful or consequential, but I do want to frame it correctly. The New Testament does indeed link Jesus healing people to their faith (Matt. 15:28; Luke 18:42), Jesus speaks of all things being possible for the one who believes (Mark 9:23), James refers to the “prayer of faith” (James 5:15), among others, but the context for these things is a far cry from the type of power of faith the prosperity gospel promotes. The prosperity gospel thinks of faith in terms of personal gain. It also thinks of it in terms of personal harm as well, for negative faith can produce negative results. Faith thus becomes an impersonal force that simply produces results according to the type of faith a person has, which is essentially a New Thought idea.

I want to consider two examples of faith to illustrate how the prosperity gospel shifts the nature of the power of faith. First, James’s example of Elijah:

16Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 17Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. – James 5:16-18

James uses Elijah as an illustration to demonstrate the power of faith through the prayer of Elijah. Now to understand what James is referring to, we would need to look at 1 Kings 17-18. In the narrative, Elijah declares there will be no more rain until he says so. After some time, Elijah challenges Ahab to bring out the prophets of Baal and Asherah to determine who was the true God. After the prophets of Baal and Asherah fail to get any response from the idols, Elijah prays: “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back” (1 Kings 18:36-37). God then rained fire down from heaven, to which the people responded, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God” (18:39). Only after the people recognize who the true God is and put the prophets of Baal and Asherah to death does rain fall on Israel again. The point here is, Elijah’s faith was not for himself and his circumstances, but it was so that God’s work might be displayed and that the people might repent and call on the living God.

Next, I want to consider generally the healings of Jesus and of the apostles that are attributed to faith. There is no need to be exhaustive, so consider these two examples: 

28When he entered the house, the blind men came to him, and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to him, “Yes, Lord.” 29Then he touched their eyes, saying, “According to your faith be it done to you.” 30And their eyes were opened. And Jesus sternly warned them, “See that no one knows about it.” – Matthew 9:28-30

12And when Peter saw it he addressed the people: “Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk? 13The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. 14But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, 15and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. 16And his name—by faith in his name—has made this man strong whom you see and know, and the faith that is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all. – Acts 3:12-16

We need to consider the nature of these healings that are attributed to faith and demonstrate the power of God. Should these be considered normative? And is the working of faith only for the benefit of the individuals? I would contend that God’s responses to faith in these ways are unique and should not be seen as normative, as the number of miracles served to accompany the proclamation of the gospel. The faith expressed and responded to was not simply for the person’s health (though this was certainly a byproduct); it was that Jesus might be shown to be the Son of God and as a mark of validation for the apostles’ preaching.

We here again must note the subtle difference. In the prosperity gospel, faith is a power that works for or against you. If it works for you, it is the means by which you may improve your station in life. Faith increases your glory. In the examples I considered, the powerful demonstrations of faith are for the working out of God’s plan, not so that those who were faithful could be healthier and wealthier. A question to ask yourself when thinking about the power of faith is, when you speak of believing in the power of faith, is it always in terms of ways that God is going to come through for you and better your station in life? If it is, you may be thinking prosperity gospel terms.

Building and Activating Faith?

In order to build your faith in the prosperity gospel, you need to perform special actions to activate it, maybe even act as if what you are believing for has already happened. The Bible has no such language as “activating” your faith or these sorts of concepts for building it. I would even go so far as to say that the concept of “activating” your faith is unbiblical. Remember, faith is best understood as a confidence and trust in God, with an accompanying fidelity to him. The New Testament uses different categories for what we would term “building” your faith:

2Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. – James 1:2-4

3His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, 4by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. 5For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, 6and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, 7and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. 8For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. – 2 Peter 1:3-8

The building of faith is not in special acts of faith or “stepping out in faith” in the New Testament, but it is more often in the ordinary Christian walk or even through trials. This is the biblical context for the building of faith in a general sense. 

The Object of Faith

To this point in time, our considerations of faith have not touched upon the primary context for faith in the New Testament: faith in Jesus unto salvation. The prosperity gospel does not touch on this aspect very clearly. It even denigrates the true gospel and what is offered to us through faith in Christ. See Creflo Dollar again:

Your healing, deliverance, and desires are wrapped up in your salvation. Salvation is much more than just forgiveness of sin and the born-again experience. God doesn’t just deliver you from sin. He delivers you from sickness, addiction, poverty, and everything else the enemy tries to use to attack you… Accepting God’s salvation package is how you set yourself up for success. Confessing God’s Word and acting on it establishes your steps and leads you to a path of success and abundance. If you haven’t received Jesus as your Lord and Savior, now is the time to make that decision.[17]

The object of faith has shifted in the prosperity gospel. It is not Jesus and his work that is the object, it is the prosperity and success that he (supposedly) offers. This is the most insidious nature of the prosperity gospel’s redefinition of faith: it moves the focus away from who Jesus is and what he has accomplished on the cross. In opposition to this view, the apostle Paul writes, 

1Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. 6For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. – Romans 5:1-11

If this is not enough for you, then I would submit that your faith is not in Jesus and that you are following a false prosperity gospel. 

Conclusion

The redefinition of faith takes a biblical understanding of trust in God and shifts it to a caricature of positive mindedness. Cultivate that positive outlook and abundance and blessing will follow you, the prosperity gospel says. The ultimate effect of this redefinition is to undercut the centrality of faith in Christ for salvation, morphing it into faith in Christ for health and wealth. Faith as presented here is only one side of the coin in the prosperity gospel. Faith is not fully released until it is spoken. We will consider the prosperity gospel’s doctrine of the power of words in the next post.


[1] Joel Osteen, The Power of I Am: Two Words That Will Change Your Life Today (New York: FaithWords, 2015), 84 (Large Print).

[2] Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking (New York: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1956), 119.

[3] Paula White, Move On, Move Up: Turn Yesterday’s Trials into Today’s Triumphs (New York: FaithWords, 2008),96.

[4] Kenneth E. Hagin, Exceedingly Growing Faith, 2nd ed. (Kenneth Hagin Ministries, 1983), 23.

[5] Kenneth Copeland, The Laws of Prosperity (Kenneth Copeland Ministries, Inc., 1987), 10.

[6] Creflo Dollar, 8 Steps to Create the Life You Want: The Anatomy of a Successful Life (New York: FaithWords, 2008), 18.

[7] Joel Osteen, Becoming a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day (New York: Free Press, 2007), 329-330.

[8] Kenneth E. Hagin, Exceedingly Growing Faith, 30.

[9] Ralph Waldo Trine, In Tune with the Infinite (New York: Dodd,  Mead and Company, 1897), 35-36.

[10] Ibid. 137-138.

[11] Dollar, 8 Steps to Create the Life You Want, 48.

[12] Joyce Meyer, The Secrets of Spiritual Power: Strength for Life’s Battles (New York: Warner Books, 2003), 23.

[13] Osteen, The Power of I Am, 183.

[14] Dollar, 8 Steps to Create the Life You Want, 203.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Osteen, Becoming a Better You, 329.

[17] Dollar, 8 Steps to Create the Life You Want, 22-23.

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