L.L. Martin. Positively Powerless: How a Forgotten Movement Undermined Christianity. WestBow Press, 2015. See here to buy the book.
In Positively Powerless, L.L. Martin critiques the positivity Gospel and presents an alternative way to look at life.
The positivity Gospel is often associated with Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller. Joel Osteen and Word of Faith teachers can probably also be associated with the positivity Gospel, even though Martin does not mention them explicitly. The positivity Gospel emphasizes positive thinking. Expect good things to happen to you, and they will happen! Your self-image should be positive, not negative! Have confidence in yourself and your abilities! You can meet your goals and have your best life now! Add Christ as your life-coach to this, and you have the positivity Gospel!
Martin has religious and practical problems with the positivity Gospel. For one, she traces it to nineteenth century occultism and the influence of Eastern religions on the West. She believes that the positivity Gospel is more consistent with that than it is with the Bible. Second, she thinks that the positivity Gospel is self-centered rather than God-centered: it focuses on our personal success rather than on God and other people. It also neglects the biblical message that we are sinners in need of redemption, along with the importance of depending on Christ. Third, it hinders growth and sets people up for failure and disappointment. If people are unwilling to acknowledge their mistakes and flaws, how can they address them? If people are expecting their best life now, how will they feel once tragedy strikes?
Martin makes clear that she is not for people beating themselves up on a daily basis and focusing on the negative. Actually, she notes, the Bible encourages believers to focus on a lot of positive things: God’s grace towards them, who they are in Christ, the spiritual blessings that God has given them, their eternal destiny in Christ, God’s commandments, and God’s holiness and majesty. Martin spends a lot of pages articulating a constructive, yet realistic, way to look at life. She does not advocate a thoroughly positive self-image, but rather a perspective that is humble (as in self-forgetful) and realistic about one’s flaws, and that does not take oneself too seriously (or so I interpret Martin, on that last part).
Near the end, Martin discusses how this can relate to Christian community. She advocates places where Christians can share their spiritual struggles honestly and openly. Martin candidly acknowledges where the church has fallen short in this. She tells a story about how she was sharing in a small group about her struggle with anger in a situation, and the small group leader jokingly dismissed her concern. Martin later learned that the small group leader was having troubles with his son, but he did not share that with the group.
What I found most helpful was when Martin offered practical, specific tips, particularly in the appendix. She gave suggestions about books to read, Christian music to hear, Scriptures to post, things to tell oneself, and things to do so that one can have a more Christ-exalting attitude each day. She also offered suggestions about how one can find vulnerable community that can assist one in spiritual growth: she said that people can meet one-on-one for honest sharing and prayer.
I have two critiques of the book. First, Martin should have interacted with the biblical verses that Word of Faith people like to cite to support their position. I think of Mark 11:24, in which Jesus tells his disciples that, if they believe they have received what they are requesting in prayer, it is theirs. There are other verses to that effect. Martin should have addressed such passages either briefly in the text, or in an endnote.
Second, Martin should have addressed more what God’s larger goals or objectives are in doing what God does. What is God’s broader agenda behind justification and sanctification, grace, hope, and righteous character? What is the point of these things? What is the significance of these pieces in the larger whole? In my opinion, God is renewing the cosmos, and God wants people of character to rule it after Christ’s second coming. God has saved sinners with that larger goal in mind. Had Martin included a discussion like that, the book would have been better. Reading the book as it stands, I can easily fall into self-criticism because I fall so short of the outlook that Martin promotes (as does everyone, which Martin acknowledges). When I put that outlook within the context of God’s broader objectives, however, that not only encourages me to have that outlook, but it also focuses my attention more on God.
Speaking for myself personally, I believe that I can be edified by the teachings of Joel Osteen, Robert Schuller, Norman Vincent Peale, and other such teachers. They do try to encourage people to have hope. Plus, many people do not just want hope about their salvation and the afterlife. They experience problems now; they have dreams now; they want hope for their lives now. Positivity can be taken to extremes, but I would like to think that God cares about our dreams, our troubles, and our successes, the same way that God wants us to care about the dreams, troubles, and successes of others. In addition, self-help and success are not entirely alien to Scripture, for the Book of Proverbs is partly about how to live a successful life. These concepts can actually be consistent with honoring God and helping others.
At the same time, Martin does say things that I need to hear. Spirituality should encompass much, much more than one’s personal material success. There is a world that is much larger than any of us. There are things that are more important than our personal success, such as good character and God’s broader agenda for the world. Martin does well to highlight this.