This is an online-exclusive from the Christian Research Journal. For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
When you to subscribe to the Journal, you join the team of print subscribers whose paid subscriptions help provide the resources at equip.org that minister to people worldwide. These resources include our ever growing database of over 1,500 articles, as well as our free Postmodern Realities podcast.
Another way you can support our online articles is by leaving us a tip. A tip is just a small amount, like $3, $5, or $10 which is the cost for some of a latte, lunch out, or coffee drink. To leave a tip, click here
“I declare you are blessed, you are prosperous, you are redeemed, forgiven, talented, creative, disciplined, focused, confident, secure, prepared, qualified, motivated, valuable, determined, equipped, empowered, anointed, accepted, and approved, not average, not mediocre. You are a child of the most high God, a victor and never a victim.” The resonant, crooning voice of Joel Osteen filled our kitchen the first time my husband pushed play on the small but surprisingly high sound-quality Inspiration Cube a parishioner gave him as a gag gift when he turned 50. It is the first of 30 Daily Affirmations programed into the Cube, along with 365 Inspirations, and a catalog of sermons.1 Every now and then I charge it up and give it a listen while I’m scrubbing my sink. “I declare that you will live victoriously. You were created in the image of God. You have the DNA of a winner. You are wearing a crown of favor. Royal blood flows through your veins. You are the head and not the tail, above and never beneath. I declare that you will live with purpose, passion, and praise, knowing that you were destined to live in victory.” That’s Affirmation Four, titled “Live Victoriously.” That’s me — full of the DNA of a winner.
WHAT ARE AFFIRMATIONS AND HOW DO YOU DO THEM?
Before the COVID-19 era the only “daily affirmations” I had heard of were made by Al Franken playing the hilarious character Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live. “I’m good enough,” he says, smirking into the camera, his hands folded over his pastel trousered knee, “I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”2 He is lying, of course, which is why it’s so funny. Stuart Smalley is not liked, is not successful, and is certainly not smart. By hosting a variety of successful, wealthy, likeable, and beautiful guests, Smalley makes the lie only more obvious. He will never be like them no matter how much he affirms himself. But in the decades since that clever comedy sketch, daily affirmations, no longer a joking matter, have become an unquestioned part of daily routine not only of people who believe The Secret3 but the mainstream — iGen influencers on Instagram and TikTok. Everyone seems to be doing them, even those who, at first, view them with skepticism.4
For the uninitiated, a daily affirmation is a simple phrase you say while looking at yourself in the mirror. It should be spoken in the present tense, and should articulate an ambiguous desire, the fulfilling of which cannot absolutely be demonstrated one way or another. Character traits like discipline, confidence, purpose, and even passion could apply to almost any person in any circumstance. I am passionate, for example, about how well my tea is brewed in the morning, if not about how holy my thought-life is and whether or not I am given to gossiping or lust. I am a confident parent, but extremely insecure when it comes to speaking in front of groups of people. But none of that really matters when I stand in front of the mirror and declare that I am the head and not the tail.
MANIFESTING AND THE LAW OF ATTRACTION
Daily affirmations arose out of what is called “The Law of Attraction,” popularized by author Rhonda Byrne in The Secret.5 This book was featured by Oprah in her book club in the early 2000s, and fleshed out by one of her favorite spiritual gurus, Eckhart Tolle. When The Secret first came out it was viewed skeptically by Christians and secularists alike. The idea of the practitioner bringing some desired object or circumstance into being by aligning her thoughts with vibrational frequencies of the “universe” —attracting money, fame, health, and love — is absurd on its face.6 Money comes not by feeling and thinking but by working. Love is a complicated business. And fame, well, in the age of social media, that is perhaps easier to attain. But over the decades, manifesting has entered into many Christian circles through the Word of Faith heresy and the extreme popularity of Joel Osteen,7 Joyce Meyer,8 and Rachel Hollis.9
“If you want to be thin,” explains the cheerful Jack Canfield in one of his many free YouTube videos, “hang out with the people that are thinner, and do the things they’re doing, think the thoughts they think.” This simple logic extends into every situation you might be facing:
If you want to be spiritual, hang out with the people that are more spiritual. You go to a retreat, go to church. If you want to be more athletic, you go to the gym and work out with other people. And as you are attracted to people that are, I’ll always call it one level up. You know if you’re making $50,000 a year, you want to be thinking the kind of thoughts that $100,000 a year person thinks….If I’m in a state of appreciation, in a state of love, I’m going to attract more things to appreciate, and more things to love in my life. If I’m in a state of whining and complaining about how bad it is, then what I’m going to do is attract more things, people, and situations to complain and whine about.10
As you can see, athleticism, vanity, health, wealth, and spirituality are all set on a single plane. They are all of equal neutral value. Put yourself in the way of people who have achieved those goods. Be careful, at the same time, to flee from the sorts of feelings and thoughts that will bring about the opposite of what you desire — sadness, discouragement, negativity, poverty, illness, stress, and anxiety.
By building habits, particularly through the daily affirmation, you can begin to tune your feelings and thoughts to the frequencies that will bring you happiness and wealth. You step, as it were, into the current of all the good you desire. That is why the grammatical tense of the affirmation matters. You have to begin to live now as if you already have all the money. You have, in the words of Canfield, to become “money positive.”11 And then the money will come to you.
BUT AFFIRMATIONS WORK
Many online influencers claim that daily affirmations “work” and that they are backed by science. Psychologist Catherine Moore, writing online in Positive Psychology, cites various studies related to what is called Self-Affirmation Theory. “So yes,” she writes, “there are empirical studies based on the idea that we can maintain our sense of self-integrity by telling ourselves (or affirming) what we believe in positive ways.”12 Self-integrity, she says, “relates to our global self-efficacy — our perceived ability to control moral outcomes and respond flexibly when our self-concept is threatened….So, we as humans are motivated to protect ourselves from these threats by maintaining our self-integrity.”13 Second, she goes on, it’s not about being perfect, but rather being “competent and adequate in different areas that we personally value in order to be moral, flexible, and good” (emphasis in original).14 And lastly, it’s important to act “in ways that authentically merit acknowledgment and praise….We say it because we want to deserve that praise for acting in ways that are consistent with that particular personal value” (emphasis in original).15
Whether or not this sort of data and research can be relied upon — what is “self-integrity”? — there is a growing cultural acknowledgement that “self-talk” can be a useful way to unlearn trauma-induced negative thinking. Stephanie Foo, author of the memoir What My Bones Knew (Ballantine Books, 2022), wrote movingly in the New York Times about how her sense of herself was radically altered through the acceptance and affirmation of her mother-in-law. Abused and abandoned by her own mother, she learned to believe that she was always at fault when her mother was angry, enraged, or depressed. “When I messed up at work,” she writes, “uploaded the wrong file, forgot to call someone back — there she was, whispering in my ear: Worthless girl. Idiot girl. You can’t do anything right.”16 This “self-talk” was so embedded in her psyche that even though she knew it was wrong, she had no way to change it. Eventually, she fell in love with a man whose mother’s continual affirmation began to undo the powerfully evil messages of her early life. Foo ends the essay this way: “Margaret [her mother-in-law] used to tell me, ‘You’re so easy to love.’ Somehow, now, I believe her.”17
Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in The Coddling of the American Mind unpack the effectiveness of positive self-talk for changing harmful and habitual beliefs about the self. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the technique of replacing bad messages with good ones, of letting go of depression and other mental hindrances that inhibit success and happiness. The first Appendix, “How to Do CBT,” in The Coddling of the American Mind delineates various types of harmful thought patterns — Dichotomous Thinking, Overgeneralizing, Negative Filtering, Discounting Positives, Catastrophizing, and so forth — and suggests practical tips and organizations for those who want to get help.18 Whether or not there is data to prove that this sort of conscious action of the mind works, the anecdotal testimony, in many cases, is profoundly moving, especially when a person turns to the Bible and discovers the Scriptural imperative to “set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2).19 Which brings us to the critical point that it isn’t what you say to yourself that really matters, it is what God says to you and about you.
JOB, JESUS, AND JUDGMENT
“For my sighing comes instead of my bread, and my groanings are poured out like water. For the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me. I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest, but trouble comes” (Job 3:24–26). Job thus laments in his first long speech after the Lord has taken away his children, his wealth, and even his health. Would that I had never been born, he cries, when his friends ask him how he is doing. These three verses are translated, as you can see, in the present tense. Job isn’t trying to bring into being something that doesn’t exist, he is speaking the truth about what has happened, that the things that most of us dread the most fell in a fulsome torrent upon Job.
To put it mildly, the Scripture provides an excessively nuanced view of the goods of this mortal life. Wealth, happiness, health, and even spirituality are handled by the God of the Bible in a complicated way, inviting the reader to examine not only the bad and difficult circumstances of life but human participation in those things. Health, wealth, and happiness are not guaranteed to us not because we can’t figure out how to tune into the frequencies of the Universe, but because, through sin, we have cut ourselves off from the source of life itself. Humanity wants the goods of creation without the God who made them. At its core, besides being a lie, the daily affirmation, especially when it is “aspirational,” that is, not an affirmation of reality but of wish, is a defiant act against the God who asks us to trust Him.
Joy Anderson’s lyrics in her song, “I Am,” make the point explicit.20 Besides borrowing many descriptors of the Divine Person, like Joel Osteen’s blasphemous, The Power of I Am,21 there is more than a nod to the Divine Name (“I AM” [ego eimi], Exod. 3:14; John 8:58). I don’t need God because I am one already. The sentiment is in stark contrast to what Jesus preaches in Matthew: “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (6:25). You are valuable not because of what you own or how happy you are but because you were made to worship the God of the universe who set eternity in your very soul. This worship is born out of the radical trust of the creature upon her Creator. Trust is expressed in asking, constantly, for the needs of the body and the spirit.22
The use of the daily affirmation enables the modern person to avoid the most pressing questions of human existence — not just suffering, but the very purpose and end of life. What were we made for? What should we desire? All of these questions are jettisoned in the morning gaze into the mirror to, as one list of affirmations puts it, announce that “The cells of my body are listening to me,” or “I live in a quantum reality and my body heals in miraculous ways,” or “My thoughts are my sacred territory and I get to choose which direction I focus them, and they are powerful.”23 Scripture never calls the believer to make up some sort of mantra to make life less awful and hateful. Rather, Christians are to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). That is, they are to train the mind to see the world and themselves through the lens of the gospel — both the work that Jesus has done, and who He is. Their minds and emotions are to be reordered according to the values and goods of the Kingdom of God. This Kingdom is, to understate it, not of this world. In the Kingdom of God, it is the poor, the grief-stricken, the failed, the helpless who are most blessed for the strange reason that they can see their own need to such a degree that they finally cry out to the Lord for help. If you are looking for something to say every day, try Psalm 100. And don’t say it into the mirror looking at yourself. Rather, go to church and cry it aloud with other believers who know their desperate need for a Savior. If you do that, you will find that God will tell you all you need to know about yourself, Him, your future, and all the riches to come.
Anne Kennedy, MDiv, is the author of Nailed It: 365 Readings for Angry or Worn-Out People, rev. ed. (Square Halo Books, 2020). She blogs about current events and theological trends at Preventing Grace on Patheos.com.
- Advertisement copy states, “The portable Inspiration Cube gives you over 400 encouraging audio messages, personally selected by Pastor Joel!” The Inspiration Cube, Joel Osteen Ministries, https://www.joelosteen.com/prevail.
- My favorite Stuart Smalley episode features Michael Jordan: “Daily Affirmation: Michael Jordan — SNL,” originally aired on Saturday Night Live, NBC, September 28, 1991, posted on YouTube on September 23, 2013, https://youtu.be/xNx_gU57gQ4.
- Rhonda Byrne, The Secret (New York: Atria Books, 2006). Robert Velarde reviewed The Secret for the Christian Research Journal in his article, “The Secret Revealed: Assessing the Latest Self-Help Phenomenon,” June 11, 2009, Christian Research Institute, https://www.equip.org/article/the-secret-revealed/. See also Hank Hanegraaff, “What Is the Secret?,” Christian Research Journal, Vol. 45, No. 01 (2022): 60–63.
- Matt D’Avella, “I Tried Daily Affirmations for 7 Days,” June 17, 2021, https://youtu.be/BAYw_orzBR0.
- Byrne, The Secret.
- I take a close look at “manifesting” in “Trusting Jesus in a Universe That Doesn’t Have Your Back,” Christian Research Journal, Vol. 45 No. 01 (2022): 22–27.
- Hank Hanegraaff, “Osteenification and What It Portends” in the Christian Research Journal, August 26, 2015, https://www.equip.org/article/osteenification-and-what-it-portends/.
- Bob Hunter, “Joyce Meyer in the Twenty-First Century,” Christian Research Journal, July 3, 2015, https://www.equip.org/article/joyce-meyer-in-the-twenty-first-century/.
- I reviewed Girl, Wash Your Face in an article, “Have You Considered Trying Harder: The Theology of Rachel Hollis,” Christian Research Journal, August 15, 2019, https://www.equip.org/article/have-you-considered-trying-harder-the-theology-of-rachel-hollis/.
- Jack Canfield, “How to Change Your Life,” October 31, 2019, minute 3:56, https://youtu.be/gnFVegYwG_Y.
- Jack Canfield, The Success Principles: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be—10th Anniversary Edition (New York: William Morrow, 2015), 443ff.
- Catherine Moore, “Positive Daily Affirmations: Is There Science Behind It?” Positive Psychology, March 4, 2019, https://positivepsychology.com/daily-affirmations/.
- Moore, “Positive Daily Affirmations.” Moore cites G. L. Cohen and D. K. Sherman, “The Psychology of Change: Self-Affirmation and Social Psychological Intervention,” Annual Review of Psychology 65 (2014): 333–71.
- Moore, “Positive Daily Affirmations.” Moore cites C. M. Steele, “The Psychology of Self-Affirmation: Sustaining the Integrity of the Self,” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 21 (2) (1988): 261–302.
- Moore, “Positive Daily Affirmations.”
- Stephanie Foo, “I Cherish My Grief for the Mother I Never Expected to Have,” New York Times, May 6, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/06/opinion/mothers-day-grief.html.
- Foo, “I Cherish My Grief for the Mother I Never Expected to Have.”
- Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (New York: Penguin Books, 2018), 275ff.
- All Bible quotations are from the ESV.
- See Joy Anderson, ‘I Am (Affirmation Song),” I Am Just Joy Anderson, October 17, 2019, YouTube, https://youtu.be/V_8MqBZ4lMU.
- Joel Osteen, The Power of I Am: Two Words That Will Change Your Life Today (New York: FaithWords, 2016).
- For example, we are to pray the Lord’s Prayer daily (see Matt. 6:5–15, especially v. 11).
- Bernadette Logue, “120 Positive Affirmations for Health and Healing,” The Daily Positive, https://www.thedailypositive.com/120-positive-affirmations-for-health-and-healing/.