Most of us are familiar with the dangerous teachings of the “prosperity gospel.” It’s a sect of teaching, guised under a whole host of tactics, that undercuts the beauty of the true gospel message of the Bible and distorts it by setting our ultimate sights on health, wealth, and a prosperous life. Not all prosperity gospels are created equal. Some of these teachers emphasize riches in their ministry, equating Godliness with net worth and “stuff.” Others place importance on living a happy, full “best life now,” a personal character development program that misses the redemption and restoration of the true gospel. Some underemphasize grace, while others overemphasize it. Some never talk about sin, while others call you sinful for not sending a certain amount of money to them. The prosperity gospel leaks everywhere, and rears its ugly head in multiple directions.
But there is a more subtle, muted message that grows out of this kind of teaching. It’s a line of thinking that, surprisingly, has little to do with bank accounts or chintzy social media hashtags. The problem with this one particular message is that it sounds really good on the surface — and it even feels right. But when we dig deep into the true gospel, the “gospel of God” as it is often called, we will see that it misses entirely what we have been called to as saints of Christ Jesus. Here is their idea, summed up into one quotable phrase:
“You cannot expect to live a positive life if you hang with negative people.”
There is a certain aurora of positivity that these teachers suggest we should stay occupied in, and further, that letting negativity penetrate that aurora is extremely damaging to your well-being, even, arguably, sinful. We all know that the message of self-improvement says, “Believe in yourself.” But popular prosperity teachers have taken it a step further. A critical step to finding our destiny, achieving our dreams, realizing our potential, is keeping people out who we consider a “threat” to such things.
Now, I would expect some of you to begin to question the legitimacy of this complaint. Why is it so bad to not want to be surrounded by negativity? I think according to Scripture, we have many reasons why we should be willing, even grateful, to step into relationships in which we are met with differences, criticisms, and even opposition and negativity.
You May Misunderstand Their “Negativity"
Sometimes, the reality is that we can easily mistake negativity for simply a difference of opinion we did not ask for or want. The prosperity gospel’s teaching (that you cannot expect to live a positive life if you hang with negative people) assumes two things: One, that our idea of positive is truly positive, and Two, that their negativity is truly negative. But this is often not the case. Pride is blinding, and deceptive in nature. Because of this, it is easy for us to mistake something that is pridefully sinful for something that is positive — we simply cannot tell the difference. And if that is true, the contrary is also; it is easy for us to mistake someone’s holding us accountable or speaking truth into our blindness for something that is negative.
In sum, everything is not always what it seems, especially when it comes to wisdom. We know this in large part from Proverbs, in which it says on multiple occasions that being right in our own eyes can prove dangerous (Prov. 12:15, 26:12, 27:2, 30:12). If we are being honest with ourselves, we all know no amount of rebuke or being corrected feels good. Rather than rushing to dismiss a different idea as “negativity,” we should take a moment to prayerfully consider our heart, and the hearts of others, before we assure ourselves we are so right.
God Could Be Refining Your Faith Through Them
On numerous occasions, God throughout Scripture calls men to difficult, “negative” environments simply for the task of testing their faith. One of the perennial examples is Jeremiah. Prosperity preachers love a verse like Jeremiah 29:11 — “For I know the plans I have for you…plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” These preachers, however, likely missed Jeremiah 7:27, an amazingly profound verse. “So you shall speak all these words to them, but they will not listen to you. You shall call to them, but they will not answer you.”
What is God doing here? Certainly, He is warning Judah of the coming judgment on impenitence through Jeremiah’s words, but He is also testing and refining Jeremiah through Judah. Think about the test of faith this would be for you! God says to you, “I want you to serve in this capacity, but no one will like you for it, and you will not see any fruit from it.” This was Jeremiah’s faith put on trial; was his primary motivation serving God, or being well-respected? Because of his being immersed in a culture of negativity, Jeremiah could prove his faithfulness, and he did what the Lord commanded. We see the consequences of running away from such a call in men like Jonah (Jon. 1:1-12). God intends to send people and places of negativity our way for the sake of refining us.
God Could Be Refining Their Faith Through You
Perhaps the most urgent of reasons why “hanging with negativity” should be encouraged is because it is quite possible we are the instruments God has chosen to positively impact another for Himself. As Christians, we are called to “a crooked and twisted generation” (Phil. 2:15), a people of futility (Rom. 1:21). Those of us who can remember a time in our lives when we were negative toward God, Christians, or the Church can likely also remember one critical person who really demonstrated grace, welcomed our negativity on their shoulders, and helped us see the gospel more clearly. What if we are being called to be that person for negative Nancy?
Peter gets to the heart of the matter in his first epistle. We will be blessed even if we are treated with contempt, because we seek to honor Christ (1 Pt. 3:14-15a). Yet in our encounters with negative people, we should desire to gently and respectfully share the hope that is in us (3:15b) with the broken world that needs God’s redeeming grace.
Conclusion: Sitting With Scoffers vs. Sitting Among Scoffers
We have to be careful in this endeavor. We must make the distinction between sitting with scoffers (Ps. 1:1) and sitting among them. Certainly, if we find ourselves attracted to negativity’s pull like a magnet, craving to be around it, we have an unhealthy situation. That is sitting with scoffers. Yet oftentimes, God very well may call us, like Jeremiah, to be lights in a dark world, in specialized dark spaces. If we pray for God to give us discernment and wisdom, we will find much rest in these matters, and be able to stand out, against the grain. We can learn how to sit among the scoffers, not with them; be in the world, not of it. Again, this takes prayer.
Here is the truth on negativity: Sometimes God is trying to wake us up with “perceived negativity.” Sometimes God wants to be glorified in how we handle negativity. Sometimes God wants to be glorified in how he transforms negativity through our witness. In closing, here is perhaps a more biblical approach: “You cannot expect to live a refined life if you refuse to hang with negative people.”