Cult Spotting 101: The Power of the Positive Thinking that You Don’t Have

Welcome to my budding series: Cult Spotting 101. This is a set of posts designed to give you, the reader, experience with identifying red flags that indicate unhealthy, cultic teachings.

For this Cult Spotting lesson, we’ll take a look at an article by Joel Osteen. Like last time, go ahead and take a few minutes to read through the link and see if you can pinpoint where the unhealthy teachings are and why they should be of concern.


I’ll be the first to admit that Joel has a few good things to say, grains of truth that make the rest of it seem more believable. Unfortunately, he takes a good thing too far. Underneath his optimistic promises lurk thought control tactics, informational manipulation, and induced guilt.

Let’s break those down a bit.

Thought Control:

Do not let another critical word come out of your mouth about yourself.

This quote is just one example of many throughout the article. I don’t have room to list them all. The idea is that only certain approved (in this case “positive”) thoughts and emotions are allowed to be expressed, cutting you off from a healthy means of assessing yourself and your circumstances. Remember that pesky check-engine light we talked about last time? Well, the problems don’t go away just because you disable it.

Remember, your own words will have more impact on your future than anything anybody else says about you.

Sounds great, right? What I say about myself is more important than what others say about me.

Yes . . . and no.

Here we see an example of thought control that targets critical thinking with oversimplification. Your thoughts about yourself should and to some extent do affect you far more than someone else’s thoughts about you . . . in general, but there are many other factors that come into play.

For one, thoughts about the self are often shaped by others’ thoughts. It’s possible to disbelieve what some think, but it’s impossible to have an opinion of the self in a vacuum since the sense of self is initially formulated by feedback from others when we’re young. Even as an adult, that feedback holds importance. You may be the one to whom you ultimately have to answer, but to simply decide that others don’t matter prevents healthy communication and consideration of ideas (making it easier for a cult to convince you that the concerns others hold about your involvement in the group).

More importantly, thoughts aren’t the only aspects that determine your life, your success or failure. Circumstances also come into play. It would be nice if all with which we had to content were other people’s thoughts, but we live in a world of actions and reactions. Everyone’s choices have an influence on many other people’s lives, and that’s not even counting chance events or the natural change of the universe.

The problem with such overly simplistic thinking is that it sets you up for failure and, as we’ll see later, induced guilt. If you have a problem in life, you’re just not thinking as positively as Joel and, therefore, need to become more spiritual, show more faith, give more to God, etc. etc.

Maybe you struggle with condemnation because of past mistakes. Each day, boldly declare, “I am the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus. God is pleased with me. He is on my side.” If you say something like that on a consistent basis, guilt and condemnation won’t hang around.

While I might agree that we shouldn’t have to live under a cloud of guilt for the rest of our lives, if someone has done something wrong, it’s not enough to just declare, “God is on my side.” True guilt (not the bullshit guilt that he induces) should be an indication that it’s time to step up and take responsibility for one’s actions, apologize, make amends—you know, the stuff that healthy people do when they’ve fucked up. Joel’s advice sounds more fitting for a psychopath than for a spiritually healthy human being. Accountability is the stuff that cults hate. Be wary whenever you see teachings that gloss over its importance.

Informational Control:

Some of the patients were depressed because they were facing life-threatening diseases and felt there was no hope. . . . So [the doctor] told them, “Then I want you to start saying, ‘I will make it. I will be one of the people who beats the odds.’ ” Those patients obeyed the doctor’s orders, and amazingly, many of them not only came out of their depression, but they also made full recoveries!

It’s convenient when you can back up your argument with examples without citing sources. Joel recounts a story that borders on the miraculous. If true, it would entirely support his claim that your thoughts control more about you than anything else.

Unfortunately, he never gives you a chance to verify its veracity because he doesn’t say where the story came from.

Scientists are learning more about the mind-body connection and have discovered that our thoughts can have a physical impact on our bodies; however, that does not necessarily mean that you can cure everything with your mind. It’s a two-way connection, and your body has an impact on your mental health as well.

Even if the story is true, I want to draw your attention to how little true information he actually gives. He doesn’t tell you the diseases with which these people were suffering. He doesn’t tell you where to find this amazing breakthrough. He doesn’t tell you the name of the doctor. He doesn’t even tell you the percentage of the “many” that actually survived versus the number who died . . . or how many people who had a positive attitude died anyway.

Wouldn’t you think if science had discovered that positive thinking could cure terminal illness that not only would scientists be all over it but Joel himself would want to make as much information about this discovery available as possible?

The absence of actual, verifiable information is a huge indicator that something is being left out that might change the way you would interpret the results of his tale.

Alternatively, without any way to fact-check his claims, we can’t even prove that the story has even a tiny bit of truth. He himself could be lying out of his ass, or he could be repeating a false story that he heard from someone else. We just can’t know, and as nice as it would be to believe what he’s saying, there’s too much risk of misinformation.

Maybe you’re wondering what the harm could be in believing in the power that Joel proclaims, which brings me to my next (and last) point.

Emotional Manipulation~Induced Guilt:

God says you must believe and then you’ll see it.

Friend, if you’ll do your part and speak words of victory, God will pour out His favor in exciting, fresh ways in your life, and you will live the abundant life He has in store for you.

So what if you don’t recover from your illness? What if you don’t cure your financial woes? What if you aren’t able to think your way into a better job, new house, or more fulfilling life? What if you can’t escape from the consequences of your actions by patting yourself on the back and telling yourself that God is on your side?

What then?

Well, Joel doesn’t come right out and say it, but couched in that empowering promise of happy thoughts is the assumption that if you fail, it’s because you didn’t believe enough. You didn’t do your part. You didn’t claim your promise, speak the right words of victory, or trust God to follow through.

We saw a similar vein of thinking in the previous cult spotting, and it’s as insidious this time as it was before. There’s no room for circumstances or other people’s choices to influence your opportunities; there is just the promise that if you will, you can. Adversely, if you can’t, you didn’t really want to.

Some people live in a perpetual state of financial crisis. They can’t seem to pay their bills — always living “under their circumstances” and constantly speaking defeat.

He’s a little more direct with his blame with this one. To him, if someone is having financial difficulties, it’s obviously their fault because they spoke defeat into their life. Although white middle class or upper class Americans often do have a large measure of control over their financial security, the same is not true for everyone. Nor is it consistently true for anyone. A natural disaster, a health crisis, or the crashing of the national economy can transform a rich person into a pauper, and a pauper into . . .

The blame of this statement leaves no room for genuine struggle. You either succeed with positivity or you fail because you didn’t have it.

Ironically, he can’t even see how overly positive thinking could contribute to problems by creating a false confidence and bad spending habits.

Bonus: Financial Control

If you are struggling financially, remind yourself repeatedly, “I am the head and I am not the tail. I will lend and I will not borrow. Everything I touch will prosper and succeed.

It’s been a long post, so if you’ve stuck it out to this point, you’ve earned a piece of chocolate.

In this quote, Joel says that the solution to financial struggle is to simply decide that you are prosperous, then be willing to “lend” but not “borrow.” In three sentences, he dismisses financial crisis (as if it were an annoying fly that can be swatted) and prescribes an overly simplistic and irresponsible budget plan.

If you’ve been in a cult, you probably know what usually follows a statement like this: “Give to God in faith, even when you can’t afford it.”

To me, this is the biggest red flag of this post. Even though he never actually asks for money, he lays the groundwork for it. If everything else he said in the post had been perfect, this statement alone would be enough to make me say goodbye if I were considering his church (I’m not because he’s always struck me as a sleazy speaker even before I decided to analyze his writing).

The number of people who have had their lives ruined after joining a cult that got its hooks into their wallets is staggering. Financial control can easily become the biggest practical obstacle to people leaving. Never trust a church or group that starts to meddle in people’s bank accounts.

Disclaimer: My use of this article as an example of cultic thinking doesn’t constitute an accusation that the author or the site is necessarily part of a cult. The article could just be ill-thought, overly simplistic, or badly written . . . or it could be a warning of something deeper. That’s why I’m giving you practice with spotting red flags, wherever you may find them. They are a symptom that should alert you to be careful and use your critical thinking (not your magical thinking).

8 thoughts on “Cult Spotting 101: The Power of the Positive Thinking that You Don’t Have

  1. Jeff says:

    Spot on with the cultish red flags! I will say though, in my study of the effects of the use of positive imagery in cancer patients, there is a marked difference in resistance to the spread and remission of cancer when positive imagery is used consistently and effectively by the patient. There is definitely something to the “mind-body” connection (psychosomatic) seen in medical studies.

    I know you’re not personally attacking Joel, but I have no problem coming out and saying he is a charlatan and his philosophy is dangerous for all the reasons you mentioned.

    Keep on writing! You rock!

    • Yes, the brain can affect the way we heal. I wouldn’t deny that. I’ve seen it do some amazing stuff. But I think there’s a difference between saying that positive thinking can help and positive thinking heals. The way he presented it was just shy of being a miracle. Even with the best of outlooks, illness still happens. I’m also wary of making other emotions seem bad. Someone who is sick shouldn’t be plagued with fear that if they mourn their illness or feel angry they’re going to die because they lost that happy outlook. Suppressed emotions have links to cancer as well, so forced positivity can be its own curse.

  2. Commenter says:

    I appreciate your writing, but can’t get over a few places where you mirror his mistakes- the ones that made him untrustworthy. He doesn’t cite his sources for patients, you don’t cite your sources for the staggering number of people with financially ruined lives “The number of people who have had their lives ruined after joining a cult that got its hooks into their wallets is staggering.”

    You ask your audience whether they wouldn’t think that Joel would want to make his point as clear as possible, whether he wouldn’t want to give all the facts that support his claims. Yet as you analyze this article, you are content to give one example while hinting to many more. “his quote is just one example of many throughout the article. I don’t have room to list them all.” Anytime someone says “I don’t have time” or “there isn’t room here” or “that’s not the purpose of this writing”, THAT is a red flag to me. Why would someone spend so much time preparing a piece and cite time or space as a constraint? If you want to leave out information, leave it out altogether.

    • I went over the general thought control form in the previous cult spotting in much more detail, which I linked to in this post. As far as more information on cults, Cults in our Midst by Margaret Thaler Singer is a great resource to learn about the financial control cults exude. Also check out Steve Hassan’s website and resources.

  3. This is an excellent article and worth the read all the way to the end. Without writing a whole book, it’s hard to not end up with simplications and generalizations of your own, I don’t know Ornstein at all, but I do know that it is very useful for a time to “shut down the inner critic” so that you are able to free yourself from the unecessary oppression of learned attitudes towards yourself, attitudes that can be quite detrimental to your functioning and your enjoyment of life. This of course does not include being able to acknowledge mistakes, learn from them and where you’ve injured someone else with your mistake, apologize and make restitution. But, it does stop you from the kind of inner assassination that is too common amongst us (there goes another generaliztation worth a chapter of explication). If you are someone with an overly aggressive inner voice once you stop attacking yourself and are able to on purpose adopt a more positive outlook, such as self-compassion, then your life will greatly improve. If I knew Ornstein’s approach better than I’d know whether he has the kind of individual and group support necessary for people to make the changes he’s encouraging them to make in his sermon.

    • Yup, he has a handful of good things to say which wouldn’t be toxic if they weren’t couched with other toxic ideas. This series is designed to help train people to be able to recognize where something that sounds truthful because of grains of truth could potentially be dangerous. Unhealthy groups don’t advertise themselves as abusive or unhealthy. They advertise themselves as churches, support groups, growth seminars, and other positive sounding things. My hope is that people will learn how to analyze what someone is saying, no matter how positive it seems initially, and take heed if they find red flags. Knowing how to spot them is the first step in avoiding being sucked in to destructive groups.

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