Affirmations are not inherently bad or wrong. But I wanted to write about them here because there are certain points at which they slide into an act that is distinctly secular in nature and at times sinful. For me, it’s worth knowing the difference between the two.
First things first: the word “affirmation” literally means to affirm something: to acknowledge that a thing is so or is true. As Christians, believers are in possession of any number of truths that we can happily affirm both to ourselves and to others, even as a spiritual practice.
If you are in a time of struggle or anxiety, affirmations like these can be helpful. For the person who is anxious to say, for example, “God is in control of my life. God is with me in this present moment. God loves me and will protect me,” is to affirm a statement of Biblical truth.
A holy affirmation acknowledges what is already spoken as true in God’s word, agrees fully with that truth, and affirms that truth to the self. It’s a way of refocusing on God, bringing God into your daily life, and sometimes of inculcating in yourself a particular desire for, truth about, or longing for God.
But in modern culture and within the context of our current wellness movement, affirmations can also be something entirely different. Secular affirmations are often defined by the following characteristics:
a) they are often spoken as a practice to make something true or to define it as being true;
b) their potency rests in the speaker/thinker rather than in the ‘truth’ itself;
c) they require a focus on self and on one’s own mind and mental energy
Secular affirmations (called such to differentiate them here from specifically spiritual, Scriptural ones) can run the gamut from the silly to the profound. Some people might make an affirmation as follows: I am strong. I am successful. I am not defined by my circumstances. These affirmations are, at least in theory, meant to remind people of their ‘true’ identities and/or strengths and, in some way, activate those for mental/spiritual use. Other affirmations are more desire-centered: I will receive my desires. I will invite love into my life. I will grow kinder and gentler in spirit.
Secular affirmations spring from a New-Age influenced tradition that has existed for over half a century but is experiencing a current rebirth. The practice holds that by speaking something (or thinking it sincerely) we can make it become true. Secular affirmations are, in a very real way, a “name it and claim it” ideology. Speak the affirmation I am well, healthy, and strong, and believe it enough, the thinking goes, and you will it into being.
What differentiates secular affirmations from spiritual one is their focus on the self. Speaking a secular affirmation implies that the power to be healthy, or wealthy, or to receive your desires, or to grow or evolve, resides in you. Secular affirmations are a way of speaking out of your own god-ness: they establish you as the deity who speaks truth into your own life. God doesn’t exist within the confines of the secular affirmation; the speaker is you, and the beneficiary is you. Sometimes people talk about affirmations as having a particular audience (the “Universe,” energy, or a vague and general idea of god), but the individual is still the focal seat of power and control.
Frankly, I don’t need any help in feeling like the god of my own life; I struggle with that already. Practices that fertilize that ideology in me are not good, and I suspect that’s true for any believer. We’re so caught up in our selfishness and our right to everything we have that it doesn’t take much of a leap for us to feel that we really are in control of our own lives, that we really can make anything happen if we believe hard enough, and that if we do send out our thoughts or ideologies in the proper way we can become masters of the world.
Moreover, the practice of secular affirmation can be deeply damaging to the wounded and the suffering. Those who walk breezily out into the world and boast that their good health and fortune is due to their affirmations (I am well and whole; my family is happy and healthy) don’t consider how jarringly those words fall on the ears of a cancer patient or a mother who has lost a son. Inherent in the ideology of the secular affirmation–speak something and believe it enough, and it will become true–is the damaging counterpoint to those who are hurting: you didn’t try hard enough, or believe enough, or affirm enough.
Believers are empowered when we affirm God’s truth and what we know of God to be true. We can speak it for ourselves and claim it as our own, as it has been given to us, and the act of doing so reminds us perpetually that God is in control, and we are not, and that all good things come from Him. But secular affirmations turn our eyes down and to ourselves; they encourage us to believe that we are the center of divine power in our lives.
Still, I’d say that the one thing spiritual and secular ideology have in common is the belief that words–what we affirm and what we say and therefore believe–are powerful. Precisely because that is so true, we’d do well to be mindful of what affirmations we make. Our speaking reflects our hearts: our words ought to reflect God, not our souped-up belief in ourselves.