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October 1983 · Vol. 12 No. 4 · pp. 27–37 

Robert H. Schuller and the Ethics of Success

Alfred Klassen

A Description of Schuller’s Success-Ethics

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The dean of the success gospellers is Robert Schuller, host of religious television’s upbeat “Hour of Power” and the inspiration behind the nationally recognized Crystal Cathedral. No one associated with American evangelicalism has done more to promote the twin-edged message of success through positive self-esteem and possibility thinking. 1

Weekly Robert Schuller’s success-ethics is telecast into hundreds of thousands of living rooms and is purchased in book form by a large number of his disciples.

This article is based on a study of ten of the books he has authored. First we will explain Schuller’s perspective on life and his central message, then analyze the strengths and weaknesses that are inherent in Schuller’s basic concepts.

Why does Schuller view the world primarily from the perspective of success? Because success is the primary objective of possibility thinking. Possibility thinking is an attitude that believes in the realization of noble goals. It is the “pathway to success.” 2 Dreams can be realized even if they seem impossible at first. One extraordinary example for this is the building of the Crystal Cathedral. Schuller also believes that the moral soundness of success can be established biblically and psychologically. “This ego-fulfilling need (to succeed) is theological as well as psychological.” 3 People need success because the only alternative to success is failure. To be successful means to adjust to the eternal theological and psychological rules of the universe in an unselfish way. Those who reject this adjustment are selfish because they choose failure willfully. Their own will is more important to them than accepting the eternal rules. {28}


Schuller sees success as a static and a relative concept. Success can be labeled static because Schuller defines it psychologically as self-confidence, “what is self-confidence but the belief in one’s ability to succeed over difficulties?” 4 In the deepest analysis success, therefore, is who a person is. Success means to be a person with self-esteem. This aspect of understanding success is the basis for everything Schuller has to say. The consequences is that greatness ultimately does not depend on what a person owns or possesses.

At the same time, Schuller says that “success is finding a need and filling it.” 5 This gives us the connection between success as a static and a relative concept. It is static because to be successful means being self confident. Each person needs to meet his own need for self-confidence and then help others to become self confident. However, success is relative insofar as only the ‘helper’ knows whether he has done his best in helping himself or others to find self-confidence. Outsiders ultimately cannot answer the question whether a person’s action is a success or not by referring to the visible results of that action like money or degrees. This is because there is no absolute external standard for success. Therefore, what seems to be a success for one person might be a failure for another. Even if it is a success for one person to have a job and to earn a thousand dollars per month, this might be a failure for another person. There is an important inference for a social ethics here because to have less than others does not necessarily mean one is less successful or is in need of help. If somebody is self-confident and reaches his maximum potential he is on the way to helping himself.

What is success when seen from theological perspective?

Here then is a theology of salvation that glorifies God, for it glorifies his children by lifting them from hostility and rebellion—generating doubt and fear to self-confidence-building, creativity-inspiring, human potential-releasing, human-brotherhood motivating, self-esteem. Here, too, is a theology of salvation that inspires the quality of individual life and social behavior which meets the biblical label, “Good works.” As such, this is a theology that, by its nature, sustains faith, for “faith without works is dead.” 6

This summary statement relates the glory of God, salvation, sin and discipleship to each other. It is real success to experience self-esteem and thus salvation from fear. Man is not a rebellious and hopeless sinner but exists in a state of inability. The encounter with Christ’s love gives him courage to love himself and others. The resulting self-esteem inspires possibility thinking, which in turn leads to earner-and ownership. Doing good deeds with the aim of building self-esteem, however, demands self-denial: “The cross is the price we will have to pay to succeed, {29} i.e., to realize the inspiring dream God has given us.” 7 Schuller’s success then, is an ethical concept that is understood as existential and practical discipleship.


1. By Developing the Right Inner Attitude

Success begins when a person develops the right inner attitude toward himself and toward the world. This means, it is necessary to accept total responsibility for oneself. “You can decide the outcome by your attitude” 8 is the success-triggering belief. It is wrong to blame the world and to expect it to change. Only when one’s thinking is transformed will the world change. The “right attitude” involves seeing the world primarily as it could be and not as it is. The “positive thinking person” is the “only sane person” in contrast to the “negative person who is crazy.” 9 This is because all descriptions of the world, be they positive or negative, influence future developments in the world. Furthermore, people have to recognize the limited influence of circumstances and life in general on their actions and on their self-esteem. Therefore one must be willing to live wisely in the sphere of these influences.

Second, a person needs the right attitude toward success. Successful people believe firmly in success, “they know that nothing succeeds like success.” 10 They equally know that it is of primary importance to build one success experience on the other. Failure, on the other hand, triggers failure.

Third, people need the right inner attitude toward God and toward Jesus. They must have a “mountain-moving faith.” 11 This is not a dead orthodox, confessional faith but the existential experience of God and faith that transforms the whole life. This kind of faith brings abundant life now. Therefore old conversion stories are generally uninteresting. The question is whether a person has an exciting experience with God in the present. Such relationship with God makes it possible to overcome human impossibilities. It also demands a willingness that we act wisely in this world and not offend people. Jesus was the ideal example for such a faith and therefore the greatest possibility thinker “for he was Self-Esteem Incarnate.” 12 Such vital faith leads to achievements, it defeats depression and it gives physical strength.

How can one get this right kind of attitude? It starts with the insight that this theory works. Schuller testifies repeatedly to the fact that it worked for him and for others too. This attitude also requires an act of the will. There must be a great willingness to accept this attitude. The will can be generated in a number of ways. A person can talk himself into possibility thinking (self-hypnosis), imagine himself to be successful or pray himself into a positive attitude. Short slogans and a “Possibility {30} Thinkers Creed” like the following keep a person on track.

When faced with a mountain, I will not quit! I will keep on striving until I climb over, find a pass through, tunnel underneath—or simply stay and turn the mountain into a gold mine, with God’s help! 13

A person can also move himself into the right attitude through concrete actions. It is necessary to read positive things and to seek out friends who have a positive influence. It is equally important to check one’s health and to set goals about what one wants in life.

2. By Catching All Positive Opportunities

There are opportunities and possibilities everywhere in the world. It is important to spot them because self-esteem is only gained through taking a risk, action and adventure. People who try to play it safe fail to see opportunities nor do they build self-esteem. Consequently they don’t succeed.

There are all kinds of possibilities in the world. Ideas are opportunities. They come from oneself or from other people. Ultimately, God is the one who gives them. Other opportunities develop through time, money, friends, patience, conflicts and change. God’s unconditional love, however, is the greatest opportunity of all. A successful person also knows that power is a very important opportunity for him. Success presupposes the ability to handle power correctly. “Success is a study of the flow of power: how to get it; how to keep it; how to share it; how to restrain it; how to use it; and when.” 14 Therefore, all ideas and situations should be used constructively and effectively. Every opportunity is a positive possibility. On the other hand, not all opportunities contain a sufficiently high success-potential. They must be tested for their success-potential. A successful person consequently is called to be a skillful manager who acts wisely and not like a fool.

3. By Dealing Constructively with Problems

Every problem is an opportunity for building self-esteem. Problems are mountains and needs in someone’s life. They should be approached with a positive rather than a negative attitude. One should even expect and welcome them. Most people try to avoid problems because they want life to be easy. They want the result without the price. To handle problems wisely implies that one puts them into the right perspective, lists alternative solutions and attacks them aggressively. Schuller lists numerous examples of people who successfully handled their problems and bases his advice on “decades of research and study of the regions of the human heart and soul.” 15 {31}


An interesting question is how this ‘Success-Ethics’ deals with those who are poor, oppressed or totally helpless in our world. How is love interpreted? This question can easily be rephrased and thus already contains the answer. How can a Christian help a ‘loser’ become a ‘man who wins’? Love is to help the loser become a winner.

The basic principle people have to learn about poverty, oppression and other troubles is that the real problem is not external but internal. The bad thing about poverty is not the absence of material goods but that it takes away people’s self-esteem. The “real plague and plight in poverty” is the “loss of self-esteem.” 16 Money is only a surface problem: “no person, no institution, no country, no business has a money problem.” 17 The question whether one really needs help depends primarily on the level of self-esteem a person has. Consequently oppressors (like racists) need help as do their victims.

If self-esteem is the key, Schuller asks, how can we help people find it? 18 First, one cannot help them by simply giving them what they need externally. If this is done it keeps people dependent on others and hinders them from building a healthy self-esteem through taking risks. Totalitarian systems of the right and the left are, therefore, unacceptable. Christians must also beware of making others dependent on themselves by freely giving them money. In spite of this danger there is a place for unconditional help to those who are helpless. The helpless will then find self-esteem by giving others a chance to be needed. Even violence cannot be a means to bring about justice since self-esteem based on bloodshed falls apart.

What positive possibilities are there, then, for helping those who are in need? (1) People must be told that their freedom and not their outward poverty is the problem. Every person has the freedom to act, to try, to risk, to fail and to succeed. In other words, people have to be motivated by appealing to their personal pride and individuality. (2) People must come to recognize that they indeed have possibilities for instance, everyone has time. Time should be valued as gold. (3) Furthermore, people should be given opportunities to develop self-esteem by creating jobs that challenge their hidden possibilities. A Christian capitalist who lives modestly and create jobs is a good example of this strategy. On the other hand, those who take their potential seriously may begin with almost nothing but end up as multi-millionaires, as for instance, Romana Banuelos. 19 (4) Finally, how did Jesus help those that were oppressed? Did he give them money or free them through violence? No, but he told them how great they were. He changed their attitude. The oppressed of Luke 4 come to know that they are the light of the world. 20 {32}

The aim of the helper, therefore, should be to help people change from an attitude of problem-rejection, challenge-rejection, excitement-rejection, boredom and death to an attitude of vision, enthusiasm, project, success and life.

In Schuller’s understanding, to be a successful person means to experience self-esteem, that is, to feel good about oneself. Self-esteem as a gift of God is gained through sacrificial service that builds self-esteem in others. It creates the attitude of possibility thinking which also leads to external success.

An Evaluation of Two Basic Concepts

The goal of achieving success is primarily based on two foundation stones: a clear emphasis on discipleship and a strong emphasis on a unified worldview. The following discussion will try to show how these concepts function as the basis for Schuller’s success-ethics. We will also enquire as to what extent these concepts are biblical.


1. Strengths

Schuller is very much concerned about the practical life of Christians. Jesus is seen as the example whom Christians have to follow. Christians have to practice their faith in helping the poor and in doing mission.

Schuller sees himself as a missionary to the unchurched. He frequently illustrates how he has been able to help people enter a relationship with Jesus Christ. Schuller has a deep concern for people, for their situation and their needs. He calls the church back from maintenance to mission. We must remember this and acknowledge that different Christians have different understandings of what it means to follow Christ.

2. Weaknesses

The first major weakness in Schuller’s concept of discipleship is the emphasis on individualism. This shows itself clearly in three different ways. First, that he tries to motivate people to live a life of discipleship by telling them that discipleship is rewarding. The cross lifts their well-being. Personal self-esteem is the ultimate goal. Even Jesus is seen as an example for this. His self-esteem is proven on the cross: “For the Cross protected our Lord’s perfect self-esteem from turning into sinful pride.” 21 Although this interpretation does not totally disregard the effects of Jesus’ death on God and man, the emphasis rests on the effects of Jesus’ death on himself. The relational dimension is secondary and {33} thus Jesus’ death is misunderstood. According to Schuller, Christians are called to follow Jesus in building their self-esteem.

Schuller’s concept and teaching of discipleship is a half-truth. Jesus’ followers are promised rewards (Mark 10:29-30), but rewards are not to be the primary motivation for following Christ.

Those who offer themselves to be disciples are obviously bound to be of the opinion that they can lay down the conditions on which they will do this. But a limited readiness is no readiness at all in our dealings with Jesus. 22

Jesus challenged Peter to self-effacing discipleship: “If anyone wants to come with me he must forget himself, carry his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Self-esteem is basically a by-product of biblical discipleship. In Schuller’s philosophy this by-product seems to have become the goal.

Secondly, Schuller’s emphasis on individualism contains within it the firm belief that man is able to follow Jesus. Original sin is not seen as rebellion which paralyzes him but only as inability. Man’s basic problem is fear not guilt. Schuller states: “You’re like a piece of furniture covered with layer upon layer of ancient paint. Peel, scrape and wash off the layers of camouflaging enamel and discover the rare woods underneath!” 23 If man knows what ‘the Good’ is he will do it. Consequently man is not dependent primarily on the work of the Holy Spirit but on the right kind of knowledge and insight. This kind of advice is contrary to Scripture where it is stated that people rejected God although they knew that he existed (Romans 1:20,21) and, consequently, are dead and helpless in disobedience (Eph. 2:1-5).

This is not a new notion. It’s a pre-Christian concept, rooted deeply in Western thought. It was expressed many Centuries ago by Plato who insisted that if a man only knew the Good, he would surely choose it. 24

Thirdly the emphasis on individuals shows itself in the view of God himself. God is the one who distributes rewards to people. Jesus is the Savior but not necessarily Lord. Although Schuller firmly connects salvation and ethics, and although he maintains that Christians must live a life of self-denial in order to be successful, he interprets self-denial superficially as “willingness to be involved in the spiritual and social solutions in society.” 25 According to Mark 8:34, self-denial means to ‘take up one’s cross’ which includes a willingness to say No! to the self and to surrender life itself. 26 Schuller’s shallow understanding on self-denial makes it easier for people to accept it, since God meets their needs and since he doesn’t demand too much from them.

A second major area of concern about discipleship is the emphasis {34} on results. The kingdom of God as understood by Schuller, is seen primarily as already fulfilled in the success experiences of this life. “God’s kingdom . . . is a society where the divine spirit of self-respect and self-esteem penetrates the substance, style, strategy, and spirit of human interactions and interrelationships.” 27 Consequently there is little place in Schuller’s eschatology for a future kingdom. Schuller insists that there must be results here and now and that it is possible to have success in the present.

One major consequence of the emphasis on results is that social ethics becomes a byproduct on the way to success. Success comes through possibility thinking. One such possibility is sacrifice and service. However sacrifice is only the price one pays on the way to success: “It is impossible to succeed without helping a lot of people along the way.” 28 Social ethics is not only a byproduct but also a spiritualized ethics, which demands a change of attitude or conversion in people. People have to learn to help themselves. This theory allows the successful to keep the major proportion of success for himself. It overlooks Jesus’ attitude (Matt. 5:40-42) of practical love “which puts the perceived need of others before the calculation of one’s own requirements or of socio-economic priorities.” 29

In summary Schuller’s social ethics is deficient in that it does not take seriously enough the needs of people but sees them mainly as means to an end and it overlooks a major emphasis in the teachings of Jesus. This is done to the advantage of those ‘who have’ and to the disadvantage of those ‘who have not.’ However the importance of changing the attitude of the poor and helpless should not be minimized since people are also called to be responsible for themselves (2 Thess. 3:10; Gal. 6:4-5). Discipleship, as understood by Schuller, is not really costly since it promises individual rewards here and now and since the disciple has only limited responsibility to share his resources with others.


In Schuller’s perspective faith and reason are friends not enemies. Theological and scientific truths complement each other in establishing the basis for dogmatics and ethics.

What we need is a theological restructuring which synergizes scientific and spiritual truth as related to the human being. 30

The relationship between Theology and Psychology, for example, is one of equality: “Neither one can claim to have ‘the whole truth’.” This theme recurs frequently in Schuller’s writings. Reason, faith and revelation are equally sources of truth. {35}

1. Positive Aspects of this Position

This position offers two major challenges to evangelical Christianity. In the first place Schuller calls Christians to live a wise life in all situations. He points to the fact that results often depend more on attitude than on circumstances. Therefore he calls Christians to say and to do everything from the perspective of service, that means, he calls them to lift others up and not to put others down by pointing to their weaknesses. Secondly, Schuller makes clear that theology must take into account human life and secular sciences. He shows how a theology of sin has had destructive psychological influences in the church. Theological statements have psychological effects, sometimes even negative psychological effects on people. These must be kept in mind when we theologize.

2. Weaknesses

The basic problem with this position is that it endorses an almost total sanctification of reason. Man’s world, cultural values like success, and God’s providence and creation are strongly emphasized, whereas God’s special revelation, the work of the Holy Spirit and God’s predestination are played down. Schuller himself believes in God mainly because faith is rational. He says that his faith rests upon the notion that creation demands a creator, that many wise people believe in God and that faith works. 32 There are several consequences of this emphasis upon reason. (1) There is a tendency to blur the differences between believers and unbelievers. (2) The attempt to describe the world as it could be and not as it is sees little importance in promoting an attitude of truth and honesty. (3) People easily misunderstand the emphasis upon reason and lose sight of the fact that God is necessary at all. (4) This attitude limits the freedom of God since it “forces” him to act when man’s reason summons him.

What, then, is a more biblical and Christian perspective on faith and reason? We believe that reason should stand in the service of faith in that it clarifies and explains the message of God and its relevance in the world (1 John 1:1-4). This presupposes that faith and reason cannot be totally isolated from each other but that they work in harmony and that reason is limited by faith in God which allows God to act in freedom whenever he wants. This limitation of reason is clearly delimitated in Prov. 3:5-8 where man’s relationship to God and reason is discussed. Von Rad says about Ps. 139:13-18a

The desire for knowledge is so pressing that, at the limits which are imposed upon it, it becomes itself a witness to God’s inscrutability. 33 {36}

Reason is similarly limited in the New Testament when Paul says that obedience to Christ destroys all speculations (2 Cor. 10:5).


Although it was not possible to deal with all major aspects of Schuller’s success-ethics, we have been able to understand that a successful person is a person with a high self-esteem that expresses itself outwardly. The ethics of success is based theologically on an individualistic and result-orientated view of discipleship and on a very high view of reason. Reason is not clearly limited by faith but on an equal level with it. Positively stated, this challenges us to a faith that must express itself practically in life and that does not neglect reason. Discipleship, however, is equated with success and success is the real goal of discipleship. This is inconsistent with the gospel which requires that we follow Jesus without conditions even to the point of sacrificing the self in obedience to him.


  1. Dennis Voskuil, “The Theology of Self-Esteem: An Analysis,” in Your Better Self, ed. Graig W. Ellison (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983), p. 51.
  2. Robert H. Schuller, Move Ahead with Possibility Thinking (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1967), p. 17.
  3. Robert H. Schuller, The Peak to Peak Principle (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1980), p. 57. Robert H. Schuller, Discover Your Possibilities (Irvine, CA: Harvest House, 1978), p. 85, explains that every psychological problem a person has is also a theological problem.
  4. Robert H. Schuller, Self-Love (Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell, 1969), p. 48.
  5. Schuller, Move Ahead, p. 76.
  6. Robert H. Schuller, Self-Esteem. The New Reformation (Waco, Texas: Word, 1982), p. 136. In his book Peace of Mind Through Possibility Thinking (Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell, 1977), p. 158, Schuller also states that one is only capable of emotionally loving God after one has achieved a positive self-image.
  7. Schuller, The New Reformation, p. 136.
  8. Robert H. Schuller, It’s Possible. Possibility Thinking Can Change Your Life (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1978), p. 8.
  9. Schuller, Peak to Peak, p. 110.
  10. Schuller, Move Ahead, p. 199.
  11. Ibid., p. 206.
  12. Schuller, The New Reformation, p. 135. {37}
  13. Robert H. Schuller, Turning Your Stress into Strength (Irvine, CA: Harvest House, 1978), p. 117.
  14. Schuller, Peak to Peak, p. 3. Schuller also shows that churches will have great success if they apply the universally valid success-principles to their opportunities. Cf. for this Robert H. Schuller, Your Church Has Real Possibilities (Glendale, CA: Gospel Light, 1974), pp. 72-98.
  15. Schuller, The New Reformation, p. 14.
  16. Ibid., p. 165.
  17. Schuller, Peak to Peak, p. 151.
  18. Cf. for this Schuller, The New Reformation, pp. 161-168.
  19. Robert H. Schuller, You Can Become the Person You Want to Be (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1973), p. 52.
  20. Schuller, Self-Love, p. 43.
  21. Schuller, The New Reformation, p. 75.
  22. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 4, 2 (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1958), p. 563.
  23. Schuller, Self-Love, p. 107.
  24. Lawrence O. Richards, A Theology of Christian Education (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975), p. 61.
  25. Schuller, The New Reformation, p. 116.
  26. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 7, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, s.v. “staurós,” p. 579 by Johannes Schneider.
  27. Schuller, The New Reformation, p. 72.
  28. Schuller, Peak to Peak, p. 2.
  29. R. T. France, “God and Mammon,” The Evangelical Quarterly 51 (Jan.-March 1979): 15. Cf. also the excellent book of Gordon D. Fee, The Disease of the Health and Wealth Gospels (Costa Mesa, CA: Word for Today, 1979) to this question.
  30. Schuller, The New Reformation, p. 27.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Ibid, pp. 133-134.
  33. Gerhard von Rad, Wisdom in Israel (New York: Abingdon, 1972), p. 108.
Alfred Klassen is a graduate of the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California. He is currently serving as a lay pastor in the Bielefeld Mennonite Brethren Church in Germany.