Ever heard of “manifesting”?
This self-help trend touted by celebrities, motivational gurus, and teens on TikTok has became very popular over the past few years. Google has reported a steady increase in searches for the term since the beginning of the pandemic and the word has been tagged more than 13 billion and 6.5 million respectively on TikTok and Instagram. Best-selling books have been written on the topic with one self-development coach and author, Roxie Nafousi, stating that “Pretty much everything in my life I thank manifesting for.”
So, what exactly is manifesting?
Well, it depends on who you ask.
For some it’s a kind of “if you think it, it will happen,” magical thinking, veering into superstition. For others, it’s more about aligning your thoughts and feelings with your goals in order to achieve what you want.
Manifesting doesn’t have a formal dictionary definition, but according to Wikipedia it involves “self-help strategies intended to bring about a personal goal, primarily by focusing one’s thoughts upon the desired outcome … While the process involves positive thinking, or even directing requests to ‘the universe,’ it also involves action-steps on the part of the individual.”
Manifesting is connected to the “law of attraction,” a focus of the 2006 book The Secret, which sold more than 30 million copies. The central idea of the law of attraction is that positive thoughts bring positive things into your life and negative thoughts bring negative things. What you “put out into ‘the universe'” you attract back to yourself.
But for some devotees like popular motivational guru Mel Robbins, manifesting is rooted in neuroscience. In a YouTube video on the topic, Robbins defines it as “.” She says manifesting helps remove the obstacles that get in the way and if done right, “removes self-doubt, fear, the excuses and stories that would normally stop you. When you do it properly, you literally make your[self] believe that it’s a foregone conclusion. And that makes you inspired to take the actions to get there.”
Robbins makes the distinction between wishing or hoping for something and manifesting,
“Wishing reminds you of what you are lacking. Hoping and wishing [is believing] someone else will come in and solve your problem. Manifesting amplifies the power inside you to do the work to change your life. When you change your actions, you change your life. Manifesting trains your brain to help you achieve what you want.”
Professor of translational neuroscience at Michigan State University Alison Bernstein said in an interview with Vice that “You can’t magically make things happen. You can [however] change the way you react to certain situations, which sounds to me like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.”
Regardless of whether its roots lie more in New Age ideas or in neuroscience, manifesting has taken on a life of its own, with various kinds of practices — from teens on TikTok who share how “scripting” (repeatedly writing down a wish) caused a crush to finally text them back, to top athletes who hire sports psychologists to mentally train them before the Olympics Games.
So, what is a Christian to make of this? Is manifesting harmless or does it have some merit? And where should the lines be drawn?
Veteran Catholic apologist Jimmy Aiken writes that the two fundamental problems he sees with manifesting are that it easily lends itself to superstition and that it doesn’t make necessary distinctions,
In other words, thinking positively, having goals, and taking concrete steps toward them are good. But don’t attribute too much efficacy to these things. And if you’re going to invoke superhuman powers, make sure you’re talking specifically to God (or his angels or saints), that you’re pursuing a morally licit goal, and that the result is dependent on God’s will rather than your efforts.
Dr. Greg Popcak, executive director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute, told Aleteia that Christians should always be wary of anything that claims to give them special powers. “As Christians, we’re called to cooperate with grace, not use it as a magic spell that enables us to bend the future to our will.”
Such distinctions and nuances are essential. There’s a big difference between believing that you can make something happen merely by thinking it and aligning your thoughts with your goals and coming up with an action plan that helps you reach those goals. There’s also a big difference between believing you have all the power to make something happen, and believing God is all-powerful and nothing happens outside of His will.
Besides, what about when bad things happen? What about those whose lives are upended by poverty, joblessness, betrayal, violence, war? Manifesting is not going to rid you of suffering or magically change circumstances that are well out of your control. But what you choose to think and do can help you cope with such circumstances.
Christians are indeed called to excellence. As Popcak points out, it’s good to dream dreams and make goals and it’s good not to be willing to settle. Even Pope Francis has talked about the dangers of settling.
“It’s good to imagine what might be possible and to ask God to help us to lead healthier, more abundant lives that can glorify him,” says Popcak. “It’s also true that when we allow ourselves to dream and make goals, it can help us focus on making clearer and more effective plans by which we can achieve those goals.”
Popcak reiterates that we can’t make anything happen just by thinking about it—even thinking really hard. “For the Christian, manifesting ignores the question of discernment. It isn’t enough to simply say to “the universe, ‘This is what I want.’ As Christians, our prayer is always, ‘Lord, what is your will?’”
Witnessing is still the most powerful
So what should you do if your teenager, or a good friend or sibling is obsessed with manifesting?
Popcak says it’s a good idea to point out what is and isn’t true, but to do so in a gentle way that allows for a more fruitful interaction. He advises: “Don’t criticize. Witness.”
“Acknowledge the good intentions and the positive effects of dreaming and goal planning …But recognize that we’re very limited as to what we can do on our own power,” says Popcak. “To really effect change, we need to have the King of the Universe on our side. And in order to do that, we need to submit all our plans and goals to him so that he can guide us on the path to true abundance. Be ready to share examples from your own life about how discerning God’s will and working to cooperate with his grace worked out so much better than setting out on your own to do anything.”