Jared C. Wilson
We all do, actually. Or, at least, we all believe some version of it at various points in our lives. Oh, I know you aren’t cheerleading the charlatans on religious television or sending “seed money” for Creflo’s private jet. But the essential theology of the prosperity gospel lies close at heart in each of us.
What the prosperity gospel — sometimes called “name and claim it” or the “health-and-wealth gospel” — relies on is a pragmatic spirituality that correlates circumstantial blessings or curses with human strength, achievement, or even faith. Here are 4 ways ordinary evangelicals like you and me sometimes fall prey to a kind of prosperity gospel in our thinking:
1. We equate struggles with weak faith.
This thinking is a hallmark of the worst kinds of prosperity gospel teaching, in which people are told that their healing is contingent on the size of their faith. We obviously reject that mentality as it pertains to that world, but in our world we very often tell people who struggle to “have faith,” as if it is some kind of force field from trouble. As if Christians who “act right” and believe strongly achieve some kind of higher level of existence less entangled from struggles or suffering. We affirm this kind of prosperity thinking whenever we repeat the trite dictum “let go and let God,” for instance.
The problem with this, biblically speaking, is that we have numerous examples both in our own lives and in the pages of Scripture of dear saints who were afflicted despite and in their faith. We see in fact that faith is made precisely for the experience of living in a fallen world, where if everything went smoothly and we never hurt, we wouldn’t need reliance on Jesus as much, would we? So when we tell others to trust God in the midst of their suffering, we do well. He is sovereign and he can be trusted to work all things together for our good. But when we tell others to trust God to avoid their struggles, we promise something God himself does not promsise.
We do this, for instance, every time we engage in pragmatic teaching that divorces the imperatives of Scripture from the indicatives, every time we suggest that if Christians just follow steps 1, 2, and 3, they can achieve victory or unlock blessings or become improved or successful in certain areas of life.
But life is much more messy than that. And faith is much less formulaic. “In this world, you will have trouble,” Jesus said. And we contradict him when we imply or outright say that people wouldn’t face struggles if they just had stronger faith.
2. We equate circumstantial blessings with spiritual maturity.
There are numerous biblical exhortations to wisdom, prudence, and hard work that speak to material or other circumstantial blessings that result — wealth, for instance, or even physical comfort. And yet when we formulize these exhortations — “Rich people do rich people things,” as one religious spokesperson has recently claimed — we suck the nuance out of biblical wisdom and the texts out of their larger context.
For example, this happens whenever we make blanket statements about the poor, urging hard work as the alleviation for poverty. While it is certainly true that in many places and for many people, hard work earns material blessings, it is not true that it always does. Many poor persons work very hard, but for various reasons beyond their control, their circumstances do not much change. We tend to “flatten out” our considerations of wealth and poverty or success and failure, and when we do so, we must take care that we are not claiming a kind of personal superiority for ourselves that is evidenced by our material blessings. The claim is subtle, not often believed explicitly, but it’s a danger nonetheless. As Brian Fikkert writes in his book with Steve Corbett, When Helping Hurts:
If anybody dares suggest to me that the poor are poor because they are less spiritual than the rest of us — which is what the health-and-wealth gospel teaches — I am quick to rebuke them. I immediately point out that the poor could be poor due to injustices committed against them. Yet, all of this notwithstanding, I was still amazed to see people in the Kenyan slum who were simultaneously so spiritually strong and so devastatingly poor. Right down there in the bowels of hell was this Kenyan church, filled with spiritual giants who were struggling to eat every day. This shocked me. At some level I had implicitly assumed that my economic superiority goes hand in hand with my spiritual superiority. This is none other than the lie of the health-and-wealth gospel: spiritual maturity leads to financial prosperity.
Of course, this kind of realization may not strike you or me anywhere (we think) close to home. But we can still fall prey to taking credit for our blessings even if they are the direct circumstantial result of our hard work. When we forget that God can withhold any blessing he pleases even from hard working people like us, and that many hard working people like us nevertheless still struggle with poverty in many contexts, we make an implicit elevation of ourselves. We become the champions of our stories, not God. This happens, in fact, every time we disobey his commands to generosity. A refusal to be generous with others who do not have is a way of admitting we believe what we do have ultimately is ours and not a gift from God.
We must praise God, from whom all blessings flow. When we get up on our high-horse about why we have what we have and others do not, we aren’t just making a statement about the rewards of hard work — we are often making a statement about our self-righteousness.
3. We promise blessings in exchange for works.
Perhaps the most egregious example of this still found in many churches comes in the midst of giving or fundraising campaigns. One church promises a tithe-back guarantee if God does not bless your family in exchange for your commitment to financial giving. Others gather up testimonies about how those who committed to regular financial giving were later financially rewarded.
Sometimes it’s not about money at all. We engage in all kinds of works-righteousness promise-making when we tell people that God “rewards” acts of blind faith or good works. And of course, the Lord does reward his children for their obedience — it’s just not often in the way expected or promised. Many evangelicals engage in a kind of spiritual talk that owes more to ideas of karma or The Secret, in which “good energy” put into the world returns with good energy back to you.
I was sharing the gospel with a guy I’d just met last week when he told me he was in fact a Christian and attended a local church (who is pastored by an acquaintance of mine). I was grateful for the fellowshp when I elarned this, but I was discouraged a bit as he made statements like, “Everybody’s good by nature; we just have to find our purpose.” He went on to say that once someone finds their purpose and follows it, God blesses them. He had a testimony himself of helping numerous poor families in his inner-city neighborhood and made a straight line consequence of receiving material blessings, as if God was rewarding him for his good works.
Biblically speaking, good works are the outflow of the unilaterial blessing of Christ, not the leverage toward blessings besides him.
4. We equate suffering with punishment.
I remember at my last pastorate as our little church endured one season of suffering after another, numerous precious brothers and sisters falling ill and too many of them even passing on to glory. The feeling was eerie. It became such a strange season of mourning for us, that a few people sometimes wondered aloud if God was warning us about something or even punishing us about something. It felt, at times, as if God was “picking on us,” even if we knew intellectually that wasn’t the case.
I have counseled numerous individuals in varying stages of anxiety, pain, and grief. The most common question asked is why? “Why is God allowing this?” “Why is God doing this to me?” “Why do I have to go through this?”
Of course, there are some answers to the why question in the Scriptures, but they speak mainly to the reality of living in a fallen world, a creation marred by sin, yes, and thus disordered and broken. We get sick and die because of sin, but not because of specific sin. I mean, of course if you engage in sinful behavior that has physical consequences, there is a direct link between actions and results, but I’m speaking generally to the kind of suffering every human living in this world inevitably undergoes. Jesus was asked about the man born blind — “Was it he or his parents who sinned?” And the Lord’s response undoes the cause-and-effect thinking. “This man’s blindness is not the result of his sin, but rather that God might get the glory through him.”
If you’re a Christian, you should know that your punishment has already been taken by Christ on the cross. The wages of your sin have been paid, perfectly and utterly satisfied by Jesus. You may suffer some earthly consequences for your bad decisions, but the punishment from God is done. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Rom. 8:1).
We must stay on guard that our colloquial spirituality does not betray a disordered theology. Each of us is prone innately to make more of us and less of God, sometimes even in the name of God. But the gospel is a great antidote to even these more subtle kinds of prosperity gospel. The good news reminds us that God loves us despite our weakness, blesses us despite our failures, comforts us despite our suffering, and favors us despite our sin. Christianity is fundamentally about God’s grace, not our exertion.
So let’s repent of the prosperity gospel lite, knowing that “he must increase; we must decrease.”