(This is the third part in a mini-series on the health and wealth gospel and what a missional response might be. Here is part one [CLICK HERE], here is part two [CLICK HERE], and here is part three [CLICK HERE]. Be sure to check back for more! Or just subscribe to my blog using the sign-up form on the right or at the bottom of the page if you’re using your mobile device.)
The prosperity gospel, AKA the health and wealth gospel, is a force to be reckoned with within Christian circles. There are millions of people who believe in its principles in the United States, and many millions more in the rest of the world (especially in Latin America, Asia, and Africa).
It’s central claim is that if you believe just so, which you demonstrate in part by funding ministries financially, then God will bless you with material things, money, and health. And while there seems to be some biblical support for this (see Jeremiah 29.11, Genesis 12, and Mark 1.29-30), upon closer investigation the basic claim of the prosperity gospel is antithetical to the gospel of Jesus and his kingdom.
Jesus and the Promise of Prosperity
This discontinuity can be seen plainly by the fact that Jesus consistently tells his closest followers to expect hardship, persecution, and the like. Why? Simply because they follow him!
Listen to a few of Jesus’ thoughts about this:
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9.23)
Taking up a cross and denying oneself certainly doesn’t sound like getting blessed financially or with health!
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. (Mark 10.25)
Why would God bless his people primarily through money, stuff, and health if in so doing he was making it harder for them to live under his kingship? That doesn’t make sense!
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6.20)
Notice here that Jesus explicitly says that the poor are blessed. How would that work if God only blessed folks with stuff, money, and a clean bill of health?
I could go on. There are many, many, many more examples. But let these three stand as chief examples of the fact that the gospel that Jesus preached and lived was not about giving people money or ensuring that they were always going to be healthy.
Sure, Jesus fed some folks and he healed some too. But Jesus didn’t always do either of these things.
But he did make a promise to us, a promise of blessing. In Matthew 28.20 Jesus promises to always be with us, until the very, very end. That’s his primary blessing. That’s his ultimate promise. Anything that would distract us from that promise should not be a a chief pursuit for a follower of Jesus.
In my estimation, proponents of the prosperity gospel engage in abhorrent and manipulative practices which often target the poor and they also seem to be theologically distant from what we see in the life and teachings of Jesus.
Being Missional and the Prosperity Gospel
But there’s an important twist to this story.
It’s really easy for me to wag my finger at the prosperity gospel people, but I should be careful. Jesus has a thought or two about this: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7.3).
So what is the plank in my eye with regard to the issues that make me angry about the prosperity gospel? I think there are two and I’m sure that I’m not alone in this struggle:
- I struggle with entitlement. At it’s core the prosperity gospel sounds an awful lot like a kid screaming in the aisle of the supermarket about how he’s been a good boy and deserves to get the sugary cereal he sees on the commercials and that all of his friends have. So when I hear someone saying things like “name your prosperity and claim it in faith,” all I hear is someone telling people that they are entitled to riches and health from God. And this bothers me. A lot. But when I get really honest with myself, don’t I do the same thing? When I pray I often say things like “But God, we’ve done X, Y, and Z for you; couldn’t you do this one thing for us?” I struggle with entitlement too.
- I struggle with desiring health and wealth. The prosperity gospel draws its power from simple human urges: the urge to have stuff and the urge to be healthy. These urges are biological, that is, they’re about survival. It’s hard to survive in the world (especially the modern world) without stuff and money. And any health problems are direct challenges to our survival. And I’m just like everyone else — I want comfort, and having stuff, money, and health can provide that for me. I want to own a home with a big backyard. I want to have clothes that I like. I want to drive a fancy car. I’d like a nice watch. I want to be healthy from now until the day I die. I struggle with desiring health and wealth too.
And when I think about it, most of the churches that I’ve been a part of have demonstrated that they struggle with these things too, both individual congregants and the churches and their leaders too (myself included, of course).
I think this shows up most clearly when people in church contexts talk about what the will of God is. What we typically mean when we want to know God’s will goes something like this: Which college will I go to, what will I major in, what kind of job will I get, who will I marry, how many kids will we have, how big of a house can we get, should we move to a bigger house, when and how should I retire, etc.
Now it may just be the churches that I’ve been in, the people I’m friends with, or my own makeup and struggles, but in America is seems to me that we’ve made God’s will look a lot like the average pursuits of a middle-class family. God’s will has to be more than that. And it is! In 2 Corinthians 5.18-19 we see with some clarity that God’s will is to reconcile all things to himself through Jesus. Our health and wealth would only play a small part in that, surely.
So when we go to great lengths to criticize the prosperity gospel and its proponents, are we also going to great lengths to see if we struggle with the same desires ourselves?
And are we leading the disciples we are making to care more about pursuing God’s kingdom no matter the cost or have we fallen prey to the prosperity gospel ourselves through our desires to look and act like a typical middle-class person in America?
I believe in a prosperity gospel too. I try to hide it. I try to push it down. But my flesh cries out for health and wealth just like everyone else’s.
But as an active follower of Jesus who is sent into this world incarnationally to share and embody the good news, I must begin to cry out more for God and his righteousness!
What do you think? Are we all tempted to pursue the prosperity gospel in our own ways? What should we do about it? Let me know in the comments below!