I’ve decided to write a few blog posts concerning certain doctrines which are out there in the Christian world at the moment. Now, my entries are going to be rather critical of these teachings, but I think it needs to be done. Today I would like to begin by looking at the “Prosperity Gospel”.
This doctrine particularly frustrates me. This is because, if for no other reason, it presents a new Gospel, one that has been taken and reshaped by the world’s standards.
The “Prosperity Gospel” is rooted in the idea that “Jesus came to make you healthy, wealthy and happy…”. It will rarely ever be presented under the name “Prosperity Gospel”, instead being presented as integral and central to “The Gospel” itself.
The Prosperity Gospel is a very attractive teaching since it promises comfort and material wealth in this life if you just have faith. Sometimes associated with this is the idea that you must “seed your miracle” by giving your money to a particular preacher, certainly a lucrative market for the less-than-honest…
Now, there are certainly shades of opinion and variations in how literally the concept of Prosperity Gospel is understood – not every pastor or church will give an identical message (the nuttier end of the spectrum you find on YouTube is downright scary). However, all focus around the idea that God will always materially prosper you and keep you healthy in this world. I would suggest, however, that God’s plan is a little bigger than that…
The problem with the Prosperity Gospel is that this is not what Jesus taught and this was not the experience of:
1. The Apostles
2. The Christians of the early centuries
3. The majority of the Church today, much of which is in the world’s poorest countries
Now, I do believe that God desires what is best for me, but to assume that this necessarily translates into material wealth, health and happiness is a very, very dangerous idea. This is what we want, not necessarily what God knows we need.
Why do bad things happen to good people?
Supporters of this doctrine have a conundrum if all these wonderful things which their pastors and TV preachers have promised do not materialize.
How are they to understand the concept of a Christian who is materially poor, ill or struggling with life? Is the Christian not “living in victory” so as to see God prosper him? Does she not have enough faith for God to heal her? The problem in this theology is that if these wonderful things don’t happen then it’s all your fault. However, you don’t have to live much life before you come across some very saintly people who are ill or living in poverty.
I am not denying God’s providence. I do believe that God does still heal and He can choose to materially prosper. However, it is clear from empirical evidence that He does not do this for all. Indeed, at the very least, there must certainly come a point when a prayer for physical healing is not fulfilled since we must all eventually face death.
“Jesus suffered so I don’t have to…”
So does Christianity mean an easy life? On the contrary, again and again Jesus promises trouble for those who wish to follow Him. In Luke 9:23-24 He says “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me”. The rest of the New Testament bears witness to this “way of the cross”:
- After the ascension, the Apostles hardly lived in the lap of luxury (Acts 2:44-45)
- Paul tells us that sometimes he had little in the way of material goods (Philippians 4:12)
- Peter tells us not to be surprised when trials come our way (1 Peter 4:12-13)
- Paul begged God to take away his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7), but God did not.
The same is true later Church history. During the horrendous persecutions of the Church in the first four centuries Christians had their property taken away, were tortured and were killed. Another example would be St. Thomas Moore. He had wealth and power and everything a man could want, but because of his faithfulness to the Church he lost it all and was murdered.
What were all these people doing wrong?
The Good News: Suffering Redeemed
Christianity does not promise blessing in necessarily worldly terms. What is promised is the destruction of death and a restored life through the sacrifice of Christ.
In this restored life suffering is no longer meaningless. The New Testament again and again reminds us to “rejoice” when we suffer (Matthew 5:11-12, Romans 5:3, Colossians 1:24, 1 Peter 4:13)! We are imitating Christ and have the opportunity to grow in holiness. If we wish to be glorified with Him, we must first “share in his sufferings” (Romans 8:17). Even a “thorn in the flesh” can be for a blessing since His “grace is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
By uniting our sufferings to the sufferings of Jesus He can imbue them with redemptive value and we can “make up what is lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions” (Colossians 1:24). This verse alone deserves an entire blog post!
The world and the Prosperity Gospel tell us that poverty, suffering, illness and death are terrible enemies which must be avoided at all cost. In Christ, however, these can be embraced, transformed, transfigured and used for His glory.
Finally, Christ promises us a world to come. Many of the passages which are used in defence of the Prosperity Gospel really refer to the final consummation of the Kingdom in heaven. It is there, in heaven, that all things will finally be set right: bodies will be redeemed, faithful servants will be rewarded and “every tear will be wiped away” (Revelation 21:4).