Monthly Archives: September 2013

What’s Wrong With The Prosperity Gospel

What’s so bad about the prosperity gospel? For those who may not know, the prosperity gospel is a twist on orthodox Christian doctrine that claims that God intends all Christians to be healthy, wealthy and comfortable as evidence of their faith. It claims support from the biblical image of Jesus as king, and the Christian’s adoption as children of God and heirs to the promise. The prosperity gospel in its many expressed forms has sparked an active, often heated debate among evangelical Christians. I hope to contribute to the discussion by examining two passages which I believe speak to the issue.

King on His Own Terms

The first is a very interesting incident recorded in John 6. It’s a long chapter and I would encourage you to study it sometime. This chapter opens up with Jesus feeding 5000 with five loaves and two fishes. The people are predictably impressed, leading to this interesting verse:

“Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” (Verse 15)

This is interesting because Jesus’ ministry on earth was marked by two things: He proclaimed the kingdom of God and people got upset with Him. So then, when the crowd finally recognized His greatness and offered Him a throne, one would expect Jesus to jump at the opportunity but He escapes them instead. Fortunately for us, Jesus meets up with these people again to explain Himself.

“Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” (Verse 26,27)

“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (Verse 35)

The people wanted a king to meet their needs. Seriously, living on a student budget for the last four years, I would very inclined to follow someone who could multiply food and so I really can’t blame them. But Jesus wasn’t content to be their breadmaker; He wasn’t going to earn their allegiance by giving them free meals. Jesus came for a much grander purpose and no lesser kingship would be enough. Jesus came to reign through offering Himself as the satisfaction of our soul’s deepest desires. The cross was the inauguration of Jesus’ reign on His terms. To be His followers, we must need nothing more than all that He is.

This is not to say that Jesus doesn’t care about our needs: He fed the crowd because they were hungry. In his time on earth, Jesus spent a lot of time meeting people’s physical needs, but that was never His end game.

This idea is reinforced in Matthew 6:19-33. In this section of Jesus’ famous sermon on the mount, He invites us to seek first His kingdom, trusting that our needs will be taken care of. God isn’t opposed to blessing His children, but His primary concern is that they get to know Him. The message isn’t, “don’t worry about stuff because Jesus wants to give it to you,” but rather, “don’t worry about stuff, get to know Jesus.”

The prosperity gospel falls short of biblical truth because it attempts to define fruitful faith in terms of material things. It sets Jesus on the throne to provide for us all of the things we seek our satisfaction in, instead of making Jesus our satisfaction. Prosperity driven faith looks forward to eventually being comfortable enough, rather than experiencing the full richness of knowing Christ. It’s this approach to faith that gets more excited about streets of gold in heaven than seeing God face to face and worshipping Him forever.

My parents provide for me an amazing picture of Christ centered faith. Early in their marriage, they struggled a lot financially, but have since come to a place of affluence. They have every reason to affirm the prosperity gospel. After all, they were faithful and got blessed with wealth. Still, my mom tells me often, “There is nothing in this [our] house, not even the house itself, that I couldn’t give up in a second.” Their trials taught them how to be joyful in all circumstances because they knew that Jesus remained sovereign.

King for our Holiness

I recently finished reading both of Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians in my devotional times and one verse stands out as especially poignant for our discussion:

“For this is the will of God, your sanctification.” (1 Thessalonians 4:3)

God’s will for us, the thing we are to be primarily concerned with as His followers, is our sanctification. The bible teaches that God is sovereign and working out events in our lives for His own purposes. Romans 8:28 tells us that God works all things together for our good. Our good, however, isn’t about comfort and things.

The book of James instructs us to count it all joy when we go through various trials. Hard times are good because they build perseverance which brings about maturity. In Peter’s first letter to the church, he claims that the validation of our faith through trials is more precious than gold.

God is constantly refining His church to present it to Himself spotless and without blemish. We are all being transformed into the image of His son in increasing measure as we look with unveiled faces on His glory. He allowed Paul to continue to suffer the thorn in his flesh (whatever that was) so that His strength would be made manifest in Paul’s weakness.

Wealth and health are not bad things, and I believe we can pray for these and enjoy them when they come. In Psalm 23, David acknowledges that it is God who makes him lie down in green pastures and leads him beside still waters. He also recognizes that God is with him when he walks through the valley of the shadow of death. His conclusion is that goodness and mercy follow him always and he dwells in God’s house forever.

Prosperity teaching fall short of the gospel because it overlooks the fact that God is sovereign over our abundance and our lack, our satisfaction and our need. It casts doubt on the soundness of our faith when things are falling apart rather than helping it grow through those times.

God wants to us to invite Him to rule in our lives for the sake of following Him. His purpose for us is to transform us more into the image of Christ. Anything less than this falls short of the gospel. The pursuit of God to gain anything less than God is unholy and not worthy of the death of Jesus. Prosperity teaching misrepresents why Jesus came. It misrepresents God’s plan for our lives. It keeps adherents chasing the wrong goals in life.

Now I recognize it’s often not greedy people who are attracted to these teachers, but desperate people. The teachings are very popular here in Africa because many people NEED to escape poverty. It’s often not a matter of buying a new car or house, but praying for enough to feed a hungry child. People are coerced to “sowing a seed” to force God’s hand to provide and false teachers take advantage of this, sometimes because that’s all they’ve been taught.

I write this piece as a Canadian who has never known this level of poverty. I write primarily to people like myself, for whom scriptural correction is what is necessary to help us resist this heresy.

I started writing this piece in Canada, and am finishing it in Uganda. This has added another element to my challenge both to myself and to every reader. We don’t have the luxury of sitting back and wagging fingers at our brothers and sisters here who are victims of this teaching. The model of Jesus’ ministry shows us that sometimes we need to meet the physical needs of people so that they are free to wrestle with the pure truth of the gospel. My God give us the grace to stand against false teaching in prayer, in word and in deed.

All things from Christ, through Him and to Him. To Him be the glory forever.

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Perspectives on Building Faith

What is faith? What is this remarkable attribute without which it is impossible to please God? We receive salvation by placing our faith in sufficiency of Jesus’ sacrifice to redeem us from our sin. We see the severity and the power of sin in our lives, and trust that God is greater than sin and more worthy of our affections and worship. We are saved by grace through faith.

But what role does faith play in our lives after salvation. It can’t be simply about trusting God to get us safely to heaven. It has to be more than saying the right words and keeping a positive attitude so God will be obliged to give us things. At some level, I know that I need faith in order to enjoy the fullness of the Christian experience, but I’m not so sure how to grow in faith.

Fortunately, God gives us His Word which teaches us all we need about life and spirituality. I was reading Hebrews eleven this week and it’s a phenomenal chapter on faith. The first thing I observed is that the entire faith experience is characterized by trust in the midst of blindness. Hebrews defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Right there is an admission that those who live by faith are certain about things they don’t know.

Contrary to our natural intuition and scientifically minded culture, faith is good. God commends those who act in obedience before knowing the outcome (Hebrews 11:2). The tale of Abraham is one amazing example of this. He was called by God out of his homeland “to a land I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). Without a destination or any logical reason to do so, he gathers his family and heads out. All he was given was a promise: And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Genesis 12:2,3).

Now imagine the absurdity of this promise: Abraham was old and childless, but would somehow be made a great nation. He was already reasonably wealthy, but God promised to make his name great by separating him from the business contacts and trading partners he could count on in his homeland. And promising to bless the whole earth through him was a stretch since even in Abraham’s time, the population of the earth was large, spread out geographically, and spoke different languages.

Armed with nothing more than a call and a promise, he went out and his story is amazing. He is commended many times in the New Testament as the father of faith. His legacy includes the lineage of Christ through whom salvation comes to the whole world. His faith was counted to him as righteousness and though he didn’t live to see the completion of his promise, he was blessed by God in his lifetime.

We have many stories of commendable faith given to us in scripture and summarized in Hebrews 11. Men and women who had no assurance except for God’s promise were able to persevere through various trials to remain obedient. We have the privilege of looking back on their lives and seeing God’s faithfulness, but they didn’t. They only saw God’s faithfulness after coming through the trials.

When encounter great men and women of faith, whether in biblical accounts or stories about famous Christians, I get the feeling that they got the most out of the experience of knowing God. Their faith allowed them to enjoy God deeply and compelled them to radical obedience  to Him. I don’t believe these two are separable. I’ve experience the greatest joy in God when I’ve been the most obedient to Him. We were created to know and to respond to God. Growing in faith, then, is necessary for my increasing joy.

I observe two perspectives in the text which build faith. The first is one of God’s character. “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). The value of faith is determined by its object. So strong faith must be built on a strong God.

Whoever would draw near must first believe that God exists. This itself is a decision of faith. God’s existence is not something we can prove by logic or science. Faith is what allows us to see the reality, indeed the necessity, of God. It is through faith that the eyes of our understanding are opened and we can see God.

In addition to believing God exists, we must trust His character. This is often more challenging for believers. We know that God is good, but we often don’t want to presume on Him. This is wise because God has not promised success for every venture we undertake. He does, however, reward those who diligently seek him. We know that He gives whatever we ask when we ask according to His will. Sometimes, God makes it very clear what He wants us to do, and He promises to come through when we step out in faith.

But what happens when we get it wrong? What if it wasn’t God’s call we heard, but followed our own path instead? One of my favorite passages regarding God’s will is Romans 12:2. I wrote a reflection on this verse a few months ago, and I continue to value this perspective on knowing God’s will. Simply put, we renew our minds by submitting our will to God’s Word and we know God’s will through testing. God reveals His will as transformed believers do what seems right. Paul’s story in Acts 16:6-10 is an illustration of this. God’s will was revealed to Paul in the midst of obedience. He doesn’t punish us for getting it wrong, He simply leads us into the right path.

The second faith-building perspective is from verses 13-16:

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland… But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared for them a city.

This earth is not our home; this life is not our destination. We value a faith based lifestyle because it allows us to sample our true home. Every day, we decide what ultimate purpose we will pursue. On one hand, there is a draw toward maximizing our comfort in this life. On the other is an eternal mindset which looks to maximize our joy upon our eventual homecoming.

Faith dies when we forget where our citizenship lies. It often requires us to lay aside the things that bring us happiness in this life to bear eternal fruit. In a world of finite resources, we are called to invest time and money into building God’s kingdom which could be spent enjoying the blessings of our earthly existence. Family, friends, food and fun are good but cannot be our ultimate pursuit.

The promise of scripture is that those who seek to keep their life will lose it, but those who give up their life for the sake of the kingdom will find it. Jesus promised Peter that there is nothing we sacrifice that will not be repaid to us in this life and the next. We were made to worship God. Faith seeks to grow in the practice of worship, and maximizes our joy in life by giving us a taste of home.

I’ve seen my faith grow as I meditate to internalize these perspectives. I can dare to be a little bolder as I do my job ministering to students. I can dare to pray specifically and go out in the confidence that God will come through. I’ve also seen how much growth is still necessary in my faith. I’ve seen where I’ve become used to making excuses for God and where I’ve allowed fear to influence my ministry methods.

I have so much to learn from God’s Word and the role models He’s placed in my live through personal relationships and stories of faith. Without faith, it is impossible to please God. He gave us the faith to believe and He is still working in us and will continue to do so until the day of Jesus’ return. He’s given us a call and His promises and He increases our ability to trust in these.

All thing from Christ, through Him and to Him. To Him be the glory forever.