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.