After reading this fascinating article on The Gospel Coalition, I wanted to take some time to reflect on my thoughts regarding the prosperity gospel, mainly because it seems to be the default position of so many in churches today. And it’s not hard to see why; it’s attractive because it fulfills our sinful desire for control. In other words, the prosperity gospel is attractive because it makes me the center of God’s universe, not the other way around.
Theologically, I think one of the main enemies of the prosperity gospel is the book of Job. Here is a man who did everything “right” from his perspective. He was a good father, a good husband, and deeply loved God. And for a good chunk of his life, you could even say that his life reflected prosperity gospel teachings: he had loads of faith; therefore he had loads of stuff. His life was #blessed. That is until the book starts. From there it’s pretty much an all out assault against the idea that somehow your faith manipulates and contains God. Unbeknownst to Job at the time, God allows Satan to engage him about Job, and Job’s life turns upside down. In the opening chapter of the book, he loses a good chunk of his wealth and receives the news that all of his children are killed in a freak storm. In the second chapter, he loses his health. Sitting in a pile of ashes, with painful sores all over his body and his wife telling him to curse God, Job says, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.”
For the next 36 chapters, the book dives DEEP into a discussion about evil, suffering, and God. There are lots of bad assumptions made throughout these chapters, but God doesn’t leave Job and his friends to discuss why this is happening without giving his direct input. And it’s this direct input that a lot of people can’t wrap their head around. What we expect to see in chapter 38 is perhaps God commending Job for continuing to be blameless in front of his friends. Maybe God comes down as a dove and lands nearby Job to bless and comfort him in his misery. Or perhaps a voice thunders from heaven that Job is righteous. Instead, God shows up in a whirlwind and puts ALL of them in their place. From a tower of windy chaos, God questions Job and asks him where he was when the universe was created. God walks through his power to create everything from nothing, and Job is made aware of his smallness, fragility, and ignorance. God unleashes his terrifying power upon Job, and at the end of the questions, Job has nothing to say except to be utterly humbled.
At the end of the book, Job is “restored” with more children, double the wealth, and restored health. Prosperity gospel preachers skip the middle parts of the book and only focus on the beginning and the end. They will conclude that if you hang on and persevere, God will reward you a double portion of wealth and health. But they miss the point entirely because they make the book about themselves. In case it wasn’t obvious, Job isn’t a book about Job. Like the rest of the Bible, this book is about God. And when God shows up in a tornado to Job and his friends, he’s communicating something about himself: he cannot be controlled any more than a tornado can be manipulated by men.
In CS Lewis’ excellent book, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Susan talks to Mr. Beaver about Aslan the lion:
“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr. Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
This quote is such a great piece of dialogue that illustrates the untamable nature of God. We cannot manipulate him with our good deeds or our faith. In fact, most world religions are essentially a list of do’s and don’ts that adjust the trajectory of God (or karma) in your life. Doing certain things and avoiding others put God in your pocket. Since you did a good deed, God now owes you one back; this is what’s at the bottom of the prosperity gospel. It’s poison for the young Christian especially, because it sets them up for disappointment and disillusionment with God when suffering eventually comes their way.
I hate that so many prosperity preachers take advantage of the poorest and weakest in their congregations. It’s so frustrating to see people give their hard earned money towards these thieves.
A more personal reason for why I hate the prosperity gospel so much is because there’s a version of it that I find myself embracing all the time. It’s a softer version that follows me wherever I go. It’s the version that says that when bad things happen to me, it’s a result of my lack of faith and my utter sinfulness. In other words, I deserve this specific suffering because of this specific sin. It’s this particular soft kind of prosperity gospel that minimizes the cross and instead elevates my suffering as a kind of “work” that can appease a holy God. I know this isn’t true, but it’s often my gut reaction to adverse circumstances.
Of course, there is a disciplining that occurs in a believer’s life when they sin. God often corrects us in our errors, and that takes the form of some suffering or adverse circumstance:
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
Discipline is essential for the Christian because it pushes us towards holiness and develops our character. But discipline is different from condemnation. Romans 8:1 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” This is one of my favorite verses because it helps me do battle against the voice that tells me that the cross isn’t enough. And at the root, this is why I hate the prosperity gospel: it diminishes the cross of Jesus Christ. It elevates worldly, material possessions above the sacrificial love of Christ. It exchanges the son of God as atonement for my sins. It shrinks and disparages the incredible mercy and grace of God. The prosperity gospel takes the Lion of Judah and attempts to tames him into a mere housecat; it never ends well for that person.