The Prosperity Gospel gets a lot of hype – both positive and negative – in evangelical circles. Let’s be honest, who doesn’t want to believe that Jesus wants us to have our best life now or that by trusting him all of our problems will disappear? Who doesn’t want to pay their bills, have a nice house, be healthy, or live in peace? Many Christians have experienced the physical blessings of God in Christ, and that is something to rejoice over and sing about.
Yet is this prosperity truly the focus of the Gospel message? Is this what Jesus came for; is it why he died? The theology of the prosperity gospel has always bothered me intellectually, but recently is has also angered me experientially, sounding like a clanging cymbal in the midst of difficult circumstances. It has been the joining together of theological reflection and experience that has caused me to take seriously the danger which the Prosperity Gospel presents. There are five key areas where I see this gospel being theologically and experientially untenable, undermining the true beauty of hope in Christ.
It Creates God in our Own Image
The cornerstone of the Prosperity Gospel is that God gives physical blessings in this life to those who trust in Jesus. Claim God’s promises and watch Him bless your socks off. While it’s true that God often blesses Christians with health and monetary gain, the underlying assumption is that God is obligated to bless our faith in these ways.
This makes our relationship with God one based on a contract or a “what’s in it for me?” mentality. The blessings God bestow become about him owing us for our good behavior and not about his goodness and grace. This is to create God in our own image, lowering His holiness to our imperfections. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and his ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8). He is not obligated to bless us and does not owe us anything. When we use the gospel to bargain with God we have lost sight of the character and holiness of the King of kings we claim to serve.
It Distorts the True Gospel
The Prosperity Gospel also distorts the Gospel’s true beauty. The Gospel is good news because it shows that humanity’s greatest problem and need is not physical, but spiritual. Our greatest need is not health, physical safety, and prosperity. Our greatest need is forgiveness and the restoration of a right relationship with God, which Jesus has accomplished for us.
Yes, Jesus came that we might have life abundantly (John 10:10). But the abundance he was talking about was not limited to the temporal abundance this world labels as ‘blessings.’ The abundance Jesus offers in his death and resurrection is abundance of safety and security in our relationship with him. The true Gospel is that through faith in Jesus Christ there is no condemnation for our sin, we are in a right relationship with God, and we have the promise that someday we will be with him forever (Romans 8; Ephesians 2; Revelation 21-22).
It Misrepresents Jesus Christ
Because the Prosperity Gospel distorts the true Gospel, it also misrepresents Jesus Christ. Jesus himself promised that in this world we will have tribulation (John 16:33). As Christians we are not guaranteed that when we live correctly evil and injustice will never win in our life. But we are promised ultimate victory because Jesus has overcome the world.
When we preach the Prosperity Gospel we ignore the fact that Jesus did not promise physical blessings for following him. But he did promise he would be with us always and never forsake us, two blessing that are worth more than all the riches this world has to offer (Matthew 28:20; Hebrews 13:5).
The Prosperity Gospel also misrepresents Jesus by ignoring the suffering he experienced. If the blessing of God rests upon how well we live, than why did Jesus suffer injustice and die a criminal’s death? If God is obligated to bless us for good behavior, than Jesus died for nothing; his life and suffering were in vain. If the Prosperity Gospel is true, than Jesus’ cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” would be answered with, “Because you weren’t good enough.” This is decidedly NOT the true representation of Jesus or the Gospel and is a message we need to reject.
It Mocks Suffering, Pain, and Injustice
Experientially, the Prosperity Gospel mocks the pain and suffering each of us experience to varying degrees. Are the tornadoes that destroyed lives in Oklahoma, the political unrest in the Middle East, the 27 million trapped in human trafficking, and the personal pain you are going through the result of our lack of faith or hidden sin? The Prosperity Gospel would say yes, because if we were truly living in the freedom of Christ these things wouldn’t happen to us. This trivializes the injustice and pain we experience.
While it is true that sin and actions have consequences, it is not true that every form of suffering, pain, and injustice is the result of personal sin or unbelief. In fact, the opposite is true. Jesus was the man of sorrows acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53); Paul experienced such suffering he despaired of life (2 Corinthians 1:8); and the writer of Hebrews reminds us that some of God’s greatest servants – whom the world was not worthy – have experienced the most injustice in this life (Hebrews 11).
It also mocks our pain and suffering by raising an interesting question. If prosperity is the sign of God’s blessing, does this mean the wicked that are wealthy and healthy are actually righteous? Are the men who use women for profit and live in luxury the ones blessed by God? Is the crooked politician who climbs to power on the broken backs of others experiencing God’s favor?
The testimony of Scripture and our lives tells a very different story than that of the Prosperity Gospel. How long will we allow it to mock not only our suffering but the suffering of others and of our Lord?
It Weakens Faith, Producing Shallow Trust
Finally, the Prosperity Gospel weakens our faith and produces shallow trust in our lives. Is it any wonder many people’s confidence and trust in Jesus Christ is superficial and flounders in the midst of suffering when we tell them, “Just believe Jesus and everything will be okay?” The reality is that everything will be okay someday, but we are not guaranteed that it will be okay in this life.
When we tell people that if we trust in Jesus we won’t experience any pain, distress, evil, sickness, or injustice, we lie about life and about Christ. We settle for a mediocre faith built upon the sand. Then when the storms of suffering come we have no foundation and crumble. This weakness is not the faith the true Gospel offers or the depth of trust God has called us to experience. Rather, we’re invited to trust in the goodness of God through Jesus in the midst of real pain and distress. We’re encouraged not to lose heart because nothing can separate us from Christ’s love; and the temporal suffering we experience will end in an eternal weight of glory (Romans 8:35; 2 Corinthians 4:16-17).
The Real Prosperity Gospel
I hope you can see the danger of the Prosperity Gospel. It distorts God and the Gospel, misrepresents Jesus, makes a mockery of suffering, and produces a faith that is only skin deep. Yet there is a promise of prosperity in the Gospel we should not ignore. There is a real health, wealth, and happiness promised to us. In Revelation we find the description of the real Prosperity Gospel.
And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. (Revelation 21:2-7)
This is the real prosperity we can name and claim. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
AMEN!!! I agree with every word. Thanks for sharing your heart on this matter. I can’t tell you how many good, loving, sincere Christians I come in contact with on a regular basis who are suffering out of no fault of their own and yet, because of this aberrant teaching/understanding of the Gospel, they feel as if God is mad at them or they’re are not living righteous lives or that maybe God really doesn’t exist or worse yet, He doesn,t care about them.
Yes, I myself have struggled with the above thoughts and questions in the midst of suffering. They’re painful questions to work through, but it makes a world of difference to have a growing, correct view of the Gospel.
Thanks for the great post Sarah.
I preached at church last Sunday night on suffering as a Christian and I spent a few minutes dissecting the prosperity doctrine. As a child of the 70’s/80’s the prosperity doctrine was something that was drilled into us and became 2nd nature. What’s more, we bought it hook line and sinker. But you see, God has called us to be a river, not a dam, and this is where the prosperity doctrine falls on its ear because it spends its time focusing on us (making us a dam) and not on helping and serving others (which makes us a river).
We are blessed to be a blessing, that’s it. You mentioned that God will still bless us financially and this is true, he does; but if that blessing doesn’t flow… we’re doing it wrong!
Keep up the good work, I look forward to reading more of your posts.
Thanks for the encouragement Tim! I like your analogy of being called to be a river and not a damn; very helpful.
You’re welcome Sarah.
You can thank the Holy Spirit for that one. He gave that to me as a vision as I was praying one morning and asking God about some of the things that I had been taught. 2 Cor 8-9 talks about the collection taken up by Titus and the “famous brother” on behalf of Paul for the Jerusalem church -which is NOT about tithing, but that’s a whole other subject- and in 9:8 it says we, “having sufficiency in everything, [we] may have an abundance for every good deed.” As I read that I received an image of 2 rivers, one flowing freely and the other coming to a stop in a festering pond. The fact is that God has created us to be generous givers and when we let the blessings pool, we not only miss the opportunity to let the blessings flow on to others, but we will stagnate and fester, just like that pond.
Great post Sarah, I’m a big critic of prosperity theology myself and you’ve done a cracking job their of exposing its numerous faults. Shai Linne sums it all up pretty well in his song ‘Fal$e Teachers’ > http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pl4WevY-GPU
I’ll just address a couple of arguments you make and I have plenty of more responses if you want them.
“The Gospel is good news because it shows that humanity’s greatest problem and need is not physical, but spiritual. Our greatest need is not health, physical safety, and prosperity. Our greatest need is forgiveness and the restoration of a right relationship with God, which Jesus has accomplished for us”.
Yes that is true our greatest need is spiritual but if you don’t first address the physical need it’s very hard to address/reach the spiritual. (Maslow’s Hierarchy Model)
I would like to hear/read the thoughts of the ACTUAL poor, starving, homeless, rejected, those who have been raped (in constant fear of rape) or those in a war torn country in society.
I’m sure they wouldn’t mind someone who has prospered or a country who is prospering so they can feed them, clothe them and shelter them. Easy to dismiss when you’re living in luxury and yes if you have a ROOF over your head and SAFE clean drinking water you’re living in luxury. That’s the reality. Why do you think Jesus performed the miracle of the feeding of the 4000? He had compassion on them, saw their was a physical need and helped them. Unfortunately we can’t magically make food appear out of no where (if you can please send it to those who need it) and guess what, it takes money/someone who is prosperous to make it happen. Food costs money, shelters costs money, clothes costs money, that’s reality. Maybe you should learn to see the sign of the times because when Jesus came into the world, he knew what was going on in the society he was in at the TIME. TIME’S change therefore needs and actions we should take change, which is what Jesus asks us to do.
…55″And when you see a south wind blowing, you say, ‘It will be a hot day,’ and it turns out that way. 56″You hypocrites! You know how to analyse the appearance of the earth and the sky, but why do you not analyse this present time?
I find it hard to accept that Jesus in all his compassion and understanding would not want someone to prosper. Having money isn’t evil, it’s the LOVE of money which is evil, it’s a heart thing and your attitude towards it.
Here is the feeding of the 4000 from the NIV.
32 Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.”
33 His disciples answered, “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?”
34 “How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked.
“Seven,” they replied, “and a few small fish.”
35 He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. 36 Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, and when he had given thanks, he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and they in turn to the people. 37 They all ate and were satisfied. Afterwards the disciples picked up seven bucketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 38 The number of those who ate was four thousand men, besides women and children.
Notice Jesus has compassion on the people who have a physical need and he takes action.
Also, notice how there was 7 baskets of food left over. Why did Jesus do this? Surely, Jesus can count and knows how many people there are? The reason is because God blesses in abundance because of his goodness and grace. God doesn’t want us to have just enough, he wants us to have left overs and be prosperous.
Thanks for your insight Nathan. I hope you didn’t misunderstand me because I’m in no way saying that Jesus does not have compassion on the poor or that we shouldn’t seek to bring relief to those who suffer from sickness, poverty, and injustice. I’m in no way saying we should ignore the physical needs of others and only focus on the ‘spiritual’ needs. I believe the Gospel requires us to seek justice, love mercy, and to do everything we can to serve those in need. The Gospel calls us to meet the spiritual and physical needs of the world. The post’s aim was not to downplay compassion, but to look at a particular mindset that says physical prosperity is the mark of true Christianity.
Well if no physical prosperity is present how can we truly say that the ‘spiritual’ is actually there? God spoke the world into existence. God did something and it happened. God used the holy spirit in him and created a physical outcome. If the Holy spirit is in us, can we not do the same? Are we not created in God’s image?
And yes God will bless us because he is a good father, he must give us good things, that is his nature and as Christians we shouldn’t doubt this. However, it says (can’t remember where) that he will give us our hearts desires. What did he mean by this, our hearts desires (i think these were the words used)? It’s not what we ‘think’ we want but what we truly need from a heavenly/spiritual point of view from the heart and this is what God will give us. This may mean developing character, perseverance or hope which will in turn wipe away bills, allow you to afford education and live a happier life.
I think you’ve misunderstood the term physical prosperity, It’s a lot more in depth then what you’ve explained from a biblical point of view. It’s not just about having fancy cars and lot’s of money.
Also, Jesus died a criminals death so that we can reign in life, that was the ultimate sacrifice, the ultimate gift to humanity, that was the bargain. It wasn’t fair that Jesus died because he lived a perfect life, he was the epitome of goodness in every sense of the word. That’s why he had to die. We cannot compare what happened to him to us after his death. You will reap what you sow, if you choose to do good you’ll get good things, if you choose to be bad most likely you’ll get it.
I wish we could sit down face to face and chat, because I think we’re more on the same page than we realize. This is where I see the limits of blogging. All my thoughts and responses would probably take up more space than the actual blog post itself.
The verse you referred to is in Psalm 37, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Interestingly, this verse is in a psalm that deals with the prosperity of the wicked while the righteous suffer. David give the command not to fret when the wicked prosper because they will ‘soon fade like the grass.’ But how do we not fret? We trust in the Lord, delight in him, commit our way to him, trust him, and are still before him. In the context of the psalm, the ‘desires of our heart’ are God himself and knowing that “the Lord loves justice; he will not forsake his saints.” It’s one of my favorite Psalms.
I agree with a lot of what you said just a few points you made have me scratching my head
Yeah that was the scripture, thanks! Interesting when you consider the context in Psalms about God loving justice and not forsaking his saints. As with any scripture though, the true context I believe is taking into consideration the whole bible. For instance, reading the old testament with out reading the new leaves people questioning why was there so much violence and suffering, etc, and it’s similar to watching the start of the movie without watching the end, the plot isn’t complete. In short, ‘the desires of your heart’ can be interpreted to many different things if you keep reading onto the new testament, notice that it says the law was written on stone but now (the love/heart of God?) will be written in the hearts of men (that’s a very loosely made up quote, I’m sure you know the exact one). Does this not mean then that the ‘desires of our heart’ are now changed to a more complex meaning than originally intended in Psalms? In turn, I believe that God will give you the ‘desires of your heart’, but it’s God’s heart/love in you. After all, not all of our hearts desires are Godly.
And this is where a lot of Christians are misguided or don’t understand what the preacher is truly saying. Of course if they’re a good preacher they would explain this point
Thanks Sarah! I enjoyed your Blog entry! Definitely challenged my thoughts, which is always a good thing because that’s how I learn more, but I’ll stop replying now, think I’m taking over your blog haha…..maybe I should look into getting my own Blog ? hmmmm.
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