August 23, 2017

The “Real” Prosperity Gospel

A reader sent me a very nice note yesterday, talking about a bit of the scope and direction of my writing on this blog over the years. He mentioned something I want to share with you. Hear his idea and initial direction; then I want the ball.

It’s funny how among some of the religious types you seem to be surrounded by, there is both a deep hatred for the prosperity gospel, and something that at a functional level, is the prosperity gospel. A gospel where although Jesus may not give you a BMW, He will make sure you’re always happy, never struggle with doubt, and most of all, He’ll keep you from feeling like you might need to ask a question of Him. It’s subtle, but I had adopted many of these beliefs into my own life, and as God has been taking those ideas apart over the past few years, yours has been a voice letting me know I’m not alone. Your writing has helped keep me sane.

The real prosperity gospel isn’t the overt appeal to wealth. It is the more subtle appeal to God guaranteeing that we are going to be happy, and the accompanying pressure to be happy in ways that are acceptable and recognizable to the community of Christians we belong to.

The real prosperity gospel is the belief that God will- must?- keep things at a level where it’s still possible for us to follow Jesus without overt appeal to rewards in this life. The real prosperity gospel is revealed not in the promises of a yacht or a large home, but in the unspoken approval of a level of prosperity that allows us to live the Christian life on our own terms. It is the ratification of our private, sometimes entirely secret, arrangements with God of what his “goodness” means.

When I was having a tough time a few months ago, and anticipated things might get even more difficult, I shared where I was and what I was feeling with several Christians.

That was a mistake.

I’m not being insulting here. I don’t have any horror stories. It was simply a mistake. I should have anticipated that many Christians don’t have any real idea what to do with a minister who is going through a crisis involving the character and ways of God. I should have known that confessing a crisis in your understanding of God was incompatible with how most people understand what it means to believe in God and to “be saved.”

I found myself deviating from this “real” prosperity gospel’s hold on my fellow believers, and I soon discovered that the response was more to the threat of what I was saying than to the fact of what I was going through.

You see, the “real” prosperity gospel says that all of us ministry types have an inside track on stability, happiness and “being a good witness all the time.” If we have questions, doubts, crises or conflicts, then that raises the issue of whether the whole business is what some believe it is.

How can a church sing the praises of God and allow its members to lament the pain and questions? How can a church advertise their pictures of shiny, happy families if they acknowledge the presence of spouse abuse and/or divorce? How can we say Jesus is answering all the questions if the children of some of our people are becoming atheists? How can our claims about the warmth and attractiveness of our fellowship be sustained if we take account of the church quitters in our history?

What this has opened up for me is something of the reluctance of my evangelical family to be honest or to often even value honesty that goes beyond the code of silence. It explains something of the tacit, unspoken agreement that seems to prevail in all kinds of Christian communions to not speak about the the painful, contrary truths or the terrible, uncategorized realities. It has something solid to suggest about the highly selective kinds of thinking and behavior we maintain in the face of persuasive evidence contradicting our hidden deals with God.

This is, I believe, why so many report that when their worlds fell apart, the majority of the evangelical church did not know what to do, and easily resorted to responses like shaming, blaming and bullying.

We evangelicals apparently need to believe a version of the prosperity gospel where, at the least, none of us are below an understood “line of credibility” in Christian experience. And if we happen to go below that line, don’t expect instant encouragement. You may be surprised at what happens to you when you become walking evidence that not everyone is as happy, blessed, obedient and satisfied as they are supposed to be.

Ask yourself this question: Why is it that so many western Christians find the greatest challenges to their faith are experiences that do not even qualify as persecution or serious suffering? Why will the loss of a a job or the moral failure of a pastor lead to the end of faith? Why do interpersonal conflicts in a church cause so many to abandon Christianity altogether?

Is there something about these experiences that are inherently discouraging to a particular kind of faith experience? Perhaps a faith experience that says things should be turning out right most of the time?

The “real prosperity” gospel especially appeals to the idea that the church is fixing things, people and situations. In this kind of thinking the church has a repository of wisdom and power that can actually cause us to live in a different world than our neighbors, a world with different rules and a different outcome to the usual situations.

I don’t know of many Christians who want to stand up in front of a room full of unbelievers and say “I live in the same world as you do; a world with the same problems, the same questions and the same kinds of pain and failure. God doesn’t provide some kind of insurance or protection from this world, and Christians aren’t wise enough to understand or fix everything in this world. In some ways, you (atheists) may be wiser than any one of us. What we have to offer is the gospel of Jesus, and the truth of the gospel isn’t a pay off in this world. Whatever changes the Gospel makes in us, we remain human, fallen and in need of final rescue, redemption and resurrection. There is plenty wrong with us, and some of it is shocking and terrible. In this world, we’re on a pilgrimage to follow Jesus, to love neighbor and to live our lives in an authentically human way.”

What’s scary about that paragraph? It refutes the real prosperity gospel.

That’s why it scares me.

Comments

  1. A brilliant and needed observation! Tonight the Bible study group I lead is starting to go through the classic Philip Yancey book Disappointment with God. I will certainly add your essay to the “additional discussion materials.” Thank you!

  2. That last paragraph…Man, it scares me too, but in a needed way. It’s funny, because as much as we’re scared to say it, I have to think at least a few of our atheist friends are dying to hear it.

  3. Do you still even believe in the SB approach to “getting saved?” The root of your comments seems to be that people have no idea what real Christianity is, so perhaps the whole way of “becoming a Christian” is wrong?

  4. Some ‘atheists’ are people who, for various reasons, can’t see religion as anything but a failed attempt to live in “a different world” than everybody else. I’ve had more than a few conversations where I’ve failed to convince friends that we believe otherwise – their experience with Evangelical “magical” thinking rotted everything I said before I could finish saying it, causing the conversation to take a philosophical conceit and get me accused of dualism. Next thing you know, every asshole thing I’ve ever said is brought back up in an attempt to discredit my morals. “You’re a Christian, and you’re not special,” was supposed to be the point he was hammering home.

    How do you reach through misplaced anger like that? I couldn’t at all convince my friend that finding my ragged faith was the most humiliating thing I’ve ever been through.

    And for the record, I kind of like Evangelicalism; well, some of it, anyways. Saying so just made me look like more of an idiot.

    That friendship hasn’t been the same since.

    (did somebody open a ‘vent’ in here? or is it just me?)

  5. Kevin: I’m not following you. What do you mean by the “SB approach to being saved?”

  6. That you say the sinners prayer and become a Christian, forever and ever, Amen. At least that’s how I understood it from my Southern Baptist childhood.

  7. I attended a Southern Baptist church up to the age of 25, and the sinner’s prayer is the only way I ever heard of becoming a Christian (and they were into both forms of the prosperity gospel you describe here). But your argument seems to cast doubt (if I am reading it right) on that whole approach-because if people can’t understand the true meaning of the Gospel, and that it is not compatible with the prosperity gospel, then perhaps they were never Christians anyway.

  8. I like your last paragraph. It is scary but it conveys what authentic Christianity is all about.

    And than you for pointing out the real prosperity gospel. Many churches are in bondage to this gospel while reputing the “Health and Wealth” version which is more prominent.

  9. Love the post. I’ve seen many people who were afraid to “hurt their witness” by being real.

    Thanks iMonk.

  10. In my middle age, I find God’s love to be frightening. What is coming next? Do I really want to be Christ-like?

    Peter Kreeft has a podcast on Happiness that is worth listening to. For the Greeks, true happiness is actually “Blessedness.” And of course that leads to “Blessed are the…” and that means people who are not the winners in this world. Maybe our modern day definition of happiness is just plain wrong.

  11. Insightful post, Michael. Thanks!

  12. While sinner’s prayers and invitations to come forward aren’t in the Bible as means of conversion, they aren’t incompatible with hos the Holy Spirit may work in an individual’s life. I know hundreds of sincere and serious Christians who started out that way. I don’t use them, but I try to take a critical but generous attitude toward them.

  13. Thought provoking post. The question I have is: where does the “prosperity Gospel” end and “rest in the promise of God” begin? Certainly, there aren’t many examples (from the Bible) of people who’s lives were “just ducky” because they believed in Jesus. Most were beaten with rods, ship wrecked, left for deal, killed, etc. Just ask “the cloud of witnesses”. But then there’s all this talk of “a peace that transcends understanding” and an “all sufficient grace”. And that isn’t spoken of as a someday-in-heaven peace–it is spoken of a peace here-and-now when we apprehend our identities in Christ.

    But, without a proper understanding of the refining fires of suffering, we will construe this peace as “prosperity” as well.

    Great post.

  14. Kevin,

    your question highlights several problems in the typical evangelical understanding of “getting saved”.

    1. We are called to follow Christ, and to call others to follow Christ. We are not called to make a judgment about who is and who isn’t a Christian. (Of course we need to make judgments about who is and who isn’t a good example to follow, or a good teacher to listen to, but that’s on a different level).

    2. We are not supposed to be Gnostics; in other words it is not a matter of how much understanding and knowledge we have. A person can believe in Christ BEFORE they fully understand all that entails; Jesus talked about faith as small as a mustard seed, and faith is far more important in that context than knowledge and understanding.

    3. And finally, this reminds me of a problem I realized a while ago: The Bible talks about all sorts of aspects of the Gospel and the walk of faith in a variety of images. We run into trouble when we take ONE of these images for a given aspect and elevate it to the standard everyone has to follow and subscribe to. Then we criticize and look down on those whose experience leads them to embrace a different image used in the Bible for the same aspect of our faith.

  15. This post brings many questions, among which include:

    Don’t people read Psalms any longer? The songs of lament are powerful, not to mention the Book of Job. People in some of the Psalms got pretty “real,” as some today would put it.

    Why is confession pretty lame in most worship services? Even in more liturgical worship which includes confession, we pray a general prayer of confession and allow silent personal confession. It seems that we want to talk about sin, but not really deal with its effects, as your podcast on spousal abuse and the lack of response in the church indicated. I personally would like to get on my face on the floor before God and confess/lament my sin during worship with others of the community, then, and only then, hear the good news of forgiveness.

    Last Wednesday, I was invited to preach at a memorial service at the end of a 10-week Bible study for women who had had an abortion. Needless to say that isn’t a “happy, shiny” photo-op situation that a few words from me or anyone else can fix. I was amazed to hear the 3 women take responsibility for the abortion, beg forgiveness of God and of their children, and express their love for the children. It was a powerful moment. The leader of the group told me that only a very tiny percentage of women would ever attend such a group sponsored by and hosted in a church. Your post clarifies more for me why that is so.

    Again, with the ancient church, we need to pray, “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy” and show some more humility.

  16. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    That you say the sinners prayer and become a Christian, forever and ever, Amen. — Kevin

    What the snarks over at Slacktivist: Left Behind call “Saying the magic words” salvation.

    Especially when you have to Say the Words word-for-word (no paraphrasing or original expression) with the right spell gestures (like in Facing the Giants — on your knees, face in your hands, weeping uncontrollably). Back in the Seventies when I was becoming a notch on Bible after Bible, I was actually told that my previous STMWs didn’t “take” because I didn’t say it word-for-word with the proper spell gestures and positions. Talk about magickal thinking…

    And than you for pointing out the real prosperity gospel. Many churches are in bondage to this gospel while reputing the “Health and Wealth” version which is more prominent. — Alex Tang

    I submit that we give this gospel a name for identification, since it’s not the classic Name-It-And-Claim-It Health & Wealth. My proposals:

    “Shiny Happy Christians” gospel.
    “Stimpy Happy Helmet” gospel.
    (“Three Tools of Death” gospel is a bit too obscure unless you’re a Chesterton/Father Brown buff.)

  17. Michael,
    I wouldn’t say it was a mistake to let people know where you were at. (As if it would not have been leaked to the Christian Paparazzi anyway.) Quite frankly I think Christians need to see more devout and sincere pastors suffer the woes of this world. I don’t want to make this about me. But my wife plain left me 4 weeks after my ordination. Many in my congregation, contrary to my original thoughts, were strengthened in their faith because of that. I believe there are probably many who were strengthened by your public ordeal. Jesus doesn’t promise a rose garden, he promises a cross. We want the cross to be a rose garden, a trip to Mexico to help orphans while we’re on vacation. HAH. Have fun doing that, it is all well and good, but it aint your cross.
    (You may have made a mistake in asking some of us to explain our positions when you weren’t in the mood to hear the answer. We may have made a mistake in taking the bait.)

  18. Nicholas Anton says:

    Contrary to what one many imply, the term “Christian” in most cases in contemporary society is not used as an adjective (to describe what one believes and does), but rather, simply as a nomenclature (affiliation). In other words, it is in most cases name without faith and life content.

    The essential difference between the Catholic church and contemporary Evangelicalism, is that, while Catholicism centers around the physical church, it’s liturgy, and “experience” attained by and through it, contemporary Evangelicalism centers around the emotional, physical and material well being of the individual (prosperity gospel), and the program and rites to attain it (contemporary praise and worship).

    Contrast both with the following record of the second century church as most beautifully described by the unknown author of the “Epistola ad Diognetum”, which emphasizes neither the physical church and it’s liturgy, nor the physical, emotional and material well being of the individual, but rather the faith and life of the individual and community within but not as part of the non Christian world.

    “The Christians,” he says, “are not distinguished from other men by country, by language, nor by civil institutions. For they neither dwell in cities by themselves, nor use a peculiar tongue, nor lead a singular mode of life. They dwell in the Grecian or barbarian cities, as the case may be; they follow the usage of the country in dress, food, and the other affairs of life. Yet they present a wonderful and confessedly paradoxical conduct. They dwell in their own native lands, but as strangers. They take part in all things as citizens; and they suffer all things, as foreigners. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every native land is a foreign. They marry, like all others; they have children; but they do not cast away their offspring. They have the table in common, but not wives. They are in the flesh, but do not live after the flesh. They live upon the earth, but are citizens of heaven. They obey the existing laws, and excel the laws by their lives. They love all, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown, and yet they are condemned. They are killed and are made alive. They are poor and make many rich. They lack all things, and in all things abound. They are reproached, and glory in their reproaches. They are calumniated (slandered), and are justified. They are cursed, and they bless. They receive scorn, and they give honor. They do good, and are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice, as being made alive. By the Jews they are attacked as aliens, and by the Greeks persecuted; and the cause of the enmity their enemies cannot tell….This lot God has assigned to the Christians in the world; and it cannot be taken from them.”

  19. “… yours has been a voice letting me know I’m not alone. Your writing has helped keep me sane.”

    I agree and I’m sure many others would say the same.

    I’m a pastor at a large church. I preach now and then. Typically I get two responses to a sermon: People who don’t have their act together appreciated someone up front suggesting maybe that’s not the purpose of life. But others caution me about being too vulnerable, which strikes me as odd because I’m not very vulnerable. Unless of course you buy into this version of the Prosperity Gospel. Then I suppose admitting anything less than “I’m happy all the day” is pretty vulnerable.

    I still have a job, but I’m surprised at how attractive the idea is of becoming a school teacher and being some guy – a guy who struggles in marriage, a guy who doesn’t always feel like initiating with you to make you feel welcome, a guy who enjoys his kids, a guy who’s not sure how he’s going to pay all the bills, a guy living life – greatly blessed, struggling, alive, and sometimes even real.

    Thanks for your voice of sanity.

  20. Anyone remember “Prayer of Jabez”? This is the mindset that fueled the success of that book. Spiritual blessings are ours if we just follow the Biblical pattern for obtaining them.

    Oh, and you have to muster up enough faith. If you aren’t experiencing the promised spiritual blessing then it must either be faith issue or you’re doing something wrong.

    The only difference in this and the prosperity gospel is what you get. The method for getting it is still the same.

  21. What kind of fruit do you mean? And if you are asking if “fruit” can displace God….yes. Read God is the Gospel by Piper.

  22. Nine months ago I began attending a Lutheran church. Why? Because the very first sermon I heard there told me that being a Christian can be a difficult struggle, that being human means I’m going to sin frequently (& being a Christian doesn’t change that), and that what’s important is that Jesus died on a cross to give me the gift of Himself. It was the first church where I as a struggling, doubting, failing, sinner felt at home. I didn’t fit in the “my life got so good after Jesus entered it” churches.

  23. Memphis Aggie says:

    Nice post – we’ve got no guarantees of worldly consolations, just a cross – that’s definitely scary but real.

  24. Amen, Glenda.

  25. Thats correct Glenda that is why all Christians are called to daily convertion to Christ.

  26. Christians are suppose to live in a state humility controlled and guided by the HOLY SPIRIT not our fleshly appetites.We are to be carrying our cross while praying for Gods Kingdom to come and for people who do & dont know Jesus,not praying for a new SUV or a gingerbread palace to live in.

    MATTHEW 6:31
    “Therefore take no thought saying what shall we eat or what shall we drink or Wherewithal shall we be clothed? For after all these things do the Gentiles seek.
    For your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you.

  27. Ditto again Michael.

    I just bought a ceiling fan the other night and it came in about forty pieces for me to assemble. The parts were packed in one of those Styrofoam boxes that had about forty cut-outs in the precise shape of each piece.

    I found the evangelical church to be such a container. It has plenty of cut-outs for a variety of success stories. It has cut-outs for self-inflicted suffering, reaping the consequences of our personal sin. However, there is no place for someone who follows all the rules . . . and then all of life goes to hell in a hand basket.

    In my previous, Evangelical, life I believed in the mantra that if you do what God ask then life will be a blessing. The flip side of that is, of course, if anyone is suffering then they must have deserved it because they didn’t follow the rules.

  28. Holy CRAP that’s an awesome post. Someone just linked me to this in response to a little post in my own blog, and I must say this is really striking to me.

    Thank you for writing this. 🙂

  29. Christopher Lake says:

    I have never understood this version of the “shiny happy Christian life that always ‘works'”– because it just doesn’t square with Scripture. We are to be in the world, not of it, and being in this fallen world *will* involve heartache and suffering– *if* you are alive to how you really feel and are not desperately trying to keep up a certain persona for “Christian” appearances’ sake.

    Jesus has said that in this world, we will endure tribulation. He also told us to be of good cheer, because He has overcome the world. Being of good cheer, in my understanding, means taking heart and not giving in to despair. It doesn’t mean that followers of Christ must smile all the time and pretend that they never hurt or have real perplexities about the Christian life. Did Paul pretend in this way? Why should we try to be “holier” than him?

    God does not promise that if we “follow the rules,” life will always work out in some easily understandable way. He does promise that He will never leave His children or forsake them. That is our sure foundation in this world– not some life where the answers always come easily and we are shielded from terrible pain, emotionally or physically.

    I write all of this as a Reformed Christian who firmly believes in the absolute sovereignty of God over, and in, all things. Holding to that truth doesn’t mean being a Christian Stoic or zombie. Any Christian who thinks that he/she must always put across a shiny, happy image in order to be a good “witness” needs to read about David Brainerd or Charles Spurgeon. They both struggled terribly with depression but clung fiercely to God (as He held onto them)! These men were *real* with God. They were real about their lives and struggles. I wonder how easily accepted Brainerd or Spurgeon would be in many evangelical churches today?

  30. Timothy Mathis says:

    When I awoke this morning I went to my bible study home page and read the word. This is something that is now part of my morning routine.

    I have always been a believer but for almost thirty years I was in the grips of a horrible hopeless addiction. Through only the grace of God I am in the process of recovery and have been for some time.
    I am active in my church and I have truly found a new lease on life. Less than two years ago I had lost everything and all I had was the clothes on my back (literally). But the Lord has restored evrything that was lost. I have a home, a fiance, and things that two years ago I thought never were possible.

    However, things are not all rosy. I am still dealing with life on lifes terms. Things happen every day that affect my peace of mind. Employment issues, bills, family turmoil and the such.

    These are all gifts from God. I am living life as a child of God. On his planet with other souls with their own agendas. This brews a recipe for a day in this world that might be filled with disappointment,dismay, or event doubt.

    My peace comes from the fact that when I read the word I realize that times change but people and circumstances have not changed much at all. And today I am reborn with the love of Christ (John 3:16). I realize that I was a sinner and Christ died for his love for me and all his children. and love is the greatest gift of all. If it were possible to count all the promises of the Bible then we would all realize that their is none richer than a Child of Christ.

  31. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    I found the evangelical church to be such a container. It has plenty of cut-outs for a variety of success stories. It has cut-outs for self-inflicted suffering, reaping the consequences of our personal sin. However, there is no place for someone who follows all the rules . . . and then all of life goes to hell in a hand basket. — JMJ (interesting initials, that…)

    It also has no cut-outs for wannabe science-fiction writers who play D&D, attend AnthroCon, and weren’t wrapped all that tight to begin with. Which is why I’m on this bank of the Tiber; after all, the original meaning of “Catholic” was “Universal”.

    I have never understood this version of the “shiny happy Christian life that always ‘works’”… — Christopher Lake

    Imagine being the pastor of a small rural church (organized on congregationalist lines) where the congregation DEMANDS the pastor preach that (or “be Led into” greeting jobs at Wal-Mart). I know someone who’s burning out in that situation; he wants to preach and teach, but his congregation (who have hire-and-fire authority over him) just want to be Kept Shiny Happy Comfortable until Christ Comes Back and Takes Them Home. Not only refusing the meat, but even the milk. “WE WANT CANDY! WE WANT CANDY!”

  32. Christopher Lake says:

    Headless Unicorn Guy,

    It’s incredibly sad that the pastor whom you mentioned is being treated that way by his congregation. Although still under grace, they will be held accountable by God for their mistreatment of (and lack of gratitude for!) him. I do believe that congregationalism is Biblical, but it definitely doesn’t always work out pleasantly for those who preach and teach (or who want to hear) challenging, substantive sermons.

  33. To Ian: I second your “Holy crap”. Wow. This one was an eye-opener.

    The more I think about the “prosperity gospel”, the more I find a spirit of entitlement lurking in its teaching. It says, “I deserve to have things go well simply because I happen to be alive right now. What’s more, I want what I want when I want it (NOW) and no one can stand in my way. I don’t even care what anyone else wants, since it’s all about ME”.

    I’ll be writing about this myself; I think there’s something to be said for how anti-entitlement-complex the Gospel of Christ really is. We need to wake up and smell the narcissism at root of the prosperity and health-and-wealth gospels.

  34. You REALLY think God’s big enough to handle me admitting I’m just like everyone else? Doesn’t sound like advancing the gospel to me. 😉 Loved the post. Scares me to death.

  35. Brilliant! (as the Guinness guys would say).

    Ok, you got me reading Mr. Blue, “a gent who is so happy he’s almost crazy”. I’d love to hear any additional insights you might have about that: what is the difference between that happiness and the happiness of prosperity dogma?

    I believe happiness has a place in Christian life. I believe it is far more than an emotion. I believe that happiness is not dependent upon ones circumstances, that Chesterton is right in calling Job an optimist (and his “friends” the pessimists).

    It’s this whole “best life now/life you always wanted/life you only dreamed of” stuff that concerns me. If happiness is beyond my grasp until I obtain that “best life”, does that mean God is also inaccessible or unapproving until I do? Doesn’t this sound vaguely familiar to anyone else, that I can’t find Christ until I first reform my life? Isn’t that what Walter Marshall called heresy? When is my life “reformed” or “best” enough? So, I really appreciate your last paragraph.

  36. Why is it that so many western Christians find the greatest challenges to their faith are experiences that do not even qualify as persecution or serious suffering?

    Here’s my take on it, and it will probably be something that is way different than what you are used to, and based on different principles, but here goes.

    Trials and troubles happen to everyone. Period. We are here to be tested to see if we will do would God asks us to do, no matter what circumstances we are in. God is not on trial; we are. Our tests are tailor-made.

    So what good is having the Gospel of Christ, if everyone has problems? The Gospel gives us the best way to deal with our problems. Living the Gospel even when we are having problems tests our patience, but because God is merciful, He won’t push us past our limit. We can trust that what He gives us will be for our good and purify us. Tribulation worketh patience, and patience leads to experience, and experience leads to hope. Christ said that those who do what He said would build their foundation on a rock and the winds and floods would not hurt it.

    Sometimes our problems are of our own making. Sometimes our problems arise out of others’ bad choices. Other problems just happen.

    No one is free from trouble. Nobody. We have to wait for the afterlife for our rest from trouble.

    There is no need to be ashamed of your troubles. Hang on by your fingernails and pray like crazy!