Why can’t the prosperity gospel work?

Anyone who’s watched much television preaching or visited certain churches has certainly run across someone promoting the prosperity gospel, the notion that God wants to make us all rich so we can be an example of divine beneficence to others. It’s tempting to buy into that distorted theology, but it could never work for anyone other than the “name it and claim it” preachers who come out dripping with gold like someone who starts a ponzi scheme.

Others have debunked the prosperity gospel more eloquently and adequately than what follows, but here’s a short version of why I think the whole notion is misguided:

Prosperity preachers may quote verses from the first half of Deuteronomy 28, which promised Israel physical blessings in return for obedience. Or, they may cite texts like Malachi 3:10: “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.”

They may quote the words of Jesus in Mark 11:24: “So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” Or they may cite Paul’s statement in 2 Cor. 8:9: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that although he was rich, he became poor for your sakes, so that you by his poverty could become rich” (NET).

The problem with this, beyond their cherry-picking selection, is at least two-fold. In the first place, the Old Testament texts were bound up in God’s covenant with Israel, and those promises don’t necessarily extend in the same way to Christians, despite the “health and wealth” preachers’ appeal to Gal. 3:14, which speaks of the blessings of Abraham coming upon Gentile believers (which many believe extend especially to American Gentiles).

We have to acknowledge that even under the Old Testament covenant, the standard theology of blessings and cursings did not always play out in a material way as expected. The Bible itself deals with that through speculative wisdom books like Job and Ecclesiastes. Those authors concluded that God cannot be limited to any theological box that humans may construct, even by quoting what they believed God had said. God must be free.

This, despite the addition of hyperbolic texts in the New Testament that are easily taken out of context, is at the heart of the matter: God must be free in order to be truly God. And a corollary to that is that humans must be free if we are to be fully human, made in God’s image. And the world must be free, as well.

If humans were not free to do wrong as well as right, we would be little more than animated robots in flesh and blood, programmed to act only in certain ways, while nature would be programmed to respond in certain ways. Freedom demands that we have the capacity to do good or bad within an open-ended system that is not limited to certain prescribed outcomes.

If we were literally guaranteed both health and wealth as a result of being faithful to God, and guaranteed a life of misery and cursing if we chose otherwise, who wouldn’t choose the road to riches?

All of us would choose the guaranteed pray-and-prosper path – but none of us for the right reasons. We would be following God’s way for selfish reasons alone: not because we believed it was right and good, but because that would be the only possible way to succeed in life.

This, for obvious reasons, would not honor God in the same way as worshiping God and following God’s way because we are grateful for what God has done and willing to join in God’s work of building a better world.

That can only happen in a world in which God and humans are fully free and in which the results of our actions are not rigidly proscribed. The righteous are not guaranteed rewards, and the ruthless may reap riches. That’s the way it works.

No matter what understanding of covenant we have, it all boils down to this: without freedom on all sides, there is no true love of God.

[These comments are adapted from “The Hardest Question” online supplement for the November 17 lesson of the Nurturing Faith curriculum, available through Baptists Today. I’ve posted them here not just because I think it’s as a sample of the kind of topics we’re likely to discuss in a typical lesson. For more information, click the “Nurturing Faith” box at left.]

2 Comments

  1. Much difference between spiritual "health" (and "wealth") than worldly health and wealth!

  2. I made a fairly serious mistake several years ago of concluding that the more I gave to church-related causes, the more God would provide for me to contribute to those causes. I concluded that God was too smart not to provide resources for his causes to people who would use them to support those causes.

    I'll spare you a lot of embarrassing and painful details and simply say that it didn't work out that way. I was wrong.

    It all seemed so reasonable. And I don't yet know the reason it didn't work that way. But it didn't.

    I don't have a lot of simple answers to complex and eternal questions, but if the prosperity gospel really worked for everyone, there wouldn't be any poor people anywhere.

    And for some reason, it seems strange for people to preach a prosperity gospel in the name of one who didn't have a regular income, didn't own a home, and was even buried in a borrowed tomb. Material prosperity just doesn't seem to mesh with a message that includes "Lay not up for yourself treasures on earth . . . ." At least in my opinion.

    "Would Jesus wear a Rolex on his television show?"

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