If you’ve followed me for any period of time, you know that I abhor the prosperity gospel. As I wrote about here in Should We Call the Prosperity Gospel Something Else?, the prosperity gospel has a deceptive nature in that it is not really about getting rich. Because of that, prosperity teaching flies under the radar because many who gravitate towards it would denounce that Christianity is about lining the pockets. What gets missed, is that wealth is just a by-product of the real foundation: material blessings are a sign of God’s favor. So we really can’t restrict the prosperity gospel to money but to any material blessing that we place our hope in. It’s peddler’s would have you believe that getting blessed by God in ways that make you look like you are winning (by the world’s standards) is a true mark of God’s favor. This is the very nature of the prosperity gospel, that favorable conditions are a sign that God approves of us.
And it’s not just about despising a doctrine for doctrine’s sake. But this distorted teaching actually impacts people’s lives. Either people can be lured into a false sense that God is on their side because they are “winning” in life. Or conversely, feel like God is opposed to them when suffering and loss occur and believe they are less loved by God, failed in some way to earn his favor, or basically just have insufficient faith. It’s easy to ridicule those who embraced such distortions and spurn the teachers of this dastardly teaching. After all, the Christian hope, trust and confidence is the work and person of Jesus Christ. Period.
But if we’re honest, there is something about receiving tangible results to life’s negative circumstances: the rescue from wayward happenings, the reversal of loss with a gain of something hoped for, the improvement of life’s condition with a better home, car, job or status symbol. Receiving material rewards, while not the basis of favor from God, can make us feel like God is on our side, that he is looking out for us.
And that gets to the point of my post. We can chastise those who adhere to a prosperity gospel all we want. Yes, we are right to point out it’s deceptive nature. But at the same time, I think we need to recognize the attractive nature of this teaching. There is a reason people believe that tangible intervention and improvement of circumstances translates into favor: the God who sees, cares about his children and moves on their behalf.
One Old Testament story that I have wrestled with for a good while is the story of Hagar in Gen 16:7-15. It’s been a story that is often used to comfort the Christian who feels abandoned by God and question if he is on their side. Just look at this cast out maid, used for her uterus then tossed aside like yesterday’s garbage. God sees and cares, is the oft cited line. But here’s the rub. God gave her a promise regarding her offspring but then told her to go back to a wretched situation. She was not transported into some better circumstance.
Contrast with one of my favorite Old Testament stories found in 2 Chronicles 20:1-30. King Johasaphat and the Israelites were confronted with the threat of defeat from the Ammonites and Moabites. They were cornered without a clue on how to make it out. Stuck. Afraid. Hopeless. But they turned to God and cried out for his intervention of their very negative circumstances. God intervened and saved them, “So the realm of Jehoshaphat was quiet, for his God gave him rest all around (vs. 30).
Let’s not pretend that it doesn’t make a difference between when we are stuck in negative circumstances and when God shows us his hand of good intervention. This leads to my point about the unintended prosperity gospel. We who place our hope in Christ, who acknowledge that our acceptance from God rests in the promises fulfilled in the Son, the election of undeserving people, the placement of into the kingdom of light, can ache for a betterment of conditions, when God intervenes on our behalf. Conversely, we can be lured into a false sense of security when things are going pretty well. We know intellectually that God is on our side but really sense that when life is turning out pretty good.
I’m going to suggest that this desire and need for tangible interaction, for favorable circumstances is not without warrant. When God made creation and said it was good, it was not so that we could experience the dearth and disparity of tangible goodness and believe that it IS good. Rather, the original design for humanity was to actually experience in very tangible ways his goodness.
But when sin and death entered the picture, plunging humanity into separation from God, it also created a chasm between experiencing his ultimate goodness as it was originally intended in very tangible ways. Yes, we know that through Christ and the power of his resurrection, we win though our earthly circumstances may falter and communicate all kinds of physical deficiencies. Sickness and disease exist. Impoverished conditions can bite us for short or extended periods of time. But let’s not negate why this impacts us the way it does. We experience the affects of the Fall. We ache for when circumstances are made right.
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it to hope that the creation itself would be set free from its bondage of corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we await eagerly for adoption as sons. the redemption of our bodies. (Rom. 8:18-23 ESV)
Creation matters and the transgressions of it are felt for good reason. Creation is groaning until all things are made right, and we with it. It’s why the return of Christ will vanquish the actual disparities that prevent us from fully experiencing God’s goodness in very tangible ways. Tangibility matters. As noted in this Romans passage and also in 1 Cor. 15:12-49, ultimate redemption does not happen until our bodies are restored. There will be overturning of every impact of the Fall.
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 them as their God. He will wipe 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. (Rev. 21:3-4 ESV)
Where the prosperity gospel errs is believing that relief of negative circumstances are a sign that God loves us in this present earthly state. Prosperity teaching ignores that we will experience the enormous tension the disparities wrought by the Fall and that Jesus said in this world we will have trouble. But despite the distortions with the aberrant formulas of sowing and reaping and speaking things into existence, there is a reason prosperity peddlers yearn for that “better” circumstance. It is but a foretaste of God’s ultimate intervention, when every wrong is righted, every sickness healed, every impoverished circumstance made whole. It is where God reveals his hand and saves us to the uttermost. And so it is no surprise then that even we who abhor the prosperity gospel desire God’s hand of intervention for something better.