The prosperity gospel is all around us. And while we might not chase after the crass versions represented by Joel Osteen and others, it is hard to avoid the message. In America, our great god is Progress, and if we are not advancing in this life, then something must be wrong. Recently, pastor Erik Raymond posted some excellent thoughts on how the prosperity gospel may be having more of an effect on your life than you think:
What do you think of when you read the words “Prosperity Gospel”? Odds are your stomach turns a bit as you think about the preachers on television that speak to very large crowds and appeal to even more in their books. More than likely you look at it as “out there” rather than “in here”. In one sense this is good. The shenanigans that some of those religious hucksters engage in should never be replicated in our churches. In another sense however, it’s naive. One does not have to be cruising around in a private jet or be dressed ostentatiously to qualify as a promoter of the prosperity gospel. It is more subtle. And it is more pervasive.
In its unabashed nakedness, the prosperity gospel is a damning heresy that is not a gospel at all. It is a Ponzi scheme concocted by those at the top to prey upon the weak and vulnerable. Preachers of this false gospel use God as a genie who is dispatched to give us stuff, as a result, the gospel gets reduced to getting more stuff. This message is primarily physical rather than spiritual and is about this (best) life now rather than the one to come. And most damning of all, it is about us rather than God. The cross of Christ is reduced to a stage prop to support the large tent meetings they hold. It is like they use Jesus’ band-with to hack in and launch spiritual viruses in the world.
Regrettably, the prosperity gospel has gone viral. Being more nuanced and subtle than you may think, it is very active in the church. Like a computer virus it is draining vitality and productivity in the covenant community. And you know what the worst part is? You may not even know that you are impacted by it.
Here are a few ways that you can tell that you are nibbling at the hook of the prosperity gospel, without, perhaps, even knowing it.
(1) You are dissatisfied by the ordinary means of grace.
The Sunday gatherings of the Lord’s people are very unspectacular. We sing, read, and respond to God’s Word together. We probably don’t walk out of church like we walk out of a movie saying, “Wow! That was spectacular! I can’t believe how it ended! I never saw that coming.” No, we do the same thing every week with some variation of songs or Scripture. We do this because God tells us to do it; he says it is good for us (Heb. 10:25). We trust him. But sometimes we want a little more. Dissatisfied by preaching, prayer and singing we want it to be a little more “our style” and to fit “our tastes”. Soon, we find ourselves looking for that perfect place for us rather than the faithful place to God. Somehow it becomes our show. This subtle shift shows that we are at least susceptible to if not fully on with prosperity thinking.
(2) You think more about God’s blessings than God himself.
Don’t misunderstand me, I am thankful for the innumerable blessings that are ours in Christ (Eph. 1:3). But we must remember that the blessings are not the end but a means to an end; they point us to God. It is God himself that is the ultimate blessing. You can see how this plays out when you lose something that God has given you (maybe a job, a relationship, health, opportunity, etc). How do you react? Many times people get sideways with God as if he has changed. This preoccupation with created things instead of the Creator has the footprints of idolatry (Rom. 1:20-25). It is also at the heart of the prosperity gospel. Christians should be on guard for this type of unbiblical thinking in their church and in their lives.
(3) You avoid communion with God in the Word and in prayer.
Let’s get right down to it: Christianity is spiritual before it is physical. If you are restless about what you see then you will never be content in the One whom you cannot see. There is an epidemic of Bible negligence and prayerlessness in the church today. It is not because we are too busy, too smart, or too whatever—it is because we do not want to have communion with God. I believe this is a demonstration of prosperity thinking. It is hard work and a real demonstration of faith and discipline to read your Bible and quiet your heart before the Lord in humble adoration, confession and petition. We are very distracted by our stuff and our craving for stuff (created things) and not so drawn to God (our Creator and Savior). This is prosperity thinking and it has gone viral in the church.
(4) You’re exhausted.
I understand some people are exhausted for medical reasons or for simply working hard. I get that. But, what I’m talking about is the weariness of the soul and body from the endless pursuit of stuff. Life is a sprint from one thing to the next. The whole day is filled with the pursuit and pleasure of things. We work and play—then we repeat. This is what we are told to do. But, what about what you cannot see? What about the world to come? What about the heart? Do we as Christians not believe that there is a relationship between our bodies and our souls? Is there a connection between the restlessness and lack of contentment in our souls that so drives us to grind up our lives day by day?
(5) You think that if you work hard for God then he will work hard for you.
Many have bought into this lie. We go to church, keep our noses clean, and do whatever extra we can. Then we hope God will do his part and bless us with good kids, a nice house, a steady job, and plenty of money. But what happens when the company downsizes? When the kid starts taking drugs? When the 401k shrinks? We go into private litigation in our minds because God has not kept his end of the bargain. We want to sue God for his prosperity promises that we have signed on to.
(6) You believe suffering is an intrusion instead of an instrument.
The Christian, of all people, should know that suffering is part of the Christian life (Jn. 15:20; Phil 1:29). We follow a Savior who was crucified after all! The prosperity thinking has shaped our thinking to see that suffering is an intrusion in our lives. “Why is this happening? How could God let this happen?” These are questions that operate from a position of privilege and frankly, biblical ignorance. It is happening because we live in a fallen, broken world. But, it is also happening because God uses suffering to strengthen and sanctify his people. He makes us more like Jesus through our suffering (Jam. 1:2-4; Rom. 5:3-5; 1 Pet. 1:6-9; Heb. 5.7; etc.). Far from an intrusion, suffering is an instrument from God for our good and his glory. How do you view suffering?
(7) You could just live here forever.
When so much of the emphasis is upon the here and now and so little is placed upon the New City that awaits us we have to ask the question, “Do you even want to go to heaven?” Let’s say I had the ability to make you a deal where you could stay here on this world forever. You would never die and the ability to enjoy this world would not end. You could play all the video games, watch all the sunsets, drink and eat all the whatever, there would be football, hunting, shopping, and whatever else you want. You could just ride the merry-go-round of this world forever without ever having to put in another quarter. The only catch is this: no God. That’s right, you can’t pray, read the Bible, go to church, or anything. It is on the shelf. Would you take it?
The very thing that makes heaven so heavenly is God. That which makes Christians long for heaven is the lack of God-wardness here (starting in our own souls but moving out to the world around us). Ultimately, we don’t want more rides on the merry-go-round, we want fellowship with God unhindered by our sinful flesh!
Prosperity thinking has subtly lulled us to sleep dreaming solely of sunsets, success, and self-fulfillment. Friends, it’s not ultimately about any of this. The gospel brings us to God. I’m afraid we’ve gotten this twisted. The prosperity gospel has gone viral and the worst part is, many of us don’t even realize it.