“The prosperity gospel: the belief that God rewards faith with wealth, health, and happiness.”
The “prosperity gospel” has given biblical prosperity a bad name.
Take, for example, a recent New York Times article that highlights the lavish lifestyle of the founders of the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN). The article begins this way:
The prosperity gospel preached by Paul and Janice Crouch, who built a single station into the world’s largest Christian television network, has worked out well for them.
Mr. and Mrs. Crouch have his-and-her mansions one street apart in a gated community here, provided by the network using viewer donations and tax-free earnings. But Mrs. Crouch, 74, rarely sleeps in the $5.6 million house with tennis court and pool. She mostly lives in a large company house near Orlando, Fla., where she runs a side business, the Holy Land Experience theme park. Mr. Crouch, 78, has an adjacent home there too, but rarely visits. Its occupant is often a security guard who doubles as Mrs. Crouch’s chauffeur.
The article goes on to say:
The lavish perquisites, corroborated by two other former TBN employees, include additional, often-vacant homes in Texas and on the former Conway Twitty estate in Tennessee, corporate jets valued at $8 million and $49 million each and thousand-dollar dinners with fine wines, paid with tax-exempt money.
A number of other secular media outlets, such as Time Magazine, The Washington Post, and CBS News, have published major (and very critical) prosperity gospel stories in recent years. The Atlantic Magazine even had an article seriously questioning whether prosperity teaching caused the recent financial crash!
Many Christian leaders see all this as a terrible testimony to unbelievers. For example, in the NY Times TBN article, R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky, made his disdain for prosperity teaching very clear. “Prosperity theology is a false theology,” Dr. Mohler said. “Between its message and its reputation for high spending, TBN has been a huge embarrassment to evangelical Christianity for decades.”
I think Dr. Mohler’s critique of the way some ministries have taught and misused prosperity theology is on target. Too many ministry leaders have forgotten that it is God’s money and not their own that pours into their ministries. Leaders of ministries are not owners but stewards. And as the apostle Paul says, it is required in stewards that they be found faithful (1 Cor 4:1-2).
However, the statement that “prosperity theology is a false theology” can be misunderstood. I would rather say something like, “prosperity theology, as taught and practiced by some prosperity teachers, is a false theology.” Why the difference? Because I believe there is a true biblical prosperity that has nothing to do with the “health and wealth” gospel. In fact, I happen to be preaching about prosperity right now, in a series of sermons based on Psalm 35:27:
Let them shout for joy and be glad, Who favor my righteous cause; And let them say continually, “Let the LORD be magnified, Who has pleasure in the prosperity of His servant” (Psalm 35:27, NKJV).
God does want prosperity for His people! But that prosperity has little to do with mansions and limos and private jets.
The Hebrew word translated as prosperity in Psalm 35:27 is shalom, which speaks of welfare in all aspects of life: things like health, peace, safety, and wellness, as well as financial provision. So biblical prosperity has to do with wellbeing in every area of a person’s life. That’s what God desires and promises for His people.
But does that mean that God wants to make every believer rich? That’s not what the Bible indicates. In fact, Scripture is pretty emphatic that for a believer to seek, or even desire, material wealth is dangerous and damaging to their spiritual health. Look, for example, at the apostle Paul’s teaching:
1 Tim 6:6-11 Now godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. 8 And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. 9 But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. 11 But you, O man of God, flee these things and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness.
That seems to me to be pretty conclusive – believers are not to be focused on attaining wealth. This does not say that God intends for His children to be poor – far from it! In His time and for His own purposes, God may well give the stewardship of great wealth into our hands. Proverbs 10:22, for example, assures us that “The blessing of the LORD brings wealth, and he adds no trouble to it” (NIV). So, it is not wealth but the seeking of wealth that Scripture forbids.
Some have criticized the prosperity gospel on the basis that it is disproved by the fact that many sincere believers remain financially poor. As one well known Christian leader says, “I can show you millions of faithful followers of Christ who live in poverty.” That seems to imply that for some Christians, poverty is the position in life that God has ordained for them, and nothing in the gospel gives them promise of anything different. I don’t believe that! Look, for example, at David’s testimony of God’s provision for believers:
Psa 37:25 I have been young, and now am old; Yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, Nor his descendants begging bread.
I read this verse as saying that God’s design is that none of His faithful children should remain all their lives in bread-begging (food stamp) poverty. Certainly, many believers start out poor. I myself was raised in the projects. But I believe it is a grave disservice to the message of Scripture to communicate to poor people that God has made no provision for lifting them out of poverty. Both Scripture and experience demonstrate the opposite.
1 Thess 4:11-12 that you also aspire to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you, 12 that you may walk properly toward those who are outside, and that you may lack nothing.
Paul says that a faithful follower of Christ should expect to reach a place where, by the blessing of God on their hard work, they “lack nothing.” And that is what happens repeatedly when people are converted and begin to faithfully live the Christian life. It’s called, Redemption and Lift, a term coined by Donald McGavran, who was a missionary to India, a missionary historian, and the founding dean of the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary.
Redemption and Lift
McGavran studied how the church grew from big evangelistic movements among poor people in various parts of the world. He documented that one of the consistent results of these poor people getting saved was … they stopped being poor! They abandoned their lifestyles of alcoholism, sexual promiscuity and drug addiction, and became honest and hard-working members of the community. And their poverty turned into prosperity!
True biblical prosperity is not about “sowing a seed” in order to reap wealth. It is about following God’s pattern for life, and thereby being brought to a place of well-being in every area of life. In other words:
PROSPERITY IS THE OVERFLOW OF A GODLY LIFESTYLE!
That, I believe, is the message of Matthew 6:33, “But seek first the kingdomof God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.”
I love what the prophet Jeremiah records concerning God’s promise of shalom to His people:
Jer 29:11 (NIV) For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
That’s gospel prosperity!