Maybe two of you who are reading this have opened it because of the title, and one of you is looking for affirmation of deeply held convictions and the other of you is outraged and ready to rumble. Let’s begin by defining some terms and then we’ll see if either of you feels better.
“Prosperity Gospel” is the term used mainly by its critics to describe the belief systems of those who teach that God wants most of all that we be happy and healthy, wealthy winners at every level. It’s our job to claim it, to believe it, to make way for the happiness. It’s not hard—just open your heart to God’s overabundant goodness, and take it in. Show that you’ve opened your heart by acting as though the overflow is already yours, and share it generously. If we fail to stand in our plenty, to claim God’s promises, then too bad for us.
This kind of thinking shows up all the time in Christian circles at a variety of levels. Here’s the latest example of “prosperity gospel” practices writ large: Televangelist wants his followers to pay $54 million for a private jet. It’s his fourth plane. The term appears in the first sentence of the article. Sometimes it’s called “health and wealth theology.” (It’s not only an American phenomenon, lest you think we have a corner on this. African Christian churches play large in the health-and-wealth sphere.)
Ultimately the conflict is about the nature of God. (Perhaps all meaningful conflicts are really about God?) What does God want from us, and what does God want for us?
If the prosperity gospel, with its “God wants us to be happy” message, is at one end of the divine nature spectrum, the other end has a “God doesn’t give two hoots if we’re happy, he just wants us to be holy” message. This perspective often focuses so intently on the glory of God that the ideas of God’s tender, intimate, and fatherly love fade into a splendor of severe, uncompromising, and inexorable holiness that plays havoc with our feelings and experiences. All of that personal stuff (“counting the hairs on our head,” “of more value than sparrows,” etc.) is merely there to provoke his inscrutable purposes. (“Inscrutable” is popular word for this. When we can’t make sense of God or what God does, we resort to “inscrutable.” This doesn’t make it wrong, for the mystery of God cannot be resolved with human reason, but it doesn’t help the beleaguered soul much.)
The prosperity gospel puts its finger on certain real teachings of scripture. God is generous. God does promise the abundant life. God is not a curmudgeon, a Scrooge, or a killjoy. He’s not the Great Inspector who only cares about the rules, whether they’re moral or doctrinal. God does love us, and love really does want the beloved to be happy.
The “inscrutable” gospel puts its fingers on certain real teachings of scripture too. God has eternal purposes in mind, and are we really going to say that he’d really like us to drive a Mercedes or have that Gucci bag or craft the unflawed life of perfect kids getting a perfect education, eating perfectly healthy food and having perfect skin and enjoying perfect careers? No, silly. God cares nothing about any of that. He wants you righteous, and doesn’t care if he has to make you miserable to achieve it.
Thus the tension. Is God a Lover who wants happiness or a Judge who wants perfection? (Both of these divine images assume a God of power, who can and does operate in this world. Neither of them posit a God too weak or uncaring to be able to effect change. That’s a wholly different theological issue.)
So this is the problem: if indeed God is sovereign, and God does want our happiness (as we define it), and God is willing to pour it out abundantly if we maintain the right postures of faith and good living, then how do we explain the travesties of “bad things happening to good people”?
The prosperity gospel answer always puts the blame on the individual. Where else can it go? I learned this the hard way a long time ago, which cured me of ever, ever, ever believing that if I’m good enough, prayerful enough, godly enough, generous enough, faithful enough, trusting enough, all will go well in my life.
Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke, recently released her memoir of a deeply personal engagement with prosperity gospel teachings. It’s a larger follow-up to her New York Times article: “Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me”. While her professional field of study has been the history of prosperity gospel churches, the research became much more pertinent when she discovered she had cancer, a completely nonsensical segue to her beautiful life of family, career, and faith.
So, then, how can I say I believe in the prosperity gospel? Because:
1) I believe God is the tender Father described in the parable of the prodigal son, and thus he does indeed rejoice when we rejoice, and weep when we weep. He does indeed want most of all to clothe us in finery and put a ring on our finger and feed us lavishly. And he can do so if he wishes (and will do so in his own good time).
2) I believe God’s transcendent wisdom alone makes sense of the nonsensical and provides the purpose (not the causes) of all our random victimization to sickness, failure, and evil. I recently finished N.T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, which is an exploration of atonement theory in light of the gospel accounts. At the end of the book, he makes some practical applications, including remarks about the inevitably of suffering. He points out that the resurrection life displayed in Acts has no guarantees. James is beheaded; Peter is freed from the prison. Paul is shipwrecked, and yet shakes off the poisonous snake bite without harm. Good things, remarkable things, happen—miracles and marvels. Bad things, inexplicably horrible things, happen—murder and violence and sickness. Wright comments: “At each point we have the sense that these things are not coincidental. Those who follow Jesus are precisely not to suppose that there will be no suffering along the way or that, if there is, it means they must have sinned or rebelled to have deserved such a thing. … On the contrary. The suffering of Jesus’ followers—of the whole Body of Christ, now in one member, now in another—brings the victory of the cross into fresh reality, so that fresh outflowings of that victory may emerge” (369).
3) I believe the prosperity God plans for us—the abundance and joy and outrageous, undeserved success—is the affluence of knowing and trusting his sovereign goodness. In an interview with Christianity Today, Bowler talks about reversing her faith system so that God is not measured by her definitions and experiences; rather her experiences are measured by God. This leaves us with a much bigger, much more unpredictable, and yet much more certain definition of prosperity. This kind of prosperity is not transactional, thus setting us free, so free, from the need to placate and manipulate God with our goodness so that we get the prosperity. Free to trust him and love him, even without guarantees of health or wealth or fame or, sometimes, even a sniff of success.
4) I believe in the prosperity of intercessory prayer, which joins my unfulfilled yearnings for the healing of the world to those of God. “Because it was always the will of the Creator to work in his world through human beings, this human role of intercession—of patient, puzzled, agonized, labor-pain intercession—becomes one of the key focal points in the divine plan, not just to put into effect this or that smaller goal, but to rescue the whole creation from its slavery to corruption, to bring about the new creation at last” (Wright, 372). So of course we pray that young mothers with cancer would be healed. Some are cured and some die. We pray that those imprisoned for their faith would be released. Some are restored to their families and some are beheaded. We pray that our unbelieving friends and family members might come to faith. Some see and others remain in darkness. We pray in agony and desperation and hope.
5) I believe God is more wonderful, God is more good, God is more beautiful, God is more worthy, and our destinies, embedded in his love, are more glorious than we can imagine. Prosperity is too small of a word.