Stacked bank accounts. Three square meals a day. Nice cars. Nice homes. Good jobs. Steady income. Steady schedule. Steady pretty much everything.
Such a list often encapsulates American Christianity, and all sorts of people are eager to point out how such things inhibit the Christian life. Of course, Jesus was the first person to suggest such an idea (Matt. 19:24). When we look at Christianity in the West, this tends to be the attitude that colors our perspective. Two distinct and popular views about Christians and wealth have been in our cultural focus for the last decade or so. One is that wealth is necessary or a demonstration of God’s favor. The other is that wealth is an extraordinary evil that should be despised and needs to be overcome.
Now, in talking about wealth, there are a variety of different things that can either be understood within the context of wealth or that can be extrapolated so as to fall into the same arena in which these two views concentrate. Such things include: health, sense of purpose, security in life, self-confidence, etc. Not every aspect of wealth must pertain to the strictly physical.
Yet, many people who will denigrate the American church for its “prosperity Gospel” often do not or will not consider the ramifications for these other kinds of wealth and likely would not like to apply their criticism against these material doctrines to the realm of spirituality. Do those who claim that the Christian faith will make a person spiritually whole, however, not fall into a very similar if not the exact same trap of those who preach about material prosperity as a corollary to Christian faith?
For some denominations of the Christian faith, this sort of promise rests on physical healing and other signs. Others cater to a form of emotional peace that rids a person’s life of anxiety. Still others focus on the security of one’s destination in the afterlife. Now, is it fair to call out such aspects as being identical to the prosperity Gospel that so many people despise? I believe so.
As someone who has grown up and church and been around it now for a while, I have heard several different claims that use the same language as those prosperity preachers. A demonstration of signs, such as speaking in tongues or healing, represent true (or at least deeper) faith, and those who have them are on a higher spiritual plane. I have heard that before. If you struggle with depression or anxiety in some way, then something must be seriously wrong in your relationship with God. I have heard this before. If you’re only 99% sure that you know Jesus, then you’re 100% going to hell. Believe it or not, I have heard this before (and that as a child; imagine my terror).
Prosperity Gospel takes on many different forms. In light of the above examples, the idea of monetary security actually seems like one of the most harmless versions of it. Still, those who preach it are often lambasted while their critics go about preaching their own brand of prosperity without giving it a second thought.
The truth is that Jesus does promise a lot of things to those who follow him. He tells his followers not to worry about what they will eat or drink (physical concerns; Matt. 6:25). He says that we are not to be anxious about tomorrow (emotional concerns; Matt. 6:34). In the passage about the rich, young ruler, Jesus answers the question about eternal life, showing him that there is a way to be certain (eternal concerns; Luke 18:18-30).
If Jesus makes such promises, should we not be preaching some form of prosperity Gospel? In light of what we have seen from the monetary prosperity folks and the criticism they have received, most Christians will likely be hesitant to answer yes to that question. So, what are we to do?
We’ll keep looking at this topic in the coming days.