Archived Sections, Commentary

Rethinking a popular but flawed theology

For those of you who spend time with television evangelists, you have
perhaps noticed a rather pronounced theme in their preaching recently. It is
called Prosperity Theology, and it seems to be sweeping over the land like a
prairie fire. And why not? The theology offers so much and appeals to so
many. Some of the most obvious examples of this perspective are Benny
Hinn, Ceflo Dollar, Mac Hammond, Joel Osteen, Kenneth Copland, Joyce
Meier, T.D. Jakes, and, to some extent, Robert Schuller.
The message is quite simple (and very appealing!): If you pray hard enough,
or if you send in enough money, or if you follow these six (or more)
principles, or if you adjust your thinking, or if you buy my latest book (or CD),
then you can be sure that God will richly bless you. You can rest assured that
those blessings will come in material form (i.e., more money, better job,
better return on your investments, financial independence, and so on).
To quote a recent sermon by Joel Osteen, “God wants you to increase
financially. God is always trying to plant new seeds in your heart. God wants
to do big things in your life. But if you are going to receive God’s favor, you
must enlarge your vision. Until you learn to enlarge your vision, your own
wrong thinking will prevent good things from happening in your life.” Well,
who wants to argue with those words?
I do. And not because I wish to “knock” other preachers, but because I think
in all matters of faith and life, it is very important that we preach and teach
the “whole counsel of God” and not merely “cherry pick” as a way of
pandering to our audience. While I do hope that all preachers bring some
words of consolation and correction to their listeners, I think we need to “test
the spirits” to see how valid or bogus Prosperity Theology is.
Here are my four main concerns:
One, Prosperity Theology seems to picture a very passive God. God is out
there somewhere but only becomes active when we do X, Y, and Z. And, if I
don’t do X, Y, and Z, then I have no right to expect God to do anything in my
life. This is not the active God of the scriptures who is deeply involved with
his world.
Two, sin, according to Prosperity Theology, is simply a wrong way of thinking
about my life. If I change my thoughts (and by extension, my habits), then
God will give me all that I need of health, wealth, and happiness. I am very
much in control of my life and my thoughts.
This is a shallow understanding of sin to say the least. Sin is humankind in
open and hostile rebellion against God! We are such flawed and broken beings
that we cannot “fix’ ourselves. In fact, we are sick unto death and it is only
the saving work of Jesus Christ that can restore us to health once more, and
not six self-help steps to fame and fortune. And if we doubt the seriousness
of our true human condition, we need only pick up the morning newspaper.
Three, while it is true that the Old Testament contains some passages that
are conditional (if we do such and such, then God will bless us), the New
Testament has a very different understanding of the word “blessing.” There is
not a Beatitude, for example, that promises us material wealth. In fact, one
could conclude that the lack of material wealth could be seen as a blessing.
The blessings of which our Lord spoke (reflecting his own rather simple
lifestyle) were definitely non-material such as love, peace, joy, hope,
forgiveness, mercy, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (see
“fruits of the Spirit,” Galatians 5:22). These are gifts that we as God’s people
ought to be most interested in acquiring. Weren’t we told it is more blessed
to give than to receive?
Four, Prosperity Theology raises the whole question of material wealth in our
lives. It is true that the Bible does not condemn wealth per se. It is the love of
money that is the root of all evil. At the same time, Jesus gave stern warnings
about the dangers of wealth. Parables such as the Rich Man and Lazarus, the
Rich Young Ruler, and the Wealthy Farmer who took his leisure only to have
his soul required of him that very night, should give us all pause. Following
Jesus is no guarantee of health and wealth. In fact, it may guarantee just the
Money can be a wonderful servant or a terrible master. And money can easily
become the one true god of our lives, lulling us into spiritual complacency
and a lethal idolatry. Someone has noted that we should always be asking
these two questions: What am I doing with my wealth? And what is my wealth
doing to me?
I’ve always liked the acronyms for MINE or GOD’S. More Is Never Enough or
Giving Our Daily Share.
In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer declares that Christ
calls us to come and to die — to die to sin, to die to self, and to die to the
corrupted values of this world order. That thought alone should make us all
wary of any get-rich-quick theology.