Life Hope & Truth

From the November/December 2017 issue of Discern Magazine

What’s Wrong With the Prosperity Gospel?

God has made many promises, and He has our best interests in mind. But does that mean faithful Christians will always be healthy and wealthy in this life?

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Several years ago, I had an intriguing conversation with a Christian churchgoer in New Zealand. He firmly believed that if he prayed to God for divine healing, he would always be healed—every time. In fact, he held that God would have to heal him, without fail. I raised the idea that we all die of something, whether by illness, accident or old age. He was undeterred.

Later I realized that his belief is similar to a modern movement in Christianity sometimes called the prosperity gospel, the health and wealth gospel, or “name it and claim it.” Tens of millions of Christians worldwide profess some form of this modern gospel message. Some of America’s largest megachurches are in the forefront of this movement.

So, what is the prosperity gospel?

In a New York Times opinion article, Kate Bowler, a historian of the prosperity gospel, stated:

“Put simply, the prosperity gospel is the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith. … I learned that the prosperity gospel sprang, in part, from the American metaphysical tradition of New Thought, a late-19th-century ripening of ideas about the power of the mind: Positive thoughts yielded positive circumstances, and negative thoughts negative circumstances.”

She further explained that “variations of this belief became foundational to the development of self-help psychology” (Feb. 13, 2016).

A new gospel with wide appeal

Last year a South African reader of our Life, Hope & Truth website asked, “What is wrong with the prosperity gospel?” It’s a valid question.

Don’t all of us—whether we live in relative affluence or are struggling with poverty, disease and suffering—want to hear good news and have a good life? To hear that God wants to make us healthy and wealthy now is certainly very appealing.

A Time magazine article titled “Does God Want You to Be Rich?” quoted Stephen Prothero, noted author and chairman of the religion department at Boston University: “Poor people like Prosperity. They hear it as aspirant. They hear, ‘You can make it too—buy a car, get a job, get wealthy.’ It can function as a form of liberation” (Sept. 10, 2006).

So it’s not surprising that an accompanying Time poll found that “17% of Christians surveyed said they considered themselves part of such a movement, while a full 61% believed that God wants people to be prosperous.” In fact, “31% … agreed that if you give your money to God, God will bless you with more money.”

Time also noted that the emphasis of the prosperity gospel “is on God’s promised generosity in this life and the ability of believers to claim it for themselves. In a nutshell, it suggests that a God who loves you does not want you to be broke.’”

Television evangelist Joyce Meyer said, “Who would want to get in on something where you’re miserable, poor, broke and ugly and you just have to muddle through until you get to heaven? … I believe God wants to give us nice things” (as quoted in Time).

But is this prosperity gospel true?

God does want to give us good things, nice things, spiritually rich things. However, does the prosperity gospel agree with the true message that Jesus Christ brought when He walked the earth 2,000 years ago?

Notice Jesus’ own words: “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).

What came first in His mind? The future Kingdom of God and building godly character in preparation for it. In the previous verses, Christ had just admonished His followers to not worry about food, drink and clothing—basics of physical life. God would provide those things because He already knew of their need. All the other things of life would be taken care of if people put spiritual matters first.

Earlier in the chapter, He stated, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, … but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. … For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (verses 19-21). He doesn’t want us to be caught in the trap of materialism, but to learn to be giving as He is giving.

Again, His focus was on the spiritual treasures of God.

Christ’s message, His gospel, was not primarily focused on health, wealth and never-ending physical blessings at this time. Those who think His priority was physical blessings in this life must think He has failed to deliver these riches to mankind.Christ’s message, His gospel, was not primarily focused on health, wealth and never-ending physical blessings at this time. Those who think His priority was physical blessings in this life must think He has failed to deliver these riches to mankind.

What did Jesus offer?

Jesus Christ offered His followers spiritual riches, spiritual understanding. He explained the blessing of having a close spiritual relationship with God, calling us His children (1 John 3:1-3). He revealed the truth about why we were born—to become children of God and receive eternal life (Romans 8:14-17). He desires all to receive salvation in due time and receive the gift of eternal life in His Kingdom (1 Timothy 2:3-4).

Was He against physical blessings in this life? Certainly not. His servants of old—such as Abraham, Solomon and Job—were enormously wealthy and certainly were abundantly blessed. On the other hand, it’s also clear that some of God’s servants—named and unnamed—lived with great affliction, poverty and suffering. In fact, many saints died appalling deaths in martyrdom while seeking the grand future God had promised so long ago (Hebrews 11:13-16, 35-40).

The true gospel of God is not about something physical we can “name and claim” now. We cannot force God to do our will. Rather, He calls us by His graciousness into the knowledge of His ways and His wonderful gospel of good news about His future Kingdom and everlasting spiritual riches and blessings (John 6:44; Romans 14:17).

For further insights about God’s plans for you and all mankind, read our booklet The Mystery of the Kingdom.

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