There are many preachers in America today who have sky rocketed to nearly rock star level notoriety. They lead huge congregations, write books, appear on TV, and reach a wide audience. As Christians, shouldn’t we be thankful for this kind of exposure? If the cross of Christ is being preached and the gospel is at the forefront, the answer is a resounding yes, but the problem is that with these giant audiences, many of these preachers are simply not preaching the gospel at all. They preach what has been coined as the prosperity gospel and, and in doing so a great multitude of people get the wrong ideas about what it really means to be a follower of Jesus.
The idea behind the prosperity gospel is that if a Christian has enough faith or believes hard enough, they can ask for and receive literally anything, but specifically wealth, health, and prosperity. The claim is that the promise of prosperity and health are given in the Bible. They cite verses like Malachi 3:10, Jeremiah 29:11, and John 14:14 and assert these verses indicate Christians will have whatever they desire if their faith is strong enough, and therefore if the Christian does not receive these things then their faith was clearly too weak.
This is a gross misinterpretation of Scripture. All of these verses, and the other verses, used by the prosperity pastors/preachers are taken severely out of context. There is no place in all of the Bible that affirms any Christian will have security, wealth, or health if they have enough faith. It’s a false doctrine that needs to be eradicated. I have three reasons why the prosperity gospel is not be believed, practiced, praised, or spread.
It’s Not Biblical
Not only will you not find any passage in all of the Bible that promotes prosperity, health, money, or even happiness, but in place of this you will find instead that the Bible speaks much more of suffering. The Christian is not promised an easy life or that suffering are eliminated simply by calling on Jesus. The opposite is in fact true. James tells us, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4). Suffering for Christ is not only possible, but for the Christian is unavoidable.
Paul tells Timothy, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (1 Timothy 3:12). The truth is that if one is truly a believer in Jesus, they should expect hardship. This can of course take on many manifestations. It’s possible for a person to wealthy and still be a Christian obviously, but just being wealthy does not assuage all hardship. The Bible speaks repeatedly about suffering or enduring hardship for the cause of Christ (Romans 5:3-5, Romans 8:18, 1 Peter 4:12-19, 2 Corinthians 4:8-10, etc.). Our suffering is not pointless. It magnifies and makes much of the name and power of Jesus (2 Corinthians 4:17). If this is true then the prosperity gospel must be false.
God often uses the most awful circumstances to make much of His glory and power. We have hardship not because God is a cosmic bully, but because it teaches us to completely rely upon Him. C.S. Lewis famously writes:
We can rest contentedly in our sins and in our stupidities, and everyone who has watched gluttons shoveling down the most exquisite foods as if they did not know what they were eating, will admit that we can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world. (Lewis, Clive S. The Problem of Pain. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2014.)
We rely on the old philosophical law of noncontradiction. The gospel of Christ and sharing his suffering and the prosperity gospel cannot both be true.
It Makes Much of Us and Little of Jesus
One glaring problem with this prosperity gospel is how much power and elevation it gives to people. John writes famously, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). What this means for the Christian is we are to lift up and make much of Jesus. We submit to Him as the ultimate authority and Lord of our lives. We crawl on the altar and lay down our hopes, wills, dreams, desires, and rights and acknowledge that apart from God we are absolutely incapable of holiness (Romans 12:1-2). Our goal is glorify Him and point others to Christ, but the “name it, claim it” prosperity gospel says the opposite.
If the prosperity gospel is true then everything really is about us. It is OUR faith that grants us these elaborate gifts, it is OUR will to have health and wealth, it is OUR ambition to have much in this world, and this makes everything about OUR desires. What we want becomes key. Our lives are lived not to make much of Jesus, but rather we live in order to gain more of what can ultimately not satisfy. We rely not on Jesus as the all satisfying necessary component of life, and we trust in the power of self. Keep in mind, your “self” is a rebel against Almighty God and a slave to sin (Romans 6:16). The goal of the Christian is to look less like self and more like Jesus (1 John 2:6), but this cannot happen if the prosperity gospel is true. The gospel, life, or anything else has ever been, is, or will be about you. Every aspect of the Christian’s life is about glorifying and pointing Jesus, not self.
It Robs Us of Affection for Jesus
If the prosperity gospel is indeed true then our satisfaction and joy are cheap and can be easily purchased by wealth and health. This is incompatible with what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10. If Jesus is not enough for us then we have made idols and gods that are weak, powerless, and unsatisfactory. As stated earlier, the prosperity gospel makes much of us and what we can gain, but the gospel is not about what we can get. If we find that we are pursuing Jesus because of what he can give us then we are not pursuing him at all.
What happens is the Christian begins to love the gift over the giver. We create countless idols and gods that leave us wanting and joyless. When we find our ultimate hope and satisfaction in Jesus however, we find our affection for him deepens and we are filled with insatiable thirst that only he can quench. While things life health or money can no doubt be a good gift, they are void of any real power and are cheap and terrible gods. Jesus wants all of us. He wants our affection. We cannot give our affections to what we obtain and to Jesus at the same time (Matthew 6:24). Everything we do as Christians will either stir our affection for Jesus, or it will rob our affection for Jesus. The prosperity gospel does the latter because creates affection for stuff instead of affection for Jesus. We would love and follow Jesus because of what we gain rather than just for who he is, and this is a fundamental problem.
The Response for the Christian
The mark of a believer is not in health or wealth, but the mark of a Christian is in obedience in Christ. We will not make much of Jesus by peddling a false gospel with no power to transform to those who are in desperate need. Christ is not magnified by what we have, but Christ is magnified in that we point a broken world to the only one capable of change.
The reason the prosperity gospel is so dangerous is it teaches that joy and hope can come from something outside of Jesus. This is categorically false. We cannot sit by and mutter things like, “well at least people are hearing something positive so it’s not all that bad.” It really is that bad. If we preach anything other than Christ crucified and the grace and mercy that are offered by him then we are not preaching the gospel. It is a dull heresy that not only offers no hope, but it enslaves us to the master of self. As Christians we must war against the prosperity gospel, and instead wave the banner of truth that apart from Christ we have and can do nothing. (John 15:5). Our faith is not about what we gain or how it benefits us, but rather our faith is the mark that we are completely and utterly dependent on the work of Christ. It cannot be both.