One major mistake of some believers in general, and the prosperity gospel in particular, is to equate a person’s economic and material standing with his or her spiritual condition. The more extreme proponents of this teaching seem to assume that material blessing is a sure sign of God’s favor of a person’s faith, while poverty is a sign of God’s displeasure at a person’s lack of faith.
Of course such connections cannot be sustained. While it is true that God wants to bless his children, the extent of one’s wealth is no measure of one’s spirituality. God is not concerned that we have riches, but he is concerned that we have a right standing with him. Our holiness, rather than our happiness, is what God is interested in. As David Larsen remarks, “What prosperity theology has forgotten is that God does not exist to make us happy”.
Yet many Christians do have this idea that God owes us blessings, that he owes us the good life. This is readily acknowledged in the prosperity teachings. “We are king’s kids and we should live like them” we are told. Yet if material well-being is the sign of God’s favor, then many rich atheists, Mafia figures, drug-peddlers and other criminals must be especially close to God.
It is the very opposite situation (believers impoverished, and the wicked flourishing) that we see so often being questioned in Scripture. A classic passage is Psalm 73:2-5: “But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills.”
Jeremiah put it this way: “You are always righteous, O LORD, when I bring a case before you. Yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease? You have planted them, and they have taken root; they grow and bear fruit. You are always on their lips but far from their hearts” (12:1,2). Or as Job asked, “Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power?” (Job 21:7).
Material success in this life does not really tell us what God thinks of a person. Indeed, Scripture repeatedly warns about the dangers of material success in this life. Such success can cause us to forget our maker and redeemer. This is the clear idea of Deuteronomy 6:10-12:
“When the LORD your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you – a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant – then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”.
As Philip Yancey puts it, “Success, not failure, is the greatest danger facing any follower of God, as Moses knew well”. Not only the Bible, but church history as well, is replete with examples of this. The tendency of riches to pull a person away from God is far too common. Moreover, how many countless saints over the ages have served God with humble hearts and great faith, only to experience (in worldly terms), loss, deprivation, hardship and want?
But what about passages like Deuteronomy 7:12-15? “If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the LORD your God will keep his covenant of love with you, as he swore to your forefathers. He will love you and bless you and increase your numbers. He will bless the fruit of your womb, the crops of your land – your grain, new wine and oil–the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks in the land that he swore to your forefathers to give you. You will be blessed more than any other people; none of your men or women will be childless, nor any of your livestock without young. The LORD will keep you free from every disease. He will not inflict on you the horrible diseases you knew in Egypt, but he will inflict them on all who hate you.”
Passages like this of course are eagerly seized upon by the prosperity gospellers. Part of the answer is found in the fact that this passage of course directly concerns Israel and its covenantal status with Yahweh. Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart stress the corporate aspect of the covenant: The curses “are always corporate, referring to the nation as a whole. Blessings or curses do not guarantee prosperity or death to any specific individual”.
And Scripture often warns us about looking to material affluence as an automatic guarantee of God’s favor. Chris Wright says the wider context of the passage just cited “rules out a simplistic ‘prosperity’ interpretation. First, in the OT itself health and wealth are not in themselves a reliable sign of faith and obedience”.
He cites Job as an example of the obverse: lack or loss of material blessing is not a sure measure of God’s disapproval. He goes on to note that even if material well-being is a sign of God’s pleasure, it may not always or instantly appear: “the connection between faith, obedience, and material blessing is neither instant and automatic, nor universally experienced”.
A close reading of the OT will demonstrate that a correlation between obedience and material blessing is not always present. While books like Deuteronomy shows a strong connection between the two, as Wright notes, it “is not, however, universalized in a mechanistic way in the rest of the OT. Indeed, such a connection is challenged head-on in books like Job and Ecclesiastes and fuels the baffled lament of Psalms like Psalm 73. The connections between obedience and prosperity are neither guaranteed nor ‘reversible’. That is, we cannot deduce that prosperity proves prior obedience or that suffering necessarily proves personal guilt”.
And even if we can discern some kind of connection in the OT, we must recall that the NT changes things considerably. Indeed, the material blessings of the OT give way to spiritual blessings in the new. Says Craig Blomberg, “The New Testament carried forward the major principles of the Old Testament and intertestamental Judaism with one conspicuous omission: never was material wealth promised as a guaranteed reward for either spiritual obedience or simple hard work”.
If such a connection is absent in the NT, how can the prosperity gospellers claim it for themselves and their followers? The gospel proclaimed in the NT is one of hardship, deprivation, and self-denial. This is not a popular message in today’s culture but it is the biblical message. The gospel is about a daily taking up of one’s cross. It is about self-denial, sacrifice and enduring hardship. Jesus says the way to life is ‘hard’ (eg. Matt. 19:23).
David Wenham notes that the Greek word means literally something like ‘pressurised’. The way of discipleship “is a way of conflict, suffering and pressure”. This message is stressed throughout the New Testament. No easy-believism here. The Christian life is characterized by hardship and suffering. As Bonhoeffer so famously put it, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die”.
When the faith movement focuses on passages like Mark 10:29-30, which speak of a hundred-fold return, they ignore the overall context of the gospel message which we have just noted. Promises of blessing are neither to be the motivation for Christian service nor are they to be expected, fully, in this life.
Charles Hummel, commenting on this passage, notes that “Jesus has just told the rich young ruler to sell everything and follow him. The Lord presents the cost, not the financial advantages, of discipleship. It is to disciples who have left everything that Jesus promises the hundredfold return – with persecutions (overlooked by the prosperity gospel).”
Moreover, the ‘return’ promised by Jesus seems more to be seen in terms of the spiritual benefits gained by becoming part of God’s people than mere physical rewards. As Walter Wessel notes, “The hundredfold return in this life (v.30) is to be understood in the context of the new community into which the believer in Jesus comes. There he finds a multiplication of relationships, often closer and more spiritually meaningful than blood ties.”
Moreover, even if God does want to prosper us with a great return, the question is: what will we do with it? Consume it on our lusts, or use it for the kingdom? John Piper agrees that God wants to prosper his people. But “God increases our yield so that by giving we can prove our yield is not our god. God does not prosper a man’s business so he can move from a Ford to a Cadillac. God prospers a business so that 17,000 unreached peoples can be reached with the gospel. He prospers a business so that twelve percent of the world’s population can move a step back from the precipice of starvation.”
We need to be careful, therefore, in seeking to evaluate our spiritual standing by the degree of our worldly success. Such a measurement can be quite inaccurate. Indeed, as we should be well aware, the means by which the world judges success is often quite the opposite means by which God judges success. Thus the prosperity teachers need to look much more carefully at how God affirms and approves of His people in a fallen and disordered world.