Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Anti-"Prosperity Gospel"

            Noah “found favor in the eyes of the Lord.”  (Gen 6:8)  And this favor earned him 120 years of hard work building an ark by hand, most likely facing ridicule the whole time from those around him.  And then, he was closed up in a box for almost a year while everyone around him died off.  And then, he got to work the ground from scratch in order to keep his family alive. 
            Abraham was childless for 100 years, and he had to wait for 25 years before God fulfilled His promise to give him a son.
            Joseph was favored by God, but it sure seemed like God had a funny way of showing it at first.  When Joseph worked for Potiphar after being sold into slavery by his brothers, God poured out blessings on “the household of [Potiphar] because of Joseph.”  (Gen 39:5)  Someone else got the “blessings” because of Joseph’s faithfulness to God.  And Joseph got slavery.  And God showed favor to Joseph while he was unjustly imprisoned on false charges.  (Gen 39-40)  But even with this favor, he still spent at least two years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
            Daniel was taken into captivity as a young man and lived as a captive for decades.  And his faithfulness to the Lord could have cost him his life when the king threw him into the lion’s den for praying to God. 
            Samuel was raised not in the warmth and care of his home, by his godly mother, but in a temple by a priest who couldn’t even raise his own children up in a godly way.
            John was banished to the island of Patmos.  
            Paul asked three times to have a thorn removed from his side, and he was denied by the Lord.
            And many believers today have to live with chronic illness, fruitless job searches, and broken homes and hearts.  Many watch their children die of illness or starvation.  Many willingly face the horrors of Ebola in order to help those who are suffering and in need.  Many are losing their homes and lives and heads for their faith. 

            But, hey, forget all that! 
            Here in America, we have God’s promise that we will be rich and healthy and have an abundance of stuff, whatever we want. 
            If we want a great job, we’ll get one.  If we want health, we’ll have it.  If we want a black Corvette, there’s no reason we shouldn’t have one.  Just ask God in faith and He’ll provide it.  Reach out and grab the blessings He wants to pour out on us, that He has promised us.  Money, fame, success, big home, expensive car!  It’s all yours, if you just ask for it and claim it.
            Does this sound right to you?  Seriously!  Do you really see this promise anywhere in Scripture?  Or does our own desire for more and for abundance convince us that these promises are there?  Because what I find in Scripture is this: 
            Matthew 10:22:  “All men will hate you because of me . . .”
            2 Timothy 3:12:  “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted . . .”
            James 1:2-4:  “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.  Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
            Matthew 6:19-21, 24:  “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in a steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. . . . No one can serve two masters.  Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve both God and Money.”  

            Honestly, I could never hold to the “prosperity gospel.”  In fact, I am more on the anti-“prosperity gospel” side.  The one that says that God will bless our obedience, but that He gets to decide when and how.  The one that says that the best blessings are in eternity, not the ones that will burn up in the end.  The one that says that we are to not worry so much about how much or little we have, but that we are to honor and glorify God with whatever He has given us.  The one that believes that trials grow our faith and that neediness and weakness humbles us. 
            Yes, we are to pray for our needs and desires, but ultimately, we have to end all prayers with “Not my will, but Your Will be done.”  Even when it comes to our health and our loved ones and our deepest desires.  We have to remember that everything – good and bad – is allowed into our lives for a reason and can be used by God to grow us.  It’s the trials that refine our faith, not the abundance of blessings and getting all of our wishes met.  Where is this message in the “prosperity” teachings of nowadays?

            How is it that the “prosperity” preachers miss the fact that the Bible warns against the love of money and pursuing too much?
            1 Timothy 6:6-10:  “But godliness with contentment is great gain.  For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.  But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.  People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.  For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.  Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”
            Deuteronomy 6:11-12:  “. . . 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.”  (The risk here is that when we are full of good things, we may forget the God who gave them to us.)
            And then there is the rich young man who wants to know what else he can do to inherit eternal life.  And in Mark 10:21, Jesus tells him, “One thing you lack . . . Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me.”  And the man went away sad because he had a lot of wealth.
            I don’t think Jesus was saying that wealth is bad, but He was exposing this man’s idol.  He was exposing the one thing that kept this man from fully committing his heart to the Lord: his wealth.  Jesus was pointing out that this man put wealth above God, and he couldn’t truly follow Jesus unless he let go of that idol. 
            How many people in our country have made idols of money and possessions?  How about success and popularity?  How many have an abundance of stuff stored up on earth but nothing in heaven?  And how many people fail to engage in the spiritual battle for souls because they are too busy playing with temporary toys?

            I know Christians (as I’m sure we all do) who have an abundance of stuff or pursue an abundance of stuff.  And I know Christians who have always had to struggle, to learn to be content with little.  And I have to say that the strugglers are the ones with the much sweeter dispositions, the gentler and humbler spirits.  Possibly a bittersweet disposition and a humble yet aching spirit.  But they have learned that there are spiritual rewards and lessons that come with the struggles, and so they learn to accept them as from God’s hand and to seek Him in the midst of their pain instead of seeking ways out of the pain.  And they have learned to prioritize according to eternity.  (Not all of them, of course.  Many believers get stuck in bitterness or desire or envy.  And part of the spiritual journey is working through all that so you can have faith in God no matter the circumstances.) 
            When you have or seek too much stuff, it’s too easy to focus on stuff and find your value in stuff.  But when you struggle or don’t have “enough,” you are forced to find your value and your security in something other than your stuff and your strength, abilities, wisdom, and self-view.  You are forced to find security, value, help, and contentment in God’s strength, abilities, wisdom, and His view of you.  And God doesn’t disappoint us the way we disappoint ourselves. 
            Also, it is in struggling with unmet “needs” and longings and lack of money that we learn lessons that we can’t learn when we have an abundance.  It is in the “lack of . . .” that we learn to praise God in the midst of “no” answers and heartache and disappointments.  It’s when we learn that His grace is sufficient.  And it’s also when we discover a deep compassion for those who struggle, too, or are in need. 
            I think some of the least compassionate people – least genuinely compassionate people – are the ones who pursue stuff.  Because not only do they define people by their stuff, but they cannot really understand those who struggle or who pray for money or who have to learn to do without.  They can act like they do, but what is missing is a deep connection with and understanding of the pain of struggling and of having to do without.  They still have easy pat-answers of how God works, how faith and prayer work, and how you can “get God’s blessing.”  And deep down, they have the idea that if others would just do things the way they did or have the kind of faith they have then they would be blessed just as much also. 

            That is one reason I have such a huge problem with the “prosperity gospel” preachers.  They believe that God wants us to be rich and healthy and successful.  And, of course, God wants that for us, too.  (Except we define “rich” differently than God does.)  And someday we will have that.  But this world is a fallen place, and we are not guaranteed these things while on earth.  In fact, as we saw, we are promised pain and persecution, and we are called to seek heavenly treasures instead of earthly ones, an invisible kind of richness. 
            Many of the most godly people in the Bible didn’t get things they wanted or “needed.”  They didn’t get health and success and prosperity.  Jeremiah was called to be basically a failure, preaching for decades to people who would reject his message.  Moses gave up the riches of Egypt to live as shepherd, and then he spent 40 years wandering the desert as he led the Israelites to the Promised Land.  (And then he was banned from entering it for one outburst, despite his pleas.)  Elijah was instructed by God to live alone in a desert, being fed by ravens, and to beg food from a widow.  And he faced death threats from Jezebel.  Elisha died of an illness.  Ezekiel was instructed by God to “bear the sins of the people,” being forced to lie on his side for over a year.  And then to illustrate a point to the ungodly people, God took Ezekiel’s wife.  He took the wife of the man most committed to Him for the sake of the of the people least committed to Him.  Job lost everything he had but his life and wife, despite the fact that he was fully committed to God.  Paul was beaten and imprisoned all throughout his preaching career.
            And yet we have the audacity to believe that God has promised us whatever we want?  That He owes us because of our great faith that He’ll give it to us?  And that He just wants us to be “happy”?  However, many times in the Bible, the most godly people had to go through the hardest struggles, and oftentimes it was to be a witness to the less godly people around them. 

            Doesn’t seem fair, does it?  Doesn’t fit at all with the “prosperity gospel” teaching of today.  What would the “prosperity gospel” preachers say about these people?  What would they say about Jesus who gave up the riches of Heaven so He could come down here and sacrifice Himself for others?  What would they say to those today who struggle with financial problems and health issues?  Are parents who have chronically-ill children somehow less blessed by God?  Is their life and faith somehow less pleasing to Him that He has chosen to not bless them with health?  What about people who try and try to find work or who work at their job with all their hearts, yet somehow they cannot get ahead financially?  Are they being punished by God or less worthy of blessing, that He wouldn’t answer their prayers or give them as much as other people have? 
            After thinking about all this, I honestly have to say that I would take the struggle and the “neediness” any day over the “prosperity gospel.”  Because struggle and neediness and weakness draw you to God and grow you in ways that “abundance” never could.  They humble you in ways that abundance can’t.  They help you keep your mind on eternity and on what really matters in this life.  And they give you a genuine compassion and tender heart toward others who struggle or are in need.  It’s hard to pass judgment on someone else or to be critical of their “level of faith and their ability to get what they pray for” when you have struggled yourself.  You look past people’s stuff or lack of stuff and see people’s hearts.    
            If you’ve never had to struggle yourself or never been in desperate need for God’s grace and mercy and providence, you don’t learn to be thankful for the little things and you don’t develop a tender heart towards others who hurt.  The more stuff you have or want, the greater the temptation to turn it into an idol, to find “fulfillment” outside of God, and to find ways to excuse the sins that you commit in the pursuit of your “happiness.”  Do not buy into the “prosperity gospel” teaching, gazing longingly at forbidden fruit, selfish desires, and the things other people have.  Just because someone has a lot does not mean that they have been blessed in the ways that really matter and that will last.

            2 Corinthians 12:7-10: “To keep me from being conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’  Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.  For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

            Psalm 51:17:  “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

            1 Peter 3:3-4: “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes.  Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.”  (Yes, it’s specifically about women, but apply it to all of God’s people.) 

            Matthew 6:19-21:  “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in a steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” 

            Matthew 6:25, 33:  “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear.  Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? . . . But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”