“Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers.” – 3 John1:2 KJV
If you and I are friends and we were corresponding via email today, I may open my email to you with some type of greeting that speaks about my hope for things going well in your life. Maybe I'll say, "Hope all is well with you!". Or maybe, "I pray that things are well for you and the family." Or maybe, "Peace and blessings to you!", or something to that effect. In either case, it is simply my greeting to you, my friend, communicating my hope for things going well in your life at that moment. If, because of my position in the church, you take that as a pronouncement of divine blessing and justification for you to pursue the accumulation of wealth, then you may be taking my greeting a little too far. But, hey, maybe that's what you needed to hear. And that was just the encouragement you needed to go after what you want in this life. More power to you.
Greeting his friend, Gaius, is what the Apostle John was doing in his 3rd letter in the Bible when he penned the scripture above. It was a standard ancient greeting that was actually a prayer that all in the person's life would be well. Today, so many prosperity gospel preachers take this scripture and preach a sermon about how this scripture justifies the believer's pursuit of health and wealth. Somehow, "I pray all is well with you" became "God wants us to be healthy and rich!" How did that happen?
I don't know where that started. But I pray for it to end. This upcoming week, I will be participating a a conference on this very issue in the church worldwide. Christian leaders from around the globe who have taken a public position on the issue of prosperity theology in some form, will be gathering in Sao Paulo, Brazil to discuss this very topic. We will be talking about the prosperity gospel movement and its' implications on the churchs' teaching on work, injustice, poverty, suffering and other areas. I was invited to attend because of an article I wrote for PRISM Magazine a few months ago entitled, "The Bankrupt Theology of the Prosperity Gospel.":
I must admit, I have no idea what to expect from this trip, which makes me a little nervous. Will it be a bunch of church leaders from around the world shouting at one another, some in favor of this particular theology, others against it? Will be be a big sing-a-long with us all holding hands and talking about how much we love Jesus? Will we all be converted to prosperity preachers at the end? God only knows. I'm having a hard time still believing that I got invited, let alone having something to contribute to this important conversation.
In preparing for this trip, I had to reflect on what I actually believe about God and prosperity. Where do my beliefs come from? Do I think that God wants everybody to be rich? No, I don't. Do I think God wants everybody to be the picture of health? No, I don't. At least not on earth. I believe that these things are true in the afterlife, but down here, there are some things we need to wrestle with as we progress towards the return of Jesus. I know that theologically, those are loaded statements. And I probably won't do any of them true justice in a short blog post. But seriously, if we think that God wants EVERYBODY who believes in Him to be rich, why weren't the apostles? Are we more beloved than they? If everyone was supposed to be the picture of perfect health, what do we do with passages of scripture like John 9:1-3?
Or 2 Corinthians 12:7-9?
"Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given 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.
We always want a reason for things when life seems unfair. Oftentimes, because we want to know how to prevent pain and suffering from happening to us. It is so much easier to deal with stuff when we believe that we can come up with a formula to prevent it or replicate it. If I give 10% of my money to church; go to church every Sunday; pray twice a day; tell somebody about Jesus; stay away from smoking, drinking, fornication, lying, stealing, and any other "sin" I can think of, God will give me the good life I want without pain and suffering. That is often preached as the formula for "abundant life". That is, if you have enough faith. Because there are a lot of people who follow this formula, and something happens that was supposed to be avoided and they are told that they must not have enough faith. Maybe they just don't believe enough. And this is the problem I have with the prosperity gospel. It creates formulas for obtaining things from God, which, to me, goes against the gospel of grace. How can we preach Jesus and the prosperity gospel at the same time? Jesus talked about how much those who follow him would suffer and have to sacrifice, yet would find life in the middle of those things. It may or may not be material. The prosperity gospel asks people to sacrifice financially in order to obtain material blessings from God. It says that the demonstration of God "favoring you" is material wealth. There are so many things wrong with that, to me, that I couldn't even begin to address it here.
But I am traveling to learn, as well as to share. There will be those among us who believe in this particular theology and preach it. Maybe they can give me some insight into how they can with a clear conscience, look people in the eye and tell them that God is going to give them money or heal their disease, without hearing that from God. And then require that the people give them money in order to make it come true. Does anybody else have a problem with that? Am I flying solo on this? Well, I'm about to find out. I am a first hand witness to what God can do through a person's financial life. I also know what God can do in a person's health. But I know that it is God's prerogative to choose who God will and will not heal or make rich. There do exist some healthy, rich atheists in this world. Did they sacrifice to God to make that happen? Probably not. There are also some faithful, sickly, impoverished people as well. Is God not with them?
So what do we do with this? I guess I'm about to find out. I would like to be both firm and open. I'll be sure to write a post-trip reflection and give you an update. And if the prosperity preachers convert me, please send a PayPal offering to me at email@example.com. I'm sure you'll be blessed! :-)