What do you think of when you hear the term ‘prosperity gospel’?
Until recently, I thought of the stereotype perpetuated by the movement’s prominent leaders: someone who either was wealthy or wanted to be wealthy. Then Dr Kate Bowler’s article changed that by showing me that, for every story about a leader’s extravagant wealth, there were hundreds and thousands of stories of distressed people being bilked while hoping God would grant them relief from their difficulties. Thanks to Dr Bowler, I started thinking about how I might try to help these people see the movement’s lies and find freedom.
Then it hit me: Christ’s actions and attitudes during his time in Gethsemane can help them see through the prosperity gospel’s many falsehoods.
Using Jesus as an example of what the prosperity gospel gets wrong about being a Christian first came to me during a lunch break at work. While eating, I pondered how to reach people trapped in the prosperity gospel, and I was suddenly struck by the fact that Jesus arguably had one of his most human moments in Gethsemane. After all, it was in that garden that Jesus asked God to take away the cross and wrath he was about to endure. It’s not a pious prayer at all; it’s the prayer of a man desperate to avoid the agony he knows is coming.
Prosperity gospel followers have likely been told that if God isn’t answering their prayers it’s because he is unhappy with their faith. Jesus, however, taught that “a servant is not greater than his master” (John 13:16)—which means we don’t occupy a greater status than Jesus. If he didn’t escape suffering, neither will we. If God denied Jesus one of his requests, we should certainly expect him to deny us some of ours. When he does, we need to remember that he isn’t displeased with our faith but instead loves us enough to tell us “no”, because otherwise he’d be leading us into temptation (Matt 6:13).
So, how do we deal with God turning our requests down? Following Jesus’ example tells us that we focus on submitting to God’s will.
When Jesus prayed, “not as I will, but as you will” (Matt 26:39), I can’t help but imagine him thinking about Isaiah 53:10, which makes God’s will for him very explicit: “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lordshall prosper in his hands”.
What did Isaiah mean when he said that God’s will would prosper in Jesus’ hands? Jesus answers this question when he says, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). According to Jesus, this full life consists of our having the privilege of knowing God (John 17:3), which 1 John 2:3 defines as obeying God’s commands. If we know God then we know he has been incredibly merciful to us, and our gratitude manifests itself in our obeying God’s commands and purifying our lives of sin; because we know what sin cost Jesus, we therefore hate it and want nothing more to do with it. To me, this is perhaps the most striking difference between the true gospel and the prosperity gospel: while the true gospel recognizes that knowing Christ is worth losing everything (Phil 3:8-10), the prosperity gospel encourages people to commit idolatry by focusing on their wants and felt needs and trying to persuade God to grant them these things.
Now, let’s be honest: even though the prosperity gospel encourages idolatry, all Christians struggle with and are tempted towards idolatry on a daily basis. If our faith is genuine, however, we can overcome this temptation in the same way Jesus overcame the temptation he experienced in the Garden: by focusing on God’s promises.
In spite of the desire to avoid the cross and the possible temptation to summon angels to fight on his behalf (Matt 26:53), Jesus instead allowed himself to be arrested so that Isaiah 53:7 could be fulfilled: “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter”. According to Hebrews 12:2, Jesus did this by focusing on the joy that he knew would be his in the very near future, promised in multiple passages of Scripture.
This brings me to what I think might be the most difficult part of using Christ’s example to help people escape the prosperity gospel: what true gospel promises do we share with them to help them further recognize the prosperity gospel’s many lies? God has given us many awesome promises—how do we select the most appropriate ones?
Here’s my suggestion (considering the prosperity gospel’s most distressed adherents will probably blame themselves for not receiving what they’ve asked for): focus on just a couple of promises to change how they see God. Both Isaiah 61:1 and Isaiah 42:3 are, I think, excellent starting points: “he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted” and “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench”. Having a broken heart or being bruised or smoldering all indicate the same thing: not having strong, vibrant faith. Isaiah promises that Jesus came to bring healing to these people, not judgement and dismissal.
Additionally I’d suggest Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” In other words, contrary to the prosperity gospel’s claims, God’s already given us the most valuable thing he has: Jesus. If he’s done this, he will therefore give us whatever else we need.
As previously mentioned, Jesus said that he came so that we may have life to the full. This full life is found in being restored to fellowship with God after being born into rebellion against him. Once we understand what God did for us at the cross, nothing else matters except knowing Christ and making him known to others.
Now, I’m not naive; I know that not everyone in the prosperity gospel is going to suddenly wake up and flee the prosperity gospel as we share with them how Gethsemane contradicts the prosperity gospel. Still, some will. Let’s find them, and let’s help them find refuge in the true gospel of Christ.