Here is a Spiritual Conundrum submitted to Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life by a reader named Richard Neer:
What is your position on Prosperity Gospel? I find the notion ridiculous, if not downright absurd! The premise that tithing promises health and wealth seems quite far-fetched. It does not promote spiritual growth. In fact, the only growth I see it promoting is the personal pocketbooks of the pastors and/or preachers behind the pulpit. Though I can understand and agree that donations to church groups and organizations can be fulfilling for some and even, to a degree, necessary for the continued existence of an organization (non-profit, in theory!), the in-your-face over-the-top request below is one I can’t fathom how anyone can actually make with a straight face, much less be absolutely serious about.
This current CNN article just shocks me and makes me wonder, “Is humanity so hopelessly lost, or are people just that ignorant these days?”
Thanks for the good question, Richard. Short version: I agree with you 100%!
How Prosperity Gospel even qualifies as a religious teaching is beyond me. Yes, Prosperity Gospel preachers talk about God, the Bible, and other religious subjects. But the goal of this “Gospel” has nothing to do with love for God or love for the neighbor. Instead, it’s all about gaining worldly wealth and success for oneself.
That, to me, is not religion. It is a spiritually bankrupt substitute for religion.
However, despite its spiritual bankruptcy, it does serve a use for some people as a stepping stone toward something better—which, I believe, is why God allows it to exist.
First, what is Prosperity Gospel?
Prosperity Gospel, or Prosperity theology, is the idea that if we have faith that God wants us to be wealthy, affirm God’s desire to bless us with wealth, pray for that blessing, and make generous contributions to the church, God will indeed bless us with abundant material wealth and success.
The New Age version is often called “prosperity consciousness.”
In churches that preach the Prosperity Gospel, wealth is seen as synonymous not only with success, but with being in God’s favor and good graces. Prosperity Gospel preachers themselves are usually the most successful practitioners of their “Gospel.” They live in luxurious houses, drive fancy cars, and generally display their wealth quite openly. In fact, they often point to themselves and their ministry as proof of the truth of the Prosperity Gospel.
And their people eat it up.
It doesn’t seem to occur to these people that their own hard work is what’s bankrolling the high-living preachers with their fancy church headquarters and posh homes. Instead, the people who follow these preachers take it as inspiration and proof that they themselves can also become wealthy, live in posh houses, and drive fancy cars.
Prosperity Gospel is materialism with a religious veneer
It’s a toxic mix driven by an unbridled desire for wealth. That is obvious to any objective outside observer. But from the inside, it looks like God’s own Gospel truth.
That’s because Prosperity Gospel tells its devotees exactly what they want to hear.
Most members of Prosperity Gospel churches are poor to middle class people who struggle for their daily bread. Most of them live hand-to-mouth, with little to no savings and investments to fall back on. To these people, the message that God will bless them with material wealth has a powerful appeal.
Now don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with having enough material success to put a comfortable roof over our heads, clothes on our bodies, food on the table, and some extra so that we can enjoy the healthy pleasures of life. Even becoming wealthy isn’t wrong if the money is earned honestly and spent with at least some concern for our fellow human beings. (See “You Cannot Serve both God and Money.”)
However, providing for our needs, comforts, and enjoyments here on earth is a material goal. Religion is all about spiritual goals. And if the word “spiritual” doesn’t have any clear meaning for you, consider what Jesus Christ said was the most important commandment in all the Scriptures:
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:34–40)
Loving God and loving our neighbor (meaning our fellow human beings) is what religion and spirituality are all about. And though having enough money to provide for ourselves and our family certainly helps put us in a position in which we can care for others, it should never be the goal of our religion and our spiritual practices.
Prosperity Gospel substitutes material goals for the spiritual goals that are the true focus of all genuine religion. It rips God off the throne of heaven, and puts money there instead. God and religion become mere means for achieving materialistic goals.
That is a travesty of religion.
Prosperity Gospel does serve some use
It sounds pretty bad.
And it is. What kind of a “religion” enriches its leaders at the expense of its members, and lures people in with promises of material wealth and glory?
Unfortunately, there are huge numbers of people whose minds are not at all spiritual—people who see material wealth and comfort as the most important things in life. And the religious ones will think of material wealth and success as the ultimate blessings of God. (See “Is Wealth a Blessing or a Curse?”)
The Bible—especially the Old Testament—recognizes this. Listen to this promise made by God to the ancient Israelites:
When you return to the Lord your God, and you and your children obey him with all your heart and with all your soul, just as I am commanding you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you . . . . And the Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil. For the Lord will again take delight in prospering you, just as he delighted in prospering your ancestors, when you obey the Lord your God by observing his commandments and decrees that are written in this book of the law, because you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deuteronomy 30:2-3, 9–10)
These are the types of passages that Prosperity Gospel preachers quote in their sermons.
But isn’t religion supposed to be about spiritual goals? Why does the Bible promise material blessings to the faithful?
First, it’s not entirely false that people who are faithful, honest, and law-abiding in their dealings will generally do better materially than those who are not. Yes, there are many exceptions. Some people do get rich through dishonest and illegal means. But generally speaking, people who are decent, law-abiding, industrious types who put their shoulder to their work and don’t get sucked into shady dealings and immoral activities will, over time, tend to have their material wants and needs satisfied.
Beyond that, though, the purpose of the Bible is to turn people toward faith in God and toward lives of love and service to their neighbor. And the Bible has to reach people at all levels of spiritual development—or lack thereof. (See “How God Speaks in the Bible to Us Boneheads.”)
God is a realist and a pragmatist. And God knows that many, if not most of us start out in life aiming primarily for our own comfort, pleasure, wealth, and power. And so God seeks to harness those materialistic goals to get us moving toward more spiritual goals.
The Bible never says that material prosperity is the goal of religion. Even the promise from Deuteronomy quoted above is about faithfulness to God first, and material blessings second.
What the Bible does do is use our materialistic and self-centered goals as bait to get us hooked, and reel us in toward better and higher goals.
Catching materialists for God
Prosperity Gospel is false religion.
And yet, it reaches millions of people with something like a religious message that includes commandments to believe in God, pray, and live a decent and honest life. So although Prosperity Gospel is a poor excuse for a religion, it at least gets its followers thinking about God and the Bible instead of focusing their mind and heart entirely on material things.
Eventually, if the followers of Prosperity Gospel are to have real religion and spirituality, they will have to set aside material wealth and success as their primary goals in life, and instead adopt as their primary goals the ones Jesus Christ taught us.
For many people who are materialistic in focus, Prosperity Gospel serves as a stand-in for religion until they are spiritually mature enough to move on to real religion.
And so, even though Prosperity Gospel is a false religion, it has its uses in God’s spiritual economy. That is why God allows it to exist.
Think of Prosperity Gospel as a religious gateway drug.
Once people get hooked on it, they’ve started down a religious path. Sooner or later many of them will find out the hard way that Prosperity Gospel either it doesn’t work for them or doesn’t satisfy their real spiritual needs.
Then perhaps, having gotten into the habit of thinking about God and the Bible, they may graduate to a real religion that leads them toward the spiritual goals of loving God above all, and loving their neighbor as themselves.
This article is a response to a spiritual conundrum submitted by a reader.
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