Prosperity theology teaches that God always rewards faithful believers with riches and happiness. Joel Osteen, the foremost preacher of this “health and wealth gospel,” told Time magazine, “I preach that anybody can improve their lives. I think God wants us to be prosperous. I think he wants us to be happy.” He also writes in his book Your Best Life Now, “Be a giver, rather than a taker. . . . If you are generous to people in their time of need, God will make sure that other people are generous to you in your time of need.”
He has found a lot of takers for this idea. According to a 2006 survey, one-third of Christians believe that “if you give your money to God, God will bless you with more money.”
But this attitude turns prayer and good works into tools that try to manipulate God into bestowing blessings upon us. How can we respond to this false gospel? Let’s look at two questions that completely unravel the extravagant promises of prosperity gospel preachers.
Why aren’t more Christians rich?
The ultimate argument against prosperity preachers is impoverished Christians. Why doesn’t every sincere believer have “plenty of money” or his “best life now?” Rather than face the obvious truth that God doesn’t always bless us with material goods even if we strive to do his will, prosperity teachers end up blaming the individual for his poverty.
Bruce Wilkinson, the author of a bestselling book (The Prayer of Jabez) that advocates prosperity theology, says, “You do not have because you do not ask, said James (James 4:2). Even though there is no limit to God’s goodness, if you didn’t ask him for a blessing yesterday, you didn’t get all that you were supposed to have.”
Somehow I doubt that the reason Christians in sub-Sahara Africa go hungry is because they simply failed to ask God to bless them. This facile answer to the problem of evil reminds me of Zophar’s argument that Job suffered because of his wickedness. Job said in reply, “Your platitudes are as valuable as ashes. Your defense is as fragile as a clay pot” (Job 13:12, NLT).
Wilkinson also leaves out the next verse where James says, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” If we pray with selfish motives, or even for a good thing that contradicts God’s will, then we might not receive it. God knows what we need before we even ask him (Matt. 6:8), so he will not fail to care for us even if we don’t explicitly ask for a certain blessing. Rather than preach a gospel of prosperity, James exhorted believers, “Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you” (4:9-10).
Prosperity preachers have all kinds of excuses for why apparently faithful Christians aren’t wealthy. “Maybe they aren’t as faithful as they seem” they might say. Or, “Maybe God has health and wealth waiting for them right around the corner.” They might appeal to the example of Job, who the Bible says was blameless and upright (1:1) even though he endured tremendous suffering. Prosperity preachers point out that at the end of his life Job received back twice as many possessions as he lost and got a new family as well (42:10), so suffering Christians may simply have to “bide their time.”
But there is one counterexample that cuts right through these excuses: our Lord Jesus Christ.
Why wasn’t Jesus rich?
Since he was God incarnate, we know that Jesus was without sin (Heb. 4:15) and he always did the Father’s will (John 5:19). Wouldn’t the Father have rewarded such faithfulness with abundant wealth? The fact that Jesus was not among the wealthy during his earthly ministry strikes a deathblow to the promises of prosperity preachers.
In the ancient world, there was no comfortable middle class, just relative poverty and luxurious wealth. Jesus was not destitute or a beggar, but he was also not wealthy. The Bible says Jesus became poor (2 Cor. 8:9), taking the form of a slave (Phil. 2:7) and had nowhere to rest his head (Luke 9:58).
Biblical arguments that Jesus was actually rich are not persuasive. For example, Thomas Anderson, the senior pastor of the Living Word Bible Church in Mesa, Arizona, tries to make that case by pointing out that the Roman soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ tunic and that he had a money bag for his disciples to watch. But any set of clothes would have been valuable in the ancient world, so it makes sense the soldiers would have wanted Jesus’ clothes. And any sum of money the disciples kept in a bag would pale in comparison to the amount stored in a treasure room that would have made someone rich. Besides, if Jesus were rich he would have been given a dignified execution and not have been crucified among the lower classes.
Jesus’ constant admonishments of “the rich” also make it implausible that he belonged to that social class. As David Fiensy observes:
In the eyes of the elite, Jesus would still have been poor. Compared to their luxurious lifestyle, he must have lived very simply and humbly. The socioeconomic distance between Jesus and the elite classes—even if he did come from a comfortable family—was enormous.
The poor can be rich
When prosperity preachers claim that God blesses the faithful with money, they resurrect the attitudes of Jews in Jesus’ time who believed wealth signified a person’s favor (or lack of favor) with God. But Jesus said God “sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45) and that the eighteen men who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them were not worse than the other inhabitants of Jerusalem (Luke 13:4).
Who will be blessed with wealth or called to endure poverty? That is not decided simply by the use of a special prayer or commitment to tithe. Rather, it is decided by the sovereign will of God that providentially orders our freely chosen acts according to his divine plan.
Sometimes people are poor because they have made foolish financial decisions that brought them ruin. But other people are poor because of circumstances beyond their control, such as illness, economic downturns, or natural disasters. Being impoverished does not mean a person failed to do something to secure a blessing of prosperity. God has a special concern for the poor (Psalm 34:6), and believers have a special obligation to help the poor (Luke 14:14, 1 John 3:17). James says, “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him?” (2:5).
Instead of praying for success or comfort, let’s pray for God’s will to be done in our lives and for the strength to follow Christ in whatever circumstances he presents us. St. Paul put it well: “I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:12-13)
Photo of Joel Osteen by Robert M. Worsham.