The basic idea of the Prosperity Gospel is found in scripture: “If you follow in my ways, I will prosper you.” For example, in the Book of 1 Kings 3:14, God says to Solomon in a dream, “if you walk in obedience to me and keep my decrees and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life.” Hint: Solomon breaks those commands in future verses.
I think there are some key problems with prosperity gospel theology, and we can talk about them using the example of a square and a rectangle. Here’s a quick logic lesson!
Consider this: “If an object is a square, it has four sides.”
We know that’s true. It’s pretty basic. But it gets troubling if you flip it: “If an object has four sides, it is a square.” That ISN’T true! We can think of rectangles, or parallelograms, or rhombuses, or that four-sided thing one of the kids drew on the back of a worship bulletin after getting back from receiving Communion.
But there’s a trick that logicians know: if you reverse it AND add a “negative” to both sides, any true if/then statement will stay true! (This is called a “contrapositive”)
So with our phrase above: If an object does NOT have four sides, it is NOT a square.”
True again, right? Once you assert the “if” part, the “then” part always follows.
The problem is that if you perform the same move on the key thought in the prosperity gospel, you get into trouble really fast.
Here it is: “If you follow in my ways, I will prosper you” becomes “If you are NOT prospering, then you do NOT have faith.”
This is troubling in all sorts of ways. One is that if you take it to mean literal earthly wealth, it immediately condemns the poor … who Jesus repeatedly instructed us to love and serve. Another is with illness, or natural disaster: if you believe that the faithful will be prospered by God, then anyone who becomes sick, or is afflicted by a natural event, must not be faithful either … and because the prosperity gospel teaches that this is God’s will, that means they “deserve” their afflictions and sufferings
We also know all sorts of examples of people who are suffering or oppressed because of the actions of others. Our chief example is surely Jesus, who is tried unjustly by Rome and the Pharisees alike, and given over to great suffering. Far from being faithless, Jesus is faithful even unto death, and death on a cross. This is in spite of his incredibly human moment in the Garden of Gethsemane, in which he voices his longing that this punishment would pass away from him.
But if the prosperity gospel gets us to answers that seem to be in such tension with the rest of the faith, what IS the good news that scripture has about God’s love for all who love God? Why do we see bad things happening to good people?
One answer about the good news is from Psalm 139: there is no place on earth we can go where God will not be with us. This means, to me, that God doesn’t abandon Jesus on the cross, and that God doesn’t abandon us if we are sick. God isn’t only near to the healthy, or the wealthy, or the powerful. God is with each person in the world. As a fellow hospital chaplain said to me in the year we served together in west Chicago, “Everyone’s first in line with God.”
When people cry out their pain, it helps us find the places where God enters in. This is true in grand ways, such as Exodus 2:23, and it is true in small ways, when we can find peace and love even in the face of hardship.
I do believe that God is faithful to those of us who walk in God’s ways … I just also believe God is faithful even to those who don’t. Jesus didn’t offer forgiveness from the cross to those “who walk in God’s ways” … he offered forgiveness to those who “do not know what they do.”
That might be the central moment in all human history for me. If someone ever asks me “when I was saved,” I usually refer to that.
Meanwhile, we are called to be comfort and community to one another – not only to those whose prosperity (in health, wealth, or human power) seems to indicate that they have a miraculous life, and perhaps even one blessed by God, but to those who seem not to be prospering. The poor, the sick, the refugee and the powerless – these are all our sisters and brothers in Jesus Christ, and if we want to know where God’s love for a hurting world is, we might try starting with what we ourselves can do.
May God draw us ever more into that love,
Fr. Benedidct Varnum +