The Poverty of the Prosperity Gospel
The Book of Job has both shaken me and shaped me.
When I first read it, I found it troubling. It didn’t seem fair. Job was a righteous man. But over the years, this story has helped forge my understanding of God and my theology of suffering. It has taught me that God himself — not anything he gives me — is my greatest treasure.
Years ago, a colleague mentioned what he had learned from Job. I was surprised to hear that his study had yielded a markedly different conclusion than mine. In his words, “Job got everything back and more for his suffering. He was blessed with more children and more money than he ever had before. That’s what the story shows us — doing the right thing always brings blessing and prosperity.”
While the first part was true, I disagreed with his conclusion. He subtly was echoing the message of the so-called “health, wealth, and prosperity gospel” — that God’s goal for us in this life is perfect health, total happiness, and financial gain. In this life. “We simply need to name what we want,” it says, “live the right way, and then claim our victory. That is what living for God looks like.”
I contend that this approach is not living for God. Such thinking is idolatry. It is elevating God’s gifts above him, the giver. And that is a great assault on God’s value.
The Truly Abundant Life
Proponents of the prosperity gospel see things differently. They believe their position is biblical, citing Scripture to back up their claims. One such verse is (John 10:10) “I am come that they may have life, and may have it more abundantly.”
Jesus does give us abundant life, but his abundant life is independent of circumstances.
A diagnosis of cancer, a stock-market crash, and a child’s rebellion cannot diminish the abundant life we have in Christ. And a miraculous healing, a financial windfall, and a prodigal’s return don’t transform it either. True abundant life rests in the God who is Lord over the good things and the terrible things in our life. As Job says, “If we have received good things at the hand of God, why should we not receive evil? ” (Job 2:10)
When we assert that pain-free lives are God’s reward for the righteous, we insinuate to the wounded that their problems are of their own making. As Randy Alcorn says,
“Tragically, the prosperity gospel has poisoned the church and undermined our ability to deal with evil and suffering. Some in the Church today have no place for pain. Those who say God has healed them get the microphone, while those who continue to suffer are shamed into silence or ushered out the back door.”
Many disabled people have experienced similar treatment under the assumption that if you’re not healed, it’s your fault. “Because God’s will is for everyone to be healed. Always. The faithful will never suffer.”
This belief is contrary to Church teaching and to scripture. Jesus says we will have tribulation. “In the world you shall have distress” (John 16:33). Peter says we shouldn’t be surprised by suffering. “think not strange the burning heat which is to try you, as if some new thing happened to you;” (1 Peter 4:12). James says to expect temptations, and to count it all joy “count it all joy, when you shall fall into divers temptations;”(James 1:2). And Paul says afflictions bring endurance and glory “And not only so; but we glory also in tribulations, knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience trial; and trial hope; And hope confoundeth not: because the charity of God is poured forth in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost, who is given to us.”(Romans 5:3–5). “For that which is at present momentary and light of our tribulation, worketh for us above measure exceedingly an eternal weight of glory.” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
Of course, healing in this life can bring God glory as well. Sometimes God intervenes in our lives in supernatural ways and miraculously heals them from disease. And God is glorified when that happens.
But I have seen God even more glorified when people are not healed yet continue to praise him in the midst of deep suffering — when everything they have is stripped away and all that is left is God alone. And he is found sufficient.
God is most glorified when we declare him sufficient in the midst of great loss. Just as Job did.
Giver More Than Gifts
The prosperity gospel teaches that we live for God’s material blessing now. Job teaches that we live for God’s eternal glory. At the heart of the prosperity gospel is our value. At the heart of Job, and all of Scripture, is God’s value.
Satan is a proponent of the prosperity gospel, as he tells God that Job’s faithfulness is predicated on God’s blessings. And if those blessings are taken away, he believes Job will curse God to his face. Satan is implying that God is valuable only for what he gives Job.
But God contends just the opposite. God asserts that Job loves him for who he is, not for what he gives.
And when Job is able to say, after losing everything, “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away: as it hath pleased the Lord so is it done: blessed be the name of the Lord. ” (Job 1:21), he declares the surpassing worth of God. God himself, not his gifts, is Job’s true treasure.
As the Psalmist declares:For thee my flesh and my heart hath fainted away: thou art the God of my heart, and the God that is my portion for ever.
May we all, like Job, find our treasure in God, who is our portion forever.
This is an article by Vaneetha Rendall Risner a freelance writer and a regular contributor to Desiring God.
The article was adapted for a Catholic perspective.