Grasping the Thorns: Prosperity Theology

By Jeff Laird

As expected, I took a lot of heat for criticizing the ministry of Joel Osteen a few months ago. I get it: he's popular, and rarely says anything people don't like to hear. And, as I've reminded sundry others recently, I honestly don't know if Osteen is sincere or not. For all I know, he truly believes his way is the best approach to the Bible. But sincerity doesn't automatically equate to accuracy, and his methodology is dangerously incomplete at best. So, I stand by my assessment. Some of the pushback I received was actually not in defense of Osteen, but the Prosperity Gospel he's associated with. That's a separate issue, and so worth examining on its own.

Prosperity Theology, like many spiritual spinoffs, can be difficult to define. There are different flavors in which it appears. Also, some who teach it carefully avoid the label, in order to avoid the stigma. As a result, many who verbally distance themselves from Prosperity Theology are, in fact, teaching a form of it. "A rose by any other name…", in other words, not only retains the fragrance, but the thorns.

For that reason, it's easier to address the theme than slog through every possible variation. Generally speaking, and as discussed here, "Prosperity Theology" or "The Gospel of Prosperity" is an interpretation of Christianity which teaches that financial, social, physical, and/or emotional success are the expected and promised products of a proper relationship with God. In some cases, it teaches that our verbally spoken words have creative, divine power.

As a development of the "Word of Faith" movement, this theology is a combination of historical Pentecostalism and a form of Christian Mysticism, a la E.W. Kenyon, Phineas Quimby, and Kenneth Hagin. In the extreme, it can be used to imply that poverty and sickness are signs of sin in a person's life, or that a person's spoken words have the same type of creative power possessed by God.

Granted, there are earthly, material blessings which can come from our relationship to God. There's nothing unspiritual about asking for prosperity, under submission to His will. Nor is there anything wrong with being successful. The danger of Prosperity Theology, and the Word of Faith movement, is in the combination of impatience and particular methods that supposedly generate those blessings. That approach, as promoted by modern Prosperity teachers, is flatly unbiblical.

Prosperity theology can be found, to various degrees, coming from some of the more popular names in modern spirituality. These include Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, T.D. Jakes, Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, Joyce Meyer, Oral Roberts, and Robert Tilton. Those are fairly modern voices of the doctrine, but the same essential error has been around literally since the beginning of Christianity. In 1 Timothy 6:5-11, Paul goes so far as to call those who see godliness as a means to financial gain "depraved". He also warns about the dangers of obsessing over wealth. Martin Luther called it the "Theology of Glory"; recognizing it as an attempt to hijack the grandeur we're only supposed to get through service and suffering.

Luther's criticism cuts directly to the two core faults of Prosperity Theology: impatience and human power. Prosperity teachers frequently cite verses which actually refer to heaven, the nation of Israel, or an unspecified future. These are re-interpreted to refer to this very moment, or something close, and that human action, power, or faith makes them happen. Joel Osteen displays this immediacy perfectly in the title of his hit book: Your Best Life Now (emphasis mine).

Further, men like Osteen put the onus on God for guaranteed success along with that immediacy. Here's Osteen in It's Your Time:
God promises your payday is on its way. If you'll learn to be a prisoner of hope and get up every day expecting God's favor, you'll see God do amazing things. You'll overcome every obstacle. You'll defeat every enemy. And I believe and declare you'll see every dream, every promise God has put in your heart. It will come to pass.
Payday, really? According to Osteen, Christianity is a blank check from God. All we have to do is cash it.

This is a huge problem because it results in spiritual naiveté that can lead to despair. Optimism towards the long-term is a sign of spiritual maturity. It's the result of trusting God to work all things out for the good (Romans 8:28), out of humble, durable, consistent, and contented faith (Galatians 5:22, Romans 5:3, Romans 8:25). Short-term demands for God to give us what we want — right now — in response to our will and words, are forms of arrogance that can't be squared with scripture. When those demands aren't met, the natural reaction is going to be a crisis of faith: either I'm not trying hard enough, or the problem is with God.

Interviews with American POWs often showed those who expected to be rescued, someday, tended to survive with their spirits intact. Those who naïvely expected to be rescued, right now, or on some set schedule, generally despaired, broke, and never made it home. False hope is not Biblical hope — it's a spiritual fall waiting to happen. Scriptural depictions of our spiritual power (James 5:16, Ephesians 3:16) are not meant to inspire delusions of grandeur.

Prosperity teachers cite a number of verses in support for their approach. These include Romans 10:8, Psalm 82:6, Malachi 3:10, Matthew 25:14–30, John 10:10, Philippians 4:19, and 3 John 2. Those are all well and good, but a doctrine is not sound merely because a few compatible verses exist. If it's specifically contradicted by other parts of the Word, or the general teaching of the Bible, then de-contextualized passages are not sufficient to protect that teaching. Individual counters to these Prosperity proof texts can be found in many places, but a better approach is to show how clear scriptures blow this idea right out of the water.

Jesus is the obvious starting point for that analysis. Christ's life proved even a man perfectly, sinlessly centered in the will of God isn't necessarily going to have wealth, popularity, health, or even victory. Beyond His sacrificial death, Jesus also lived a very austere, non-materialistic life, according to His own words (Matthew 8:20). His travels with the Apostles were bankrolled on charity and simplicity, not independent wealth. Otherwise, there would have been a very different reaction to the feeding of the 5,000 (John 6:7). These men were explicitly dependent on daily handouts as they walked and talked (Matthew 10:9-10). In Jesus' preaching, He explicitly warned against materialism and putting undue attention on wealth (Luke 12:15, Matthew 6:19-21, Matthew 19:23-24). He told us to expect trouble, not opulence (John 16:33).

A powerful refutation of Prosperity Theology is Jesus' rebuke of the devil in Matthew 4. Here we see Satan offering earthly prosperity in return for worship. That very fact jeopardizes the message of Prosperity teachers. What would be the point of tempting Jesus with something He can get, should get, will get from God, per Prosperity Theology? Jesus's answer tells us exactly why: worldly success is not necessarily part of "the deal." Christ didn't appeal to a promise of God's blessings, or power, or provision. Instead, He referenced worship and service (Matthew 4:8-9). In other words, the most perfect man who ever lived did not tell Satan, "That's not a temptation for me since I'm getting that exact thing from God anyway." Rather, He rejected the entire notion of material, temporal satisfaction, just as He'd done earlier regarding turning stones into bread (Matthew 4:3-4).

On a related note, Word of Faith often refers to people as "little gods," and claims we have the power to speak things into existence, as God did in Genesis 1:3. This is also, ultimately, a Satanic concept, first suggested to Eve in Genesis 3:5. "Positive confession" is even blatantly refuted in the New Testament (James 4:13-16). That phrasing sounds harsh, and the point is certainly not to accuse Prosperity Theologians of being Satanic. It's to note, like it or not, that those kinds of offers are indeed found in Scripture…but they aren't coming from our Heavenly Father.

The other powerful example from Christ is His handling of the rich young man in Mark 10:17-21. Those haunted by the specter of losing wealth, just like those obsessed with gaining it, are not really interested in serving God, but in being served by God. The Cosmic Vending Machine of the Prosperity Gospel is not the God of the Bible.

Just as Jesus' life, preaching, and personal spiritual behavior emphatically contradict the core ideas of Prosperity Theology, so too do the lives and teachings of the Apostles. Paul specifically talked of the importance of living in contentment, even under hardship (Philippians 4:11). He explicitly instructed people to avoid those who preached a message of "covetousness" (Ephesians 5:5-7). He declared that believers, in particular leaders, ought not to be lovers of money (1 Timothy 3:3, Hebrews 13:5, 1 Timothy 6:10). And even his direct, personal, urgent request was denied by God (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). It's hard to argue that particular man was lacking in faith, power, or obedience.

Paul and the other Apostles were not men of wealth, health, and power. They were generally imprisoned, persecuted, and martyred. If anyone, after Jesus, had the spiritual fortitude to demand blessings from God, to speak them into existence, it was these men. But they didn't "declare" them, didn't "claim them", and certainly didn't receive them. Their "payday" was most definitely on the way (2 Corinthians 5:8), but not in this life, the way teachers like Osteen lead so many to believe.

The allure of the Prosperity Gospel is understandable, because materialism and worldly cares are natural struggles. But those who preach prosperity in order to scratch itching ears (2 Timothy 4:3) are diluting the real message of the Gospel, and confusing others about the nature of our relationship to God (Romans 16:17-18). For as much as they may mean well, what they teach is not just mistaken, it's spiritually unsafe.

Published 6-24-2014