Grasping the Thorns: Prosperity Theology

By Jeff Laird

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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.

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Image Credit: Twm; "
Cosmic ballet"; Creative Commons

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Published 6-24-14