The Prosperity Gospel comes in a variety of pernicious forms. At its most crass, it is the overt teaching that belief in Jesus Christ will lead to an abundance of financial rewards. Prayer and faith functions like a Nectar Card, both of which end up rewarding you with blessings from God; blessings that are almost always viewed financially. But then there are the subtler, yet equally errant, forms of prosperity gospel that teach – if only you have enough faith – God will give you good health, stable emotions and all the desires of your heart (apparently, including all the sinful ones stored therein too).
We may think we could spot these things a mile off, but subtle forms of prosperity preaching have a habit of creeping into otherwise good Evangelical churches. Here are some examples of how subtle, yet pernicious, prosperity teaching may have infected our churches.
God has a wonderful plan for your life
There is certainly no denying that God has a plan for his people. There is also no denying that God’s plan for his people will work for their ultimate good. But the ultimate good for the Christian is to be made like Jesus Christ. For those unfamiliar with Jesus, he was unmarried and had no home. He was born in poverty, never became rich, suffered throughout his life and then died and unjust death on a cross.
To the average ‘wonderful plan’ adherent, Jesus’ life doesn’t seem all that wonderful. Thus to be made like him doesn’t appear all that wonderful. Worse, to be made like him means to share in his sufferings, which sounds especially dreadful. This is not the kind of ‘wonderful plan’ they mean. But it is the plan that Jesus told his followers to expect. Indeed, all of Jesus’ early disciples faced prison, exile or execution. But they rejoiced as they shared in the sufferings of Christ and were made increasingly like him.
God just wants you to be happy
It is interesting that ‘happy’ is not the word the Bible tends to use for followers of Jesus Christ. Scripture prefers the term ‘joy’. Likewise, it is instructive that when Paul speaks about being in want, shipwreck, prison, beatings and the rest he doesn’t claim to be happy about it but rather tells us he has learnt to be ‘content’. The good shepherd does not lead the sheep into happiness, but contentment, peace and joy.
That aside, those who believe God just wants to make you happy believe that he will do so by giving you whatever desire you want. The view, unfortunately, doesn’t contend with the concept of God as Father. Even good earthly fathers don’t simply give their children whatever they want in a bid to make them happy because they are aware that this won’t ultimately lead to their wellbeing. We know their happiness will be short-lived and their ultimate good, their growth in character, will be impeded. Then, of course, there are the things our children want that are clearly bad for them. Nobody raises a child exclusively on sugar and most of us, no matter how desperately our children ask us, would be that happy letting them stick their fingers into plug sockets. We recognise that what our children want and what is good for them are two different things. We can see that their ultimate good, which will work for their eventual happiness, does not lie in a diet of exclusively sugary foods but in the considerably less enjoyable visits to the dentist who will help them keep their teeth.
God the Father is well aware that granting the selfish and sinful desires of our heart will not lead to our eventual happiness. Our ultimate good is to become like Christ and our joy is to be found in him. He is to be our treasure above all treasures. We may feel like suffering is a drag, but if it makes us like Christ and our joy is in him then suffering should be viewed as working toward our ultimate good and we can rejoice in it. God doesn’t expect us to enjoy suffering any more than we’re expected to enjoy going to the dentist, but just as we realise going to the dentist is good for us, so suffering is good for us in that it is the way to Christlikeness and the path to glory. God doesn’t ‘just want us to be happy’, he wants us to be like Christ. If we really want happiness, and simply see Jesus as a means to getting it, we will have neither happiness nor Christ; If we love and cherish Jesus above all else, he will dwell with us by his Spirit and grant us eternal joy and happiness.
God never wants you to suffer
I hope we’ve cleared this one up already. To be made like Christ is to share in his suffering. To grow in Christian character involves suffering and hardship. The Bible tells us plainly enough that everyone who want to live a godly life will suffer. To be a Christian is to suffer for the name of Christ.
But we are so quick to write off suffering as ‘from the Devil’, ‘a result of our own sin’ or ‘not part of God’s plan’. Yet, Jesus suffered and died to pay for our sin. We are called to follow Christ even unto death. The Bible makes clear that suffering is God’s plan for us. He uses it to mould us and shape us into Christlikeness.
But how quickly even our prayers give away what we really think. We rarely pray that we would learn through our suffering or that we would grow in character as a result. More often than not, we simply pray that the Lord would take our suffering away. There is certainly nothing wrong with asking for it to be removed but we must be prepared, just like Paul’s thorn in the flesh, for God to say ‘no’ for our own good. A better approach to prayer would be that God would either remove the suffering or use it to glorify himself in and through it.