Four American Heresies: Prosperity Gospel

The third heresy in my series ruminating on contemporary American heresies that are all the rage is the "prosperity gospel." This is particularly popular in charismatic and Pentecostal circles, but has crept into some general evangelical circles as well, not to mention 2/3 world Christian churches.

This so-called "gospel" basically preaches that if you are faithful God is duty-bound to bless you materially - physical health, monetary prosperity, public fame/affirmation/respect. Like other heresies, it often co-opts verses pertaining to God's promises to ancient Israel or forces a "realized eschatology" (taking a description of some blessing or state in eternity and trying to make it a norm now). It often piggy-backs on certain spiritual practices or states of holiness as a prerequisite as the assumed precondition for obtaining that blessing. Most often, one's generosity in giving is highly prized by certain televangelists as it yields them material prosperity, not to mention an ready-made "proof" that their message is of God.

The prosperity gospel has roots in Puritan teaching that tied general blessings of common grace (open to saint and sinner alike) to certain actions. Thus hard work, thrift, and wise money management would yield financial stability in the creation God established. This is the long-touted "Protestant work ethic" that one can benefit from whether Protestant or not (or even Christian for that matter).

The prosperity preachers however, add the layer of holiness, blessings as a proof of one's standing before God. If you give a lot, pray a lot, go to church a lot, and try goshdurned hard to live an upright lifestyle (often defined in merely sexual terms) God is sure to bless you. Thus, the flip side is if you're sick, poor, struggling from a series of catastrophes not of your making, it's clear you're a sinner or don't have enough faith. Thus, works-based theology is the norm and grace is often relegated to simply the initial punch ticket to heaven for those who respond to an altar call. There is no allowance for the fact we continue to be sinners in this life who are in the process of becoming the saints God considers already in Christ. Even faith itself becomes a work of the fallen human will as people struggle to manufacture a fervency that they reckon they don't have, or that is fledgling because it is new, damaged, or consistently being challenged by the circumstances of life (like the man who cried to Jesus, "Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!").

On a side note, you may notice many of these heresies are rooted in misapplying the Bible. This is almost always the case with any heresy. It uses what it wants from the Bible, but ignores the full context. Heresies also have a tendency to trust their own conclusions over the clear teaching of Scripture and thread of consistent testimony that can be traced throughout Church history. Not that we never face new challenges as culture changes or the gospel enters a new environment. But the teachings of the Bible and summed up in the Creeds have a way of answering our questions if we take the time to let the Spirit open that truth to us in community.

How can I avoid the allure of prosperity preaching? Remember that our gospel is based on what Christ has done, not what we do. We cannot save ourselves. Ever. In any way. It is all a gift from the Father, through the Son, by the Holy Spirit. Even how we grow in holiness is by grace, even though we are empowered to participate in that process through the tools the Spirit gives us (prayer, sacraments, service, etc.). If we are trying to muster holiness by sheer willpower, we will inevitably be disappointed (as will God). But if we look to see where the Spirit is already at work in our lives, being mindful of Scripture and the Church as primary aids to our discernment, then we will grow in increasingly holiness.

But what about healing, finances, and such? God does promise to provide for our needs. But he never promises a comfortable life in this world. We do see occasions in which God gives signs of his kingdom as they bear witness of his goodness to others in healings, miracles, blessings, and so on. Sometimes they even bear witness to us to encourage our trust in the Lord. But we should never demand God perform for us as a tit for tat exchange, as though we are so faithful and somehow God isn't keeping up his end of the bargain. None of our good works in this world would ever atone for imperfection and sinful ways, cumulatively or individually. To make such demands is the height of arrogance. Not that you can't just get things off your chest in prayer. God is more than capable of taking our rants, even if they come from a less-than-pure place. Just remember that God is under no obligation to cater to your whims, even if you feel justified in asking for something. In those times, it's good to take time to just sit in silence with God and allow his loving arms to comfort you. Jesus is well aware of our struggles, and he is with you even when it seems he's ignoring you or is far away.

If you come across someone who is duped by this prosperity heresy, don't be sucked in, but remind yourself how much grace it lacks. If possible, try to point that out to the person who is held under its sway. The usual good sense applies, don't force the issue if they are not open, but if they are, have that conversation with the understanding that they may or may not wind up agreeing with you. And at all time, pray, because Jesus may use you to keep one more soul from falling headlong into heresy.

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