Three Things I Learned in My 20 Years in the Prosperity Gospel Movement
Google the phrase “prosperity gospel”. You’ll find horror story after horror story. And they follow a similar pattern:
A person will have spent years convinced of its truth. Then a tragedy in their life happened. Then they realized they were believing heresy. They then adjusted their beliefs, either to a more “orthodox” type of faith, or no faith at all.
I’ve lived in three different states and attended four different Pentecostal churches. This is over the course of the past 20 years. Each of these churches preached the power of positive confession. They preached healing. And they preached God will financially bless you.
They taught these things right alongside the man’s fall, the new birth, sanctification and Jesus’ second coming.
Yet I’ve lost my mother to a heart attack before she could meet her grandson. I’ve seen my grandfather suffer at the hands of Alzheimer’s. I’ve had financial struggles and battles with anxiety and depression.
Even with all of those things that have happened, I still believe that God wants me healthy and prosperous. I must be some sort of rube, right? How can I believe this when my life hasn’t always reflected it?
Here’s the thing. There’s what’s on Christian TV — the wild-eyed televangelists. And there is what’s taught in pulpits of local churches. The difference is one of those teachers has to look you in the eye every week.
This isn’t an exhaustive list. But here are three things I’ve learned over the past 20 years in the movement.
1. Greed is idolatry.
Yes, I have heard this preached in my “prosperity church”. More than once. Chasing after money is equal of bowing down to Aaron’s golden calf. It’s not that greed is as bad as idol worship, it is idolatry. Full stop.
God is a jealous God (sorry Oprah, he is). I cannot say I love God and then love money at the same time. Jesus taught these things. But we tend to stop there.
Jesus said when the kingdom of God and his righteousness are our pursuits, things will come to us. If we look to save our lives, we end up losing them. But if we lose our life for the sake of the kingdom, then the things we need end up pursuing us.
I have some firsthand experience with this. I had a job in sales and technology that I loved. I was good at it, and it gave me a great sense of self-worth. I got promoted a couple of times and was continuing to look to move up to better provide for my family.
But it also fed my ego and my sense of entitlement. Worse still, I was pursuing this route at the expense of serving God. I went to church. I regularly gave and served in various areas. But I knew there was a calling for me to pursue and I ignored it.
And that’s when the anxiety came in.
I spent an entire month sleepless. I went on anti-anxiety medication, and things got no better until God opened my eyes.
If you asked me “are you greedy?” I would’ve said “of course not!”, but the root of my anxiety was that I was full of fear. My identity was based on a house of cards. I found my identity in my job and my ability to provide, not in God.
I decided I had to leave this job and pursue what God created me for, even if it meant far less money. The day I made the decision to pursue it, my wife got a phone call.
I won’t go into the whole story here, but a total stranger wrote us a check for $10,000. Crazy, right?
This is the true prosperity gospel. You put God first, you seek his plan, and the “things” come hunting you down.
2. Suffering is part of the Christian life.
You’re going to enter into hard places in life. There’s no amount of positive confessions that keep you from that happening. After Jesus had the Holy Spirit come on him, the Spirit led him into the wilderness.
Satan offered him the kingdoms of the world and their wealth. Jesus replied with Moses’ words:
“Worship the Lord God and serve him only.”
Faith is not a magic formula that Christians can use to avoid difficulty. Faith is there for the difficulties.
This is what I heard in my prosperity gospel church. That God will even lead you into the hard places. That doesn’t mean God will lead you into cancer or some other disease. But Jesus himself learned obedience through the things he suffered. It’s a wild thought. But that’s a quote from the Book of Hebrews.
But those hard places aren’t part of God’s mysterious purposes. You’re meant to deepen your faith there and to find victory, not to accept it as your fate.
Faith is not accepting God’s mysterious providence come rain or shine. Faith blossoms by resisting the hardship.
Jesus told his disciples to get into a boat and cross to the other side. A squall came while Jesus slept. When they woke him up, he quieted the storm. Then he asked where their faith was. Jesus was irked.
Most Christians would get offended if anyone questioned their faith. But Jesus saw that faith wasn’t for trusting God no matter the situation, sink or swim. He saw faith as overcoming the trial.
3. You don’t give to get.
What? Isn’t that like the central tenet of the prosperity gospel, to give in order for God to make it rain on you?
Yeah, I wasn’t taught this.
I learned that God looks more at the motive and not the dollar amount.
When the poor widow put her two mites in the temple treasury, Jesus said: “look, boys, this lady out gave them all!”. She may have been poor, but she was rich towards God.
But that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t reward giving when it comes from the right motive. Paul echoed Jesus that with whatever measure they gave with, that it’s measured to you.
Paul told the church of Corinth:
“And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work”
And this is what true prosperity is. It’s about having more than enough for you and your neighbor. Money is a tool to express what you love — either people made in the image of God or the mere accumulation of things.
Generosity without love isn’t generosity at all, but generosity begets generosity. When you value what God values, he will go out of his way to get resources to you.
Heresy or Hope?
Call it anathema if you want. Call it greed. Or hypocrisy. But if you’re saying that, you’re not listening to the whole story. You’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
God’s interested in our material welfare. Even the things we like. If you don’t believe that, why was his first miracle turning water into party supplies?
Here’s the irony for the opponents of this message. If we can’t depend on God to help meet our financial needs, we’ll end up trusting ourselves to get it, because we all have needs. We’ll end up having to seek the things the “Gentiles seek” — our everyday needs, but without trusting God for help. This is what creates the anxious life according to Jesus. Just read Matthew 6:19–34.
And Jesus doesn’t want us living in anxiety. Most people are willing to sacrifice to make sure their children are taken care of. Do we love our kids more than God?
Look. There are wolves in sheep’s clothes looking to make merchandise out of the flock. I get it. Expose them for the charlatans that they are.
But don’t judge the truth by its distortion.