The Dangers of the Prosperity Gospel
By Rev. Robert Barron
A few weeks ago, I came across an article in the Atlantic Monthly magazine, which bore the extraordinary title “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?” I realize that much of the mainstream media is ready to blame Christianity for almost every societal ill, but this seemed a bit much. As I read through the article, it became plain that the culprit, in the author’s mind, is the so-called “prosperity Gospel,” the view propagated by quite a few extremely popular evangelists that material prosperity flows from the depth and quality of one’s faith in God. His argument was that the willingness on the part of many Christians to risk their savings on questionable investments conduced toward the bursting of the housing bubble and the subsequent economic meltdown. Well, I’m not sure that that particular argument carries much weight, but I’ll confess that the article piqued my interest in this influential theology.
In its American incarnation, the prosperity Gospel probably began with the theological speculations of the evangelist Oral Roberts. Roberts encouraged his followers to “expect miracles” and to look forward with confidence to the ways in which God would reward them, materially and financially, for their trust in his providence. One of the most prominent prosperity gospellers on the scene today is Joel Osteen, the pastor of the largest church in America, best-selling author, and a former student at Oral Roberts University. He tells his millions of readers and listeners that they should not settle for mediocre lives; instead they should trust in the Lord’s ability to give them the house that they desire, the job that they deserve, and children that will make them proud. A typical piece of Osteenian advice: “friend, you have to start believing that good things are coming your way and they will!” Other advocates of this position today include the very popular televangelists Joyce Meyer and T.D. Jakes.
To give the prosperity gospellers their due, there is some biblical warrant for their position. The book of Deuteronomy consistently promises Israel that, if it remains faithful to God’s commands, it will receive numerous benefits in this world. The psalmist too assures us, “delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” And Jesus himself counsels: “seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things (food, shelter, clothing, etc.) will be added unto you.” And there is no doubt that the Bible consistently urges people to trust in the providence of God at all times. Jesus’ reminder that the birds, who neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns but who are nevertheless fed by their heavenly Father, is a summation of the Scriptural confidence in God’s care for those who have faith in him.
However, we must be attentive to the very subtle way that the Bible itself nuances and specifies these claims. The great counterpoise to the book of Deuteronomy is the book of Job, which tells the story of a thoroughly righteous man who, in one fell swoop, suffers the loss of all of his material prosperity. Job’s friends, operating out of a standard Deuteronomistic (or prosperity Gospel) point of view, argue that he must have greviously offended God, but Job—and God himself—protest against this simplistic interpretation. The deepest reason for Job’s suffering, we learn, is lost in the infinite abyss of God’s permissive will and is by no means easily correlatable to Job’s virtue or lack thereof. And Jesus himself, the very archetype of the faithful Israelite, experiences not earthly prosperity, but a life of simplicity and death on a brutal instrument of torture. If Joel Osteen and Oral Roberts were right, we would expect Jesus to have been the richest man in Nazareth and a darling of Jerusalem high society.
The resolution of this issue turns on a distinction between a conventional understanding and a divine understanding of the successful life. Deuteronomy is indeed right when it says that “prosperity” will follow from obedience to God’s will, but the prosperity in question is spiritual flourishing, and not necessarily worldly success. Obeying the divine commands does indeed lead to the right ordering of the self, and therefore to an increase in joy, even if that very obedience leads, in worldly terms, to abject suffering or failure. St. Thomas More followed the voice of his conscience and this led to the loss of his home, his family, his considerable fortune, his high political status, and eventually his life. But he died, spiritually speaking, a successful man, a saint. St. Thomas Aquinas endeavored to answer a question that many of us ask: why do the wicked often prosper and the righteous suffer? Thomas turned the question on its head by introducing the wider context of God’s purposes. Perhaps, he suggested, the good person who is deprived of material goods is actually being rewarded, since that deprivation opens him more and more to the spiritual dimension; and perhaps the wicked person who has every worldly benefit is actually being punished, since those material preoccupations close him to the only good that finally matters.
So embrace the prosperity Gospel, as long as you construe prosperity along properly Gospel lines. Following God’s will, abandoning yourself to the divine providence, will indeed give you treasure in heaven, but don’t expect it necessarily to give you treasure on earth.