The Dark Side of the Prosperity Gospel

“Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.” (Galatians 6:7).

It’s been a busy week since Monday night’s presidential debate. I don’t have time to say much but feel compelled to address something that struck me Monday night while it is still relatively fresh in our memories. There has been much debate about who “won” the debate and how you vote on that is pretty subjective. I think most of us heard what we expected to hear filtered through our own political lenses and that of the media analysis we choose to rely on for “expert” opinions.

What struck me most were two things. When Donald Trump said that not paying taxes makes him smart and that taking advantage of the foreclosures during the recession was “good business,” he showed again why he is the poster boy for the dark side of the prosperity Gospel and even of Capitalism itself. The prosperity Gospel is the misguided interpretation of Christian theology that emphasizes material blessings and rewards for those who proclaim their faith in Christ. It is responsible for the growth and success of many mega churches and television evangelists, but it is totally contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

There are too many examples to cite them all here but these quickly come to my mind. “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matt. 6:24, Luke 16:13). The parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21), the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3), and numerous times where Jesus says, “leave what you have and follow me.”

Mr. Trump said earlier in the campaign that his favorite Scripture is “An eye for an eye.” When one’s only concern for how to measure one’s worth is material wealth and power, that’s a great motto to live by, but I pray that some of Mr. Trump’s Christian followers will prevail upon him to someday learn what Jesus said about that desire for revenge by reading the Gospels or even just the Sermon on the Mount.

The Gospel of Christ has been twisted into the prosperity Gospel because it sells. Promising people they will have to take up a cross to follow Jesus, or to share what they have with the least of those as judged by the world’s standards, or to love their enemies and turn the other cheek – those just are not good marketing techniques. Promising potential church members they need to sell all they have and give it to the poor doesn’t entice many recruits to sign up. Maybe that’s why Jesus only had 11 faithful ones?

The spread of the prosperity Gospel also explains the conundrum many political commentators have wrestled with this year, namely how to make sense of Trump’s popularity among some Christians. Galatians 6:7 says it so well, “we reap what we sow.” Creating a flock of materialistic, wealth-worshipping “Christians” over the last few decades has produced this strange phenomenon of those who call themselves evangelicals enthusiastically giving their support to a man who is the antithesis of the values and lifestyle Jesus Christ calls us to live.

It also explains how those who claim the name of the Prince of Peace can be devout supporters of the NRA and gun rights. Fear of losing one’s prosperity leads to taking very drastic and unChrist-like measures to protect and defend those “things that thieves can steal and rust and moth can consume.” The rest of that advice from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount says, don’t put your faith in those perishable things, “but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:19-21).

God is not mocked. We have planted seeds of greed and selfishness, and now we are reaping what we have sown.

Prayer Inspired by Solomon’s Request, I Kings 3:9

God, I bet you get tired of my whining and begging and calling it prayer. You don’t need a laundry list of all the things I think I need or deserve since you already know what I’m thinking, what I’m coveting, even when I wish you didn’t. We worry a lot these days about privacy and who has access to our information when we really should be more concerned about what you know about the secret desires of our hearts and minds.

Every time we pray you offer us the same deal the young King Solomon got – to ask for whatever we want. And if we ask for the right thing, the answer is guaranteed. But if we ask for wealth, status, power, comfort or other selfish rewards, no matter what the prosperity gospel advocates say, the answer will be ‘No, try again.’

Solomon could have written the great old hymn, “Be Thou My Vision.”* It says “Be thou my wisdom and thou my true word…. Riches I heed not nor man’s empty praise, Thou mine inheritance now and always.” Solomon doesn’t ask for riches or power, he asks for the wisdom to govern God’s people, “an understanding mind…able to discern between good and evil.” O how we need such wisdom in our troubled world today, O Lord!

God, you know that we need the real necessities of life. Help us to trust you to provide those while we seek after the truth that sets us free from our worries and cares and concerns. Don’t let us confuse knowledge with wisdom. This isn’t about education and degrees – but true insight and discernment. As you blessed Solomon because he humbly asked for wisdom, the prayer of our hearts is that you will also “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days.”** Amen and Amen.

*Old Irish hymn, translated by Mary E. Byrne, 1905 (original poem attributed to St. Dallan Forgaill, 530-598 C.E.)
** From “God of Grace and God of Glory,” by Harry Emerson Fosdick, 1930.