Pressing God for Prosperity
I have been thinking about the foolishness of the cross of Christ, about which I will be preaching this week from I Corinthians 1. The apostle Paul declares that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1:25). Paul is speaking specifically about the “message of the cross,” that Christ’s death in this “shameful” and “lowly” way is actually God’s move to redeem humanity and unveil his kingdom reign. But there is a more general sense in which much of the life God prescribes seems “foolish” to the world, and much of the world’s “wisdom” God pronounces foolish.
Keep this in mind as we turn to the cover story of this week’s Time magazine, “Does God Want You to be Rich?” It examines the burgeoning “Prosperity Lite” movement among Pentecostal, evangelical and even mainline Protestant American churches (it is referred to as “Lite” because it refrains from some of the more hard-core “prosperity gospel” teaching of the “televangelist era” of the 1980’s). Many evangelicals are critical of, and embarrassed by, this movement, but its power is that it has just enough reasonability to be alluring. The hard-core prosperity gospel takes the form of a spiritual contract: if you do your part, God will do his. Period. If you’re not wealthy it’s because you’re not doing your part. Most Christians with half a brain and an ounce of judgment smell the rat in that supposition. The “Prosperity Lite” gospel, however, claims that God wants us to have “abundant life” (John 10:10) and this naturally (as the reasoning goes) pertains to those things that we hold dear: happy relationships, meaningful work, good health, and enough money to live a “good” life. See how reasonable that is? You’re not telling me that God DOESN’T want me to have those things, are you? They are the bedrock values we live by and vote for in America.
The problem with this theology, and the key to its insidiousness, is how quintessentially American it is. It sounds positively constitutional, as if Jesus in John 10:10 is talking about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Listen, I honor “the American dream.” It’s a great secular (which is not to say anti-religious) ideal. But let’s not hold God accountable to it by reading it into the Bible.
And this is the challenge of the Cross. It’s easy to see God’s wisdom over against obviously sinful and wrong philosophies in the world. But it gets real interesting when we put it up against what I would call “pleasing wisdom,” folksy aphorisms we have grown to accept such as “God helps those who help themselves,” (then why am I supposed to help people?) and “God wants you to be free from financial worries” (but what if financial worry is the only thing that will prod me to turn my attention to God?!).
As much as I would like the cross of Christ to confirm all the things I want out of life, it doesn’t. It actually challenges my “wisdom” in this regard. A good rule of thumb I have found is that if everybody wants it (financial prosperity, movie star looks, etc.) it’s probably not of God. That’s not to say it is against God’s will and purposes. But we blaspheme God when we enlist Him to justify it rather than submitting it to Him to winnow it.