Health and Wealth for the Prosperous

I was born and raised in the United States, but now live, work, and go to church in Ghana. I have come to believe that so much of the injustice, racism, and environmental and economic exploitation that plagues our world finds its root in a failure to be satisfied with “the food that I need,” as it says in Proverbs 30:7-9:

Two things I ask of you, Lord;
    do not refuse me before I die:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
    give me neither poverty nor riches,
    but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
    and say, “Who is the Lord?”
Or I may become poor and steal,
    and so dishonor the name of my God.

Scripture tells us that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, and that those who desire to get rich fall into a trap and are ensnared by evil. And the Proverbs are filled with admonitions like this one against the deceitfulness, transience, and emptiness of wealth. Despite this, it seems the chief day-to-day preoccupation of believers (much like everyone else) is the acquisition of more and better things. Purveyors of the prosperity gospel have built a theological house around the notion that God not only wants to meet our needs, but desires for every believer to be materially wealthy.

Knowing this, my evangelical antennae were raised to full alert recently during a sermon my pastor was preaching. He spoke of prosperity—of God blessing people with job promotions, cars, houses, and travel. He shouted, “You shall be blessed!” to which the congregation responded with a hearty “Amen!”

But then he said something else. He said, “Because of where many of us are coming from, we have come to believe that we don’t deserve any good thing in life. There are women who put up with any kind of treatment from their husbands because they believe ‘I’m lucky anyone wants me at all.’ We take any kind of treatment on our jobs because we don’t think we deserve anything better.”

My antennae went down and I started reflecting more deeply on how easy it is to sit back and throw stones at prosperity preachers; preachers who entice the poor with plastic smiles and easy answers to all life’s difficult problems; preachers who promise health and wealth and prosperity in exchange for the right amount of offering money and a side dose of “faith.”

To be clear, those who do that are guilty of distorting the faith and abusing the gospel. But that is not what my pastor was doing. In fact, as I thought about it, I realized how relevant his words were, and how much hypocrisy underlies the criticism levelled at the kind of words my pastor was preaching.

One need only observe the well-scrubbed members of the American evangelical church as they leave their half million dollar suburban homes in $40,000 SUVs to worship in sanctuaries plush with thousands of dollars’ worth of carpet and tens of thousands of dollars in the latest multimedia equipment. Or perhaps more typical today: a congregation made up of less well-scrubbed members, meeting in an “urban space,” tweeting about justice, and hash-tagging one another from their iPads while drinking the requisite over-priced, fair-trade, dark-roasted coffee.

How easy it is to criticize prosperity preaching when you’re already prosperous.

When all you’ve known is the massive prosperity of the post-industrial West, it is easy to forget how wealthy you are compared to most people in the world, and indeed most people in history. And easier still to romanticize the seemingly simple lives of the poor when you’re not one of them.

When all you’ve known is the massive prosperity of the post-industrial West, it is easy to forget how wealthy you are compared to most people in the world, and indeed most people in history. And easier still to romanticize the seemingly simple lives of the poor when you’re not one of them.

The Bible, however, is wiser than we are and recognizes that there is nothing romantic or beautiful about poverty. Nothing poetical about babies who die for want of a $5 dose of antibiotics or young men so desperate for food they sell themselves for sex. Poverty makes it all too easy to “steal and profane the name of the Lord.” Many such people believe they don’t deserve any better in life; it is seen as their fate, their destiny.

Prosperity preaching, in some ways, is merely a continuation of an all-too-human temptation: equating God’s blessing with material goods. Yet, God does desire to bless us—not just take us to heaven when we die—but bless us, here and now.

For many of the world’s poor to hear that God is grieved at their sickness and poverty, that he wants to bless them, and that he cares not only about their souls, but their bodies, is a revolution. It is truly good news.

So then, let us keep the balance in understanding and be hesitant in our judgment. Let us pray for the poor to know not only God’s eternal blessings in Christ, but experience the blessing of “their necessary food.” And finally, let us act as an answer to that prayer, by being content with what we have whilst giving to those who lack.

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