There’s a popular way of thinking among many Christians today that goes something like this: “If you believe in God and do all the right things, God will supremely bless you.” This way of thinking is called “prosperity theology” or the “prosperity gospel.” Usually, Christian books that have titles like “7 Steps to (fill in the blank)” are based on the prosperity gospel. One of the most well-known proponents of this kind of theology is Joel Osteen, the pastor of the largest church in the U.S., which meets in a converted basketball arena in Houston and has something like 40,000 members.
The prosperity gospel sounds awesome! And let’s be honest, look at that picture of Joel Osteen: If I was having a bad day and needed somebody to give me a pep talk, I can’t think of many other people I’d rather talk to. (I’m being 100% serious about that!) Sometimes we all need to hear that God has a plan for our lives, that everything is going to be okay, and that if we just have enough faith in God, pray, and read our Bibles, God will make everything in our lives great!
The problem with the prosperity gospel is that, well, it’s not really all that biblical. Sure, there are examples of times and places where God blesses people beyond their wildest dreams, but those stories are few and far between. The Bible is not at its core an instruction book that teaches us how we can get blessed.
Take this example from Acts 20. Paul has gathered together many of his friends to tell them goodbye because it’s likely he’ll never see them again. He’s setting sail for Jerusalem, and here’s what he says:
“And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me.” (Acts 20:22-23, TNIV)
Notice why Paul is going to Jerusalem: he’s been compelled by the Holy Spirit. He’s going to Jerusalem because the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, is telling him to go there. And notice what else the Holy Spirit is telling him: not that he’s going to be supremely blessed, but that in every city prison and hardships are facing him! That doesn’t sound like supreme blessing.
Paul’s faithfulness to God didn’t lead him to supreme blessing, it led him to extreme hardship. Many Christians, especially American Christians, have a flawed understanding that faithfulness to God leads to success and wealth and health and blessings. And on the flip side, we sometimes hear that if we’re not blessed, that we must be doing something wrong or that our faith isn’t strong enough. But that’s simply not the case. God’s major command and promise throughout the Bible isn’t “Do this and I will bless you.” The command and promise that appear in the Bible more than anything else are, “Do not fear and I will be with you.”
The main aim of a Christian should not be prosperity and successfulness. The main criteria for judging a church should not be its financial success or numerical growth. The main aim of a Christian and of a Christian church should be faithfulness to God. Paul is faithful to God and it led him to prison and hardship. Other people in the Bible are faithful to God and it leads them to prosperity. But the point isn’t the result, the point is that God is present through it all: in prison and hardship, in success and prosperity, God is present.
If you’re going through difficult times, don’t assume that God has abandoned you. If things in your life have taken a turn for the worse, don’t let anyone tell you that it’s because of your lack of faith. The prosperity gospel sounds fantastic, and I wish it were true, but I just can’t reconcile what it teaches with what I read in Scripture.
God, whether it leads to good times or bad, to difficult times or easy times, may I be faithful to you.