One error Christians can make in their understanding of money is to think wealth is inherently sinful, and creating and accruing wealth is contrary to God’s plan. In fact, wealth creation and proper stewardship are consistent with human flourishing.
A twin error to the disparagement of wealth is the idea that faithfulness to God necessarily results in material prosperity. This second error is often called the prosperity gospel, or the health-and-wealth gospel.
In their book, When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert note,
At its core, the health-and-wealth gospel teaches that God rewards increasing levels of faith with greater amounts of wealth.
In other words, wealth and holiness are intrinsically and linearly connected: the more holy you are, the richer you will be.
David Wayne Jones and Russell S. Woodbridge explain in their book, Health, Wealth, and Happiness, how important it is for Christians to have a right understanding of the relationship between faith and prosperity. The direct connection between faith and wealth described by prosperity gospel preachers fails to provide an adequate basis for understanding why faithful Christians sometimes suffer, or why the unrighteous sometimes prosper.
That right understanding between faith and prosperity is what my three-part series seeks to set straight. This first post explains the prosperity gospel. Subsequent posts detail the biblical and economic responses to this teaching.
A Brief History of the Prosperity Gospel
Kate Bowler’s recent book, Blessed, traces the history of the prosperity gospel in America. Bowler explains that the prosperity gospel movement rose out of the New Thought movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. New Thought’s central thesis is that there is hidden power within everyone that is meant to be unlocked through positive thinking.
According to Bowler,
People shaped their own worlds by their thinking, just as God had created the world using thought. Positive thoughts yielded positive circumstances, and negative thoughts yielded negative situations.
In the years following World War II, the resurgence of prosperity in the United States encouraged some evangelists to seek miraculous healings and supernatural financial blessings. Apparent successes were heralded as evidence of the truth of their version of the gospel. Failures could be blamed on a lack of faith in those seeking the miracles. The key to gaining supernatural health and wealth was consistent positive thought.
Characteristics of the Prosperity Gospel
The prosperity gospel can be defined by many characteristics, but three basic ones are faith, wealth, and health.
For adherents of the prosperity gospel, faith is defined by its efficacy. “Faith was only faith because it worked,” Bowler says. Instead of faith being the rational trust in the proclaimed Word of God in accord with available evidence, the faith of prosperity gospel adherents is positive thinking and expectation of God’s material blessing. Positive thinking, called faith, necessarily results in material blessings if it is sincere. This is the simple law of faith according to the prosperity gospel.
According to the prosperity gospel, financial blessing is a guaranteed result of faith in God. Bowler explains that for prosperity gospel adherents,
Money served as a common and practical means of assessing one’s faith.
With respect to material wealth, faith was “a loose Christian equivalent to Hinduism’s karma, an explanation for causality in which all actions brought good or ill consequences.” To be a faithful Christian is to expect wealth from God.
For prosperity gospel believers, God blesses the faithful with good health as a provision of the atonement. All prosperity gospel believers see a connection between good health and spiritual blessedness.
Health is the result of positive thinking or “claiming” the health that Jesus’ atonement has already paid for. Poor health is either attributed to satanic attack that has not yet been overcome, or a weakness of faith.
The implications of this perspective on faith and prosperity are significant.
First, if wealth and health are a result of the degree of faith a person has, this leads to the conclusion that the poor are poor because they are spiritually deficient. This is exactly the reason that Corbett and Fikkert announce the need for rejecting the prosperity gospel when they comment that repenting of a belief in the prosperity gospel is an important step in being able to help the poor in a meaningful way.
While personal sin may result in poverty, the prosperity gospel ignores the effects of the sin of others and structural evils that may be the cause of poverty. Believing harder fails to eliminate poverty and advance human flourishing.
Second, the prosperity gospel overemphasizes the importance of temporal wealth on the individual. While scripture records examples of faithful rich men (e.g., Abraham), it also records examples of people who were poor or sick yet were also faithful (e.g., Paul). Establishing conditions where widespread, holistic human flourishing is possible is a good thing that is entirely different from a quest for individual wealth and health.
Third, the so-called law of faith that sees a direct correlation between positive thinking and material prosperity distracts individuals from understanding the natural laws that govern economic reality. Expecting a future supernatural blessing to make a balloon payment on a mortgage may tempt someone to ignore the financial realities of an excessively large loan-to-value-ratio on a house. This could result in real, naturally caused financial ruin.
The prosperity gospel is something different from a biblically-oriented approach to flourishing. Even given the basic outline of the prosperity gospel, it is clear that there are fundamental differences between the health-and-wealth gospel and biblically-based, theological approaches to human flourishing.
Editor’s Note: Learn more about a biblical view on wealth and stewardship in Wholehearted: A Biblical Look at the Greatest Commandment and Personal Wealth, in the IFWE bookstore.
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On “Flashback Friday,” we take a look at some of IFWE’s former posts that are worth revisiting. This post was previously published on Jan. 15, 2014.