It was about thirty years ago. I was up early to catch a plane to go to Florida for March Break with my friends. I was pretty groggy, and my mother after waking me had started telling me about Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. My parents watched the PTL Club regularly, not because they agreed with the things that were being said but because they thought it was very funny. They looked forward to their antics and the next gimmick they were going to use to ask for money.
But the reason my mother was talking to me that morning was that it had just been reported about the downfall of the Bakkers. Jim had an affair with a secretary, Tammy Faye had become addicted to drugs, and there were some significant financial mismanagement that would lead to criminal charges. I can’t say that it was a huge surprise. It may reflect my own prejudice, but it always seemed like something shady was going on. And the Bakkers were not the only ones.
The problem with the Bakkers and others like them, was not just the way they acted, but the “gospel” they preached. They proclaimed something that has influenced many Christians in more subtle ways and this is the prosperity gospel. What is the prosperity gospel? As the name states, the good news is that God wants us to prosper. When it comes to prosperity, they have a very specific meaning and that is health and wealth. According to the prosperity message, health and wealth is available to every Christian and all one has to do is claim it in faith.
This is not something limited to flashy televangelists. We have had friends express frustration with us that we have not just asked God to take away our children’s autism. All we have to do is claim in in Jesus’ name and it is done. What are we waiting for? I heard one healing evangelist attempt to speak highly of doctors by saying, “I think doctors are great for non-Christians and Christians without enough faith.”
Not enough faith. How many times have people been crushed under the condemnation that the challenges in their life are the result of their lack of faith? The truth is that I have known Christians who refused medical treatment as an act of faith and died as a result. The consequences of the prosperity gospel are serious and need to be addressed.
I have a number of concerns about the prosperity gospel but I will begin with some practical concerns. This may seem petty but I must say that a lot of televangelists are weird. They look weird and they sound weird. They have big hair and shiny clothes and act in some pretty bizarre ways. The King James of 1 Peter 2:9 says, “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people.” A peculiar people. Some people take that bit too literally. Strange and weird is of course not what Peter is talking about. The NIV translates that as “God’s special possession.”
Now why do I complain about this? I do because these televangelists have a large platform from which to communicate their message. People, and not just church people, watch them. Many people will judge Christianity based on what they see from these televangelists. Now I’m not saying it is wrong to be a preacher on television. We could easily broadcast my messages. But the strange televangelists unfortunately set the tone for others.
I remember sitting in my home church in my early 20s and hearing our minister speaking respectfully of Billy Graham. This surprised me because, without having heard or seen Billy Graham, I judged him based on Jim Bakker and others. I watched a Billy Graham crusade on television just to see how often he would ask for money. I was shocked when he didn’t ask for money at all and that he was not even that weird. Billy Graham ended up having a significant impact on my faith journey.
There is a more serious concern. It has come out from time to time that some televangelists are frauds. When they hear “a word from the Lord,” they are really getting some information from one of their associates through and an ear piece. When prayer requests with donations are received, the cheques are removed and the prayer requests are dumped without a thought. People who are healed are actually people pretending to be sick who are arranged to be at the right place at the right time to be “healed.” Those who are really sick or have an obvious disability are kept safely away from the stage. There have been plenty of documentaries and exposes done on televangelists and the truth does come out. Strangely, even after having been exposed, they come back with a new television show and people start giving money to them again.
This has a negative impact on the work of sincere Christians who are trying to make a difference by sharing the real truth and love of Christ. Some assume that all or many clergy are just as bad as the televangelists. There is serious damage being done by frauds.
Even more than the practical concerns, there are some significant theological concerns. We will look at issues surrounding wealth, health and faith.
The prosperity gospel claims that financial wealth is the inheritance of the Christian. We are children of the King and so we should live like kings. It seems to work as these prosperity preachers have plenty of money. However, I would suggest that their money comes not from God but from desperate people who are trying to escape poverty by giving to the preachers. It is not far off those who put their trust in lottery tickets.
It is true that the Bible talks a lot about money but in the way prosperity preachers talk about it. In fact in the New Testament there are some pretty serious warnings to the rich. I have never heard a sermon on “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you.” (James 5:1) from a prosperity preacher. What about, “”Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20)? There are some pretty scary passages about wealth and some very uplifting passages about the poor in the Bible. There is no indication in the Bible that God’s standard operating procedure is to bless his people with wealth.
I’m not saying a rich person cannot be a Christian or that all Christians should be poor. The Bible does teach that there are some unique challenges to being a rich Christian and there seems to be a special place in God’s heart for the poor. Even a quick look at the Bible would show that the Scriptures have the exact opposite message of the prosperity gospel. To be completely honest, I would not want to be in the shoes of an extremely rich prosperity preacher who has lined their pockets out of the desperation of the poor.
The other part of my theological concern is in reference to views on health. It is claimed that no Christian need ever be sick. I heard one healing evangelist say that a Christian should be able to go their entire life without being sick and should be able to die at the end, not of any disease or organ failure, but just by God calling them home. The problem is that every person dies of a sickness or a disease or organ failure. I used to work with a lady who obviously had a bad cold. I mentioned it and she denied being sick because she had claimed healing in Jesus’ name. That may be so, but her “health” happened to look an awful lot like being sick. I have seen people suffered from serious health problems being pronounced healed and then struggling with their faith when they discovered that their physical health had not changed.
This topic is messier than that on wealth. The Bible’s teaching on money is fairly simple. But what about health? The truth is that Jesus in his ministry went around and healed people of physical diseases. We see his followers and disciples continuing a healing ministry in the early church. James’ letter gives guidelines for elders in the church to anoint with oil and pray for the sick. So healing is something that is very biblical. Not only that, there are plenty of testimonies of people being healed of various diseases and injuries. It does happen.
For some Christians, there is a difference between a person praying to God directly for healing and a person being prayed for by another person for healing. I believe that both types of healing continue today, although I’m always suspicious of someone self-describing as a “healing evangelist.”
What we need to wrestle with is the problem that some people seem to get healed and some people do not. The prosperity preachers would say that healing is available for every Christian and a lack of healing is simply because of a lack of faith or the presence of sin. I reject that message. Others believe that God never heals. Based on biblical and experiential evidence, I reject that as well. To me, there is only one option, even if it is not very satisfying. It seems that God chooses in some circumstances to heal people and in other circumstances to not heal. Healing is neither guaranteed nor impossible. Why does God operate in this way? One thing to keep in mind is that we live in what is called “between the times.” This means that things have changed with the coming of Jesus but until Jesus returns, there is still a part of the old world that defies God in operation. I sometimes describe it as being a soldier between D-Day and V-E Day. Victory will take place but there are still battles to be fought. There are likely other things going on, but we need to let God be God. I find the story of Paul and his thorn in the flesh to be helpful. We do not know what his thorn was. Many think it was a physical illness, others that was spiritual and still others that it was people. The point is that Paul had a serious problem and he asked Jesus to remove it. Jesus did not remove it but pronounced his grace sufficient. In this, Paul learned that there was strength in his weakness. Paul had no temptation to be proud in his own strength. The weaker Paul was, the stronger that Jesus was in him.
This is completely the opposite of the prosperity message, The prosperity gospel argues that you need to be strong now, in health and wealth. The Jesus Gospel is that God works the strongest in the midst of weakness, that victory comes through the cross, the ultimate symbol of weakness. We may think of Paul as strong but a close reading of his life reveals personal weakness and a life far from what we would consider prosperity. But God used Paul in such an amazing way that it is difficult to imagine any other Christian as influential as Paul. If God can use Paul in his weakness, God can use us in our weakness.
The final theological concern that I have is the way the prosperity gospel uses the concept of faith. In many ways, the prosperity gospel sees faith as a force to be manipulated. It is as if there is a huge storeroom in heaven filled with material blessings. It is up to the Christian to access that storeroom with the key of faith. This faith is used by saying the right things and thinking the right thoughts. It often takes place through an action. So if you do not have enough money to pay your bills, you take the little you have and give it to the prosperity preacher and this will open the storeroom doors for you. There is something called seed faith, where you get something by giving a little of what you want.
None of this is new. It is something that has been around forever and it is called magic. What is the difference between magic and prayer? Magic is about accessing supernatural power by doing or saying the right thing. Prayer is about communicating with God and respecting God as a person who is free to respond to our prayers according to his will. The problem with the “faith” of the prosperity gospel is that it seeks to bypass the will of God and get directly to his power.
I do believe that we need to pray in faith and that we can pray for things like healing. But this faith is not an impersonal power, it is a trust in the God that we are in relationship with. That trust acknowledges that God may act in a way beyond what we ask for. It is a faith that understands that God is God and we are not.
[bctt tweet=”I do believe that we need to pray in faith and that we can pray for things like healing.”]
The prosperity gospel is something that I’m very concerned about. It is popular because it touches on where people are at. Life can be scary and unpredictable and we would like to be in control. The idea of being wealthy and healthy is awfully attractive and seems like a good step in gaining that self-control. The problem is that the prosperity gospel is not biblical. Wealth and health are not offered as signs of God’s blessing for the Christian. We only have to look at the Apostle Paul as an example. Nothing about his life seems to reflect prosperity. He was not healed of his thorn, whatever that thorn was. But Jesus offered Paul his grace and that was enough. The power of God flowed through Paul’s weakness.
We may never live the extravagant lifestyle of a televangelist but that is okay. There are real blessings to be experienced as we rely on the grace of God and trust in God’s goodness whatever our life circumstances may be.