I absolutely love reading the Internet Monk site. He often provokes and challenges me on things and/or says something that I have thought for years but never considered verbalizing or writing down. He has a post now called The “Real” Prosperity Gospel that absolutely nails something that has bothered me. It is something I tried to get at rather clumsily a while back with a post about speaking the whole truth. Here is the part that had me nodding my head and shouting “AMEN”:
The real prosperity gospel isn’t the overt appeal to wealth. It is the more subtle appeal to God guaranteeing that we are going to be happy, and the accompanying pressure to be happy in ways that are acceptable and recognizable to the community of Christians we belong to.
The real prosperity gospel is the belief that God will- must?- keep things at a level where it’s still possible for us to follow Jesus without overt appeal to rewards in this life. The real prosperity gospel is revealed not in the promises of a yacht or a large home, but in the unspoken approval of a level of prosperity that allows us to live the Christian life on our own terms. It is the ratification of our private, sometimes entirely secret, arrangements with God of what his “goodness” means.
For years, one of my favorite Bible verses has been Jesus’ promise to his disciples in John 16:33: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
This promise is completely crazy in the minds of most Western Christians. I heard Ken Davis talk about this verse in a message called Super Sheep and he made me laugh so hard I cried. I have told people for years; God didn’t promise you an easy life, or a cushy anything this side of heaven. If we believe Jesus, we should expect the opposite. I can’t fathom why we have it so good to tell you the truth. Western Christianity has somehow fallen victim to the myth that God is working all things together for our good. That is not what the verse says. The verse says that He is working all things together for good, but He isn’t consulting us for our opinions of what that good is or should be. He certainly didn’t consult Joseph in Genesis for his idea of “good”, because I am fairly certain that being sold as a slave, being falsely accused and thrown in prison and such wouldn’t have been a part of his plan or list of “good things”. But we find Joseph telling his brothers in Genesis 45:7-8: “7 God sent me ahead of you to establish you as a remnant within the land and to keep you alive by a great deliverance. 8 Therefore it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household, and ruler over all the land of Egypt.”
Again, iMonk puts this very well:
Ask yourself this question: Why is it that so many western Christians find the greatest challenges to their faith are experiences that do not even qualify as persecution or serious suffering? Why will the loss of a a job or the moral failure of a pastor lead to the end of faith? Why do interpersonal conflicts in a church cause so many to abandon Christianity altogether?
Is there something about these experiences that are inherently discouraging to a particular kind of faith experience? Perhaps a faith experience that says things should be turning out right most of the time?
In much of Western Christianity, a gospel has been promoted that teaches that God is about the business of giving you your “best life now”. It just looks more blatant coming from the mouth of a Joel Osteen than it does coming from the mouth of a well-meaning pastor trying to comfort someone with the idea that God has something better planned for them down the road.
When I was a child, I wanted to be an astronaut. It was my life’s dream. I thought about it all the time and even at a fairly young age started to formulate ways to make it happen. The people I looked up to as heroes were Ed White, the first American to walk in space. I think you get the idea. Then, when I was 13, I was throwing rocks in the yard at some friends and they were throwing them back at me. Suddenly, I learned why parents weren’t too keen on this activity as a rock unexpectedly hit me in the eye at the exact moment that I turned around. The rock cut my eye open and in an instant ruined all the plans I had made. This was not a “good” thing for me. At the time, I was a nominal follower of Christ. I had made a public confession and been baptized a few years earlier, but I lived my life the way I wanted to with enough “religious knowledge” to put on a good show if need be. After the accident, a family from our church gave me a get well card that I still have to this day. I am not at home so I can’t see it at the moment, but it says on the inside, “God always has a Plan B”. At the time, the card held some measure of comfort, but in reality I had not felt the weight of the door slamming on my dream either. I mean, God could still heal me or something else to make the plans I had work out “good” the way I had always known they would.
It is safe to say that I am not an astronaut, now or ever. Of all the things I thought I might do with my life that day, being a pastor of a small church in North Dakota would have never made the list. But it has been amazing to behold what can happen in a life that is yielded completely to God. Going wherever He leads and doing whatever He says. I am not perfect even in my pursuit of Him and His ways, but I am determined to belong to Jesus Christ and to follow Him the best way I know how. I discovered that God never had a plan B. Just like Joseph, I learned that what looked like the worst of all disasters can be used by God in ways I couldn’t have imagined. The only plan B around at all was mine, and I had to let it go to pursue the only plan A worth having. I can’t promise anything to anyone. God isn’t someone we can bargain with or control. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords and asks for nothing less than our complete obedience and submission to His authority as such.
When we preach a gospel that tells people otherwise. When we lead people to believe that God is there to give them the best things in life or that He only wants to help them have a better life or even the innocuous sounding “has a ‘great’ plan for your life”, are we leading them into disappointment and disallusionment? Just this evening I read a story about a satanic group that slaughtered four teenagers in Russia. In the news article one of them was quoted as saying:
Another suspect, Alexander Voronovic, said it was not the group’s first foray into cannibalism; he reported gang members previously dug up a grave and consumed the deceased’s heart, the newspaper said.
The newspaper reported another gang member said, “I tried to turn to God, but it didn’t bring me any money. I prayed to Satan, and things improved.”
We need to be honest with people as believers called to make disciples. Life doesn’t become easy or “magically better” just because we have decided to follow Jesus. In fact, outside of Western Christianity, the opposite is usually true. For those brothers and sisters in Christ, life is usually much more difficult because of their decision and the persecution it brings. I am still a person who struggles daily. I am not immune to life as a minister. Those faith healers on TV get sick too you know. They have family members who get sick. Jesus promised that if you live in this world, you will have trouble. He didn’t say might have trouble. He didn’t say you will have trouble until you become a Christian and then it will end. To quote a truly classic movie, “Life is pain, highness! Anyone who says differently is selling something.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel like “selling” Christianity.