Revisiting the Prosperity Gospel

About a year and a half ago, I posted an article entitled Some Thoughts on the Prosperity Gospel. In it, I addressed the so-called “prosperity gospel,” which is a Christian philosophy in which God provides material prosperity for those he favors. A quote from the earlier post summarizes my stance on this philosophy.

First of all, let me state I’m a Christian. I’m involved with a Lutheran church in my community which does a lot of local charitable good, I’m friends with the pastor there, and I’ve even served on committees there. Regardless of my personal religious beliefs, I’ve seen the very positive work that the church does in the community, providing food and resources for people who genuinely need them.

I also don’t believe in “pushiness” when it comes to people’s personal spiritual beliefs. I don’t expect you to become a Christian and I’m not going to browbeat you with the reasons – and I reasonably expect the same from you. Unless it’s entered into with an air of respect and civility, such debates never go anywhere and this isn’t the place for them.

Many of these readers who email me and argue on behalf of the prosperity gospel argue that, because The Simple Dollar is successful, I must be favored by God and that I should use this evidence as a platform upon which to repeat the prosperity gospel to my readers.

I completely and wholeheartedly disagree with this notion.

My argument against it centered around two points. First, if this philosophy were true, everyone who had faith would be showered in material wealth, which is false. Second, it implies a quid pro quo, implying that God is some kind of “spiritual ATM” where you deposit faith and withdraw funds, which is also provably false. I concluded by saying “Spirituality is never a direct quid pro quo. It provides its own rewards, ones that aren’t of the sparkly kind.”

Since posting that, I’ve received an email a month or so from someone who ardently believes in the prosperity gospel, offering up criticisms and arguments for the philosophy. I thought I would address a few of the most common arguments for the prosperity gospel right here.

First, there is the argument that financial abundance comes to those who truly practice the word of God in their daily lives, and that those without financial abundance are not practicing God’s word. An excerpt from an email from Andy:

My own life is an example of the truth of the prosperity Gospel. I have spent every moment of my life following the word of God and doing the work of God. Because of that, God has rewarded me with many material benefits. When I work at a soup kitchen or at a food pantry, I see people who are constantly making bad choices and act against God. The Kingdom of Heaven is upon us and I am a part of it. Are you?

For starters, I’ll say that I do commend Andy for spending his time working at soup kitchens and food pantries. He is clearly giving his time and energy to others, which is a truly great thing.

But does that directly equate to his wealth? I would argue that his wealth comes from his skill set and how effective he is at applying it, and when he works in a soup kitchen, he sees people who are simply less effective at applying skills or building a skill set. This has very little to do with how “Godly” a person is, aside from the fact that a churchgoing individual has a chance to build a social network with other churchgoing individuals.

Another factor is how much of one’s personal wealth that they choose to give away to others. Where would you be, financially, if you chose to give all of your money to those who cannot help themselves? If you gave a million dollars to provide clean drinking water to people in third world nations, you would clearly be following the guidance that Jesus provides, yet you would also be poor. This contradicts the prosperity gospel.

I know an older couple who spent most of their lives helping others. Their doors were always open to anyone who wanted a meal in their home. They constantly gave what they had to people who needed things. If there was a child nearby that was going hungry, this couple made sure that child had food on their plate. Their actions constantly reflected the word of God. They were deeply Christian. Today, they live in near poverty.

Another argument I often see relates to the reference to skills, above. Rhett argues that the prosperity gospel is a call to self-improvement and that wealth follows self-improvement.

My church constantly calls on me to improve myself. They offer classes on financial improvement, career improvement, and spiritual improvement. If you’re struggling with some area in your life, someone in our church will help you. By bringing my faith to the door there, I have become a better person and wealth has come along with that.

I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that wealth follows self-improvement. I also commend your church for offering self-improvement programs that can help you in many avenues of life.

However, self-improvement does not imply having faith, nor does having faith imply that you’re going to improve as a person. Faith can be used as a motivator for self-improvement, to be sure, but it doesn’t guarantee self-improvement.

It also doesn’t imply that the result of self-improvement is the accumulation of wealth. Just because you’re more well-rounded and are able to bring a stronger skill set to the table because of your church does not mean that your faith entitles you to wealth accumulation.

Eric offers up another argument for the prosperity gospel, mostly through attacking a criticism of it.

When Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God,” he wasn’t talking about how it was impossible for rich people to enter heaven. He was talking about how anything is possible through God. Through God, a camel can pass through the eye of a needle. Through God, anyone can enter heaven.

That’s a good theological point. However, it doesn’t really have anything to do with the prosperity gospel.

The entire point of this quote is to say that life gives all of us difficult choices. Whe have to choose when to help others and when not to help others. We have to choose how to use our resources.

A rich person has more resources to worry about, and thus more decisions to consider. Thus, it is harder for a rich person to make all the right decisions than it is for a poor person.

Think about it. A poor person might only have $5 after putting food on the table and keeping the roof over their head. They have the decision of whether or not to give that $5 to others or not. However, a rich person has an awful lot of $5 bills left over after the food is covered and the housing bill is paid for. The rich person has many more opportunities to help others – or to be selfish. They have more opportunities to succeed – and more opportunities to fail.

Humans are weak. We all fail. We all make mistakes. If we’re given more opportunities to fail and make mistakes, it’s likely that we’re going to do so.

A final criticism, from Tanya, goes straight at The Simple Dollar.

Your entire website promotes the prosperity gospel. It’s all about accumulation of wealth. Your site’s existence promotes the prosperity gospel.

The primary point of The Simple Dollar is that by improving your finances and improving yourself, you can live the life that you wish to live. I have readers with all kinds of different dreams. Some want to spend their years volunteering and helping others. Others want to accumulate enough wealth to help their children live a more secure life.

What they do with their self-improvement is their own choice, reflections of their morals and their dreams. If you want to accumulate as much wealth as possible, great. If you want to accumulate enough so that you can volunteer for the rest of your life, great. If you want to give away your extra money to people in need, great.

The key is that you’re able to follow the dreams and goals that you have for yourself. I might hope that those dreams and goals will improve the world, and I believe that for most people those dreams do improve the world.

However, I certainly don’t claim or believe that accumulation of wealth brings God’s favor or anything else. All it does is open more doors for your life on this earth. You get the wonderful opportunity of choosing which doors to walk through.

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  1. Nicole says:

    I guess they never heard of a vow of poverty?

  2. MP3 says:

    Not being a religious person I had never heard of this prosperity gospel. Seems to me to be some simplistic way to justify why inequality exists in the world. If god really favoured someone they would shower them with prosperity. I like how you put it Trent – a belief that god dispenses prosperity like some spiritual ATM. That reader really needs to explain to the deeply religious and spiritual person who lost everything in Katrina why it was his/her lack of faith that made god turn his back on him/her.

    That inequality exists and cannot always be blamed on just individual choices is very difficult for some to understand – so it seems to me the prosperity gospel helps explain that to them in a way that just allows them to wash their hands from having to recognize that there are many causes of inequality – and not all of them are related to personal choices.

  3. Kathy M says:

    Well said. Thank you.

  4. Macke says:

    Followers “prosperity gospel” are nothing but worshipers of Mammon in the name of some God. A Wall Street hack at least do not invoke divine favor for his luck.

    While I’m not religious it is hard not to be contemptuous of people with such lack of compassion and humility. Disgusting, really, when comparing to friends that are religious.

  5. Joanna says:

    Agreed. The ugly flip side of the prosperity gospel is the idea that if you are not prosperous, God is not favoring you, thus we can conclude that you are not faithful/a true believer. Neither true nor “Christian”.

    As a side note, prosperity gospel churches can lead to lot of highs and lows for their members. If a member attends on Sunday, he likely feels strong & encouraged by the sermon, then goes out into his life on Monday to feel discouraged by the fact that he still is not prosperous. Bad things do happen to good people and we are not meant to fully understand the ways of God. Unfortunately, these churches prey on our desire for prosperity and often for “things” in order to build large congregations. But they are not doing the work of God IMHO.

  6. Borealis says:

    The common view of the prosperity gospel is just the flip side of the age-old question “why do bad things happen to good people.” That view proposes that “good things should happen to good people.”

    If people of any religious group were the ones who got wealthy, won wars, and lived long happy lives, then that religious group would quickly spread to everyone in the world and the world would all be one religion.

  7. Pat S. says:

    I find the idea that God showers riches on the faithful to be somewhat of a cop out. As Christians we are called upon to love and serve the poor. Assuming that the poor have committed some sin or have not lived in faith is a terrible indictment of those less fortunate.

    Indeed, involvement in a faith practice can often prevent and help with some of poverty’s causal factors. Religious practice offers a moral guide which may help keep people out of prison or off of drugs. It offers a social support structure, and faith based friendships that can carry you through the hard times. It can help carry you through the hardest times of your life without despairing for your future. Indeed, the practice of faith can yield intrinsic rewards. But there are many of people who have achieved vast financial and social success without involvement in a faith community.

    Early Christians were persecuted and executed. Indeed, Christians around the world continue to be subjected to horrible events due to their faith. For these people, their faith has only yielded suffering on earth. Does this make them faithless Christians? No, it makes them the true faithful, awaiting their eternal reward despite temporary suffering.

  8. Fiona says:

    Very well said, Trent. I was very surprised to hear about this ‘Prosperity Gospel’. I have always been taught the opposite e.g. Luke 12: 33-34 – “Sell all your belongings and give the money to the poor. Provide for yourselves purses that don’t wear out, and save your riches in heaven…”

    or Matthew 19: 24 ‘ “It is much harder for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.”

  9. Fiona says:

    Oops – just realized I am repeating what’s already been said by the many comments on your first post. Still, an interesting topic!

  10. prufock says:

    It’s amazing how many people will believe foolish things. It’s “the Secret” all over again.

  11. Berdette says:

    To me the “Prosperity Gospel” is just a nice way of saying “God gives you what you have coming.” If good things (prosperity) happen because of the things you do and believe, then when bad things happen, it is really all your own fault. While I am a firm believer in personal responsibility, sometimes bad things just happen. For example, my husband has just been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a terminal cancer of the plasma cells. Extrapolating the “Prosperity Gospel” to include health, I suppose this means my husband is not favored by God and has not been a “good boy”–God has given him what he has coming. I just cannot believe this to be true. And in order for the “Prosperity Gospel” to be true and for God to favor some, He must, by definition, disfavor others. It just can’t be.
    Thanks for the thought provoking post!

  12. kristine says:

    Great points, Borealis and Pat S.

    I would prefer that the world follow not only separation of church, and state, but also a separation of church and money.

    If by going to church you expect to gain nothing, absolutely nothing but faithful fellowship, then you are truly among the faithful. The idea of racking up points for good deeds is to me a lot like the moneychangers who got their tables turned over. They used faith as a way to get something in return.

    Christ praised the widow’s pennies, but he did not then reward her with prosperity. I am an atheist, but find prosperity gospel to be an Atlas Shrugged bastardization of the gospel designed to eliminate guilt, and make sense of inequality in a way that promotes condemnation of the less fortunate, and the self-congratulating comfort of the wealthy. Odd since compassion and service are the cornerstones of Christ’s teachings.

  13. Wes says:

    Kristine, I certainly oppose “prosperity gospel” as well, but I think advocating the “separation of church and money” as a counter to its proposition is misguided.

    The Bible simply has too much to say about money to completely bar it from church teachings. And while Jesus’ teachings often dismiss material wealth as spiritually irrelevant, no Christian can, in good faith, isolate that teaching from the abundance of Biblical financial principles that encourages stewardship, hard work, investment, savings, and yes, even the achievement of prosperity (both societal and individual economic prosperity).

    This is not to say that the Prosperity Gospel isn’t wrong—it is—but I would suggest that the best response to the doctrine isn’t “churches shouldn’t talk about money at all,” but rather, “churches should teach what the Bible actually says about money.” Trent had a post just last week on how many churches actually do this.

  14. kristine says:

    Wes- Point taken- you are right. Christians, perhaps, but in the wider scope, the separation of faith and money is non-problematic from my standpoint, since I do not prerequisite faith to morality or pro-social behavior, but that is an entirely different topic.

    As far as good stewardship goes, money is a means to secure resources. So at its root, it’s about the responsible management of life-sustaining resources. Good resource management is also independent of dogma. But hey, whatever gets somebody there, is fine with me!

  15. Michelle68 says:

    @MP3–Amen, I totally agree. Great post, Trent.

  16. Diane says:

    I am not Christian, and this whole idea is totally offensive to me. This is such a bizarre idea I don’t even know how to address it. There are many who are wealthy without faith, MANY who are wealthy without being Christian, and many who are deeply religious, and yet poor. Faith does not make you wealthy, nor is it intended to do so.

  17. deRuiter says:

    “…I do commend Andy for spending his time working at soup kitchens and food pantries.” Why? This teaches the poor to be takers. Why not clean up some of those on the soup kitchen line and have them serve food, work in the kitchen doing prep, instead of well to do people waiting on them? I find it surprising that well off people go on Thanksgiving Day to serve food in soup kitchens, thereby taking away the opportunity for some of the able bodied poor to make themselves useful by serving food to others, doing food prep, cleaning. I think some of the poor have been trained to accept handouts, to live on them. For starters, every woman on welfare who pops out one illegitimate child ought to get the top welfare allowance, and a little lecture that for every following child she makes, she gets a 10% cut in that amount of money, no exceptions. Bet the number of illegitimate children would dramatically decrease. As it is, we pay the poor to produce illegitimate children like subsidizing a farmer for producing a certain crop. We get an ever larger crop of illegitimate children to swell the welfare rolls as their daughters continue the lifestyle and their sons add to the jail population. Giving, giving, giving to a person destroys their self worth and makes them dependent upon charity and my tax dollars being confiscated to spread the wealth.

  18. Kate says:

    Unfortunately, this thinking has seeped into feelings about things like health care, etc.–at least in my area of the country. The feeling that if people were righteous, they would have proper health care because God is smiling on them.
    (see #5 Joanna–above)

  19. Katie says:

    Is deRuiter a parody?

  20. Macke says:

    Katie, deRuiter may very well be a parody, but the sad thing is that too many thinks like this.

  21. Micki says:

    I was raised Lutheran, and stopped attending church as an adult. I believe that God is everywhere, and feel Him more clearly in my garden, out hiking, and in other ‘angels’ I have met along the way then I ever did in a building.

    I believe people are here to love others and themselves, and spend their time trying to be better people, and help others to be better. I really would love to see one of those hippie-type,agree-to-disagree, singing together, helping each others dreams come to pass sort of thing happen in this world. :)

    I fail to see how chanting “God loves me best, look at all my cool stuff!” has anything to do with love, God’s or otherwise.

    Sounds to me as though people are trying to cover their fear by convincing themselves they are ‘chosen’, so nothing bad can ever happen to them.

    What happens when one of these people take a hit in the stockmarket, or have medical bills that cause them to file for bankruptcy? Do the others ostracize them, believeing they are not a good Christian anymore? Do these individuals go in to a depression thnking that God doesn’t care?

    How sad is that?

  22. Tanya says:

    First, I am not the Tanya quoted in this post! Second, my main issue with the “prosperity gospel” is that they seem to treat God as if He exists to serve us, like some sort of genie, instead of the other way around. Yes, God does say He will bless us, but He also tells us in this world we will have trouble. And He also says we should seek first His kingdom, not stuff. The pursuit of God and doing all you can to know Him through studying the Bible and prayer will leave you much richer and stronger than any amount of stuff you acquire.

  23. Andrew says:

    The “prosperity gospel” has got to be one of the most toxic things I have ever heard of. What a selfish, ignoble, ignorant, and blind way of dealing with the world!

  24. Rachel says:

    Years ago I heard Charles Stanley, pastor of First Baptist Church, Atlanta, preach a sermon on this very subject. Why are some Christians rich and some are poor? This is how he explained it: God’s first priority is that the Gospel be spread all over the earth. So therefore there must be Christians in every economic level, in every neighborhood, in every workplace. If you are a Christian living in low income housing, it is so you can tell others there about Christ. If you are a Christian living in a country club, it is so you can tell others there about Christ. Money is not the first thing, it is way down on His list of priorities. I live in a middle class neighborhood. But I am prepared to go where He leads me to go, housing project or country club.

  25. Anne says:

    deRuiter gives me a headache. Mean-spiritedness gives me a headache.

  26. Earth MaMa Jo says:

    Though I didn’t have a name for it back then, this very philosophy was the biggest reason why my marriage came close to failing in the first 2 years (we’ve been married 25 years). We had separate bank accounts, basically because I was debt-free and he was not. I saw his spending habits and wasn’t happy. He never balanced his checkbook, overdrew his account quite often, and when he’d get into money trouble, all he’d say was “God will provide”. When he bounced the SECOND check for our rent and we were threatened with being tossed out, I put my foot down and challenged him on this. He grew up quite poor, and when money was tight or nonexistent, his parent’s would always say “God will provide”. After talking with his parents, they admitted it was a band-aid attempt to get their kids not to worry about finances – but they forgot the part where when you GROW UP, it’s YOU who provide. If you don’t work, you don’t get paid…if you spend more than you make, you go into debt – these are the things he was clueless about…hanging onto the “God will provide” motto. He finally woke up when I said I couldn’t live a life of carefree and thoughtless spending and never planning for the future – and I was packing my bags to leave. He then let me take over the finances. I can’t say that he’s perfect, but he realizes now that if he’d kept spending the way he did he’d have nothing to show for it now. Now…if I could just get him to stop talking about the “end of times” I’d be happy.

  27. littlepitcher says:

    The prosperity gospel is an easy way for rogues and scoundrels to paint halos on themselves after cheating the public or stealing in private.
    It is true that a family which doesn’t smoke, drink, use drugs, or practice promiscuity will be more prosperous than a family which has members practicing those vices. Vices are expensive, both in up-front costs, in lost health, and in attorneys’ fees.
    It is profoundly distasteful to think about the prosperity church’s attitudes toward those who have lost their jobs and/or businesses.

  28. almost there says:

    Commenters complain about deRuiter’s statement and call him mean spirited but do not refute anything he says. It’s like he points out facts concerning poverty growing increasingly larger despite the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on it since Pres. Johnson announced the war on poverty and no one wants to address it. Read what conservitive black columnists say about ever increasing government handouts doing the opposite of their goals to stop poverty. The best way to combat poverty is by raising children without ignorance and want and that is achieved mostly by a two parent family.

  29. leah says:

    Proponents of the prosperity gospel must have skipped the book of Job. It seems to be written as a precise argument against the prosperity gospel and pairs well with the actual gospel, particularly the crucifixion part. I can’t think of a better example than Jesus of a righteous man that did not prosper materially.

  30. sunny says:

    I’m so glad that you wrote this.
    Nothing upsets me more than the people going around pretending that their luck or good fortune makes them superior in God’s eyes and that the less fortunate are somehow less deserving. Lets be honest – a lot about being in a position to make money IS about luck and/or good fortune in terms of where you are born (try being born a female in war torn Congo) and who you are born to (are you lucky enough to have access to an education?). Sure you can be born in the right place and stuff it up – but being born in the wrong place it’s not so easy to fix it up.

    Frankly the sort of folk who revel in their riches as a sign of how much God loves them and how holy they’ve been sound a lot like the pharisees in the old stories.

  31. Peggy says:

    Great post Trent. I grew up Catholic in the 50s and remember church members coming to my parents’ home and asking about their income and based on that, they were expected to fill the weekly envelope with a certain amount of money. Even as a child this offended me.
    Now, many years later, I believe God loves everyone. I also believe that those of us more fortunate financially should help those less fortunate. I believe that everyone deserves a chance and that we should all work to the best of our ability to live a ‘right’ life. To me that means caring for others, doing what’s ‘right’, and taking responsibility.
    I’ve lived overseas for over 30 years in several countries and from my observation people are fundamentally the same no matter what faith they practice – or don’t. Basically everyone wants the same things: food, clothing, shelter, a chance to get a good education, have opportunities to a good health system, etc.
    If more people could be content with the basics, and more ‘leaders’ were more honest and responsible, the world would be a better place.
    What I’ve seen in ‘developing’ countries is that if they have something the rest of the world wants, then some elements in the world will beat a path to their door looking for an opportunity to exploit resources for personal gain. The next thing you know you have Louis Vitton and Gucci opening shops where most of the population lives in poverty and struggles to get by.
    This doesn’t really tie in with the ‘prosperity gospel’ but is just an observation of a trend that I’ve seen in the course of my family’s life and travel. Both in the US and overseas, one sees those who do good simply because they sincerely care. There are also others who seem to have no thoughts beyond their own personal sphere – these people can be rich or getting by or poor.
    For me, ‘seeing the light’ means that one becomes aware of one’s responsibilities and also aware of others and that to make the world a better place, we need to think beyond ourselves and find ways to live together and love and help one another. Just my Friday musing.

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