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.