Houston, Prosperity, and our Suffering Savior

Recently I read a brief homily written by a Roman Catholic deacon who was questioning the validity of prosperity preaching in the wake of the Houston flooding. After describing the theology of Joel Osteen, Paula White, Kenneth Copeland and others, which amounts to “God wants you to be happy, healthy, and wealthy,” he offered Theresa of Avila as a foil, teaching that God sanctifies His people—often by means of hardship and affliction—and suggested that the Catholic practice of venerating the suffering saints guarded against the prosperity lie.

I am so thankful for this man’s effort to inoculate his flock against prosperity deceptions, but I fear that mere veneration of saints is inadequate to equip God’s people to understand and to reject this “health and wealth” lie. Why are prosperity teachings deceptive? Moreover, how can we state positively the truth of what God does desire for His people?

Negatively, the Deception

Our answer begins in the Pentateuch. Moses described how life will work for the people of Old Testament Israel in Deuteronomy 28:1-6. He explained,

If you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God. Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground and the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.

Moses continued in verse 10, affirming, “The Lord will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your livestock and in the fruit of your ground, within the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give you.”

Unfortunately, the opposite was also true. In Deuteronomy 28:15-19, he warned,

But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out.

What does this all mean? In the Old Testament, among the people of Israel, prosperity and poverty were linked to national obedience or disobedience. The Book of Judges provides a continuing illustration of this truth. When Israel followed the Lord under the leadership of a faithful Judge, the nation prospered; when Israel fell into idolatry, the nation suffered. When they repented and cried out to Him, the Lord sent another Judge to lead and deliver Israel and her prosperity returned. Rinse and repeat.

Prosperity preachers use this Old Testament pattern to say to contemporary people, “If you are faithful, God will grant to you material prosperity and physical health.” If you are not thriving, it is thus your fault, for God desires to bless you materially.

Our theological instincts tell us that this is not the whole truth, but many Christians struggle to articulate why their spiritual Spidey-sense tells them that prosperity preaching is wrong.

Positively, the Truth

Our answer begins in the Gospels. The New Testament presents a different pattern than the Old Testament. In John 9:1-3, John reveals that Jesus’ disciples viewed the link between physical hardship and sin according to the pattern of Deuteronomy 28. John writes,

As he [Jesus] passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

In other words, this man’s physical poverty was not a result of disobedience. Why the change from the Old to the New Testament?

The simple answer is this: On the Cross Jesus took upon Himself all the curses that our faithlessness earned. The physical blessings and curses promised to obedience and disobedience in the Old Testament were supposed to point God’s people to their need for His spiritual blessings—namely, salvation—and to caution them about His spiritual curses—namely, damnation. Israel’s inability to obey the Lord faithfully or consistently, which was evidenced in every foreign invasion, every famine, every drought, every lost crop, and every period of suffering, was supposed to point God’s people to their need for the very Savior that God had promised to Adam and Eve in Eden, whom He had confirmed to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and whom He had foretold through Moses.

When our Savior finally came, He took on Himself all the curses of our faithlessness, and gave to us all the blessings of His perfect obedience. We receive these by faith. Right now each Christian possesses “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,” and when Jesus returns, we will inherit every physical blessing as well, for we are co-heirs with Christ of the renewed Creation (Ephesians 1:3). Meanwhile, Jesus already has taken every physical and spiritual curse for our sins on the Cross.

If these curses have been taken, then why must we still suffer? The Bible offers two complementary answers. The first is that this world is still a world of sin. Injuries happen; illnesses spread; earthquakes shake the ground; floods deluge the earth; men wage war. Rape, pestilence, disease, and death shall reign until Jesus returns to lift the curse from the Creation and put sin itself to death. Just as the man in John 9 was not blind due to any fault of his own, so also the victims of the recent flooding in Houston did not do anything in particular to deserve it. Those who lost everything did not lose it because they lacked the faith to “name and claim” their blessings. They suffered because this world is fallen, and bad things happen and will continue to happen until Jesus returns to renew all things.

The second answer pertains specifically to Christians. We who will enjoy glory with Jesus must first participate in His sufferings. Our Catholic brother had it right in that regard—God does sanctify His people, and it usually happens through trials, suffering, hardship, and want. These burn away the dross as God forms in us the image of His Son. Not only will faith in Jesus fail to make you wealthy and materially prosperous and happy—it will often mean that you, like your Lord, will bear a cross, as Jesus transforms you from one degree of glory to another, using one degree of hardship or another to accomplish the transformation.

The Sum of the Matter

What then does God desire for you? “This is the will of God, your sanctification,” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). That means that God is far more concerned for your eternal holiness than He is for your worldly happiness. It means also that prosperity and poverty are no longer tied to obedience and disobedience. Prosperity preachers are simply lying to you, and they are asking you to trade eternal blessings for earthly blessings, an eternal mansion for an earthly house, and a resurrection body for earthly health. In short, these men and women promise that you will avoid the very suffering that your sanctification requires, while at the same time blinding you to the true blessings that your Savior offers. Do not forfeit your spiritual birthright.

Instead, trust Jesus, not for mere earthly prosperity, but for eternal blessings, for He will grant to you all the wealth of His Father’s house, and the health of an eternal, incorruptible, sinless soul and body with which to enjoy it—and Him—forevermore.

I, Reactionary

I tend to react. When I read bad theology, I react. When I hear falsehood promoted within the Church, I react. When I hear someone suggest that it is appropriate for a Christian to support the Yankees, I react. Reacting against error is a good thing, but it cannot be the only thing.

Throughout Church history, theology has been defined over against error—the Church has reacted. When theologians recognize error they counter it, set the record straight, and help God’s people to think and act biblically. Error has often served in the providence of God to sharpen the Church’s understanding and explanation of the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

At the same time, the Church and her pastors must also strive to offer positive truth. In 2 Corinthians 4:2 the Apostle Paul taught that he and his fellow missionaries ministered “by the open statement of the truth.” The Church cannot content itself simply to oppose error; such a posture has the effect of making Christians sound shrill, reactionary, and negative. Throwing darts at everything that is wrong, we become theological naysayers, pointing out specks and straining gnats, while failing to state the beauty of biblical Christianity in positive terms.

I find that I am better at analyzing faults than offering Christ. It is a tendency I hope to remedy, and I have begun a self-imposed course of study and prayer to ground myself in a biblical, historic, and confessional understanding of the Church, her mission among the nations, and the distinction between her primary calling and her secondary duties.

In short, I want to react less and lead more, making an “open statement of the truth” more than I make a critique of perceived errors.

Will you join me?