I love the TV show, “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.” John Oliver is a pretty famous comedian known for self-deprecation and cringe comedy. I came across his televangelist episode a month ago, which inspired this editorial.
Oliver started off the episode by talking about preachers like Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar (yes, that is his actual name; I checked), Mike Murdock and others who preach humility, yet live extravagant lifestyles. He showed clips of Mike Murdock boasting to his congregants about buying two private jets with cash and of Kenneth Copeland claiming that a private jet he purchased with donations was for church purposes, i.e., a “preaching machine” as he called it. However a local news crew discovered that Copeland’s personal jet was less for spreading the Gospel and more for going on vacation.
Oliver went on to say, “…and yet, despite that personal wealth, people still send them lots and lots of money, and that’s partly because they [the pastors] preach something called the prosperity gospel…”
A disgusted “Ugh” escaped my mouth as I rolled my eyes. This is my reaction every time I hear the words “prosperity gospel.”
I learned about the prosperity gospel a year ago and it has been a thorn in my side ever since. I’m sure you know what it is, but just for the sake of clarity, I’ll summarize it.
The prosperity gospel, or prosperity theology as it is called in some circles, is the belief that wealth and personal success are a sign of God’s favor. Basically, if you follow God, try not to sin and donate money to your church, you will be blessed abundantly with secure finances and material possessions. If you’ve ever heard the phrases “name it and claim it” or “positive confession theology,” that is where they come from.
Right off the bat I thought to myself, “Hmm, this sounds really–oh, what’s the word–high-mountainy…” By the way, keep “high mountain” in the back of your mind; we’ll come back to that later.
Anyway, I have been wanting to tackle this toxic “theology” for quite some time, and after coming across John Oliver’s televangelist episode, I knew that the time had come.
The gloves are off. It’s time to tackle the prosperity gospel.
Scriptural Elephants in the Room, or common verses used to defend the Prosperity Gospel
Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know well the plans I have in mind for you—says the LORD—plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope.”
If you’ve been following Catholic Girl Bloggin’ for a while, you may notice that I frequently cite Jeremiah 1:5 and other verses from the Book of Jeremiah. Even though Jeremiah is one of my favorite books in the Bible, there’s a good reason why I don’t often post Jeremiah 29:11 on a regular basis. That is because, unfortunately, Jeremiah 29:11 is one of the verses championed ad nauseam by prosperity gospel proponents.
Let’s take a look at some context: In this chapter of Jeremiah, the Israelites were being punished for their transgressions and their punishment was being exiled to Babylon. The prophet Jeremiah had sent a scroll from Jerusalem to the remaining elders of the exiled people. In this scroll, the Lord tells the Israelites to build houses to live in, get married, start families, and so on. Now, if you read the verse in its entirety, you will notice that the Lord does not give specific instructions, but rather tells them to live their lives and how they go about doing so is up to them.
It seems to me that what has happened is prosperity gospel champions see the words, “…plans for your welfare and not for woe…” and translate that to mean personal success by the world’s standards, i.e., fancy car, big house, a spouse with minimal flaws and so on. Now there are three definitions of the word “welfare.” The third definition speaks of the U.S. welfare system, so I’ll skip that one and go over the first two definitions.
The first definition describes welfare as, “the health, happiness, and fortunes of a person or group.” With this definition in mind, I can see how one would misinterpret the Lord’s use of the word “welfare” to mean individual prosperity.
Now let us take a look at the second definition of welfare: “A statutory procedure or social effort designed to promote the basic physical and material well-being of people in need.” At first glance, when you look at this definition and then look at Jeremiah 29:11, it is easy to miss the connection between the two. However, I think we should let Jeremiah 29:4-11 speak for itself.
“Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their fruits. Take wives and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters. Increase there; do not decrease. Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you; pray for it to the LORD, for upon its welfare your own depends. For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not be deceived by the prophets and diviners who are among you; do not listen to those among you who dream dreams, for they prophesy lies to you in My name; I did not send them—says the LORD. For thus says the LORD: Only after seventy years have elapsed for Babylon will I deal with you and fulfill for you My promise to bring you back to this place. For I know well the plans I have in mind for you—says the LORD—plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope.”
It would appear that by instructing them to build homes, grow food and start families, the Lord is encouraging the banished Israelites to engage in a social effort to promote the physical and material well-being of one another, all while they await His return. I see nothing about Him making things easy or smooth sailing for the Israelites, let alone anything about an increase in wealth. Rather, the Lord is telling the Israelites–and perhaps us here in the 21st century–to live in the now, to provide for ourselves and for one another in the present moment, and to go into the future without fear because what lies ahead is all in His hands.
Deuteronomy 8:18, “Remember then the LORD, your God, for He is the one who gives you the power to get wealth, by fulfilling, as He has now done, the covenant He swore to your ancestors.”
Now while Jeremiah 29:11 is what is often cited mostly by millennial Christians, the real culprit of the prosperity gospel is the out-of-context application of Deuteronomy 8:18.
Okay, all in fairness, if you were a Martian and you were handed a Bible that was opened to Deuteronomy 8:18 and then read it on your own without any doctrinally-sound person to explain the verse to you, you would probably think to yourself, “Oh, so the humans’ God has promised them material wealth! Good for them!” Yes, I know what it looks like, but let us examine this verse a little more closely.
I think the very first line speaks for itself: “Remember then the LORD, your God, for He is the one who gives you the power to get wealth.” We do not get wealth by our own merits, nor does the Lord just hand us over Scrooge-McDuck-moneybags, but rather it is God Himself who has given us the ability to obtain what we need for basic survival. What He is saying is, “Rely on Me, trust in Me, and I will give you the ability and strength you need to provide for yourself and for those you love,” and not, “strong-arm Me into catering to your every materialistic whim.”
Come to think of it, when you read Deuteronomy Chapter 8 in its entirety, a more humbling message starts to emerge.
Deuteronomy Chapter 8:1-18
“Be careful to observe this whole commandment that I enjoin on you today, that you may live and increase, and may enter in and possess the land which the LORD promised on oath to your ancestors. Remember how for those forty years the LORD, your God, had directed all your journeying in the wilderness, so as to test you by affliction to know what was in your heart: to keep His commandments, or not. He therefore let you be afflicted with hunger, and then fed you with manna, a food unknown to you and your ancestors, so you might know that it is not by bread alone that people live, but by all that comes forth from the mouth of the LORD. The clothing did not fall from you in tatters, nor did your feet swell these forty years. So you must know in your heart that, even as a man disciplines his son, so the LORD, your God, disciplines you. Therefore, keep the commandments of the LORD, your God, by walking in His ways and fearing Him.
For the LORD, your God, is bringing you into a good country, a land with streams of water, with springs and fountains welling up in the hills and valleys, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, of olive trees and of honey, a land where you will always have bread and where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones contain iron and in whose hills you can mine copper. But when you have eaten and are satisfied, you must bless the LORD, your God, for the good land He has given you. Be careful not to forget the LORD, your God, by failing to keep His commandments and ordinances and statutes which I enjoin on you today: lest, when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built fine houses and lived in them, and your herds and flocks have increased, your silver and gold has increased, and all your property has increased, you then become haughty of heart and forget the LORD, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that house of slavery; He guided you through the vast and terrible wilderness with its serpents and scorpions, its parched and waterless ground; He brought forth water for you from the flinty rock and fed you in the wilderness with manna, a food unknown to your ancestors, that He might afflict you and test you, but also make you prosperous in the end. Otherwise, you might say in your heart, “It is my own power and the strength of my own hand that has got me this wealth.” Remember then the LORD, your God, for He is the one who gives you the power to get wealth, by fulfilling, as He has now done, the covenant He swore to your ancestors.”
Yes, it is a lot to read, but when read carefully, it becomes clear that the Lord reminds us that whatever we obtain for ourselves, it is because of His providence. Prosperity gospel preachers argue that God provides because of our persistence, but the very verse they frequently cite says something completely different from their narrative. This goes to show that God is not a genie who grants our every wish, but is the reason why we exist in the first place.
The result of Deuteronomy 8:18 being distorted for an earthly agenda can be found in these actual quotes from the mouths of prosperity gospel preachers themselves.
“I am a little god. I have His name. I am one with Him. I’m in covenant relationship. I am a little god. Critics be gone!”
“When we pray, believing that we have already received what we are praying, God has no choice but to make our prayers come to pass.”
–Pastor Creflo Dollar
“When you focus on being a blessing, God makes sure that you are always blessed in abundance.”
The prosperity gospel treats God as a permissive doormat being who becomes helpless and bends to our will if we believe hard enough and verbally declare victory before it has even happened. According to the prosperity gospel, God serves us.
In essence, the prosperity gospel trumps free will, meaning that someone else’s ability to make my life difficult by their choices is supplanted by my “power” to influence God by my declaration of faith. In other words, “If I say it, God’s gotta do it.”
At the risk of using an overused meme…
The idea of a God who does all that He can to propel our individual success instead of sticking to His own plan for humanity is actually quite frightening. Success means different things to different people. For one person, success is a modest house and enough food for three square meals. For another, success could mean getting that promotion even if it means someone else who may need that promotion more than them getting knocked down. There’s a very good reason for the phrase, “Thy will be done.” God is infinite and can see the big picture; we are short-sighted, finite humans and can only grasp at what’s in front of us. Our will being done instead of God’s will does not always work in our favor.
James 4:2, “…You do not possess because you do not ask.”
A major aspect of the prosperity gospel is what is called “name it and claim it.” It’s basically tell God exactly what you want and He will give it to you. James 4:2 is the basis of this argument. Now there’s actually more to the verse and we will come back to that in a second.
Prosperity gospel proponents tend to (conveniently) only see the tail-end of James 4:2. In fact, Pastor Creflo Dollar once wrote, “When we pray, believing that we have already received what we are praying, God has no choice but to make our prayers come to pass.” You can read it here for yourself: http://ww.creflodollarministries.org/BibleStudy/Articles.aspx?id=329
Stop right there, sir. God DOES have a choice when it comes to how He answers our prayers; He’s the inventor of having a choice! Two words: Free will.
Also, God always answers prayers; it’s just that sometimes, His answer is, “No,” because what we might be asking at that time is not consistent with His will. The answer we get may not always be the answer we were hoping for, but God never fails to respond. Even His silence can be an answer.
You may notice that, unlike the previous two segments, this one is very short. There is a reason for this.
Would you like to know what James 4 actually says? I’m glad you asked…
James 4:1-3, “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members? You covet but do not possess. You kill and envy but you cannot obtain; you fight and wage war. You do not possess because you do not ask. You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”
Oh, the irony. One of the verses used to advance the prosperity gospel is a verse that, when read fully, actually rebukes it in one fell swoop. That last sentence, “You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions,” is a kick in the teeth to the prosperity gospel.
I think my work on this segment is done.
Upon The High Mountain
Remember earlier how I said that the prosperity gospel seems very “high-mountainy?” Let’s really think about this: Who in the Bible is quoted as saying, “All these [kingdoms] I shall give to You, if You will prostrate Yourself and worship me“? I’ll tell you one thing: It wasn’t Jesus.
Let’s cast our gaze a little lower…
Ah, there you are, Satan. I almost didn’t recognize you behind all those distorted scripture verses and shiny dollar-sign deception.
No, actually, I did. As a Catholic blogger I have a responsibility to help others recognize that the prosperity gospel is a brainchild of the evil one, his dangling carrot used to lure souls seeking purpose in their lives. The prosperity gospel has Satan’s claw marks slashed all over it. Think about it: Sickly-sweet catchphrases peppered with scripture here and there, proclaimed with boldness by popular preachers who insist that God is on their side. It’s downright Luciferian.
The worst part is many prosperity gospel preachers say all the right things to make their money-driven agenda hard to catch. When I was looking up quotes from prosperity gospel preachers, a lot of them didn’t sound heretical at first. The quotes were the kind you would have as a motivational refrigerator magnet. Many of these ministers have written devotionals that are bought and sold in droves.
But, you see, that’s how the devil operates. He’s a jerk, but a highly intelligent one who takes his time. He knows it would be counterintuitive to just show up as–oh, let’s say– an imposing gargoyle with horns and a pitchfork and start shouting, “Hey, I’ll give you whatever you want if you obey me!” He wouldn’t get very far if he did that. Hence, he works slowly and behind a variety of disguises. I would argue that the devil can come in the form of a well-dressed man eloquently stringing together promises of wealth, neatly packaged with scripture and public admiration.
A Plan For Woe
Now I am aware that declaring something to be the work of the devil is often perceived as extreme and alarmist. You never want to give the fallen angel too much credit because he is a defeated foe who flees like Roadrunner at the Name of Jesus. However, a friend from my parish pointed something out to me: The prosperity gospel has the ability to accomplish two very destructive outcomes.
The first destructive outcome is to cause believers to worship a false Jesus; a “Jesus” who is a cross between Santa Claus and Genie from Aladdin.
The second destructive outcome is that it has the capability to drive a person completely away from God if they don’t get what they feel entitled to. There is also the propensity for the person to feel that they are not worthy of God’s love since they didn’t get what they expected; perhaps they figure they aren’t doing something right or aren’t “good” enough for God. This causes them to despair and a lost sheep wanders into the night.
The Greatest Promise of Them All
So if serving the Lord doesn’t grant you wealth beyond your wildest dreams and a steady road to success, then what does it get you? I would like to talk to you about two teenage girls who could really teach us what following Jesus is all about.
Meet Chiara Badano and Rachel Joy Scott.
Chiara lived in Sassello, Italy.
Rachel resided in Littleton, Colorado.
Chiara was Catholic.
Rachel was non-denominational.
Chiara and Rachel never met during their time on earth, but they had one thing in common: Both of these girls loved the Lord with all their heart and soul and committed themselves to serving Him through acts of kindness. They were unashamed of the Gospel and strived to glorify Jesus in their daily lives. By prosperity gospel standards, Chiara and Rachel would be considered most deserving of all the abundant blessings and personal success the Lord has in store.
In reality, Chiara was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer. Rachel was the first victim of the Columbine massacre. Chiara lost her hair and the ability to walk, while Rachel’s commitment to Christ caused five of her closest friends to abandon her.
What did they have to say about their personal losses?
“If I had to choose between walking again and going to Heaven, I wouldn’t hesitate. I would choose Heaven.”
“I am not going to apologize for speaking the Name of Jesus, I am not going to justify my faith to them, and I am not going to hide the light that God has put in me. If I have to sacrifice everything…I will.”
Chiara was 18 when she died. Rachel’s life was taken at age 17. Neither of them had ever asked the Lord for fame or riches. In fact, Rachel once wrote in one of her journals, “I don’t want to be successful without You, God. I can’t be successful without You.” Meanwhile, Chiara never begged God to take her cancer away. As she was losing her hair, she said this: “For You, Jesus…if You want it, I want it too!”
These two ordinary girls went after the heart of God. They drew near to Him, and in turn, He made His love known to them. At a young age, Chiara and Rachel fully understood that the ultimate reward for following Jesus is far greater than any material possession. They embraced the Lord’s greatest promise: Himself.
God never promises us a perfect spouse, a perfect big house or a perfect bank account.
He doesn’t promise to make things easy. He doesn’t promise that you won’t go through hard times. He doesn’t promise that things will always turn out as planned.
What He does promise is that He will be with you. He will stay with you when everyone else has left. When you need to vent, He will be your listening ear. When you need a shoulder to cry on, He will hold you tightly in His arms.
The greatest promise of them all is God Himself. His unconditional love, His endless mercy, His loyal friendship, His unfailing assistance; all these things that the human heart yearns for is His free gift that He wants to give to you.
The bank account will dwindle, the car will break down, the house will be sold to another; the riches of this world come and go.
Only He remains forever.
“Father, reach out Your hand. Grab ahold of my life. Open my eyes to Your wonderful light. Fill me up with Your undying love. Save me a place in Your kingdom above.”
–A poem by Rachel Joy Scott