We are launching this episode on Thanksgiving evening, but you may be hearing this the day after Thanksgiving. In either case we need to talk about giving gratitude to God for his abundant mercy to us in our lives. And the next question on the docket comes from Michael in Massachusetts. “Dear Pastor John, you speak a lot against the prosperity gospel which I appreciate. However, there are texts such as Psalm 35:27 which state that the Lord has “pleasure in the prosperity of his servant” (that’s in the KJV). When I try to encourage other believers, I will sometimes use verses like this one to show them that God has their best interests at heart (see Romans 8:32). Yet, at times, I think they are hesitant to believe a verse like this because of our response to the heresy of the prosperity gospel. How can we properly and faithfully — to the truth of the gospel — comfort other believers using prospering texts like this one in Psalm 35, without then falling off the other side of the boat, in light of verses like Luke 12:15?”
I am going to get exactly at his question in Psalm 35:27 in a minute, but let me start by saying in all my criticism of the so-called prosperity gospel, I don’t wish for or pray for poverty on anyone. I don’t wish for or pray for sickness on anyone. I don’t wish for or pray for persecution or calamity on anyone. No one, I think, should make it his aim to suffer from poverty or sickness or calamity or persecution. Those are not the goals of life. And we rejoice when people are delivered from them into Christ-exalting well being, or what the Bible calls shalom.
“Comfort people with the presence of Christ in suffering, not with the assurance that they will escape it in this life.”
To be sure, we should be willing, always, to endure suffering or sickness or poverty for Christ. We should be ready to embrace it joyfully when God calls us to it as part of a larger vision. But Jesus makes it very clear: Seek the kingdom of God first, the hallowing of God’s name, the pursuit of God’s saving rule, the doing of God’s holy will, the pursuit of purity, the glorifying of God’s name, the rescue of the perishing, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. These are the great, all-consuming goals of life.
Whether we are rich or healthy or safe are secondary issues. Praying that God would give us our daily bread is subordinate — just our daily bread, let alone lots of bread, is subordinate — to praying that his name would be hallowed and his kingdom would come. And God may will that we hallow his name through poverty and sickness and persecution and death. He has done that often for his people. He will decide that. We won’t make that choice for ourselves. And our job is to trust him in all of his providences and rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.
So, my issue with the so-called prosperity gospel or teaching or churches is threefold. And I need to clarify this so I can answer Michael’s question about Psalm 35.
1: Wrong Timing
Prosperity preaching tends to bring into this life greater expectation of prosperity than is intended for this life and only intended for the next life. It means crystal clear that in the next life, in the age to come, there will be no sickness, no poverty, no persecution, no calamity, no evil, no discouragement of any kind. In other words, the gospel does include health, wealth, and prosperity. It is coming; namely, in the age to come when we are so spiritually mature and perfected that we are suited to enjoy these things to the full with no hint of idolatry.
“Prosperity preaching has a greater expectation of prosperity than is intended for this life. It’s intended for the next.”
But prosperity preachers tend to bring this promise into the present in a way that is out of proportion with the way the New Testament describes the embattled position of the Christian in this fallen world. And it is not just prosperity preachers who make this mistake. I think it permeates most of the modern church, as far as my limited eyes can see. Most of us — us — love this world too much and live in a compromised situation that does not comport with the wartime situation in which we find ourselves, with millions of people perishing eternally and millions suffering in this life and most of us using our resources to make ourselves more comfortable rather than relieve temporal and eternal suffering.
So, my first criticism of prosperity preaching cuts across most of Christianity, not just prosperity preachers. And I don’t elevate myself above that criticism. We all need great help and deliverance from the love of this world — what John warns about in 1 John 2:15.
2: Wrong Perspective
My second problem with the prosperity church is a lack of clear, deep, biblical teaching on the necessity of suffering in this life and the goodness of God in it and his control over it — not just Satan’s; God’s control over it — and the benefits that may come from it that God decides — we don’t. It is a missing note, it seems to me, that gives the legitimate promises of God’s earthly help a superficial ring because “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom.” That was Discipleship 101 in Acts 14:22 as Paul taught the churches.
The New Testament is replete with the teaching that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, including tribulation, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword, even, Paul says, when we are being killed all day long (Romans 8:35–36). And right alongside those assurances that faithfulness will be accompanied by suffering are the promises of forgiveness and acceptance with God and peace and joy and hope that are worth 10,000 times more than physical prosperity and health and safety in this life. Which leads me, now, to my third difficulty with prosperity teaching and my answer to Michael’s question, finally, about Psalm 35.
3: Wrong Comfort
All of this, everything I have said so far, I think, tends to lead prosperity preachers to comfort people not with the presence of Christ in suffering and his rescue from suffering in the age to come, but rather to comfort people with the assurance that they will get out of suffering in this life if they follow the right prescription.
I was just in what I would call a prosperity light church last Sunday in Florida, and the first thing that happened in that service — and there were thousands of people in the room and it was the second service — and, by the way, the sermon was good. I mean, I was helped by this sermon. But the first thing that happened in that service was that the lead pastor stood up and made a case for tithing and that students shouldn’t get into debt because then they can’t tithe and, if they don’t tithe, they are not going to experience God’s blessing in their lives. And so the note struck from the beginning is that there is a strategy of getting God’s material blessing in their lives, and that happens to be giving to this church enough to pay for this gigantic building. And I think that is really dangerous.
Now I think God does very often regularly bless people who give sacrificially in ways they could never imagine, because he delights in cheerful givers and he loves Christlike, generous hearts. But instead of attaching a sure material blessing to an act of tithing, I think we need to cultivate a love for Christ — not his gifts, but for Christ — that would tithe and double and triple and quadruple the tithe that God prospers even when the hoped for physical blessing does not come or even when there is no double and triple and quadruple tithe seemingly possible from a human standpoint. Paul says “because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ,” he counts everything — everything — as loss (Philippians 3:8).
“Cultivate a love for Christ, not his gifts, that gives even when such giving seems impossible.”
This is what Paul praises, it seems to me, about the Macedonians, which are unbelievably precious examples of what I want to be. “In a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part” (2 Corinthians 8:2). This is the joy that we should emphasize: the joy that flows from saving grace in spite of affliction, in spite of poverty.
So, Michael asks, How can we help people feel that God has their best interest at heart? Or, to use the words of Psalm 35:27, How can we help people believe and enjoy the truth, “Great is the Lord, who delights in the welfare [or prosperity] of his servant”? All of his welfare. And surely the answer is — this is my answer, really, to Michael’s question: Walk with people through Romans 8, memorizing it together, because there is no greater chapter to prove that God is for us — 100% for us, not 99% — and not against us. There is no greater chapter to show that when he gave Christ for us, it was not to remove suffering in this life, but to assure us with unshakable joy and hope that, in all our pain and in all our sorrow and frustration and disappointment, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.
So, my short answer to Michael is: Let Romans 8 — perhaps the greatest chapter in the Bible — put Christian gladness and Christian groaning in their painful and precious relationship in this age.