We have a question from Matt in Houston, Texas: “Recently, Pastor John, you spoke on the prosperity gospel. I’m moving to Africa at the end of this year to be a missionary in Zambia. The prosperity gospel is on every street corner there; it is ingrained in the people. Africans don’t deny the spiritual world, like many Americans do. They just want to know: Who is more powerful: Satan or Jesus? The prosperity gospel is one way of saying, “Jesus.” So my question is this: How would you encourage someone to address prosperity gospel errors in a spiritual power-based nation like many in Africa?”
The more I think about this — and I think about it a lot, because everywhere I go I run into it — the more I realize that prosperity preachers are not preaching a very powerful Christ. The way they preach him, he is not nearly powerful enough, not nearly sovereign enough over Satan. Let’s see if I can get at this.
Making Christ Less Glorious
The way I approach it is not to tear down the positive claims of the prosperity gospel, but to present the parts of the Bible that they leave out and show that the glory of Christ, the greatness of Christ, the power of Christ, and the superior worth of Christ are more clearly displayed when these texts are taken seriously. They leave out so many texts that have to do with the glory of Christ. They think they are presenting a more glorious Christ, but they are not.
Now, of course, Christ is stronger than Satan. Of course he is able to stop disease, and still storms, and cause rain to fall, and prevent crime, and open blind eyes and prison doors, and shut the mouths of lions, and halt malaria, and make airplanes stay in the air, and a thousand other things. But do the prosperity preachers really believe in the absolute sovereignty of God over Satan? I don’t think they do.
There are two things I would teach on those street corners in Africa, or anywhere else. They are very closely related. I would lay out all the texts on the absolute sovereignty of God and God’s control and all the texts on God’s design for suffering. I think these are the two underlying deficiencies in prosperity preaching: they don’t have a biblical understanding of God’s sovereignty or a biblical understanding of the Lord’s purpose in suffering.
God Is Not Weak
With regard to sovereignty, the prosperity preachers speak of God’s power to bless and make you prosper, but in the end, it is man who pulls the strings. Man is decisive, not God, because if you don’t prosper, it is always your fault. It is always your doing, not God’s. That is not divine sovereignty. That is divine frustration. Prosperity preachers say that God wants to bless but he can’t. He can’t, because you won’t do the right things.
This is magic, with man as the all-powerful magician — the medicine man. Man has become the witch doctor, the shaman. This is just old-fashioned magic. This is voodoo, with man poking the needles, and God just responding whenever man pokes in the right place. That is not a sovereign God. The prosperity gospel doesn’t go to the heart of the sovereignty issue.
They can talk about power all they want, but what people need is to see the absolute sovereignty of God made plain to them. That means showing people texts not just about the power of God over Satan, but God’s power over the smallest events, like the bird falling out of the air or the roll of the dice in Reno, Nevada, or the casting of the lot in the lap, as Proverbs says (Proverbs 16:33). It is absolutely essential that God’s sovereignty over man, specifically over man’s will, be taught. If you want Christ to be sovereign, he is not just sovereign over a few things. He is sovereign over all things. “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Proverbs 21:1). “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:16).
Preaching the absolute sovereignty of God would show prosperity preachers that they don’t preach a powerful Christ. They preach a wimpy Christ, for goodness’ sake. He is not in charge. Man is in charge in their scheme.
Suffering Is Not Meaningless
That leads to the second great deficiency of the prosperity preachers. Since they don’t go deep enough with the sovereignty of God, they don’t go deep enough with the sovereignty of God in suffering. Therefore, they don’t deal with the passages that talk about God’s purposes in suffering.
I have dealt with people like one Indian family who had never heard anything but prosperity preaching. I just spent half an hour with them showing them passages of Scripture on suffering, and they were blown away. They said they had never heard or seen anything like this, that God actually has some purpose or design in their suffering. Since prosperity preachers don’t think God controls suffering, they can’t see any purpose or design in it. They never teach on the design of God in suffering. But the Bible is full of his design in suffering.
I just came back from Hawaii. They asked me to preach on suffering. The whole message was me just giving reason after reason from biblical texts where God says he ordains or permits suffering in the world. It is all over the Bible, but they can’t talk about it, because it is not part of their system. They are not biblical enough, which means they leave people without the massive help the Bible gives to sufferers, and they dishonor Christ, who intends to be magnified in our suffering.
Let me give one closing example here: 2 Corinthians 12:1–10. Paul had this thorn in the flesh which he called “a messenger of Satan” (2 Corinthians 12:7). Yet God used it to bring holy humbling to Paul, which means God turned Satan into a servant of sanctification. He makes Satan serve holiness, which must just gall Satan. God so sovereignly rules over this thorn that he makes it turn Paul into a humbler, more Christlike person.
Here is the nub of the matter: When Jesus told Paul that he was not going to take Paul’s thorn away, he said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (1 Corinthians 12:9). Now, this is a power they never talk about. “Therefore,” Paul said, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weakness, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (1 Corinthians 12:9). We believe in a very powerful Christ. He is shown to be more magnificently powerful in satisfying the suffering soul than he is in giving BMWs to the worldly soul. Do prosperity preachers ever show this power of Christ — the power to satisfy the suffering soul with the superior majesty and presence of Christ?
That is my approach, Tony. To the brother who asked about going to Africa: Teach on total sovereignty, not just bogus power-preaching that gives man the decisive power over God. Teach them God’s control over, and his design in, suffering for his glory.