Pastor John, we have an email from a listener named Kai Tham: “Pastor John, how do you practically and lovingly lead your loved ones who are steeped in the prosperity gospel all their lives back to the true gospel? I come from Malaysia and Singapore, places immersed in prosperity gospel theology. I understand that in 2 Timothy 4:3, Paul says there will come such days as these, where people will gather themselves teachers that suit their own passions. But what if these are your close friends and family whom you love so much? How do you teach or love or rebuke or reprove them? I’m training for ministry in Melbourne. One day I will go back to Singapore, God willing, to preach and pastor there. I know as Paul advised, I should preach in every season, being ready to rebuke, reprove, and exhort. What does this look like in a culture so steeped in the prosperity gospel?”
Just yesterday I was writing an article about these days being the best of times and the worst of times. And one of the evidences of it being the worst of times that I mentioned has to do with the so-called prosperity “gospel.”
I wrote, “I have watched the rise of enormous churches and ministries who preach and export to poor nations a prosperity ‘gospel’ that mutes the Bible teaching on suffering and reduces the glorious gospel to earthly betterment rooted in human attitudes, not the glory of Calvary.” That was my sentence that I wrote down.
Three Ways the Prosperity ‘Gospel’ Undermines Biblical Christianity
And there are three criticisms. And I want to just mention these so that they can inform the counsel that I give to Kai.
1. Prosperity theology downplays suffering.
The prosperity gospel downplays the vast scriptural theology of suffering expected of Christians, the suffering that is expected of Christians and promised to Christians, like 1 Peter 4:19: “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” So the prosperity gospel downplays this vast pervasive teaching in the Bible that we are called upon to suffer. And it is not just persecution suffering, but body-wasting-away, disease-type suffering in Romans 8:23 and 2 Corinthians 4:16.
So Christians in prosperity churches are often profoundly unprepared for what life under God’s providence is going to deal them — and that is tragic. And so it is right for Kai to feel jealous about his family that he can figure out a way to help them see these things.
And here’s just one little sidebar: My wife is going to Africa this fall. And she is going for the third time as part of a ministry to give wheelchairs to the disabled, who can only crawl around or stay in their simple houses. And a wheelchair changes the life of many. And she made the point to me as I was talking to her about this the other day that as they are looking for partners there to help, the big prosperity ministries usually give little help, because disabled people in a wheelchair are an embarrassment to their ministry. They don’t have a biblical theology of suffering and the fruit is not pretty.
So that is my first concern: the downplaying of a biblical theology of suffering that would help people so much prepare for what necessarily must come in this life.
2. Prosperity theology reduces the gospel to earthly gain.
And the second thing is the prosperity gospel reduces the glorious gospel to earthly betterment. The dominant gift of the gospel in the New Testament is not earthly betterment. The dominant gift is the joy of reconciliation with God and eternal joys at his right hand forever through Jesus Christ (Psalm 16:11). Whether life in this age goes better here on earth is quite secondary to the New Testament way of looking at things.
There is going to be a great day on a new earth where everything is made glorious, but that is not the immediate payoff of the gospel in front of everything else in the New Testament. The biggest problem in the world is that God is angry at his creatures for rebelling against him, and the central good of the good news is that, in Christ, God took the initiative to satisfy that anger and make himself our treasure and not our terror.
So prosperity preaching skews all that so badly by turning possible and secondary effects of the gospel into primary, certain outcomes — which they are not.
3. Prosperity theology distorts faith.
And the third problem that I see is that prosperity teachers distort the ground of our salvation by putting the emphasis on whether we can produce the kind of faith that gets healed and gets rich, rather than putting it on the glorious work of Christ in dying and rising to bear the guilt of our sin and propitiate the wrath of God.
How to Talk to Family and Friends About Prosperity Teaching
So what I would suggest to Kai as he considers talking to his family about this is:
1. Concede and celebrate that they are right to believe that God aims at the health and the wealth of his children — eventually. God did not send Jesus into the world to make them eternally miserable, but eternally happy — and to remove all tears from their eyes (Revelation 21:4). But raise the question with your family about timing. Prosperity preachers get the timing of this all wrong. Is all of that wonderful promise intended for now in this age in full, or does the Bible teach that God saves us in stages or phases, and that this earthly walk between conversion and glorification is one of much suffering in the hope of glory? So my suggestion to Kai is that if he can tackle this with them, make it an emphasis on timing, not whether we will be eventually healthy, wealthy, and happy in God.
2. Talk to them about God himself being our greatest Treasure, not his gifts. For example, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:25–26). And the text that Noël and I used in our wedding: “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation” (Habakkuk 3:17–18). That is so foreign to the mindset of prosperity preachers because of what is taken away in that verse and how joy abounds in that verse.
3. Raise with your family the issue of how they can love those with permanent disabilities. Are they embarrassed by them in their community? Or is it a sign of Christ’s love that they care for them? And it is a sign of great faith that these people, while not healed, are rejoicing in the hope of the glory of God rather than being miserable and angry at God. Isn’t that glorious faith?
4. Ask the family what they think of the promises of suffering in the Bible. If they say, “Well, it is all persecution. We are not promised to suffer from sickness,” then point them to those texts that show that it includes the body’s wasting away. Ask them about those texts. My sense is that the necessity of all suffering is minimized in prosperity preaching, not just the necessity of persecution suffering.
5. Share stories of great saints in history whom God used mightily and who suffered enormously.
6. As a means to these kinds of conversations, ask your parents or brothers and sisters — whoever you are having to deal with — ask them for permission to talk about these things, and set up a time when they are expecting it rather than being rushed or surprised by it and needing to be defensive. I just think a lot of times we try to sow the seeds of our ideas on the spur of the moment, and it is never quite the right time. So we just need to ask them permission to set up the right time.
7. The last thing I would say to Kai is pray that God would give them eyes to see that there is great joy in suffering now, and there will be great joy in prosperity at Christ’s coming. “Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13).