Pride and the Prosperity Gospel

‘…I came that they may have life and have it abundantly’ (John 10:10)

Jesus tells us that he comes to give us abundant life. Unlike the thief who comes only to steal, kill, and destroy, Jesus tells us that he is the good shepherd who cares for his sheep, lays down his life for them, and brings them to salvation and safety. But what does it mean to have life to the full? A clue to the answer is given in the context surrounding the passage above. The fullness that Jesus tells us of is articulated in our relationship to him as sheep having a good shepherd, a shepherd who lays down his life for us. Abundant life, then, will consist in a relationship with Jesus, in following him, hearing his voice, and knowing him. What does this relationship look like in regard to giving us abundance? The prosperity gospel holds that God’s desire is to provide us with health, wealth, status, and good relationships in this life. The promises that Jesus makes about abundant life are understood by the prosperity gospel as promises of earthly blessing, which we will receive if only we have the faith to believe. But in encouraging us to focus on the attainment of earthly blessings, the prosperity gospel diminishes our capacity to follow Christ into death.

In an essay in the New York Times, Kate Bowler – an historian of the prosperity gospel movement – confronts her own recent diagnosis of Stage 4 cancer. According to Bowler, one of the central features of the prosperity gospel is the illusion that we can have total and certain control over our own lives:

The movement has perfected a rarefied form of America’s addiction to self-rule, which denies much of our humanity: our fragile bodies, our finitude, our need to stare down our deaths (at least once in a while) and be filled with dread and wonder. At some point, we must say to ourselves, I’m going to need to let go.

For the prosperity gospel, difficulties are simply tests of faith, which we can overcome if we persevere in belief. If we have faith, we can get the blessings we want – homes, jobs, money, relationships with certain people, and healing from sickness. While it is easy to critique people like Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar and others who live a lavish lifestyle and who tell us that God will give us these things, it is important to recognize that we all succumb to this view, for at the root of the prosperity gospel is pride. We tell God what must be done for us: we determine our life-plans and hold God to fulfilling them in the ways that we have envisioned. But the Christian journey is not one of having our life-plans fulfilled. It is, rather, an ars moriendi – the art of dying. In learning to follow Christ, we strive to develop a perfect resignation to the divine will. (For a good prayer that articulates something of what this looks like, see Cardinal del Val’s Litany of Humility.) This involves being willing to surrender our material security, our sense of entitlement, and the desires and dreams that form our deep identity, for ours is a transformative journey of redemption, sanctification, and glorification in Christ. It is only in letting go and surrendering control of our life to God that we find abundant life, an abundance that will ultimately come into fruition through following Christ in his death and resurrection.

Note: Next month’s post will feature further discussion of the prosperity gospel.