Does God want you to be rich?
That was the provocative title of Time Magazine’s September 18 cover story, which examined a movement within American Evangelicalism known as the “Prosperity Gospel.”
The article is disappointing, principally because it fails to find any major Evangelical minister who will strongly answer in the affirmative that yes, God wants you to be wealthy. The authors try hard to nail mega-pastor Joel Osteen as a leading proponent of prosperity theology, though he tells them, “I preach that anybody can improve their lives,” adding, “but I don’t think I’d say God wants us to be rich.” They are left with pointing out “the room’s warm lamplight reflects softly off his crocodile shoes,” even as they concede that Osteen’s congregation raised over $1 million for Hurricane Katrina relief.
While the article doesn’t uncover scandal and hypocrisy – after all, stubbornly literal Evangelicals are not likely to have missed the New Testament’s many, many, many condemnations of and warnings about wealth – they unwittingly touch on a larger theology: Christianity as Self-Help program.
Your Best Life Now, Osteen’s best-selling book, opens by informing the reader that to obtain your “best life,” see your “marriage restored,” or “your dreams come to pass,” just “start looking at life through the eyes of faith.”
Certainly, all Christians believe that through faith we find guidance, and that among the gifts of the Holy Spirit are numbered patience and persistence. But mainstream Christianity has never promised that God will make your problems go away.
Indeed, historically Christians have believed that through suffering we have an opportunity to put our beliefs into practice and grow spiritually. If you’re looking for a trouble-free life, Jesus is not the answer.
Still, some Christians maintain that it just takes faith to achieve the impossible. Pray your way to weight loss, a better job, or heterosexuality! Would anyone question the faith of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John? Here are their fates, respectively: gored with a halberd, beaten to death, hanged, boiled in oil. Paul was beheaded and Peter, founder of the church, was crucified upside down.
The “better life” that Christianity promises follows this one; in the meantime, our faith offers us radical strategies for dealing with adversity. In this, some Evangelicals are perhaps profoundly mistaken about basic doctrine. Popular televangelist Joyce Meyer asked Time, “Who would want something where you’re miserable, broke and ugly and you have to muddle through until you get to heaven? I believe God wants to give us nice things.” But muddling through, quite frankly, is what God expects us to do.
Ben Phillips of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary cuts right to the heart of the heresy: “God becomes the means to an end, not the end in himself.” Publisher’s Weekly derided Osteen’s book, calling it “a treatise on how to get God to serve the demands of self-centered individuals.”
Ask not what God can do for you, but what you can do for God.