Words of a Fether

I am the way, the truth, and the life;
no one comes to the Father except through me. ~Jesus

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Prosperity Poser

As you know, I frequent other blogs to see what’s being taught out there in Christendom, and today I came across this poser (meaning “question”) to and answer from a respected Bible teacher, which prompted an examination of Christians and prosperity:

Q. Is 3 John 1:2 teaching health and wealth? “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.”

A. In spite of the fact that many Christians have either health or money problems and some have both, I believe the Bible teaches that we should be healthy and financially secure.  For example Jesus said He came so that we could have an abundant life (John 10:10) and Paul wrote that we would be made rich in every way so we could be generous on every occasion (2 Cor. 9:11) .

I think our failure to achieve the life Jesus intended for us is partly due to our lack of Scriptural knowledge and the faith to believe what it says, and partly due to a lifestyle that’s often detrimental to our health and financial well being. James 4:8 tells us to “come near to God and He’ll come near to us.” As we do these promises will begin to come true in our lives.

While I have much respect for this teacher in the area of Bible prophecy, exegesis like this (and other topics such as gender in heaven at the same site) doesn’t instill me with confidence. I happen to know people, fine Christians who know and live the “fruit of the Spirit”, who have suffered one setback after another while standing true to the faith, and we cannot forget the many heroes of the faith in Christianity who have gone without necessities and even been martyred. And where is the “proof of blessing” line drawn? Private jets and mansions, or having one set of clothing and one meal a day? A nice middle-class American home in the suburbs, or a grass hut in the jungle? First-class medical care or having a place to forage for the proper medicinal herbs?

This claim, then, reminds me of Job’s friends who accused him of harboring some secret sin to account for the bizarre cluster of disasters that had fallen upon him. No matter how gently or indirectly it may be stated, the charge is the same: you’re not prospering because you lack knowledge of scripture and faith, and your lifestyle is not up to par. But this is what I see in scripture:

Heb. 11:13–16, 35b–39 - These all died still believing, without having received the promises, but seeing them from a distance and looking forward to them. They spoke openly about their being strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who speak like this admit that they seek their own country. If in fact they remembered the place they left, they had every opportunity to return. But instead, they long for a better one— a heavenly one. That’s why God is not ashamed of them or to be called their God, and he prepared a city for them.

Yet on the other hand, others were beaten to death, not expecting to be delivered, so that they may come to a better resurrection. Still others went through a trial of being mocked and scourged, some were bound and jailed. They were executed by stoning, they were cut and killed with the sword, they wandered around in sheepskins and goatskins, needy and harassed and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them! They wandered in the wilderness and the mountains, in caves and holes in the ground. None of these, though they were all confirmed by faith, were rewarded with the promise of God concerning us. They were looking forward to something better, so that they would not be complete without us.

The same Paul who wrote the words of 2 Cor. 9:11 cited above, also wrote the words of 2 Cor. 11:23–27, 1 Tim. 6:6–10, and Phil. 4:11–13. When we consider all that the NT says about Christians and the material world, we must conclude that what Paul said in 2 Cor. 9:11 was neither a universal guarantee nor proof of faith or frugal living. What we was saying in that context is that those whom God makes rich are to use it to help the poor— who, according to the prosperity teachers regardless of degree, should not exist. If the poor believers are only poor through some fault of their own, then sending them money would be the wrong thing to do (2 Thes. 3:10). Were the believers in Jerusalem unfaithful or mishandling scripture (1 Cor. 16:3)? Were all of Paul’s sufferings due to lapses in faith or poor understanding of scripture? And can we honestly say Paul only referred to material reward for helping the poor?

While this particular teacher is not advocating the extreme teachings of some, the principle is the same, and it flies in the face of the totality of NT teachings on this topic. There are simply too many glaring exceptions to this alleged rule, scripturally and anecdotally. We live in an age when God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Mt. 5:45). While God also makes exceptions, and many can attest to His miraculous deliverance from disease, death, or hardship, these are notable precisely because they are not universal or even the norm.

Many believers who have been blessed with comfort, with basic necessities at the very least, may presume to think that this is proof of their living exemplary lives. But obviously the wicked prosper too, so can they make the same claim? Can we say, while claiming to know scripture, that disaster strikes only the wicked, and blessing is only enjoyed by the righteous? No, what scripture tells us is that some get the promises of God in this life and others do not. And these situations are not always the same for the same people; that is, the tables can turn (2 Cor. 8:13–15), such that those who are rich today may be poor tomorrow (especially given the current economic situation!), and the giving may go the other way.

We have got to be very careful when giving answers to scriptural questions, and to carefully consider the ramifications of what we teach. And if we come to a better understanding of something we taught in the past which was not accurate, we need to speak up about it. Even teachers can be wrong (and often are), but they are to keep learning too, and correct mistakes as they become aware of them. Too many teachers react defensively when cornered by questions that expose an error, instead of at least agreeing that the question has merit and will be studied.

Of course, this is not to say that the Christian teacher is obligated to entertain every mocker or frivolous challenge, or nothing would ever get done. Rather, it means that Christian teachers must be willing to concede mistakes and correct them, or at least leave the question open until further study. Those who have taught that some degree of prosperity is proof of God’s blessing and the lack of such prosperity is evidence of lacking faith or misunderstanding scripture, need to consider the totality of NT teachings on the matter and publish corrections. And they should apologize for insulting not only the righteous poor of today but also the heroes of faith listed in Heb. 11. Harshly or gently said, extreme or mild view, an insult is an insult.

But neither are the poor or mistreated exempt from examining their own hearts (2 Cor. 13:5). Regardless of the presence or absence of blessing, each believer is to live as the steward of the property of Another, not only in possessions but also in thoughts and actions. If you are suffering, make sure you haven’t given God a reason to allow it. Conversely, if you are prospering, make sure you haven’t acquired it through ungodly means, and that you are generous to the poor. A heart truly reconciled to God will live to please Him in everything, and we are shown in these scriptures how that is to be done.

Posted 2010-04-30 under faith, prosperity