Editor’s note: This piece first ran in 2015.
Earlier this year, the Internet erupted over the fact that televangelist Creflo Dollar was raising funds to buy a $65 million private jet. Non-Christians and Christians alike were critical that the preacher felt he needed the highest-end private jet in order to spread the message of Christ.
Dollar hasn’t given up on his quest, recently claiming that those who criticized him just didn’t understand the Bible.
But Dollar is far from the first pastor to preach the “prosperity gospel.” Earlier this week, on his show Last Week Tonight, comedian John Oliver took on televangelists who promote the idea of “seed faith,” which promises followers that God will richly reward them if they donate to ministries.
This type of minister has infiltrated the ranks of Christianity for decades. Instead of living modestly, you might see them flying on personal jets, wearing expensive suits or residing in a multi-million dollar home.
These preachers spout a mellifluous and charismatic message: God desires His followers to acquire financial riches, experience vibrant health and live comfortable lives.
“Name it; Claim it!” is their mantra. And the number of goodies God doles out—whether in the form of a lucrative job, an increased bank account or even physical healing—depends entirely upon your faith (sometimes shown by how much you’re willing to give first).
Faith is the “currency of heaven,” these preachers claim. It gets God to move. So, the way to gain our heavenly privileges is to search within ourselves and uproot our own unbelief.
There are endless lies with this theology. It results in misplaced hope, a skewed reality and wishful thinking.
Wealth Is Not the Goal
God never promises His Followers financial wealth. The Apostle Paul warns the church in Ephesus on this matter: “For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (1 Timothy 6:10).”
Jesus didn’t die on the cross to be our genie. He knows that while money isn’t bad in and of itself, an excessive amount of money (or things) often harms us. That is why He commands His Followers to “store up treasures in heaven.”
And, as Oliver pointed out, prosperity gospel teachers regularly promise their listeners monetary blessings by donating to their ministry. “Sowing the seed,” is the euphuism preached for you to empty your pocketbook. This scheme will fill someone’s coffer, but probably not yours.
The Reality of Hardship
The prosperity gospel teaches that pain and suffering shouldn’t exist in the Christian life. Reality would say otherwise. For example, when we place our heart and soul into a relationship because we know it will lead to marriage—only to have it fall apart. And when we fervently pray and believe God for the healing of a loved one but they die.
Dallas Willard defined reality as “what you run into when you’re wrong.” It’s unyielding, and it will shatter all of the wishful thinking of prosperity gospel against its rock-face, no matter how much faith we have.
Accepting Christ is not a ticket to a pain-free life. And a type of theology that doesn’t embrace the reality of pain and suffering is downright egregious.
As John Piper says, “Normal Christianity is pain … It’s sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” We can trust that God will ultimately restore what ails us—in this lifetime or in the next. If He chooses the latter, it will be for his Glory.
“Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).
God Doesn’t Owe Us
The stark irony of the prosperity gospel is that it creates poor Christians. It deprives us of God’s actual blessings because it creates an indomitable hope in its own pre-assigned outcomes. This illusion leads to entitlement. Can you imagine the Creator of the Universe ever feeling obligated to write a check to pay off our prayers?
God will never owe us just because we packed our heavenly bank account full of faith. Instead, he gives us the ultimate gift of eternal life as His children—a gift we could never earn.
Rather than buying into harmful prosperity theology, where we wait for God to bless us because of our faith, we should cultivate hearts of gratitude for the true Gospel. Thankfulness realigns us toward how God is already blessing us. It also opens new opportunities for other gifts, because it creates hopeful expectations of how God might really want to work in a situation, not what He has to do.
Gratitude is never dependent upon a change in circumstances, it’s grounded in a person. True faith trusts in the loving and character and nature of Christ, even when we don’t see a desired outcome in this side of heaven.
We shouldn’t abandon bold prayers in faith, however, because the Spirit is still in the business of restoring relationships, instilling justice and creating beauty amid ashes. He might even heal our infirmities or bless us monetarily.
Whatever the case, our hearts can always rejoice because our spiritual life can be rich. We can always claim joy in suffering (James 1:2), peace in tribulation (John 16:33), and faith in a better world to come (Hebrews 11:16).