The gospel of health and wealth

Photo by stockimages. Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
Photo by stockimages. Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with prosperity. Although I hardly consider myself rich by American standards, I know that my wife and I are quite wealthy by world standards. And for that I am grateful to God, and hope that we have been faithful in the use of what we have.

But that’s not to say that I believe that wealth is in itself evidence of God’s favor.

What we call the “prosperity gospel” is but the contemporary capitalist version of an ancient religious impulse. There have always been those who believed and taught that if the gods existed, they would bless or protect you in exchange for the right kind of devotion. Even in the wake of disaster, they might hold to the same belief, but reject the god that failed them. My god didn’t come through; maybe I’ll try yours for a while and see what happens.

But as suggested in recent posts, the gospel represented by the apostle Paul is the opposite of such a gospel of health and wealth. Paul lives as his apostolic vocation demands — which means anything but a life of comfort and ease. Health? He often goes without food or sleep; he gets beaten, flogged, and tossed in prison; he gets shipwrecked and bitten by poisonous snakes. And wealth? Paul describes himself as “poor” and “having nothing” (2 Cor 6:10).

Nevertheless, he rejoices — because he knows without a doubt that in Jesus he is as rich as anyone can be.

I’m reminded of the story of Job. He had the reputation of being pious, righteous, and fabulously wealthy. God allowed Satan to put Job to the test: would Job still worship God if his possessions and his beloved family were taken from him by one disaster after another?

Job’s response was to fall to the ground and say, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb; naked I will return there. The Lord has given; the Lord has taken; bless the Lord’s name” (Job 1:21, CEB).

Satan was then allowed to afflict Job physically. His condition was so bad that his wife advised him to quit being such a goody-goody and curse God so he could just die and be done with it all. But again Job responds: “Will we receive good from God but not also receive bad?” (2:10, CEB).

I know: the story is more complicated than that. Eventually Job’s composure cracks, and he begins to curse the day he was born (though he does not curse God). Convinced that he has done nothing wrong, he is bold enough to demand an accounting from God. He never quite receives the answer he wants, but the fact that God answers him at all, even if it’s just to put him in his place, seems to be enough.

I read Job as an extended parable that puts the lie to every version of the prosperity gospel, as does the life of the apostle Paul. Bottom line, the litmus test of one’s faithfulness is not in what we have, but in how we respond when it’s taken away.

Maybe that sounds daunting. But if Job is any indication, it’s comforting to know that there can be such a thing as faithful complaining. So go ahead and pester God all you like.

Just don’t lose your more basic sense of trust.