The road to prosperity?

Read your Bible; get rich quick!

I’ve never actually heard anyone push such a blatant perversion of the gospel (though some come mighty close). But how about this one: Believe in God, ask Jesus into your heart, and your troubles are over! Or this one: Bad things might happen every once in a while, but if you just have enough faith, if you just pray hard enough, if you just claim God’s promises, God will take all the bad things away!

Such ideas don’t fit very well with the experience of many Christians. A friend is diagnosed with cancer; the community gathers to pray. Sometimes the person is healed, and everyone celebrates. But sometimes not. Then what? I know too many sufferers who’ve had insult added to injury by people who scolded them — “lovingly,” of course — for not being faithful enough for God to heal or rescue them.

But of course, one might argue that experience doesn’t tell us anything; what matters is what the Bible says. Look at Psalm 1, for example. Doesn’t verse 3 say that those who delight in God’s law/instruction, who follow his righteous way “are like trees planted by streams of water” and that “in all that they do, they prosper” (NRSV)? Or Psalm 34: doesn’t it suggest that “fear of the LORD” leads to a long, good life (vss. 11-12), and promise that God will rescue the righteous from all their afflictions (vs. 19)? “All” — as in “everything,” the whole enchilada; the same Hebrew word appears in both psalms.

There are lots of variations on what is often known as “the prosperity gospel,” but the general idea is that if you do the right things (including giving money to the right people and causes) God will “prosper” you — with prosperity often being understood in material terms. More generally, it encompasses the belief that God wants to bless us with both wealth and health, if we would just be faithful enough.

Is this what the psalms teach?

Sometimes, as in Psalm 1, it can seem like it.

But there’s more to the story.

. . .

Let’s start with this: it’s possible to cherry-pick verses from Scripture — including the Psalms — that seem to support just about anything, including a prosperity theology. Throw in a reminder of the authority of Scripture, and you can guilt anyone who disagrees with you for being unfaithful to God’s word.

But if we believe that the whole of Scripture is authoritative, then the problem is in picking the verses we want and disregarding or downplaying the rest. Yes, there are passages within the Psalms that suggest a somewhat black-and-white moral world in which the righteous always prosper, and the wicked are promised their comeuppance. Other psalms, however, portray the righteous as suffering and the wicked as prospering and having their way. The psalmist cries out, What the heck is going on here? God, you need to do something about this! How long can this possibly go on?

The answer, according to some psalms, is that this sorry state can go on for a long time — or at least longer than some proponents of prosperity theology might want us to believe.

Moreover, both Jesus and Paul were prime examples of not only how the righteous may suffer, but how they must suffer for their allegiance to God’s mission. I’m not saying that we need to replace the prosperity gospel with a “calamity gospel.” Not everyone will suffer as Jesus and Paul did, and Paul himself seemed to suggest that he would gladly take even more suffering on his own shoulders if it would ease the suffering of others. But this is the reality: conspicuous righteousness is not always welcome in a sinful world, and sometimes, all we can do is groan under the weight of the world’s unredeemed brokenness (cf. Rom 8:18-27).

Sometimes, what we get in the Psalms is a picture of the way things should be: the righteous prosper and enjoy good things, and the wicked get their just deserts. That’s Psalm 1. But sometimes what we get is the way things actually are: the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. Indeed, Psalm 137 famously voices the psalmist’s anguish over the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the people to Babylon; it is filled with words of lament and vengeance. Nothing about God as the people’s shield or shelter. Nothing about God’s steadfast love toward the righteous. Nothing, certainly, about prosperity. Just suffering and rage.

But even this points us to a larger story. We shouldn’t think that the vengeful words of Psalm 137 are only saying, “You hurt me, so I want to hurt you back.” There is a deep sense of not only personal suffering and loss, but injustice, a sense that This is not how it’s supposed to be.

And that, I think, is how we should understand the reference to prosperity in Psalm 1. The Hebrew word shalom is important to a biblical worldview. It is often translated as “peace,” but means much more than that: the word conveys a sense of wholeness, and yes, prosperity. It is, in the words of theologian Cornelius Plantinga, “the way things are supposed to be” as created by God.

That is the larger story. God created the universe in shalom, and that wholeness was broken by sin. In Psalm 1, we see how things are supposed to be; the prosperity of the righteous reflects the shalom that God intended for all his creation. And against that background, we must hold to the conviction that, in God’s eyes, there is a right way to live, a right path to follow. At the same time, other psalms remind us that there are no guarantees. Sometimes the righteous suffer, and inexplicably so. But still, along with the psalmists, we cling to the promise of shalom, the promise that God will indeed make things right.

What the prosperity gospel gets wrong is imposing too narrow an understanding of prosperity — “What’s in it for me?” — and too narrow a timeframe — “What can I expect from God now, in my lifetime?” The Psalter, taken as a whole, and integrated with the witness of the entire Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, gives us a different picture.

Yes, God is our refuge and strength. And yes, sometimes that means that we will be tangibly rescued from our afflictions. Every time that happens, we praise God and celebrate that all is not lost, that God is still at work making things as they should be. Every rescue and all good things are signs of shalom.

But what about when we continue to suffer? Our stories may not be what we want them to be, but God’s story doesn’t change. We must still cling, in faith, to what we know of God’s character. We must cling, in hope, to the God of steadfast love to whom the Psalms continually point.

And when we do, we discover a bit of what “prosperity” is really all about.

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