The Problems with the Prosperity Gospel
13 Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go into this or that town and spend a year there and do business and make a profit."
14 You do not know about tomorrow. What is your life like? For you are a puff of smoke that appears for a short time and then vanishes.
15 You ought to say instead, "If the Lord is willing, then we will live and do this or that."
Can a true Christian become rich? Maybe. Is becoming a Christian a path to prosperity? Possibly, but we need to be very, very careful with this one. There are Biblical promises of prosperity, but there are also many admonitions against greed. To be wealthy and Christian is to be judged by higher standards. And the path to prosperity of even the Old Testament wealthy saints was usually difficult.
Nevertheless, the Bible does contain a significant amount of financial wisdom. There is a “Bible Money Code” and I point some of it out in the chapters that follow – free of charge. If you are poor or simply want more prosperity, I highly recommend making use of it. It helps offset the restrictions on money-making activities also found in the Bible. But I’ll warn you now: the true Bible money code is not a particular prayer or anything resembling magic. It is far less magical than technical analysis, macroeconomics, or Greek philosophy. And it is definitely not a Christian flavored variant of the Law of Attraction. See the quote from St. James above as well as these from Proverbs:
1 Do not boast about tomorrow;
for you do not know what a day may bring forth.
12 A shrewd person sees danger and hides himself,
but the naive keep right on going and suffer for it.
So much for visualizing success and believing you already have it.
Now let us take a closer look at the Biblical promises of prosperity.
Many of the Promises are Group Promises
10 "Bring the entire tithe into the storehouse so that there may be food in my temple. Test me in this matter," says the LORD who rules over all, "to see if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until there is no room for it all.
11 Then I will stop the plague from ruining your crops, and the vine will not lose its fruit before harvest," says the LORD who rules over all.
12 "All nations will call you happy, for you indeed will live in a delightful land," says the LORD who rules over all.
In the latter chapters of Deuteronomy, Moses gives a long list of promises of good things in return for obeying God’s commandments, and curses for straying. However, most of those promises apply to the nation of Israel as a whole. Individual Israelites benefit from the general tide, as even the poor in the United States today enjoy a higher income than the average income for many of the world’s nations.
1 "If you indeed obey the LORD your God and are careful to observe all his commandments I am giving you today, the LORD your God will elevate you above all the nations of the earth.
2 All these blessings will come to you in abundance if you obey the LORD your God:
3 You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the field.
4 Your children will be blessed, as well as the produce of your soil, the offspring of your livestock, the calves of your herds, and the lambs of your flocks.
5 Your basket and your mixing bowl will be blessed.
6 You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out.
7 The LORD will cause your enemies who attack you to be struck down before you; they will attack you from one direction but flee from you in seven different directions.
8 The LORD will decree blessing for you with respect to your barns and in everything you do — yes, he will bless you in the land he is giving you.
The same applies to Malachi’s promise of prosperity in return for farmers getting with the program with their tithing. Rain is an area of effect phenomenon. He talked of the land becoming delightful. An isolated farmer paying up isn’t going to do the job.
If a nation or a church practices the economic and moral principles found in the Bible, good things happen – even without divine intervention. Imagine living in a community where there is trust, honesty, and generosity. Imagine not having to deal with fraud, robbery, rent-seeking, or burdensome government. Imagine a society where you pay it forward after you prosper vs. struggling most of your career paying back student loans or a mortgage to buy a farm.
Look at the Amish. They’re doing pretty well without the benefits of modern technology or higher education. Their prosperity is clearly a group effect. A single family practicing an Amish lifestyle would fare far less well.
Writing a check to a televangelist does not make you part of such a group.
Divine Providence is not a Winning Lottery Ticket
9 Jacob said to Pharaoh, "All the years of my travels are 130. All the years of my life have been few and painful; the years of my travels are not as long as those of my ancestors."
Malachi promised rain and disease-free crops in return for tithes. To cash in on these benefits still required plowing, planting, pruning and harvesting.
Jacob did indeed have a magic touch when it came to raising livestock. His animals were healthy. When he needed dark colored sheep and spotted goats, he got black sheep.
Gen 30:31 So Laban asked, "What should I give you?" "You don't need to give me a thing," Jacob replied, "but if you agree to this one condition, I will continue to care for your flocks and protect them:
32 Let me walk among all your flocks today and remove from them every speckled or spotted sheep, every dark-colored lamb, and the spotted or speckled goats. These animals will be my wages.
33 My integrity will testify for me later on. When you come to verify that I've taken only the wages we agreed on, if I have in my possession any goat that is not speckled or spotted or any sheep that is not dark-colored, it will be considered stolen."
34 "Agreed!" said Laban, "It will be as you say."
35 So that day Laban removed the male goats that were streaked or spotted, all the female goats that were speckled or spotted (all that had any white on them), and all the dark-colored lambs, and put them in the care of his sons.
36 Then he separated them from Jacob by a three-day journey, while Jacob was taking care of the rest of Laban's flocks.
37 But Jacob took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond, and plane trees. He made white streaks by peeling them, making the white inner wood in the branches visible.
38 Then he set up the peeled branches in all the watering troughs where the flocks came to drink. He set up the branches in front of the flocks when they were in heat and came to drink.
39 When the sheep mated in front of the branches, they gave birth to young that were streaked or speckled or spotted.
40 Jacob removed these lambs, but he made the rest of the flock face the streaked and completely dark-colored animals in Laban's flock. So he made separate flocks for himself and did not mix them with Laban's flocks.
41 When the stronger females were in heat, Jacob would set up the branches in the troughs in front of the flock, so they would mate near the branches.
42 But if the animals were weaker, he did not set the branches there. So the weaker animals ended up belonging to Laban and the stronger animals to Jacob.
43 In this way Jacob became extremely prosperous. He owned large flocks, male and female servants, camels, and donkeys.
But he still did the work of a shepherd. Hard work.
36 Jacob became angry and argued with Laban. "What did I do wrong?" he demanded of Laban. "What sin of mine prompted you to chase after me in hot pursuit?
37 When you searched through all my goods, did you find anything that belonged to you? Set it here before my relatives and yours, and let them settle the dispute between the two of us!
38 "I have been with you for the past twenty years. Your ewes and female goats have not miscarried, nor have I eaten rams from your flocks.
39 Animals torn by wild beasts I never brought to you; I always absorbed the loss myself. You always made me pay for every missing animal, whether it was taken by day or at night.
40 I was consumed by scorching heat during the day and by piercing cold at night, and I went without sleep.
41 This was my lot for twenty years in your house: I worked like a slave for you — fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your flocks, but you changed my wages ten times!
42 If the God of my father — the God of Abraham, the one whom Isaac fears — had not been with me, you would certainly have sent me away empty-handed! But God saw how I was oppressed and how hard I worked, and he rebuked you last night."
Indeed, at the end of his life, Jacob complained that his life was a hard one, despite the blessings he inherited. See the quote which begins this section.
Look also at the stories of Joseph and Daniel. After undergoing grueling tests of faith they were granted high offices in Egypt and Babylon respectively. These offices undoubtedly came with significant perks in terms of luxury and power – but they also came with duties. They did not receive early retirement at a pleasant beachfront villa.
23 In all hard work there is profit,
but merely talking about it only brings poverty.
The Promises are Often Mundane
Miracles happen. This is oft recorded. But much of the “magic” of following God’s laws is not miraculous at all; it is mundane economics. The miracle is that the Bible contains a Cliff Notes survey of some profound economics principles which the learned struggle to grasp to this day.
- How do you feed the poor without creating a lazy welfare class? The answer is in the Bible.
- How do you allow the clever and diligent to build wealth without creating a parasitic aristocracy? The answer is in the Bible.
- How do you have the benefits of private property and capitalism while minimizing wage slavery? The answer is in the Bible.
- How can you enjoy the benefits of anarchy without endless blood feuds that last for generations? The Bible has an answer for that too.
The Bible even has medical wisdom which modern science only caught up with in the 1800s. The AIDS epidemic persists because many still fail to appreciate the wisdom handed down by Moses millennia ago.
The Price of Divine Providence
9 Honor the LORD from your wealth
and from the first fruits of all your crops;
10 then your barns will be filled completely,
and your vats will overflow with new wine.
2 Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit,
but righteousness delivers from mortal danger.
3 The LORD satisfies the appetite of the righteous,
but he thwarts the craving of the wicked.
24 What the wicked fears will come on him;
what the righteous desire will be granted.
6 In the house of the righteous is abundant wealth,
but the income of the wicked brings trouble.
Yes, there are individual promises of prosperity, and I do believe that there is a miraculous component. Many of these promises can be found in the Book of Proverbs. But this very same book has passages such as these:
19 The way of the sluggard is like a hedge of thorns,
but the path of the upright is like a highway.
9 The one who is slack in his work
is a brother to one who destroys.
13 Do not love sleep, lest you become impoverished;
open your eyes so that you might be satisfied with food.
25 What the sluggard desires will kill him,
for his hands refuse to work.
So don’t expect to pay some money to a televangelist and then expect to win the lottery or otherwise be showered by unearned wealth. Expect opportunities which require mixing in labor for the most part – though there may be exceptions, of course. There are also promises of protection from various evils—but not all, so exercise prudence.
And keep in mind that the miraculous promises themselves specify effort. It takes money (or the equivalent) to give offerings. And offerings by themselves do not suffice!
3 To do righteousness and justice
is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice.
27 The wicked person's sacrifice is an abomination;
how much more when he brings it with evil intent!
The principle can be found scattered throughout the Bible. It may well go all the way back to early chapters of Genesis. Why was Cain’s sacrifice rejected? Was it merely because it was a grain offering? Grain offerings are mandated elsewhere in the Bible. Perhaps Cain had wicked intent in his heart when he made his offering. He definitely had it afterwards.
So, expect little benefit from making offerings unless you are also making effort to avoid sin as well.
And there is another requirement:
13 The one who shuts his ears to the cry of the poor,
he too will cry out and will not be answered.
9 A generous person will be blessed,
for he gives some of his food to the poor.
16 The one who oppresses the poor to increase his own gain
and the one who gives to the rich — both end up only in poverty.
27 The one who gives to the poor will not lack,
but whoever shuts his eyes to them will receive many curses.
You are also expected to be generous in order to be blessed. This has a price. And, of course, Jesus put a heavy emphasis on generosity, so don’t rely on any change in dispensation to get out of this requirement! Indeed, it may be the other way around. Maybe, some of the old requirements to make animal sacrifices and tithes to a large priesthood have been superseded by additional requirements for charity. See The New Levites series for more.
Prospering the Biblical way takes work, wisdom, and help from others. And once you get there you have fresh responsibilities.
If this strikes you as unpleasant, then stay poor and be humble. Jesus promised many blessings for you should you do so while obeying God’s laws.
Still, you might want to take a peek at Solomon’s financial wisdom. It can come in handy even if you aren’t aspiring to riches.