The Problem for the Prosperity Gospel

Scot McKnight argues against what is often called prosperity gospel, the idea that God wants to bless believers financially.

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That the Bible teaches that God blesses us is unquestioned – from the great blessing of Abraham in Genesis 12 to Deuteronomy 28's famous list of blessings and promises to Jesus' beatitudes to James' famous one liner that God's blessing means the "crown of life" there is a theme in the Bible that God blesses. Indeed, God is good; God's goodness means he blesses us and will continue to bless us.

But, the Bible doesn't permit a prosperity gospel reading. Let's be totally honest with ourselves as we read the Bible. Abraham waited and waited for the son of promise. Joseph experienced being sold into slavery by his God-elected brothers. Moses' call to ransom captive Israel led to years of privation and testing. Israel only crossed the Jordan River after 40 years in the wilderness (and Moses never crossed the Jordan). David was the prototype of the Messiah-King but suffered years of waiting, family struggles, and a son who fell away from faithfulness. Jeremiah spent most of his days in tears. Daniel was a devoted Israelite who had anything but a cushy life. And what about Job? What do we do with this paradigm of fidelity? His faithfulness seems to have gotten him into the crosshairs of the Adversary.

What about the New Testament saints? Let's begin with the Story of Jesus: an innocent man who was cruelly crucified and he left behind a mother who had been promised that her son would be the King of Israel (Luke 1:46-55). Peter first confessed Jesus as Messiah but struggled mightily to comprehend a Messiah who had to be crucified. The tradition tells us he was martyred. Paul … what do we need to say but quote these lines from his own letter to the Corinthians: "Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor 13:7-10). The constant patter of Paul's life was suffering, not material blessing. And the roll call in Hebrews 11 tells us time and again of solid saints who experienced one hardship after another.

The Every Day Cross

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The paradigm of who we are as humans in the Bible is not the Happiness Machine. The paradigm of the human is the Cross. Jesus told his followers to take up the cross every day and that meant to be ready to suffer (Luke 9:23). Jesus was crucified for us and we are called to die with him (Romans 6). The deepest paradigm for the human in the Bible is the human who has died with Christ, died to self, died to everything we want, died to the world, and died to the flesh. We are called not to seek our own happiness but to seek the glory of God by giving ourselves to God and for others. The problem with the prosperity gospel is that it focuses on "getting our wants." The cross gospel focuses on "giving our selves." Love of God means to live for God; love of self means to die to self so we can love God and others; love of others means dying to self so we can serve others. We are not Happiness Machines but Loving Machines. Seeing ourselves as Happiness Machines is the prosperity gospel; seeing ourselves as Loving Machines is the cross gospel.

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