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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Exposing the Empty Promises of the Prosperity Gospel



Do you want to be satisfied? I’m not just talking about not being hungry or thirsty; I’m talking about being completely satisfied in every area of your life. I’m talking about the type of satisfaction everyone who has ever walked the face of the planet dreams of one day finding. It’s a satisfaction we experience when all of our needs are met and continue to be met.

For all of human history, people have believed that by living in obedience to a supreme being of some type (it may be one god or multiple gods), the supreme being will reward them by giving them things of this world which will satisfy them. A few examples of these rewards include health, wealth, and prosperity.

These same thoughts have infiltrated, at least to some degree, the theology of many 21st century American Christians. There are theological strands of all types floating around Christian circles which support the case for God rewarding people who obey him with tangible blessings which are intended to satisfy their longing souls such as health, wealth, and prosperity. So the question on the table is this: Does the Bible, the foundational truth of Christianity, actually support this theology?

Supporting Case for This Theology


Let’s take a look at the supporting biblical case for this theology. The first place we’ll look is in Deuteronomy 28. In this passage, God promised the Israelites blessings upon blessings if they obeyed him including things like health, wealth, and prosperity. Then he followed up by promising curses upon curses if they disobeyed him including the removal of health, wealth, and prosperity. By solely reading this chapter of the Bible, it would appear that health, wealth, and prosperity blessings will be poured out on everyone who lives in obedience to God’s commands.

Another Bible passage which is often used to support this theology is found in Luke 18. Near the end of this chapter, one of Jesus’s disciples asked him what he would receive in return for leaving seemingly everything to follow Jesus. Jesus’s response was that he would receive many times more of everything he gave up both in this age (earthly life) and in the age to come (afterlife). Once again, by solely reading this passage of the Bible, it would appear that health, wealth, and prosperity blessings will be poured out on people who live in obedience to God’s commands.

Lastly, I want to point us to a passage from 2 Corinthians 9 where it is written: “whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”[1] If we look at the context in which this verse was written, we see that Paul, the writer of 2 Corinthians, is strongly encouraging the Corinthian church to collect a financial gift which he will deliver to the church in Jerusalem. At first glance, it would appear that Paul is sharing a formula which states that the more you give, the more you will receive. Once again, this passage appears to support the health, wealth, and prosperity theology.

Now that we’ve investigated some biblical passages which appear to support this theology, let’s take a look at what I believe to be the best counterargument to this claim.

Counterargument against This Theology


Of all the people in the Bible, which ones were probably the most obedient to God? My list would include Abraham, Job, Moses, David, Elijah, Elisha, John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, and Paul. If obedience always leads to health, wealth, and prosperity, then we should expect to find that these guys were the healthiest, wealthiest, and most prosperous people living during their generations. Let’s see if they were.

Abraham lived a long life, had lots of livestock, had almost two handfuls of children, and had hundreds of servants. He was healthy, wealthy, and prosperous. Job lived a long life, had lots of livestock, had two handfuls of children, and had lots of servants.[2] He was healthy, wealthy, and prosperous. Moses lived a long life, but doesn’t appear to have had more wealth than any of the other Israelites.

David lived a relatively long life by reaching the age of 70, was the king of Israel, had lots of possessions, and had lots of servants, but he experienced lots of war with neighboring kingdoms and even within his own family. Elijah was a nomad who doesn’t appear to have accumulated lots of possessions. Elisha lived to an old age, but doesn’t appear to have accumulated much wealth. He even turned down an opportunity to receive wealth as payment once when he used his prophetic gift.

John the Baptist lived in the desert on a diet of locusts and honey, wore camel’s hair and a leather belt, and doesn’t appear to have accumulated any wealth. He also didn’t live a long life having died in his early thirties by having his head chopped off by the Palestinian ruler. Jesus was constantly on the road traveling from place to place, meaning that he didn’t have a house or material possessions. He died in his early to mid-thirties by crucifixion (one of the worst types of death imaginable). Peter appears to have given up his successful fishing business in order to follow Jesus, so he was unable to accumulate lots of wealth. He also faced constant persecution and was crucified when he was in his fifties. Lastly, Paul supported himself on his missionary journeys rather than fundraising, didn’t accumulate wealth, and was martyred in Rome when he was in his fifties.

All twelve of these guys lived fairly obedient lives, except Jesus. Jesus lived in full obedience to God whereas the other nine fell short of perfection. So if God’s intent was to bless those who live in obedience to him with health, wealth, and prosperity, then certainly Jesus should’ve been the healthiest, wealthiest, and most prosperous person in all of history. Yet, we read that he wasn’t. Actually, quite a few of these guys (and many others) who lived fairly obedient lives didn’t get a chance to experience health, wealth, and prosperity in this life.[3] Does that mean God failed to fulfill his promise? Or does it mean that his promises were intended to be interpreted differently? The writer of the book of Hebrews spoke to this point when he wrote:
And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.[4]
According to these verses, some of these guys didn’t receive what was promised because God provided them with something so much better. What could possibly be so much better than receiving health, wealth, and prosperity? The writer of Hebrews went on to tell us what could be so much better when he wrote that Jesus endured the cross for the joy that was set before him. Jesus’s act of obedience at that point in time was to endure the cross which was far from looking like health, wealth, and prosperity. It was going to kill him. Yet, he obeyed and went to the cross. Why? Because he knew the joy he would find by living in obedience to God was far better than the joy he’d find having more health, wealth, and prosperity.

What Is the Source of Jesus’s Joy?


As I stated near the beginning of this article, every single one of us desire to be completely satisfied. And we turn to numerous objects in order to find it. We find some satisfaction in food. We find some satisfaction in wealth. We find some satisfaction in accomplishments. We find some satisfaction in relationships. All these objects provide us with some sense of satisfaction, but only for a period of time. For example, I might eat a meal and be satisfied for a few hours, but then I get hungry again. The problem with all the things of this world is that none of them will keep us satisfied for the rest of our lives. Not even the greatest amount of health, wealth, and prosperity can keep us satisfied.

If the highest level of satisfaction we can achieve is to jump from one temporarily satisfying object or experience to another, then it would make sense for us to continue chasing after things like health, wealth, and prosperity. But the good news is that God promises us something different; he promises to satisfy us eternally. As the writer of Psalm 16 put it, “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”[5] This satisfaction was never intended to come from things he gives us such as health, wealth, and prosperity; it was intended to come directly from him. He is the object of our eternal satisfaction. He is the living water which quenches our thirst and the living bread which quenches our hunger.[6]

Thus, when we read Hebrews 11 and 12 and see that Jesus saw the joy set before him, what he saw was the joy which comes from knowing God and living in obedience to his commanded will. It’s when we joyfully live in obedience to God, both in our hearts and in our outward actions, that we have the opportunity to experience the satisfaction which comes from him. We may receive health, wealth, and prosperity in this life, but then again, we may not. But if we’re looking to God as our source of satisfaction rather than earthly things, then it won’t matter to us whether we’re better or worse, healthy or sick, and rich or poor. We’ll still be satisfied and still experience joy because it’s being derived from God and not from all that other stuff.

Conclusion


As I hope you can see, the Bible never promises that obedience to God will lead him to make us healthy, wealthy, and prosperous. That’s not to say that obedience doesn’t lead to a joyful and satisfying life. It just looks a lot different. The joy and satisfaction we receive when we live in obedience to God isn’t experienced by God giving us earthly things to satisfy us; it’s experienced as we gain more and more of him.



[1] 2 Corinthians 9:6.
[2] It was all taken away from him, but he eventually received back double of almost everything he lost.
[3] See Hebrews 11:36-40.
[4] Hebrews 11:39-12:2.
[5] Psalm 16:11.
[6] In John 4, Jesus, speaking in metaphorical terms, said that he is a type of living water which would quench our thirst. In John 6, Jesus again speaking in metaphorical terms, said that he is the living bread which would quench our hunger.

Monday, June 11, 2018

What Does It Means to Be Missional?



Three and a half years ago, I heard the word missional for the first time. Since that time, I’ve heard this word used hundreds of times in almost as many different contexts. Based on its large number of uses, it seems many of us have a pretty fuzzy understanding of what it means to be missional.

I’ve heard the word “missional” used by churches to label a category in which they place some of their activities or programs. For example, someone might say, “When we do such-and-such, we’re being missional.”

I’ve heard the word missional used in the context of it being a church model. When used in this context, the “missional church” is often contrasted with the “attractional church” as if they are two completely different church models which are diametrically opposed to one another.

I’ve also heard the word missional used to describe a way of life. When used in this context, being missional is understood as a way people live.

As a student of and practitioner in the missional movement, I’ve discovered that being missional was intended to be a way of life rather than a church model of a label to assign to certain church activities. Let’s dig deeper into this definition.

Defining Missional


Did you know that Jesus is on a mission? He didn’t create the entire earth and then abandon it to work out however it happens to work out; he is involved in every infinitesimal detail of everything that takes place on this planet because he has a sovereign, divine plan for every last bit of it. His mission is to bring glory to his name by raising every single one of his chosen people to life to be his disciples who are transformed into his image so that they will spend eternity united in marriage to him, their one and only king.[1] This concept forms the foundation of what it means to be missional.

Jesus could accomplish his mission all by himself. After all, God created the entire universe simply by speaking it into existence. He doesn’t need anyone or anything else to help him accomplish his mission. Yet, he’s invited his people to participate with him in his mission and he’s given them specific roles to play.[2] What an honor and a privilege it is to have the opportunity to participate with the God of the universe in accomplishing his mission, not because he needs us, but because he receives glory by allowing us to see his work being accomplished.

When Jesus talked about what it means to participate with him in his mission, he didn’t talk about it as if it was just one more thing to add to our busy schedules. Instead, he made it very clear that following him was a 24-7-365 thing.[3] He didn’t say, “For one hour a week, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” Instead, he said, “During every minute of every single day, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” Being missional is a way of life. Participating with Jesus in his mission is something which is intended to permeate every facet of our lives rather than simply being another small piece of the pie.

We’ve now arrived at a definition of missional. To be missional means to participate with Jesus in his mission every moment of every day.

Now that I’ve defined what it means to be missional, I want to bring this concept to life through a question and answer format.

Do I Have to Go Somewhere Specific in Order to Be Missional?


The short answer to this question is “No.” You can be missional wherever you are.

The Great Commission was a call to “Go,” not a call to stay. We’re certainly not called to live as hermits in the middle of the jungle. Instead, we’re called to go to where the people are.

We don’t have to go halfway around the world in order to be missional. Most of us can be missional right where we are while doing the activities we’re already doing. Some of you reading this article go to work on a daily basis. Some of you go to the grocery store regularly. Some of you go to the gym or participate in athletic events on a regular basis. Some of you attend church services weekly. While you’re in all four of these places, or any other places you go throughout the week, you probably have an opportunity to interact with lots of people. You have an opportunity to be missional in every single one of these places.

When you go wherever you go throughout the week, you’ll meet people who are experiencing Jesus’s work in their lives. They may not realize he’s at work, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that he is at work. How might Jesus be calling you to participate with him in his work in these peoples’ lives?

A lot of times the best clues into how Jesus is working can be found in observing the struggles people are facing. It seems we struggle when we lose something we value. As Jesus works in our lives, he seems to remove the things we value other than him (idols) and replaces them with him. What idols are being challenged in the midst of the struggles? Mining the depths of these struggles isn’t something we can realize in a five minute conversation. Rather, it’s something which can only be realized when we spend lots of time with people.

If you want to be missional, then you have to be willing to consistently interact with the same people over and over again. One-and-done events may be flashy and garner lots of participation, and although you can participate with Jesus in his mission with these types of events, on the whole, they fall short of the intent of being missional because you will probably never see the people again.

Is Missional Only about Reaching Non-Christians?


When I first started learning about being missional, I thought many of the missional experts were saying that being missional was isolated to participating with Jesus in his mission to reach non-Christians. This is a big misnomer.

Becoming a disciple of Jesus isn’t a one-time event; it’s a life-long process. As I shared earlier in this article, part of Jesus’s mission is to transform his people into his image. This doesn’t happen overnight. We spend our entire lives being transformed, and even when we reach the end of our lives, we’re still not completely transformed into the image of Jesus.

If part of Jesus’s mission is to transform his people into his image over the course of their lifetimes, then it makes sense that he would call his people to participate in that part of his mission too. Discipling Christians is just as missional as discipling non-Christians.

This also doesn’t mean Jesus only calls us to participate with him in his work to transform existing Christians; he also calls us to participate with him in his work to transform non-Christians. People don’t magically, out of the blue, decide one day to follow Jesus. Instead, Jesus has already been at work for years to prepare the soil of their hearts to receive the seed of the gospel when it gets planted.

Throughout our lives, we’ll probably be called to participate in Jesus’s work in the lives of Christians and non-Christians alike.

Is the Church Important to Being Missional?


The short answer is “Yes,” but I need to explain this further.

How do you define the word “church?” If the church is defined as “Jesus’s disciples gathered together to worship him,”[4] then the church is not only important, but is absolutely necessary to being missional. Jesus’s disciples not only need, but will earnestly desire to join together in worshiping him. Mind you that worship is not narrowly defined as gathering together in rows and singing songs about Jesus, but is more broadly defined as living our lives in submission to Jesus. Even by doing something as simple as getting together with another Christian for lunch, we can engage in Jesus worship together without ever singing a single note of a song.

If you define the church as an institution, building, or event on Sunday mornings, then the church, in this sense, is unnecessary to being missional. You don’t need to be a part of an institution or attend a service in a building every week in order to participate with Jesus in his work. By and large, Christians in America have decided to gather together to worship Jesus by organizing weekly events sponsored by an institution held in designated buildings, but that doesn’t mean this is the only way, nor even the “better” way, to gather together to worship Jesus. I’ve observed some great Jesus worship take place outside of institutions, church buildings, and church services by people who are living their lives both in submission to Jesus and fellowship with one another as a spiritual family. In countries where Christians are persecuted, this is the only way they can live. They can’t meet together in designated church buildings for public worship. Yet, they continue living their lives in submission to Jesus and in fellowship with one another.

That’s not to say you can’t be missional in the traditional church environments. Certainly you can. But what I’m getting at is that it’s not necessary to enter into this type of environment in order to participate with Jesus in his mission.


As a topic which I am extremely passionate about, I’d love to continue writing about it, but in the interest of your time, I’ll stop here for today. Hopefully this brief article has helped to clear up some of the fuzziness you may have had about what it means to be missional.

Before you go, I’d love to hear your feedback on this topic. Is this topic interesting? Would you like to hear more about it? Are there questions that came to mind as you were reading this article that I didn’t answer? Feel free to respond in the comments section below.


[1] This is a compilation of the following passages (and many more): Isaiah 43:7, 1 Corinthians 10:31, 1 Peter 4:11, Ephesians 1:11, Colossians 1:20, 2 Corinthians 5:19, Ephesians 2:1-9, 2 Corinthians 3:18, Romans 8:29, John 17:9-11, and Revelation 19:6-10.
[2] A couple of verses which affirm this point are John 6:37-44 and 1 Corinthians 3:6-7.
[3] “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” – Luke 9:23
[4] For a more in-depth explanation of this definition of the church, see my article entitled “Is the Church Dying?