God’s Curse Prosperity is the greatest threat to the church today
Does God promise to reward obedient Christians with abundant material wealth, health and happiness? Is there a reward here on earth that would make the believer’s life a bed of roses, a holiday camp in the sun, an experience of unabated joy and pleasure? Some Christians apparently think so. According to some well-known charismatic theologians, a life of obedience to Christ is a passport to riches and prosperity.
However, the concept of material blessings and rewards in this life runs counter to the experience of Jesus in his own three years of ministry. Isaiah foresaw the coming Lord as “a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised and we esteemed him not” (Is. 53:3). Did Jesus enjoy prosperity on earth? Hardly, judging from his own celebrated words: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20).
What about his disciples? By tradition, none of them died a natural death. Nor did Paul. None appears to have had material wealth except Judas. In his case, the 30 pieces of silver seem to be a reminder, not of blessing, but of his sinfulness, leading to suicide. For Paul, material wealth was of no concern: “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all things through him who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:11-13).
In the church to which I belong, I see many who love the Lord clearly undergoing intense suffering, be it through unemployment, chronic sickness, loneliness, drug-addiction of family members or marriage failure. How does this microcosm of the church at large sit with the notion that, if our faith is strong enough, the Lord will bring us prosperity and good health? Not very well. I think of one of our dear members who, because of radical abdominal surgery, has been dependent for some 12 years on a machine which delivers her daily nourishment by means of a tube into her shoulder. She has confided that she was aware of the Lord’s presence before one such bout of surgery, and that he said to her: “I am with you.” But did He bring her prosperity? Not in a worldly sense, but he has given her peace. To meet her, you would not know that she had a care in the world!
I have heard Christians say that one doesn’t need to be sick if one’s faith is strong enough! What a great nonsense this is, and what a hindrance to those coming into the church. I know a lady who was assured by a group of believers that her husband would not die of cancer because God had already answered their prayers! Imagine her disillusionment (and continuing anger) when, shortly after this, he died of cancer. Being sovereign, God is not open to manipulation: to entreaty, yes, but never to direction by mere man.
A trip to Tanzania and Zimbabwe in 1989 on behalf of The Gideons International in Australia remains etched in my brain. The faithfulness of Christians I encountered there was astonishing. Church is an all-Sunday affair and preachers are not bound by time as they are in Australia. (We seem to be worried about offending people who have something more important to attend to!) Has God visited prosperity upon the Tanzanian and Zimbabwean churches? Not according to our understanding of the word. These people have average annual incomes of $1000 to $2000. Has he visited good health upon his church members? With perhaps one quarter of the populations of these countries HIV-positive, one would have to say no. Is the church thriving in Tanzania and Zimbabwe? By my observations 10 years ago, and by more recent accounts, emphatically yes.
If one calculates the distance walked to get to church in African countries, the rapt attention to the preacher and the magnificence of the singing, I would have to say that their faithfulness puts Australians in the shade. It is a great paradox: Where there is hardship, the church often thrives (for example, Russia between 1917 and 1989, China since 1945 and Indonesia in recent times). Where life is comfortable and free from external threats, the church almost always contracts (for example, Western Europe, the USA and Australia). It seems that prosperity poses perhaps the greatest threat to the church today. Anything that dulls the awareness of men and women, boys and girls to their need for salvation through Christ is a curse indeed! I have a number of friends whose great material wealth seems to have deprived them of an awareness of their need of God. They are spiritual infants destined not to grow up unless they are visited by hardship, suffering or sorrow. Scripture warns us of the dangers of making material wealth our god lest it blot out God from our hearts altogether.
So where do people get the idea that followers of Jesus will be blessed with good health and prosperity? I can find only two references to prosperity in the New Testament and in neither case (Acts 19:25 and 3 John 2) is it a promise. Jesus’ words recorded in John 16:33 hardly give the impression of a comfortable life for Christians: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” This verse carries shades of Isaiah 26:3 — “You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast because he trusts in you.”
It seems to me that to enjoy peace in this tumultuous world is the greatest blessing we can have. To know that in the midst of our earthly troubles, the Lord is with us and therefore all is well, and that we can look forward to eternity with him, is the nearest experience we can have to heaven on earth.
The Old Testament contains a number of “prosperity” promises. Typical among these are Moses’ words from Deuteronomy 30:9, which follow exhortations to obey the Lord and follow his commandments. “The Lord your God will make you most prosperous in all the works of your hands and in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your land. The Lord will delight in you and make you prosperous just as he delighted in your fathers.” These prosperity promises were given while the Israelites were still in the wilderness. They looked forward to the promised land of Palestine and God delivered this to them, fulfilling his promise of prosperity. Later he was to destroy the nation for forgetting him. I take this prosperity promise to be for the Israelites in the desert rather than for believers generally who obey God’s commandments. Empirically, this would seem to be the case.
Desert experiences make us open to a greater blessing from God than wealth God gives us himself. This is brought out in Psalm 73 where the writer (Asaph) expresses deep grief concerning his own troubles and the fact that the wicked are prospering so manifestly. Nevertheless in verses 23 through 36, his desert experience produces a heightened sense of nearness to God.
Yet I am always with you; you hold me with your right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire but you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Even greater than health and wealth is the gift of God himself.