Prosperity Preaching Is Not Christian

Prosperity Preaching Is Not Christian

Pastor Joel Osteen’s TV ad announcing his new show on Sirius Radio begins with the promise, “We can have victory every single day.” Next come scenes of his pastoral team on stage during a church service, followed by a long shot of the congregation that looks as if it was filmed in the Super Bowl with every seat filled. (He reportedly has the largest congregation in the United States.)

Finally, he comes back on screen and declares to the audience, “There is a power in you greater than any power that comes against you.”

After seeing the ad for about the 200th time, I sent the following email message to some friends:

I’ve seen the Osteen ad many, many times and my reaction has been the same each time—I have felt a powerful urge to convert . . . . . . to Buddhism!

What made me descend to such curmudgeonly pique? Was it because Osteen’s face appears locked in a smile that shouts “insincere” (at least to me) or because he and his wife call to mind the 1970s and 80s preaching duo of unhappy memory, Jim and Tammy Bakker? Was it because Osteen’s trademark black hair is beautifully coiffed and boasts innumerable curls in the back? Might I be jealous of that?

The honest answer to all three questions is “yes.” But there is another, more substantive reason for my negative reaction. It is that Osteen’s message is presumptuous and misleading, not to mention smarmy and glib. (I know, I know, smarminess and glibness are not serious flaws, so let’s put them aside.)

First, presumptuous. The line “you have power in you greater than any power that can come against you” obviously refers to more than simple talent and potential and probably to more than being created in the image and likeness of God. The most likely intended meaning is the gift of the Holy Spirit that Christians call grace.

The problem, however, is his notion that this “power” (grace) is automatically in us by virtue of our being alive. In contrast, Christianity teaches that grace is a gift that God gives us but does not force upon us. We either accept it or reject it, and that choice determines whether we experience its power. This crucial fact Osteen seems to ignore when he presumes that everyone possesses grace automatically.

Now let’s consider misleading. At the heart of Osteen’s message is the promise of daily success in life: “We can have victory every single day.” Surely he is not referring to the victory of being received into paradise, which comes only once (if we are lucky), after death. What then does he mean? I consulted Osteen’s website for the answer and found this:

You have been blessed for unprecedented success. God has healing with your name on it, new dreams with your name on it [sic], promotions with your name on it [sic]. You are a child of Almighty God. He has already gone before you and lined up promotion, victory, and favor in your life.

With the exception of healing, these things come under the heading “worldly success,” so that is what Osteen must mean by “victory.” Oddly, however, he denies that this is his meaning. For example, he has said, “If prosperity means God wants us to be blessed and healthy and have good relationships then yes, I’m a prosperity teacher. But if it’s about money, no, I never preach about money . . .”

Osteen is being disingenuous. His themes may technically not be about money, but they are about “promotion,” “favor,” “abundance,” etc., so they might as well be about money. Consider a more specific example from Osteen’s Message # 619, “It’s Already Yours”:

Psalm 8:5 says, “You have crowned him with favor and honor.” What does this mean for you today? It means right now, there are blessings with your name on them—healing, promotion, good breaks, houses, businesses, contracts—that already belong to you. The question is, when are you going to go get what’s already yours? [Bold added]

The word “money” doesn’t appear in this passage, but the words in bold certainly stand for financial success and that spells financial prosperity, also known as money.

At this point readers who embrace Osteen’s “prosperity gospel” would no doubt respond “What’s wrong with saying God rewards those who love him with prosperity?” My first impulse is to respond, “If there is nothing wrong with the prosperity gospel, why is Osteen so determined not to be associated with it?” But here is a more meaningful response:

What is wrong with prosperity preaching is that it grossly distorts the Christian message.

To begin with, Isaiah didn’t prophesy a prosperous Christ but a suffering servant who would be “despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.” (Isaiah 53: 3)

Then, too, Jesus was born in a stable and lived a modest life with Mary and Joseph, so it is a reasonable assumption that neither Joseph nor Jesus was the sort of carpenter whose work brought that age’s equivalent of Ethan Allen or Thomasville prices.

In the most famous of all sermons, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, not a single one of the blessings mentioned suggests daily victory of any kind, let alone financial victory. They speak instead of daily spiritual stress, mourning, hunger, and persecution. The fact that Jesus called those who suffer these burdens “blessed” is best understood as a promise of eventual consolation or reward beyond this vale of tears.

The only place in Scripture where Jesus and prosperity are mentioned together is when Satan offers it to Him—“The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. ‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’” (Matthew 4: 8-9) In rejecting Satan’s offer Jesus did not condemn prosperity, to be sure, but He certainly didn’t laud it either.

Jesus did, of course, tell his disciples that they could achieve anything if they had sufficient faith. For example, he said that they could move a mountain. (Matthew 21: 21-22) But in the next breath He added that the way to do so is to “ask in prayer, believing,” underscoring that the power obviously resides in God rather than in us.

Jesus often reminded his disciples that the way to follow him was to deny themselves and take up their crosses every day. (Matthew 10:38 and 16:24, Luke 9:23, Luke 14: 27 and 18:18-22) The references to crosses obviously did not concern daily victories but, on the contrary, disappointments and sufferings. In our time those would include unemployment, accidents, the wounds of war, deadly diseases, emotional disorders, and the infirmities of old age.

Jesus provided the supreme example of suffering courageously as He prayed, sweating blood, in the Garden of Gethsemane, was mercilessly scourged at the pillar and humiliated by the Roman soldiers, crowned with thorns, and nailed to a cross. Moreover, in the final throes of suffocation and exsanguination, He felt forsaken by God.

Down through the centuries, the message that has framed the Christian perspective on living has been Jesus’ words, “take up your cross and follow me.” His disciples were the first to do so, and every one of them suffered a violent death. The early Christians were required to practice their faith in secret or face imprisonment and death. And Christian martyrdom continues in our time. In 2013 alone, 2,123 Christians were murdered for practicing their faith.

Promising daily victory and worldly success insults all those who maintain their faith in Jesus despite suffering and disappointment. Rather than raising their spirits and giving them hope, it tempts them to think, “If I am not prospering, maybe God doesn’t love me.” Worse, it tempts the wealthy and successful to believe that they really are more virtuous and deserving than the poor and thus to adopt the attitude of the Pharisee: “God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” (Luke: 18:11)

Whenever I hear Osteen or others preach the prosperity gospel, I am reminded of Jesus’ advice to the young man who lived honorably and wondered what more he could do to achieve an even better spiritual state. Jesus did not tell him to claim and enjoy the first century equivalent of “promotion[s], good breaks, houses, businesses, contracts.” Instead, he advised him to “go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” (Mark 10: 21-22)

The prosperity gospel is understandably appealing in this self-absorbed age, but because it replaces the cross with a dollar sign, it bears no resemblance to the Gospel of Jesus.

Copyright © 2014 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero