An acquaintance of mine attended the funeral of an acquaintance of his who had died after a long struggle with cancer. He recounted the remarkable sermon he heard preached at the service. The presiding minister informed the attendees that the deceased woman’s death was their fault. If only they had exercised sufficient faith when praying for her, the preacher explained, then she would have been healed. She died because of their unbelief. I don’t know if the minister included himself as one of the unbelievers. Ascribing blame to an already grieving congregation seems to me to be more than a little cruel. Yet such is the logic of health and wealth theology, otherwise known as the Prosperity Gospel.
In Bad Religion: How America Became a Nation of Heretics, Ross Douthat explains the thinking behind the funeral sermon: The “name it and claim it” school of prosperity theology resolves…the problem of suffering by recasting it as a simple failure of piety and willpower. It’s a brilliant solution to the riddle of theodicy: while orthodox Christianity suggest that evil is a mystery to be endured, the Word-Faith gospel suggests that evil is something that can be mastered, through a combination of spiritual exertion and the divine intervention it summons up. If you fail to master every day events, and fall into struggles and suffering, it’s a sign that you just haven’t prayed hard enough, or trusted faithfully enough, or thought big enough, or otherwise behave the way a child of God really should. The fault where any evil is concerned, in other words, lies not with God, the devil, or the fallenness of creation but with you – so stop whining about your troubles, get down on your knees, and do something about it! (190-91)
It’s hard to overstate the damage done by such teaching. Two of my colleagues, David Jones and Russ Woodbridge, have published Health, Wealth, and Happiness: Has the Prosperity Gospel Overshadowed the Gospel of Christ? Jones and Woodbridges’ book serves as an excellent exposé and antidote to the Prosperity Gospel and I recommend it highly. They list a number of reasons for prosperity theology’s popularity. The Prosperity Gospel: Contains just enough biblical truth to be plausible. Appeals to the universal desires for success and health. Promises much while requiring little. Generally is marketed in a winsome and attractive package. Is indicative of the Church’s lack of discernment, pragmatic attitude, and acceptance of secular definitions of success. (18-19) Jones and Woodbridge present a much healthier perspective on suffering: Scripture presents suffering as a normative part of the Christian life. Contrary to the claims of some advocates of the prosperity gospel, suffering is not an indicator of lack of faith; rather, suffering and persecutions are likely to increase with faith. While the Bible does not present suffering as desirable, it likewise does not view suffering as a hindrance to God’s plan of redemption.
While a day is coming in the future in which there will be no more pain and suffering, Scripture teaches that in the current fallen world trials are a tool that the Lord uses in order to foster the sanctification of His people. (122) Jesus asked, “If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?” (Luke 16:11). Let’s not let the Prosperity Gospel detract us from the true riches of the Gospel.
(This blog is also posted at www.betweenthetimes.com)