Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Does God Want You to be Poor?

A woman claimed God told her to keep $7,000 that didn't belong to her on a recent Judge Alex court case. After receiving an accidental overpayment of $7,000 from her employer, she cashed the check believing it was a blessing from God. She explained to the judge that she'd been praying for a financial blessing. Her employer asked for the money back, but she'd refused to return it, insisting it came from God. Of course, the employer sued.

My sister Angela and I were watching the case on TV. We looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and quickly came to agree: This appeared to be a case of prosperity gospel gone bad.

Last September, Time magazine featured the cover story, "Does God Want You to be Rich?" about prosperity theology in Christian churches. I thought about writing on the topic when that article came out. But back then, I decided prosperity theology didn't really bother me. And to be honest, even after seeing that Judge Alex episode, it still doesn't.

(INSERT COLLECTIVE GASP HERE.)

Guess I've got some explaining to do. Prosperity theology is the idea God is waiting to bless us with health and wealth in this life, and he wants us to ask for it. It's espoused by well-known preachers including Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, and T.D. Jakes. And it's bashed by other well-known preachers and Christian activists including Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, and Rick Warren. Warren told Time, "This idea that God wants everybody to be wealthy? Baloney. It's creating a false idol. ... I can show you millions of faithful followers of Christ who live in poverty."

If I analysed prosperity theology by its popular definition, I'd be thoroughly disgusted with it. Many folks outside of prosperity theology define it thus: God will give you whatever you ask for ("name it and claim it" is one biting way it's described). It's the idea that God is a cosmic vending machine: Insert prayer, out pops your desired treat. Sadly, there are folks out there who do preach this message, like Peter Popoff, a televangelist who claims using his Miracle Spring Water will cause God to give you exactly what you want. But Popoff doesn't represent prosperity theology as a whole. When I've listened to folks like Osteen and Meyers speak, the message they seem to be conveying is: "Work hard and involve God in your job and finances. God can bless you if you trust him."

It's easy to point out the holes in prosperity theology, notably: 1) prosperity churches are in jeopardy of becoming more focused on personal success than becoming more Christlike, and 2) people might be drawn to prosperity churches for the wrong reasons. But I believe there's another reason some Christians are repelled by churches that preach prosperity. Prosperity teaching amplifies a bigger trend that's happening in churches across the globe: a focus on empowering individuals. Many Christians are looking for personal meaning in Scripture and want to become better individuals through their relationship with God. They want their pastors to show them how to apply the Bible in contemporary terms to their jobs and relationships. and how God can help them make decisions in everyday life. And those ideas scare a lot of traditional church folks.

Is this "self-help" preaching a bad trend? It could be if we start moving away from the historical context of the Bible, trying to make it too personal (an extreme example would be thinking, "Hmm, King David was rich, so God obviously wants me to be rich!"). And there's the danger of fixating on ourselves when we should be focused on worshipping God. I've heard many pastors say they don't want to fall into the trap of "pulpit pop psychology," but does it make the concept any different if you instead package it as "developing your personal relationship with God"? And I wonder: Is being Purpose Driven so different from being Prosperity Driven? Aren't they both kind of about getting motivated and seeking God's direction for our lives? Do the words "purpose" and "prosperity" just have different connotations in our minds that make one good and the other bad?

No disrespect intended to Rick Warren; I've read The Purpose Driven Life and was intrigued by many of his points. I also know some folks who aren't Christians that read Warren's book and also found it to be an interesting guide for life. This brings me to think, How do my ideas and beliefs color how I read his book? And similarly, how do these same ideas and beliefs color how I view prosperity theology?

I've discovered that despite its many shortcomings, I'm not ready to throw out prosperity theology altogether--especially since I like the trend of offering modern-day life applications from the Bible. Here are some positive aspects I see in prosperity theology:

For starters, prosperity theology gets people talking to God. Prosperity parishioners are told to ask God for direction on employment, finances, spending, stewardship, etc.--really big issues we all deal with. Honestly, I don't often prayerfully balance my checkbook. It certainly wouldn't hurt any of us to make God the ruler of our bank accounts.

Further, prosperity parishioners are asking God to bless them. One of my concerns about today's church is that many Christians are hesitant to ask God for anything. We pray God will "work according to his will and plans for us." It's true we should ask God to show us his will and pray according to the Holy Spirit's prompting. But sometimes, I know the "God's will" prayer is a cop out for me. I often get scared when prayer turns to things that can be weighed and measured. Like my health or finances. My fear is actually a lack of trust. Sure, I trust God will give me peace, but do I trust he'll put food on my table? I believe he'll comfort me, but do I believe he can heal me? Asking God for stuff goes beyond getting our needs and desires met. We learn to trust him and depend on him when we ask, and we also learn lessons from praying. (Check out my blog entries "Sometimes, God's Gift is an Empty Box" and "Was It Really a Miracle?" for some lessons I'm learning through prayer.)

Additionally, prosperity theology just might balance out those churches that preach a heavily anti-riches gospel. I've heard Christians quote the verse, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Mark 10:25), as proof God doesn't want us to have too much. And I've heard churches repeatedly tell young people that missions work is the greatest calling they can receive. Yet certainly we're not all called to be missionaries. Surely God must want some Christian child to become a wealthy business person who's able to fund all those missions projects?

To those who are offended by the idea of asking God for financial blessing, I would ask, "Do you think God prefers for Christians to be poor?" In the Bible, wealth and fame are sometimes portrayed as God's blessings, and sometimes as distractions that cause people to sin. There's plenty of Scripture that discusses riches in negative terms (Mark 10:25; James 5:1-3), and plenty that suggests God wants to bless us (Ecclesiastes 5:18-19; Luke 6:38). Maybe this means God doesn't have one single directive for all of us, either to strive for riches or to become monetarily poor. Maybe this means God's got a financial plan for each of us, and has given us Scripture about wealth and poverty so we can avoid certain pitfalls associated with greed and laziness. Surely there are Christians who are well-off and generous, and plenty of hard-working, low-income Christians, too. Is one better than the other?

In a Time poll, 61 percent of surveyed Christians said they agreed with the statement, "God wants people to be financially prosperous." "Prosperous" likely meant something different to each person surveyed. For some, being prosperous is having a roof over their head and food in their belly. For others, it's getting a few goodies they want and being content with what they already have. And for some, it means being able to acquire everything they desire.

I believe God wants me to have what he's given me, to ask when I need stuff, to be grateful for what I'm given, and to pray for wisdom about every aspect of my life. And I'm positive he wants me to worship him by working hard at the tasks he's given me (Colossians 3:23).

Because we're all human, it seems we're all at risk for making misguided spiritual decisions, like that lady on Judge Alex who kept the $7,000. Equally, human preachers can make misguided remarks. Yet God has given all of us brains and Bibles, and that includes prosperity preachers. As a church, we're quick to dismiss things as false teaching when they don't jibe with our traditions. So I'm writing this blog entry not to defend prosperity theology, but to question why we're so quick to vilify it. While I may not agree with the entirety of prosperity theology, maybe God can use parts of it to teach me something valuable. Oh, wait--he already has.

To ponder:
1)
Do you think it's spiritually better for people to be wealthy, poor, or neither? Which Scriptures back up your opinion?

2) Do you pray about your finances? Why or why not?

3) Is it difficult for you to ask God for things? Which requests are most difficult for you to make?

4) Is it easier or harder for you to ask God to bless other people? How do your prayers for others differ from prayers for yourself?

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi!
This was a great topic! Thanks for the as-always thoughtful presentation of it. I have always thought that prosperity gospel or teaching was wrong because it took away from the main point of Christianity, but you made me see a different side to it.
Thanks!
Tina

Justin said...

I love your writing! Regarding this post...I'm kind of at a financial low right now, and I'm believing that God is teaching me something out of it. I don't know if He's happy that I don't have money, but I know that He is allowing it for reasons I don't understand yet.

What it all comes down to is our relationship with Him. I don't think He really cares about money, as much as if our hearts are focused on Him.

I like Joyce Meyer and I have never felt that she was preaching the prosperity message. I hear more real life advice from her, then stuff about money. I can't stand hearing preaching about money. So many people gobble it up, but I'd rather learn about what God expects from me, and how I can serve Him on earth.

If money is involved, I would be very excited about that, but if not...Maybe I'll find out what it's like to be homeless.

I pray this isn't God's will for my life!

God Bless, and please check out my blog www.awesomepurpose.com