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If you’ve been around Christianity for any amount of time, you have no doubt been exposed to the Prosperity Gospel. This “health and wealth” version of the Word of God started as a movement around 1940, and has taken various forms and nuances ever since. In short, this “gospel” says that God wants all devoted Christians to have spiritual, financial, and physical blessings, and that He works to that end for all who love Him.
The problems with the Prosperity Gospel are many, and often lead Christians to a shallow understanding of the message of Christ or disenfranchisement when things don’t go their way. It also manipulates people into believing that the love and blessings of God are totally dependent on our efforts. Finally, it leads people into the false belief that the pursuit of earthly wealth and comfort is somehow synonymous with pursuing Christ.
So with the Prosperity Gospel so front and center in our world, how do we as Youth Ministers and Leaders communicate truth to our students? How do we inoculate our students from this vicious half-truth? Here are some thoughts to consider as we seek to build disciples.
1. God never promises that life will be easy
As a matter of fact, the Bible teaches almost the exact opposite – that life will be much harder because of our faith in Christ. In Matthew 5, 10, and 24, Jesus warns His disciples that they will be hated, tried, persecuted, and beaten for their belief in Him. The language He uses about this persecution is “when” and not “if.” The Prosperity Gospel says that you won’t experience pain, but Jesus did. His pain and torture was immeasurable. The Prosperity Gospel says that you will not be a victim, but the disciples were almost all martyred for their belief in the risen Christ. Remember that the book of James says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
2. The Prosperity Gospel has elements of truth
Part of what makes the Prosperity Gospel so dangerous is that it is NEARLY truthful. The Word of God teaches that God does bless those who follow Him wholeheartedly. There are many “conditional” promises of blessing throughout the Scriptures, and many well-known Bible characters who experienced blessing from God because of their obedience. Genesis 39:2-4 tells us of Joseph. It says, “The Lord was with Joseph, so he succeeded in everything he did as he served in the home of his Egyptian master. Potiphar noticed this and realized that the Lord was with Joseph, giving him success in everything he did. This pleased Potiphar, so he soon made Joseph his personal attendant. He put him in charge of his entire household and everything he owned.” David was promised a never-ending Kingdom if he would follow the Lord’s commands. Mordecai and Esther received great blessing from God because of their faithfulness. And who can forget Jabez (I’m thinking Bruce Wilkinson must have prayed the Prayer of Jabez, because it made him millions)?
God DOES want what is best for us, and He promises us abundant life and blessings if we seek after Him. So how do we navigate this thin line with our students? How do we teach them of God’s blessings without falling into the aforementioned traps?
3. We need to redefine “prosperity” to properly teach the Gospel
I think we need to reevaluate and redefine prosperity as we teach the Gospel. To help students understand the rich blessings of God while avoiding the pitfalls, they need to understand the Biblical definition of prosperity and blessing.
The Prosperity Gospel defines blessing as financial gains, physical comfort, and a lack of trouble. The abundant life in Christ, however, is the exact opposite, but it’s exponentially better, and students need to know that. Jesus said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head (Luke 9:58).” Jesus wasn’t wealthy. He was homeless, and His disciples gave up their paying gigs to follow after Him. Do you think they regretted that decision as they watched 3000 people get baptized on the Day of Pentecost? I highly doubt it. The adventure of serving in the Kingdom far outweighed any financial gains they missed out on.
How about comfort? Perhaps Paul could speak to this. Shipwrecked, beaten multiple times, bitten by snakes, a “thorn in the flesh,” and imprisoned, yet he writes in Philippians 3:8, “What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.” It seems from my understanding of Scripture that comfort is about the last thing God wants for His people.
Finally, how about a lack of trouble? Jesus was arrested, tried, beaten, and hung on a Cross. And his disciples faced trouble throughout the book of Acts for their continued proclamation of the Gospel. But in this comes the redefinition we are looking for. Jesus, in John 16:33, says these powerful words that we MUST convey to our students. He says, “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.”
We must teach our students that the Biblical definitions of prosperity and blessings of God are vastly different from those promised in the Prosperity Gospel. The blessings of God are found eternally and not temporarily. They are eternal rewards, and not earthly riches. If we can help our students understand this vital truth, we can help them correctly live out Matthew 6:19-21, which states, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
How do you communicate this truth to your students?