The True Prosperity Gospel

According to a recent survey by Lifeway Research, about a third of Protestant churchgoers believe that God will bless them if they put money in the offering plate. Two-thirds say that God wants them to prosper. One out of four believes that they have to do something for God in order to receive a material blessing in return. I’m not really surprised. I’ve been hearing some version of these ideas all my Christian life, mostly from preachers that nobody would ever accuse of promoting a prosperity gospel.

Every November was declared to be “Prove Me Month” at Calvary Baptist Church in Hazel Park, Michigan. Perhaps it was no accident that this giving campaign always came just before the December slump when the bills came due for the church’s annual Christmas extravaganza. Calvary wasn’t the first church I ever attended but it was the first where I heard serious, expository preaching on a regular basis. There was a lot of Bible at Calvary, far more than is typical of churches today. The pastor, an old school Fundamentalist, preached every Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night. In fact, on Sunday nights he actually preached two messages. One was essentially a verse by verse commentary on some book of the Bible. The other sermon was an expository message that always concluded with an invitation to trust in Jesus. The choir sang “Just as I Am” as the congregation waited, with heads bowed and eyes closed, for convicted sinners to approach the altar. I often peeked.

During Prove Me Month, the pastor quoted Malachi 3:10 (from the King James Version, of course): “Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.” God will be no man’s debtor, we were told, and if we dared, we could test God on this point. “You shovel it in, God shovels it back, and God has the bigger shovel!” the pastor promised.

Despite the language he used, I never took this to mean that I could manipulate God with my money. It sounded more like a matter of priorities. If I made God’s interests mine, I could trust Him to look after the things that were important to me. This was no guarantee of riches but an assurance of divine care. In those days I was still living at home and working for just a little more than minimum wage. I drove a car with dents in the door and holes in the floor and had no idea what direction my career was supposed to take. The thought of living on my own, being married, and owning a home, all seemed impossible to me. I used to worry about it a lot.

As a remedy, I would often turn to Matthew 6:31-33: “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Perhaps it was the pastor’s preaching that pointed me to this verse. Maybe I found it on my own. I can’t honestly recall. But the promise was clear to me. The message was not, “Give to God and you will get whatever you want.” It was, “Your Father in heaven knows what you need.”

The church has gilded this promise so much down through the centuries that it now feels like a Hallmark sentiment to most of us. Yet as pastor and theologian Helmut Thielicke has pointed out, it was made by someone whose life was far from gilded. “Were not the somber shadows of the Cross already looming over this hour of the Sermon on the Mount?” Thielicke observes. “Was not Jesus already seeing the ‘tomorrow’ of his own life, the tomorrow which he bids us not to worry about, filling up with dark clouds from which very soon lightning will flash upon him?” In a very short time, Jesus would come to a tomorrow that would make Him tremble with fear and cause Him to beg His heavenly Father to let that cup pass from Him if it was at all possible. It wasn’t.

The kind of carefreeness that Jesus promises is not freedom from concern. It is not “financial freedom,” whatever that is. It is certainly not a blank check which guarantees that God will fulfill all the items on my wish list. It is the freedom of faith, a childlike trust that God has got my back. He has my front too, according to Psalm 139:5: “You hem me in—behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me.” Such a promise is, as the Psalmist rightly observes, too wonderful to grasp.

After sixty-five years, one wife, two children, three houses, two dogs, and several careers, I find that I still worry about the future. Will something bad happen to me or to the people I care about the most? How long before my body finally betrays me and my health breaks beyond repair? When I retire, will I feel like I don’t have any value anymore? Sometimes questions like this keep me awake. On those long nights, when I cannot seem to find rest, I take refuge in one of the first promises I learned as a young believer. I am not an orphan. My Father in heaven knows what I need. Jesus is the proof that this is true. When He passed through the darkest night that anyone has ever known, He found God on the other side. You will too.

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