"God Wants You to Be Rich & Healthy": The Lie of the Prosperity Gospel
From day one of starting my blog, I have wanted to address the prosperity or "health and wealth" gospel. I feel extremely convicted to share my story because I was once a believer in this false gospel, and it was the single biggest barrier in my life to having a true relationship with God.
The prosperity gospel message is simple: believe in God and He will make you prosper--or rich and healthy. If you are not rich or not healthy, you simply don't have enough faith or you need to pray more. Followers of this theology often cite Jeremiah 29:11 "For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." to back up this belief. But as I will explore in this post, the interpretation of the verse as support for the prosperity gospel is both false and misleading.
Growing up in a Chinese church in one of the richest parts of the world--the Silicon Valley--I unwittingly absorbed the underlying belief that money and possessions were blessings and that the more you owned, the more favor you had from God. While not every Asian church prescribes to this belief, it is extremely pervasive amongst Asian churches because it falls perfectly in line with the traditional, pre-Christian Asian concept of wealth and honor. In Chinese culture, the word "fu qi," refers to the notion of good fortune. Good fortune can refer to a number of things--most importantly, money and power. A person who is rich is described as having "fu qi."
While attending the Chinese church, I often heard people in church immediately respond to ill health or misfortune by telling the suffering person to pray more, and call the misfortune an attack by Satan. Because of this, I absorbed the belief that ill health is something to pray against, and that illness is always an attack by the devil. I was completely oblivious to the fact that illness, while not inflicted by God, can be a means to growth in character or a test of faith.
The majority of attendees at my church were immigrants from China and Taiwan, who came to the U.S. to make their fortunes in the tech industry as engineers, or other white-collar jobs. Most, if not all, of them were rich even by Silicon Valley standards--owning million-dollar homes and driving BMW's. As a child, I inferred from this that wealth must be a reward from God for faith and good deeds.
Looking back, it makes total sense why the prosperity gospel would thrive in such a church. Many church-goers felt entitled to their wealth--because they were self-made in a foreign country, having achieved the "American Dream." Often, they were elevated in status in their home countries--seen as the lucky few who had succeeded abroad. Coming from the Chinese tradition of "fu qi," they viewed wealth was seen as a symbol of good fortune. Of course, it would be easy for them to believe that God wanted them to be wealthy and that they were deserving of this wealth.
As successful immigrants, my parents also bought into this belief. Although my dad was not a believer, he also felt that he was deserving of his wealth (having come from a poor family) and that wealth is a blessing from God that he is free to spend as he wished. He spoiled his only child (me) with material possessions--buying every gadget and clothing item I wanted, even ones I never asked for. Although this was in part because he felt guilty about the divorce, he was pleased to lavish gifts on his one and only daughter.
As is expected, I became a spoiled brat. Going into college, I felt entitled to all that I had and wanted to show off every chance I got. In my mind, I felt that God had blessed me with wealth and that I was somehow better than others (or had more favor from God than others) because of it. When I felt stressed, I online-shopped to distract myself. I vacationed to Europe and Asia every school break, flying business class courtesy of my dad's points. I owned name-brand items simply for the sake of showing off. You might be wondering how I could stomach doing these things without feeling any guilt, while calling myself a Christian. But to me, it made complete sense according to the teachings of the prosperity gospel.
Whenever I felt hard-pressed in school, or I felt ill, I would pray fervently to God to help me to do well on an exam or help me recover quickly. In essence, I viewed God as a Genie or Santa figure. God was there to grant all of my wishes and to serve me; not the other way around.
In my junior year, I received one of the biggest wake-up calls in my life. My dad called me to break the news that he had lost his job. Although we were not in financial distress, in that moment, I felt extremely vulnerable and scared. But also in that moment, I realized just how much self-worth and pride I had placed in money and possessions. I was, to put it bluntly, disgusted at myself. I realized how superficial it was that I had thought I was better than anyone because of how much money I had. I began to question everything I had ever been taught--and felt that something was missing in my theology.
In response, I began to pray. I didn't pray for God to give my dad a new job, but rather I prayed for Him to change my heart--to humble me and break down my pride. I also prayed for wisdom. What happened next is something I never expected. God began to change my heart and I began to see the gospel as it truly was--not a promise of wealth and health, but a promise of eternity with God that was paid for by Jesus's death on the cross. In that moment, I realized that my pride and materialism were sins that deserved the highest punishment, but that the punishment had been received in my place by Jesus and that I was forgiven through repentance and faith in Him.
After a few months of joblessness, my dad found another job and we resumed life as normal. But I was a changed person--a newly saved and repentant believer. After getting saved, I began to read my Bible regularly, and scripture slowly revealed to me the utter falsehood of the prosperity gospel. Since then, I have felt convicted to share my story with others who may be in a similar situation as I was in.
Here is why the prosperity gospel is wrong:
1. The prosperity gospel leads to idolatry of wealth, which prevents true repentance and salvation.
As my experience proves, if you place your trust in anything other than God, you will always be disappointed. Those who believe in the prosperity gospel are tempted to place their trust in money and goods. To them, God is just a means to an end--money. But, money is a false idol and it does not save.
Scripture warns against the love of money, which is the root of all evil. Notice, money itself is not the root of evil--it is an ammoral tool. However, the idolatry of money stemming from the prosperity gospel is a source of evil.
"For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows." (1 Timothy 6:10)
In the story of the rich young man who asks Jesus how he can inherit the kingdom of heaven, Jesus comments that it is extremely hard for the rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. What does he mean by this? I believe this means that those who are rich tend to put their faith in money over God, and therefore never reach true repentance.
"It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25)
And one more: a Christian simply cannot reconcile love of money with faith in God. Scripture teaches that a believer must choose between God and money--never both.
"No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money." (Matthew 6:24)
2. The prosperity gospel does not set apart Christians from the rest of the world.
God calls us to be the "salt and light" of this world, or to display a way of Godly living that shows the world what the original design that He intended. But if we are living like everyone else--in the vain pursuit of pleasure and wealth, how will we ever effect change in this world or display true Godliness?
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot." (Matthew 5:13-16)
3. The prosperity gospel leads to flimsy faith that does not hold up in times of suffering.
Jesus tells his followers that they will suffer in this life. Anyone who has read the gospels knows that Jesus's disciples did not live prosperous lives full of riches and health. Rather, they were despised and hated--as Jesus was--for their faith. All but one of the disciples were martyred for their faith, as were many other Christians who followed. The prosperity gospel is a disgrace in light of this truth--as it distracts from what it truly means to follow God--taking up our crosses and bearing the inevitable suffering in this life.
"Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me." (Matthew 10:38)
4. The prosperity gospel DISTRACTS from the true gospel, and DOES NOT SAVE.
If I had continued believing what I did--that wealth and health were blessings and that my way of life was not wrong--then I would never have reached true repentance. The gospel is quite simple: repent of your sins and put your faith in Christ in order to receive the free gift of salvation and a new nature in Christ. The prosperity gospel does not encompass the true gospel--and in fact, leads people away from the true gospel.
"Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it." (Matthew 10:39)
5. The prosperity gospel leads to the success of false teachers, who deceive Christians into believing that they are saved and should live their "best life now."
One of the biggest reasons why people believe in the prosperity gospel is because of the widespread success that false teachers of this gospel have had. Some of the most popular examples of these false teachers: Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer. I once listened to Osteen's feel-good sermons without questioning his words. I even read one of his best-selling books, "Your Best Life Now." However, if you listen closely to Osteen's sermons, you will realize that his teachings are based on the secular "Law of Attraction"--or that if you focus on positives, you will bring about positive things in your life. Osteen tells his listeners that "God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us." He never warns of the dangers of the love of money and influences his followers to not be content with what they have but to always be looking for more. Clearly, his biblical references are weak at best. I believe many Christians are being deceived by Osteen's and Meyer's feel-good message into thinking that they should live for the now and not for eternity.
Scripture warns of the time when people will "gather around" teachers who say things that their ears are "itching" to hear. I believe that time is today. Scripture also warns against false prophets or teachers, who are come in sheep's clothing--disguised as popular Christian leaders. I will probably write a more extensive post on how to spot false teachers--but the Bible tells us that we know them by their fruit. In Osteen's and Meyer's cases, we know just by seeing their way of life--flying in private jets and owning multiple luxury homes--that they are are not bearing the fruits of humility and generosity.
"For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear." (2 Timothy 4:3)
"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves. 16 By their fruits you will know them. Do you gather grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles?" (Matthew 7:15-16)
6. The prosperity gospel goes against the teachings of scripture to bless others with what you have.
Yes, wealth and health are blessings. But more than blessings, they are responsibilities. For to those to whom more has been given, more will be expected. God expects us to share what we have with those who have less than us. If we truly believe in equality and that every person is created in the image of God, then we must also act on our beliefs and share what we have. If you believe in a mighty and just God, do you believe God will be pleased with the way you steward your money and possessions?
"But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?" (1 John 3:17)
I hope that this post has helped to convict you or re-affirm what you already knew. Most importantly, I pray that God will give you discernment in all things and keep you from falling into the trap of false gospels.
"As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life." (1 Timothy 6:17-19).
Blessings and peace,