#11 The Prosperity Gospel and the Problem of Pain

I’m frequently asked, out of all my travels, what is the #1 thing I learned when learning about Christianity around the world. The answer can pretty much be summed up in this excerpt below from Coffee, Tea and Holy Water.

Book excerpt:

Britain’s #1 question for God is, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” C. S. Lewis famously called this “the problem of pain.”

After visiting Brazil, where the prosperity gospel seems to have mushroomed into false teaching and Wales, where disillusionment with God has all but snuffed out church attendance, I feel it is time to address a common trend.

“God wants you to be happy, God wants you to be healthy. God wants you to be blessed.”

True or false?

The answer to that is probably determined by how you feel about the “prosperity gospel.”

I like to define the prosperity gospel as teaching built around a simple statement: “God wants you to be healthy, happy and blessed.”

I have mixed feelings about this way of thinking. It is rooted in good intention – encouraging believers to think positive and enabling them to combat accusations that Christianity deems wealth a “sin” (it’s not) or that it prevents people from somehow “living life to the fullest.” In some ways the prosperity gospel has done a lot of people a lot of good by moving them out of depression and defeatist thinking. But evangelically speaking, its original intent—to emphasize the graciousness of God—has morphed into a subliminal marketing scheme of sorts.

There is scriptural basis for God’s generosity, of course. The prosperity gospel is right on the edge of being Biblical, and there are a lot of verses on how God delights in blessing his people.

The problem is, somewhere along the way, living water got traded in for the Prayer of Jabez.

I find this a tricky topic to discuss, because many who preach the prosperity gospel don’t even realize it. It has become such common thinking that what I call “prosperity promises” creep into the most innocent of modern-day sermons.

I recently heard a message on tithing along the lines of “Don’t be afraid to tithe – God will bless you if you do.” This is probably true. But it also fails the prosperity-gospel smell test. The verse used to support sermons like this one, Malachi 3:16, says, Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse…and prove me now herewith…if I will not open unto thee the gates of heaven and pour you out a blessing, and there will not be room enough to receive it.11

This verse is a promise to the children of Israel in the Old Testament to remind us that we can trust God to be just and that he delights in blessing those who obey him. However, it is not meant to imply that everything will always go well for us financially or that we deserve to be unofficially reimbursed for our tithe.

I heard of one church, so entrenched in its beliefs, that it challenged members to tithe for one year and, at the end of the year, if they hadn’t seen a financial return on their giving, the church would refund their tithe. On one hand, I applaud them for their faith. I’m sure it got many church members to step outside their comfort zone. But I think we have to be careful when making pledges like these. Do you think some of these congregation members gave willingly and unequivocally, or because they believed they had a safety clause to use if things didn’t work out?

The point is, the promise of earthly blessing should not be used to soften the commands of God. Not if you want believers with the right motives and the right heart.

The prosperity gospel is most obvious in matters related to money, but it isn’t strictly limited to finances. In his international bestseller, The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren writes, “Many Christians misinterpret Jesus’ promise of abundant life to mean perfect health, a comfortable lifestyle, constant happiness, realization of your dreams, and instant relief from problems through faith and prayer. This self-absorbed perspective treats God as a genie who exists to serve [us] in [our] selfish pursuit of personal fulfillment. A quick review of many popular Christian books reveals that many people have abandoned living for God’s great purposes and settled for personal fulfillment and emotional stability. Jesus did not die on the cross so we could have comfortable, well-adjusted lives. His purpose is far deeper.”12

The problem with the prosperity gospel is that it is cloaked in truth – that God frequently rewards the righteous – but to transition that truth to an iron promise of earthly entitlement is, in my opinion, not entirely Biblical. For every verse one can produce on how God blesses the righteous, there are others warning that the Christian life will be hard.

Certainly, God has blessed many believers, but others got downright abused on this earth and had to wait until the next life for their reward. Moreover, the prosperity gospel moves the focus off the true gospel – come to Christ for salvation, to be used for his purposes – and expects him to be used for our purposes.

As believers, we are encouraged to have faith in our God, to expect great things, to live boldly and to believe he is always there for us. The problem arises when you cross the line and use blanket “prosperity promises” to declare what God wants in the life of any particular individual. In other words, God’s will always trumps the prosperity gospel.

Maybe you think I’m being a little hard on this line of thought. But what makes the prosperity gospel so dangerous in my mind is that it produces immature believers who approach God with an “I’ll obey, but I expect you to hold up your end by looking out for #1” attitude. And it intersects with humanity’s most burning question, the problem of pain.

This is extremely important, because I am beginning to think that this “problem of pain” in our world is what ultimately makes most people turn away from God – not the scientific argument for a supreme being, as many suppose. People may like to pretend that their motives are based on more scientific grounds, but what the average person is really concerned about on a daily basis is what such a God, if he did exist, could potentially do for them. They see pain as being real, and religion as being empty of power.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, the prosperity gospel was born – “Come to church and your life will get better.” So people do, and life does…for a while. But as most of us know, simply being a Christian does not make one immune from tragedy. When something bad inevitably happens, believers can find themselves confused, disillusioned, scratching their heads again.

“I put in my time…Where was God when I had a crisis?”

“I prayed my wife would get better and she didn’t!”

“My family is falling apart – where is God?”

Defenders of the faith such as C.S. Lewis would tell us that God allows pain to exist as a necessity of a fallen world so that we may still have free choice. Yet the truth is that life in such a world includes pain that may be unprovoked or accidental, or that comes as a result of someone else’s poor choices.

Perhaps one of the best nonspiritual illustrations of the problem of pain is Lois Lowry’s Newbury Award-winning book The Giver. In The Giver, 12-year-old Jonas, the main character, lives in a safe, innocuous world of sameness. The town’s children have their occupations chosen for them and their mates chosen for them. There is no death, discomfort, fear, or anything to disturb a peaceful existence.

These conditions are borne by one man, The Giver, who is responsible to pass them on to Jonas. As the new Giver, Jonas finds himself immersed in a world he has never known – the world before “sameness” – a world of pain and disturbing truth, but also of passion, color, music and love that was eliminated when safety became the order of the day. As Jonas learns, when you banish one extreme, you do away with the others too.

Without free will, there is no environment for pain to flourish, but there is also no place for true emotion and some of the experiences that ultimately make life worth living. In other words, pain gives a certain depth to life – it is the opposite of euphoria. We want to accept the joy but blame God for the pain, especially when it seems undeserved.

This realization is important, because it is the starting point for discussing what’s really at the heart of people’s faith (or lack thereof). God has been falsely labeled “aloof,” uncaring or cruel. The same selfishness that fuels the man-centered prosperity gospel movement also fuels the sense of injustice surrounding pain.

As Lewis so eloquently wrote in The Problem of Pain, “The problem with reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves is only insoluble as long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word love and look on things as if man were the center of them.”

This is only one of many arguments for the problem of pain. We could also acknowledge: God often uses pain for our good, using it to teach us, mature us or develop character. As Lewis famously wrote, “God whispers in our pleasures, but shouts in our pain, and it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

Lewis said it well in The Screwtape Letters: “The Enemy’s cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending to do [God’s] will, looks around upon a universe from which every trace of him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken and still obeys.”

 These arguments are not much comfort to someone who is going through an excruciating loss, but it is an essential part of apologetics to acknowledge them.

Perhaps more comforting is the knowledge that God is certainly not oblivious to pain – there is an entire book in the Bible devoted to it.  In fact, some scholars argue that Job is one of the oldest books in the Bible, if not the oldest.

The creation of the world. The fall of man and the problem of pain.

Perhaps in knowing this issue would be important to humanity, God wanted to make sure we had an example of how to deal with it, before any other books were written.

I find it interesting in Job that the first thing Satan accuses Job of before the Lord is, in essence, the prosperity gospel: “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a hedge around him and his household? You have blessed the work of his hands so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”

If the enemy identified such thinking as a potential crack in a man’s faith back then, you can be certain he does today.

The book goes on to chronicle an ongoing conversation between Job and his friends after Job has suffered tragedy after tragedy. The abbreviated conversation goes something like this:

Job: I wish I would die and be granted relief. Why is all this happening??

Eliphaz and Bildad: Let righteousness be your comfort. Appeal to God, and if it is true, he will rouse himself.

Job: How can a man be righteous before God? God, tell me what charges you have against me.

Zophar: You must have sinned.

Job: I will argue my case before God.

Eliphaz: You must have a secret sin.

Job: I expect encouragement and you have turned against me.

Bildad: Must be a secret sin.

Job: Why do you exalt yourselves over me?

Zophar: God judges the wicked.

Job: Sometimes the wicked prosper – is this not true?

Eliphaz: Your wickedness must be great.

Job: I am righteous yet!

Bildad: How can a man be righteous before God?

Elihu: You claim to be righteous, but God is always right. He is so far above us.

God: Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?

Job: I repent in dust and ashes.

Most people who read the book are quick to pick up on the message to be found in Job’s faithfulness. But there is just as much to learn from God’s response. After chapters and chapters of dialogue from Job (What have I done wrong? Why did this happen? Is God angry with me?), the reader is eager to hear from God’s reply by the time he speaks in chapter 38.

God slices through the chapters of chatter with one simple question: “Brace yourself like a man. I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?”

The point is, God does not owe us individualized, detailed explanations for the pain in our lives. (Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?) God’s answer goes on to get humorous or severe, based on your perspective: Do the lightning bolts report to you? Can you count the clouds? Do you give birth to the frost? Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth? Tell me if you know all this.

As a child, I thought God’s reply to Job did not answer the question. As an adult, I realize fully that it did.