Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven [...]" Matthew 19:21-23
It was the Prosperity Gospel which once grasped my heart and held it firmly. It was a set of beliefs I held so strongly that I thought I would have it for the rest of my life. This infant belief system, only 120 years old, seeing how its origins stem from the New Thought Movement of the 19th Century, has begun seeping into multiple Christian denominations and taking hearts by storm. You'll find it in Baptist, Mormon, Pentecostals, self proclaimed Non-Denominational churches, or usually most (but not all) churches that have a Charismatic aspect. On the surface, its appeal is understandable from human perspectives, but is it biblical?
When I left this line of thinking behind, known by the adherents as the Word of Faith movement, I would have friends ask me how my old beliefs made sense of certain passages of the Bible; for instance Matthew 19:21-23 with the young rich man. There was one main verse that we would use to refute attacks from anti-Prosperity individuals who would try to speak against the pursuit of the acquisition of riches: "But with God all things are possible" (19:26).
Most of the teachings on prosperity play an obscure balancing act upon this one verse. It definitely is a beautiful and true verse, however it is dangerous to base your whole life's decision making upon it. What I mean is, yes we should trust in the Lord with all our might, but that does not mean to pursue moral grey areas by your life and to test the boundaries of God's mercy.
The basics of Word of Faith are as follows:
1. There are laws which govern the spiritual world which God cannot violate
a. The Law of Sowing and Reaping (Malachi 3:10-11)
2. Faith and Fear are two opposing forces. Everything created was created by God using Words of Faith (Genesis 1)
a. Our words are to operate in the same Faith that God created the universe.
3. Jesus died on the Cross not only for our salvation but to bestow dominion to us over the earth, that we may have power over it by Faith (Mark 11:23-24)
It sounds powerful, and could seem rather appealing, especially for those who see themselves as meek for they are to inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5). But it does not accurately take into account Christ's life and teachings; it also has very negative affects on those who adhere to these beliefs and their relationship with Our Lord and Savior. It also makes certain questions difficult to answer such as "what do you make of suffering?" and "what do you make of challenges and unanswered prayers?".
The Word of Faith movement has its origins in the eastern spiritual philosophy of New Thought which was made popular in America by Phineas Quimby, among others. Quimby was a mesmerist and "healer", who believed that illness and afflictions originated within the psyche due to "erroneous beliefs" and that a mind open to truth could overcome any illness. He would use hypnotism to convince his patients that their afflictions were mentally based in order to "heal" them. Quimby would even go on tour to showcase this teaching and thought using mentally susceptible individuals to do so. He described his premise as such:
The trouble is in the mind, for the body is only the house for the mind to dwell in [...] Therefore, if your mind had been deceived by some invisible enemy into a belief, you have put it into the form of a disease, with or without your knowledge. By my theory or truth, I come in contact with your enemy, and restore you to health and happiness. This I do partly mentally, and partly by talking till I correct the wrong impression and establish the Truth, and the Truth is the cure. - The Quimby Manuscripts p.183
The beliefs that stemmed from this growing philosophy in America, along with the Higher Life and Faith Cure religious movements, had a profound impact on E. W. Kenyon, a Baptist preacher of the late 19th century, while Kenyon studied at Emerson University. Kenyon went on to believe that the discoveries he made of New Thought, if one were to "baptize" this philosophy, coupling it with the Blood of Christ, that this was the new revelation of Faith. So Kenyon founded his ministry as a Baptist preacher within this novel hybrid of Eastern science with Western Protestant Christianity and thus the ground for contemporary Prosperity teachings was broken.
Kenneth Hagin, a Non-Denominational preacher in the 20th century, then took Kenyon's works and carried them on. Hagin in the past has been criticized of practically plagiarizing Kenyon's writings and sermons, but it is Hagin who is considered now writ large the pioneer and Father of the Word of Faith movement in America, inspiring the likes of Kenneth Copeland and others who continue in the same theological vein. It gave rise to televangelism, mega churches, and the capturing of hearts across America.
To this day you will hear sermons which preach that sicknesses, afflictions, and financial obstacles are spiritual and mental in nature; that the only words that a Christian should speak are words of faith and not of fear. For instance, instead of saying "I feel sick" they would teach to say "the devil is trying to afflict me and derail me with a sickness, but I confess I am healed in Jesus' name".
The New Thought philosophies can have detrimental affects on those that follow it, as with the case of Mariah Walton, whose Mormon parents who follow Word of Faith teachings from a Mormon perspective refused to have her treated for her pulmonary hypertension as an infant or even as a young child, the two times when it could have been reversed. Their beliefs grounded within this school of thought have now caused severe and irreversible health affects within their daughter Mariah. Lisa Cooper, a convert from Word of Faith to Catholicism, tells a story in an interview with Cy Kellet from Catholic Answers from her time growing up in the movement of families who had children die because they refused to seek medical attention for their children. They did this thinking that such an act would be giving into fear and thus be contrary to Faith in God.
But even so, the Eastern New Thought, which now is merely New Age philosophy but with a named god, took hold in Western Christianity and has given rise to a destructive view of Christ and His Gospel.
“God has no choice but to make our prayers come to pass”
- Creflo Dollar
This quote comes from a prominent Word of Faith preacher, one who I used to listen to actually. It is a foolish thing to think that we dictate the Will of God; that God, the Unmoved Mover, has no freedom, and that He is bound to our every whim. Prosperity Theology is centered around this notion of ROI's on tithes and prayer and devoid on the phrase "God's Will be done". It is not uncommon for it to be taught that if afflictions and obstacles are arising within one's life, it is telltale sign that the individual is not tithing enough, and that they must reflect on their spiritual life to see if they are giving and having faith in the Lord. I myself was even told by someone that they believed that they never had much bad happen to them due to their constant tithes and offerings.
This belief system ends up leading to a lack of humility, which is what a Christian life should include. We should be submissive with our wills to that of the Divine Will. And in all things we should have the disposition in our hearts to say "your will be done, not mine" (Luke 22:42).
This New Age pseudo-theology causes a transactional relationship between God and Man: if I give, then God has to give back multiplied. Charity is not done for charity's sake, but only for the expectation of receiving back. It is a selfish charity, therefore it is not charity at all, and it demeans the receiver of the "charity". Meaning, money or goods is given to a person or entity that is in need, but only under the pretense that more than what was offered will be returned to the one that gave. The one receiving charity is made lesser in the eyes of the giver, and made up in the giver's mind as only a means to a material end. There is no love but a self love in this transaction, and then a demand of sorts to God is made that He uphold His end of the deal to multiply what was given.
There is major emphasis in this line of teachings as well on speaking things into existence; and that what you say can and will come to pass through "faith" as a sort of requesting from God what is owed and partaking in our position of dominion over nature. As the likes of Bruce Wilkinson explains:
“You do not have because you do not ask, said James (James 4:2). Even though there is no limit to God’s goodness, if you didn’t ask him for a blessing yesterday, you didn’t get all that you were supposed to have” - Bruce H. Wilkinson (The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life)
We should refuse, however, to believe that there is suffering in the world simply because people did not plead with God for a miracle or blessing; or for not "claiming what is theirs". Wilkinson also conveniently leaves out the next verse from St. James' epistle while making his point. So let us look at this passage from St James from just a slightly broader view and you'll see then how Wilkinson's argument falls flat.
What causes wars, and what causes fighting among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members? You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. Unfaithful creatures! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God - James 4:1-4
God does not always - nor does He have to - show His favor by material blessings; and abundance does not always mean mammon. I also want to make clear before continuing onwards that I am not arguing that those who have money and have it in abundance are sinning; by no means! This has never been a Church teaching that those who are rich are inherently sinful or condemned. God may bless by any means that He sees fit. I merely am refuting the teachings of this movement as being non-biblical and showcasing its destructive nature that it has by twisting the Gospel of Our Lord, and how it can poison our perception of Christ and hinder a true relationship with Him. The majority of those who were wealthy in the Lord's time obtained their riches usually by extorting or manipulating the lowly through unjust taxation or lending that was predatory in nature or some other sinful means. In modern times, however, it is much easier for believers to acquire wealth of sorts through honest means, but they must still guard themselves against the sin of greed or avarice, as does everyone of all economic backgrounds. The love of money is not a sin privy only to the rich.
When prosperity preachers teach that God blesses His faithful with money and physical prosperity and keeps them from ailments and afflictions, they reinstate the perceptions of Jews in the Lord's time who believed that wealth and physical blessings signified a person’s favor (or lack thereof) in the eyes of God. Jesus rejects this line of thinking by saying God “sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). God has a heart for the poor (Psalm 34:6), and Christians have an obligation to help the poor (Luke 14:14, 1 John 3:17). James even says in his epistle: “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him?” (2:5).
To paint poverty or afflictions as a sign of a person's lack of faith, lack of actions, and a lack of proper communion with God is dastardly atrocious. It begins to foster despair within a believer undergoing trials who will think themselves as lacking faith, and being unworthy of God's blessings and love due to their perceived inadequacies. This is not to say that individuals are not held accountable for their own economic or health situations in certain circumstances, such as the individual who drove themselves by their own choices into a crippling debt. God does allow repercussions for actions, most definitely. But not all circumstances a person finds themselves in are entirely by their own personal design, such as being diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer.
Trent Horn, staff apologist for Catholic Answers, in a podcast interview said:
"We could compare the New Age movement, the New Age view of Jesus, to another false view of Jesus, which would be the prosperity gospel or the health and wellness gospel, the idea that if you pray hard enough and have enough faith, you’ll never be poor, you’ll never be sick. Actually, the health and wealth gospel, the prosperity gospel, relies on some of the same mind-over-matter techniques that can be found in New Age philosophy. But I think what they have in common is that they get the relationship between us and Jesus backwards. Jesus is someone who serves us rather than we are someone who serves Christ. That’s how they get it backwards."
I would agree that the fundamental flaw of the Word of Faith Gospel is getting Christ and His life wrong, and how a relationship with Our Lord is to look like. What are we to make of these prosperity teachings in light of Jesus' own life of humility and living without wealth? We know that Christ was without sin, and God was well pleased with Him (Matthew 3:17) so why did God not bless Jesus with abundance in wealth and prosperity? There is an argument made by some of these preachers that Christ indeed was rich, and they reference the fact that the Roman soldiers cast lots for Jesus' clothes. However, the fact that lots were being cast for ownership of Jesus' clothes doesn't mean He was wealthy. Any clothing would have had value, even if a little, in those days. This belief also does not hold water because if Christ was indeed wealthy He would not have been given a death amongst the lower class. It's a weak argument for sure, especially in light of Scripture saying Jesus became poor (2 Corinthians 8:9), taking the form of a slave (Philippians 2:7) and had nowhere to rest his head (Luke 9:58).
We should also look to the Apostles, Christ's most faithful followers and friends who all preached His Gospel with their lives, suffering persecution (Acts), stoning (7:58), life threatening obstacles (i.e. St. Paul's shipwreck in Acts 27), and even a martyr's death for majority of them (except St. John). Where is their wealth and abundance? It is their words which Prosperity ministers use to support their ideologies, yet Scripture and history shows the opposite of worldly abundance occurring for them and majority of the Saints. St Paul himself says:
"Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions, my sufferings, what befell me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra, what persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted"
-2 Timothy 3:10-12
"We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you."
- 2 Corinthians 4:8-12
St Paul seems to be directly countering the claims of Prosperity teachers. Christ Our Lord tells us to deny ourselves and to pick up our cross and to follow Him (Matthew 16:24). Pope Peter addresses the persecution and suffering awaiting Christians within this world (1 Peter 4, 5:7-10), and St. James echoes Paul and Peter and tells us to count it all joy when we do suffer trials and tribulations (James 1:2). Count it all joy to suffer? Seems directly opposite to the teachings of the Word of Faith movement. Could Our Lord and His Apostles by their words and by their lives be any more clear in their opposition to any of these modern whims of this infant belief system?
Those who adhere to Word of Faith can end up spiritually damaged and turned off to Christianity as a whole after trials and tribulations wear them down in light of their beliefs. We should pray for them and receive them with love and tenderness, in the ways that I myself was received with love and care after my five years spent within this belief system. To say that it left me with great spiritual obstacles that took great effort to overcome would be an understatement, but by the grace of God I have been able to come to love and view God as He wished to be viewed and loved, and I am eternally grateful for this restoration.