In our last post, we dealt with the “Poverty Gospel”. This is a term not often used and rarely taught on. By contrast, the “Prosperity Gospel” is a term that likely every Christian has heard and experienced. Even secular media outlets love to point out leaders of Faith who live in the lap of luxury while conservative churches shake their head in dismay at the twisted teachings of the “health and wealth” gospel.
Yet, despite its common discussion, just what exactly the “Prosperity Gospel” is, why people believe it, and what is wrong about it is rarely discussed. Many who are labeled as “Prosperity Teachers” may not be upon on closer examination, as it sometimes appears that any Christian with financial wealth is considered a prosperity proponent. It is a label easily applied but much harder to actually describe.
The purpose of this post is to define what the Prosperity Gospel is, why it’s often believed, and what is wrong about it. We’ll also discuss some signs that you’ve believed the lie and talk about what to do if you have.
What is the Prosperity Gospel?
The Prosperity Gospel, as we’ll define it, is:
The Prosperity Gospel teaches that we should give in order to get more from God, that money shows God’s favor, and that the poor are less Holy than the rich.
Let’s look closer at some common Prosperity Gospel teachings.
Give to get
One of the central themes of a false prosperity gospel is the motivation in giving. Rather than giving out of obedience or in response to need, prosperity teachers hijack a few verses in order to create a formula for “giving” that looks more like “investing”.
Chief among these verses is Matthew 19:29, which reads:
“And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.”
The formula is simple! Give now and you’ll get back 100x return! How can you go wrong?
Jesus is saying this in response to Peter’s question in discussing the rich young ruler. In this, Jesus said that while it was almost impossible for a rich man to enter heaven, with God it is possible. Peter lamented the fact that they had given up so much to follow Jesus and He encouraged him that his sacrifice wouldn’t be without reward.
It is not wrong to think that God is one of reward. While it is true that our desire upon seeing Jesus in heaven will be to cast our crowns at His feet in worship (see this post for more), that doesn’t nullify the fact that we are working for reward! God wired us to be rewarded, but a true believer realizes that it is only by His grace that we can do any good thing, so those rewards ultimately are only marks of His blessing and favor and not of our own work and merit.
If the question is not about reward, it is about the timing and nature of these rewards. In the same story related in Mark 10:30, we see the words “in this present age”. That seems to indicate that the 100-fold return isn’t just for the hereafter! Yet, did we see Peter rewarded in this way before his martyr’s death?
Since most of us don’t need 100 houses or really even want 100 mothers or sisters, a common interpretation is that the 100-fold increase refers to the fellowship of believers found in Christ. This was evidenced in Peter’s life when we look at the fellowship of believers he had during the rest of his ministry on earth. Yet, he also faced persecution. The persecution isn’t coming from God, but Jesus is reminding them that Satan will oppose and persecute God’s work and blessing, so we should expect it.
Does the 100-fold increase ever apply to money and possessions? It may very well. The idea of fields increasing could have a literal translation of increase, but we should not expect a promise of financial blessing all the time in return for our giving.
Giving done out of a desire for 100-fold increase is not giving, but “investing”. True giving is done out of a desire to see needs met and through the resulting thanksgiving, God is glorified (2 Corinthians 9:13).
Money is a sign of God’s favor
Another common teaching is that those with money are blessed and favored by God. Kris Vallotton has a great quote about this, which says: “Wealth isn’t a sign of blessing, unless of course, it is!”.
The mistake with the “money = favor” teaching is not mixing up motivation, but assuming an “end” always indicates the same “means”. What I mean is that while God very well may bless someone financially for a number of reasons, being financially blessed is not always an indicator of God’s favor. When we make this mistake, we start to view those who are wealthy as Godlier and those who are poor as less so.
In the Kingdom, God doesn’t always reward like for like. In Luke 16:11, Jesus says “So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?”. A common teaching of the prosperity crowd is that when we steward financial wealth, we will be given greater financial wealth. Yet, this verse seems to indicate that the ultimate reward of stewarding financial wealth is some other sort of wealth…these ”true riches”.
True riches likely indicate people instead of possessions. In the parable of the minas, found in Luke 19:11-27, we see that the reward for stewarding the money they had been given was not more money, but cities! To me this indicates a trust with power over people, status, decision making, etc. Is this not more important than simply having more money?
In our flesh, we often have difficulty recognizing God’s true riches rewarded in someone’s life. It is easy for us to see wealth or power and assume a person is blessed by God, but perhaps the people that are most blessed are those who have given faithfully and are seeing people come to Christ and be increased in their faith through the small group they lead.
God does want to give those who steward little more. That is 100% true and applies today, but we must be cautious about assuming it is always about money and therefore respecting those with financial blessing as Holier than those without.
Perhaps the most dangerous and damaging extension of this belief is that if someone is sick or poor, they lack faith. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t understand why people are sick. I firmly believe God doesn’t send illness and suffering, but I know that He uses what Satan intends for evil for His good (Genesis 50:19). We live in a world filled with sin and sinners and we still suffer the results of this. To suggest that those who are suffering are lacking faith is showing our own lack of understanding of God and His perfect plans and timing. Should pray for healing and provision? Absolutely. God affirms that many, many times throughout Scripture. Yet, we must be very careful not to assume that those who don’t show these blessings are lacking in Faith.
God promised it
When God promises something in Scripture, we often can “lay claim” to that promise and ask for it in accordance with His Word. James 4:2 reads “You do not have because you do not ask God.”. Pair this up with Psalms 37:4, which says “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”, and it seems we have a pretty clear case for “name it and claim it” theology!
The issue with these verses is that they are usually taken out of context. If we simply read on in James 4, we’ll see verse 3 says “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”. Maybe the formula for “blab it and grab it” comes with some strings attached? This also likely ties back to our “Give to Get” point, where many try to use the “100x formula” with wrong intentions and then don’t get what the expected!
I always read Psalms 37:4 as God giving us the things we desire in our hearts. However, I heard Pastor Robert Morris speak on this about a year ago and gave it a different interpretation. Rather than God granting us the desires already in our carnal hearts, the verse is saying that as we delight ourselves in God, He will place desires in our hearts. Our desires will be His desires as we become more like Him.
Now this is powerful! James 4:2 wasn’t meant for claiming our own selfish desires. This is exactly why the formula wasn’t working in James 4:3. Rather, as we delight ourselves in the Lord and take on the mind of Christ, we begin desiring what God desires. When we ask for those things, we can ask in confidence knowing that we are aligned with His will and purpose.
But what about the verses that promise that God wants to give us life abundantly (John 10:10) and that we are to become rich because of Christ (2 Corinthians 8:9)? Can’t we ask for those things knowing that we are aligned with His will? Won’t our desires for those things be His desires, since they are in His Word?
As we talk about in other sections here, believing that the Kingdom is just about Financial blessings and wealth is short-sighted. God will 100% provide for our needs as we ask Him. In addition, for some, pursuing the Kingdom will mean stewarding great wealth. However, using these verses to imply that everyone is destined to be wealthy is not correct. The riches that God gives are the riches of His grace (Ephesians 2:7). The life that He promises is eternal life.
When we pray, we should pray that God gives us all we need for us to walk out the good works He has already prepared for us (Ephesians 2:10). If we immediately assume that is financial wealth, we may be asking for the wrong thing or at the wrong time. Let God design when to bring financial blessing and focus instead on seeking His Kingdom.
God wants us to give out of excess (rather than obedience)
Another favorite verse of the prosperity teachers is Luke 6:38.
“Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
Similar to the 100-fold verse, this indicates that God wants to give us more than we can handle in response to our generosity. A similar teaching regarding the tithe in the Old Testament is Malachi 3:10, where He promises to “open to you the windows of heaven and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it”.
The mistake that people sometimes make with this verse is assuming that God wants us to give out of our abundance, rather than our obedience. This is a recipe for disaster!
The tithe is not just 10%, but the first 10%. The concept of first-fruits pre-dates the Mosaic law and is demonstrated throughout scripture. God wants us to give out of obedience and faith, trusting that although we gave the first 10%, He will provide the rest.
Obedience is always followed by blessing. This is the nature of God! Again, the blessing may not always be what we expect, but God is a good Father and desires good things for us (Matthew 7:11).
We should be obedient and give the first 10% of our increase as a tithe. When we do this, it is true that God will bless our obedience and faith, often with more financial resources. Yet, we must be careful to never shift our focus from giving out of obedience to giving out of excess.
I will say firsthand that it was easier to give 10% when I was making a lot less money! Sometimes I look at the tithe withdrawal when I get paid every two weeks and think “That’s a lot of money! Imagine what else I could do with that…”. There is a reason that wealthy people statistically give less as a percent of their income than less-wealthy people…and this may be it! Rather than focus on the amount and start wanting to give out of excess, focus on how much God has blessed you and continue to give in faith. “Without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). Never get your giving and your faith mixed up!
Signs You’ve Believed the Prosperity Gospel
You may have identified with some of the teachings listed above, but let’s look at a few more specific symptoms of an improper belief about Prosperity.
Lack (of rest and giving)
Bet you didn’t think I was going to say this one! After all, aren’t those who believe in the Prosperity Gospel most likely to be generous?
In our last post about the poverty gospel, Lack of resources was our top symptom. Here, it is lack of rest and generosity. Those who believe in the Prosperity gospel often fall in to the pursuit of riches. They fail to honor the Sabbath, trusting that God will provide. They sometimes lack generosity because they are waiting to give after their success, rather than as the Lord leads and instructs.
Placing money instead of the Kingdom as the goal will always result in money never being enough. Wrong motivation does not yield blessing. Perhaps some will give generously for a time, in an effort to get more, but ultimately they will run into lack and become discouraged. They are operating on their own strength and therefore their resources are limited. If they operate on God’s strength, their resources are unlimited.
If you are stressed and stingy, you might be pursuing money!
Love of Money
1 Timothy 6:10 says “For the love of money is the root of all evil”. The prosperity crowd often falls in to seeking the gifts more than the Giver. If you find yourself constantly pre-occupied with talking about wealth, trying new “get rich quick schemes” (risky investments, multi-level marketing, house flipping courses, etc.), and daydreaming about the day you are “Financially Independent” (“if I only won the lotto…”), you may have a love of money.
Jesus taught of a spirit called Mammon. Mammon is a demonic spirit that represents a love of money. He is constantly trying to pull people away from God to serve him instead. Matthew 6:24 says “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
Those who have solid Kingdom principles around finances and are in charge of much wealth to steward are often those least concerned about money. Yes, they realize their role as stewards and take wise care of what has been entrusted to them, but they are more interested in what money can do than having money itself. A love of money makes money the end, where in the Kingdom it is just the means to a far greater end.
Beware the spirit of Mammon! It often looks like Materialism in your life. If you love stuff and spend your time pursuing it, you cannot fully serve God.
While the Prosperity Gospel promises peace and joy, it ultimately leads to sorrow. The second part of 1 Timothy 6:10 reads “Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs”. Being pierced with grief doesn’t sound very good to me!
Contrast this with blessings that come from God. Proverbs 10:22 says “The blessing of the LORD makes a person rich, and he adds no sorrow with it.”
I once heard of a couple that was doing well financially and then fell in to a house flipping scheme and used borrowed money (“other people’s money”) to try and “leverage” their way to wealth. In a matter of less than a year they went from being debt free with money in the bank to being broke with over $200k in unsecured debt. Rather than waiting on the Lord’s blessings, they pursued money and tried to get there quicker by using debt. Ultimately, this led to sorrow and years of hard labor to repay their mistake.
You may be blessed and not have a spirit of mammon, but if you have sorrow then you should double check that you aren’t pursuing a love of money!
Pride (in Possessions)
A spirit of materialism responds with pride to possessions. Think about how you might respond if someone complements you on something you own. Let’s say it is a nice pair of quality shoes. You might say “yea, I got these on clearance so they weren’t as expensive as they look”. This very well indicates a spirit of poverty.
A Prosperity mindset is likely to respond with “O yea, these are Allen Edmonds. Best dress shoes out there. They cost about $350.”. That pride is indicative of a prosperity spirit!
What is the right response?
Part of stewardship in all areas of our lives is ensuring that purchase high quality items that are within our budget. As such, it is not wrong to have nice things. However, we must hold them with an open hand and not view them with pride, but with gratitude. When we own expensive and high quality possessions, it is just a mark of God’s blessings and not our own success.
Jealousy (of wealth)
Similar to the love of money and a preoccupation with it, many with a prosperity spirit are jealous of those with wealth. This is most often found among those that are poor, which indicates that the prosperity gospel isn’t just prevalent among rich people.
Those that desire to be rich are often jealous of those that are rich. They want to be around these people and find favor with them. They look for “mentors” that aren’t Godly, but wealthy. They have an unhealthy jealousy and desire to be like people not as they are like Christ, but for their material possessions.
This obsession with wealth and success has been exacerbated by social media. It amazes me the efforts that people will go to portray a “luxury lifestyle” and follow those who seem to “live the dream”. Do a check of who you follow, watch, like, etc. on social and if it is a bunch of motivational luxury feeds, consider cleaning house!
Fear (of loss)
Those who have pride in their possessions and see them as a sign of God’s favor are usually very fearful of losing them. For them, it isn’t just a loss of stuff, but a loss of their identity.
If you find yourself worrying about lending out your car or tools, inviting those with rambunctious kids to stay in your home, or taking extreme precautions to guard your assets, you may be operating out of fear.
There is a story about the famous preacher John Wesley that goes like this:
A man came running up to Wesley one day and said “Your house has burned down! Your house has burned down!” Wesley replied, “No, it hasn’t, because I don’t own a house. The one I have been living in belongs to the Lord, and if it has burned down, that is one less responsibility for me to worry about.”
There was no fear of loss for Wesley because he knew that God owns it all! Whether we own much or little, this should be our attitude toward our possessions.
As God blesses you, you must be extra careful not to slip in to this issue. Years ago, I had a beat-up truck that I kept around for errands and chores. I had only paid $2500 for it and had no issues lending it out to friends who needed a truck for a day. As I’ve been able to afford nicer cars, I find myself more hesitant to let others borrow them. While it is not wrong to have nice cars, we must be careful that we never have possessions that we value more than people. When your possessions become so much that you are afraid to use them to bless others, you may have more than you can handle!
Joylessness (in giving)
When giving becomes an investment plan rather than a response to God’s goodness, it loses its joy. God loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:7). Joy in giving is a sign of our connection with God and a genuine response to an understanding of the depth and breadth of His love. If you’ve lost that joy, you are likely too attached to money, not attached enough to God, and only seeing giving as a “give to get” investment.
Debt (Discontentment and lack of trust)
Those that love money are often surrounded by debt. This is because they have not learned to live as Paul did, content in whatever state he was in (Philippians 4:11).
When we aren’t content or lack trust that God has given us enough, we tend to use debt to fill the gap between our current reality and our future expectations. Sometimes this is cloaked in the “other people’s money” teaching for investing. These desires for more than we have or “leveraging” debt to obtain wealth is almost always a sign of discontentment. See the story I spoke of earlier about the couple who took on debt and ended up in sorrow.
Speculation (Greed in “investing”)
Similar to debt, those that aren’t wise in their investing are usually bound to a spirit of prosperity. In my time in stewardship ministry, I’ve heard countless stories of people who wagered, and lost, it all on some investment that was sure to give them tremendous returns.
Greed is incompatible with wisdom. Hearing the voice of the Lord and relying on His provision is never accompanied with hasty speculation. For more on this, check out my article on “Should Christians Buy Bitcoin?”.
What to do if you’ve bought the lie of the Prosperity Gospel
If you read our last post on the poverty spirit, this list may look familiar!
If you have felt convicted of wrong belief in reading this, don’t feel shame. Simply choose to begin walking differently. As a believer, you are already righteous in Christ. Repentance is as simple as choosing to walk in accordance with understanding.
Thankfulness for what we have keeps us from falling prey to greed. Begin thanking God for the provision He’s already given you rather than always “claiming” more.
Perhaps you have been giving, but giving with wrong motive. Perhaps you haven’t been giving because you’ve been waiting to give when you had more. Generosity breaks a spirit of greed, so begin giving now. Don’t do it with wrong motives, expecting something in return, but do it out of grateful obedience for what God has already done. If you are tempted to give more in order to get more, I’d actually encourage you to give less (not less than the 10% tithe, though), until you are able to give out of joy and not greed.
Live in His Presence
It is out of God’s presence that power and abundance flows. When you choose to live in His Presence, He will bless you abundantly not because of what you’ve done or asked for, but because He is a God of abundance. This may or may not be financial wealth, but when you are content with His presence, you suddenly won’t care either way.
The Prosperity Gospel is so dangerous because it places our worship on the gift rather than the Giver. Yes, God is a good Father and will give you all you need. He wants to bless you abundantly. However, when your direction shifts to a focus on His blessings and a desire for them more than Him, you are in a very dangerous place. Put your focus 100% on Him and make your goal to remain 100% dependent on Him regardless of what blessings He gives you. With this attitude, you’ll receive blessings above all you could ever ask or imagine!