How to detect the prosperity gospel
They’re everywhere, with their peroxided smiles and slick white suits. No, I’m not talking about cosmetic surgeons… rather, I’m talking about the spiritual equivalent: prosperity gospel preachers. While they’re not new, they are today more able than ever to spread their message, which both discredits the true Christian gospel with outsiders, and leads many insiders astray. But even though their message is widespread, it’s not always easy to spot. This teaching is often so subtle that it may even have take root in your local church. But how can you tell? Well, that’s what 2 Corinthians chapter 4 is here for… in this chapter the Apostle Paul gives us some easy ways to spot the difference between the true gospel and the false prosperity gospel, by highlighting three areas in which their emphases are completely different from each other:
God’s glory vs. Man’s glory
The first major question to ask in spotting the difference between the biblical gospel and the prosperity gospel is: Where the focus of glory? Is it on God or us?
It’s interesting how Paul describes the agenda of evil in our world:
“The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” – 2 Corinthians 4:4
So it turns out, Evil’s main agenda in our world (and yes, Evil has an agenda because Evil is embodied in an intelligent supernatural being, variously referred to as the devil, Satan, the ‘god of this age’) is not so much to cause violence and suffering, but rather to prevent people from seeing God’s glory in Jesus Christ. Because, if people saw that, there would be no need for violence or suffering. In fact, seeing the glory of God is the only thing that can change someone into a new person – a person fit for the world to come. Sadly though, even people who go to church on a regular basis may be prevented from seeing this glory. What happens then is that they need to fill the void with the next best thing: man’s glory. Which is exactly what the prosperity gospel gives them… a glorious, impressive (and rich) teacher in a glorious venue, teaching them how their lives can be filled with man-made glory of wealth and happiness. However, unlike God’s glory, that glory has not power to change them inwardly.
So that’s the first question you need to ask yourself, as you listen to a “Christian” teaching; what is the focus? What does this teaching give me if I follow it? Glory for myself? Or a vision of the glory of God? It can’t do both.
Suffering vs. Triumph
If it’s still not clear whether a particular teacher is teaching a form of prosperity gospel, listen out for how they talk about suffering. The prosperity gospel detests suffering. If you suffer, it teaches, then there is something wrong with your faith.
The biblical gospel, on the other hand, teaches the opposite. Not only is suffering unavoidable, but often it’s necessary. Paul writes:
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” – 2 Corinthians 4:7-10
God sees fit to transmit his saving gospel message as “a treasure in jars of clay” – the jars being the weak and suffering messengers. But why? Why doesn’t God choose impressive, strong triumphant messengers to transmit his message to the world? The answer is simple: because God doesn’t want people to rely on the power of men, but on his power. God wants us to have a real experience of his power in our lives. But that can only happen when we forsake our own power – hence the need for weakness and suffering in life. God doesn’t take pleasure in our suffering, but he knows that it’s necessary because the real power of the gospel is not seen in how much we win at life on earth, but how we keep trusting and obeying God even when we lose. As the apostle Peter puts it in his letter; “for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” – 1 Peter 6-7
Eternal vs. Temporary
The final, and perhaps easiest way that you can tell whether a particular teaching is the prosperity gospel or not, is whether it’s main focus is on this life or the life to come.
The truth is that both the prosperity gospel and the true biblical gospel promise health and prosperity. The difference is that one promises it in this life, and one in a new, resurrected life in a new world. But only the biblical gospel glorifies God – because it’s in the waiting, and patient endurance in suffering, that God’s power is shown in our lives, that we are really willing to deny ourselves to serve him and other people, so that the gospel message is spread.
That’s why Paul writes: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” – 2 Corinthians 4:16-18
How you feel today is inseparable from your outlook for your future. The drive to holiday is always better than the drive home, even though it’s the same traffic and same cheesy music on the radio. Why? Because of your anticipation. Christians are people who live this life in anticipation of a better one – they don’t mind the bumps in the road because they’re thinking of the destination. Those who buy into the prosperity gospel, on the other hand, have been promised a smooth ride – and so when it gets bumpy, they want out – and therefore they abandon the only way they can arrive at the destination, which is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
And that gospel is a message of God’s glory being displayed in suffering, as he voluntarily suffered on our behalf to take our sins and secure our eternity. That’s where we fix our hope for wealth and prosperity, rather than on this life where, instead, we are called to suffer so that in our endurance, God is praised and our faith is proved genuine. Is that the gospel that your church is teaching? If not, it’s time to change churches.
This article is adapted from the sermon “Prosperity and the Gospel”, which can be streamed or downloaded here.