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God, Gucci, and the Gospel of Prosperity

Chaelin Jung
 

At first glance, the popular Instagram account looks like any other fashion blog. It posts flashy outfits of the luxury designer variety: one $900 Burberry jacket, a pair of $2,500 Jordans, a favorite $450 belt with the flashy Gucci buckle. But the owners of these wardrobes aren’t supermodels or viral influencers. They’re celebrities of a different kind: Christian pastors.

 

The account @PreachersNSneakers catches high-profile church figures in a new kind of Sunday best, with quippy captions like “Adam-and-Yves Saint Laurent.” Most users embrace the account’s satirical take with comments flaying the celebrity pastors’ outrageous fashion choices. Others aren’t fond of the account, which they read as judgmental and moralizing. “Stay in your own lane,” they decry. This half-amusing, half-concerning discourse reflects a rift in American evangelicalism. A shattered middle class, Rust Belt of broken dreams, unprecedented growth in income for the top one percent—wealth inequality has come to dominate American political discourse. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that evangelicals who feel left behind see a megachurch pastor with a $60 million net worth as the paragon of provision and blessing.

 

The prosperity gospel, a term now common parlance in Christian circles, is a widely encompassing theology that sees material blessing as a reward for faithfulness. Its contemporary iteration is often associated with the Word of Faith movement, which many view as a distortion of the Pentecostal tradition that emphasizes spiritual gifts like miraculous healing. Undergirding this broad ideology is an appeal to “name it and claim it.” For example, an adherent preacher might say, “Declare the blessing of God over your finances!” According to this doctrine, favor from God is something to be spoken into existence. The prosperity gospel, in this sense, is not unlike the mainstream psychology of “manifesting” one’s dreams and goals.

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The 21st century prosperity gospel, and its health-and-wealth gospel relative, is as American as apple pie. But the motifs of false prophets, idols of abundance, and bondage to wealth aren’t foreign to the history of Christian faith. The prosperity gospel’s poor attempt to fulfill people’s needs ultimately points to the power and abundance of the true gospel.

 

The Bible’s rebuke of untruth is a storied landscape of false prophets, power-hungry religious leaders, and negligent shepherds. In pre-exilic Judah, self-declared prophets and leaders promised a rebellious people, “You shall not see the sword, nor shall you have famine, but I will give you assured peace in this place” (Jer. 14:13 ESV). In doing so, these leaders sanctioned the idolatrous, unjust, and disobedient behaviors of the nation. Sent into this environment to raise an alarm of the impending consequences of sin, the prophet Jeremiah was charged by God with a thankless calling. The false prophets spoke of peace; Jeremiah warned of pestilence. Religious leaders assured security; Jeremiah talked of the sword.

This was received about as well as one might expect. As Jeremiah was beaten by priests, imprisoned by political officials, and scorned by those around him, he lamented to the Lord with great sorrow: “Cursed be the day on which I was born” (Jer. 20:14). And the Judites soon learned the emptiness of the false prophets’ words in their brutal exile from the Promised Land. The modern equivalent of the false prophets in Jeremiah’s time isn’t the boisterous, sign-brandishing individuals on street corners damning the unrepentant to hell. Rather, it is the voice insidiously laced into bestselling Christian self-help books about praying away debt or tithing now for financial abundance tomorrow.

 

Imbued in these promises of material provision is a conflation of wealth with ethics and righteousness. A 2017 Washington Post / Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that white evangelical Protestants were three times more likely to identify “lack of effort” as the reason for someone’s poverty compared to those with no self-identified religious affiliation. This moral judgment of poverty is illustrative of the chokehold the prosperity gospel has on American Christianity. After all, if the pastor tells you on Sunday morning that God gives financial blessing to those He loves, how will you see the man experiencing homelessness downtown or the single mom trying to keep up with her heating bill? This work-ethic centered view is par for the course of American conservative economics: pull up your bootstraps, make the right investments, and enjoy increased wealth.

 

So what word does the Bible have in regards to health, wealth, and poverty? We ought to start with the founder and perfecter of the faith himself. Jesus was a poor, transient carpenter-by-trade born in a manger without a place to lay his head. In fact, his human parents, Mary and Joseph, offered the sacrifice of the poor—two birds—when they presented Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:22-24; Lev 12:7-8). If it’s true that God doles out provision according to the measure of one’s righteousness, Jesus should have been the Jeff Bezos of his time. But he, along with countless men and women of faith who depended on the Lord for provision, was anything but, dealing a decisive blow to any message that promises material returns on obedience.

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If it’s true that God doles out provision according to the measure of one’s righteousness, Jesus should have been the Jeff Bezos of his time.

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Moreover, John Piper writes, “If God’s love for His children is to be measured by our health, wealth, and comfort in this life, God hated the apostle Paul.” The apostle Paul, the most influential missionary in history, is the Bible’s first defense against any message that promises material wellbeing. A litany of his sufferings is listed in 2 Corinthians 11:23-33: beatings, imprisonments, shipwreck, sleeplessness, thirst, and hunger. Paul would denounce any presentation of the gospel that excludes a theology of suffering. Take, for example, the popular Bible verse Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Stephen Curry scribbles it on his shoes before games, and it’s found its way onto many an Instagram bio. In a culture desperate for assurance of triumph, this verse has become something of a mantra, a mindset to be “manifested.” But the verse’s full context reveals a more veracious message: “for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:11-13).

To be clear, none of this is to say that God doesn’t care, or by extension that we the Church shouldn’t care, about material poverty, inequality, and need. He obviously does. We obviously should. 1 In fact, God cares so much about the plight of the unclothed, the hungry, and the sojourner that King Jesus himself says that our conduct towards them is how the authenticity of our love for him will be measured (Matt. 25:31-46). The truth-bearing Christian’s response to the health-and-wealth gospel is not to swing towards the other extreme of embracing poverty as some kind of inherently holy station in life, lest we become myopic towards the very real suffering of people in material need. Poverty, in many ways, is a symptom of the brokenness of the world caused by sin: uncurbed greed, selfishness, lack of love for neighbor. Poor health is also something we ought to see through the eyes of God. When loved ones are diagnosed with terminal cancer, friends are left paralyzed by car accidents, and college students suffer under the cloud of clinical depression, God doesn’t respond with a callous shrug, and neither should we. We are to pray and fast in the spirit of the Pauline command to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.

 

As it turns out, the health-and-wealth gospel is awfully bad at encouraging followers to partake in the shouldering of each other’s burdens. Hardly the ethic of the generous church in Acts 2, the prosperity gospel makes easy prey of people desperately searching for deliverance from hardship. The grinning televangelist who will fly via private jet to his next event is little more than a swindling banker who pledges extraordinary returns on junk investments. This false gospel is exploitative of the poor, and it’s getting shipped off to the developing world in the name of evangelism. In response, entire watchdog organizations, like the Trinity Foundation, have been founded to expose fraudulent tax practices of wealthy ministries. One such ministry, formerly called “Church by Mail,” is reported to have used Census data to target low-income and elderly neighborhoods and send tokens that promise blessings—followed by a deluge of mailings that ask for monetary contributions to the church’s work. 2 The prosperity gospel is an affront to something God takes very seriously: justice. Biblical passages affirming God’s anger towards deceitful preachers make this clear: “‘Because you have uttered falsehood and seen lying visions, therefore behold, I am against you,’ declares the Lord God” (Ezek. 13:8). God is protective of His name, and He will not tolerate human attempts to portray Him as a mere financier.

God is protective of His name, and He will not tolerate human attempts to portray Him as a mere financier

Ultimately, God offers good news that makes the world’s riches grow strangely dim, as the old hymn croons. Another beloved verse says, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jer 29:11). Other translations use “good” or “prosper you” in place of “welfare,” but the sentiment is generally the same. These somewhat ambiguous words could be, and very often are, perceived as assurances of material prosperity or wellbeing. But in the original Hebrew, the word is “shalom”: peace, wholeness, contentment. The promise of shalom certainly doesn’t preclude God’s provisions of wealth or health, but it’s an even greater blessing. Shalom is an invitation to submit all earthly concerns—health, vocation, relational reconciliation, finances—under the lordship of Jesus.

 

But even this is an incomplete view. After all, if the gospel is only good for making people feel better about themselves, it’s no different from any other worldview or meditation practice or self-help exercise. Instead, the gospel is fundamentally about relationship with God: once severed by sin, now reconciled through the blood of Christ for those who believe in him. In The Whole Christ, Sinclair Ferguson writes, “The benefits of the gospel are in Christ. They do not exist apart from him. They are ours only in him. They cannot be abstracted from him as if we ourselves could possess them independently of him.” With such clarity, we ought to declare that any gospel that does not center Jesus Christ as the supreme reward for faithfulness is rubbish. Any gospel that does not preach Christ crucified is blasphemy.

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While the health-and-wealth gospel is sinister and deeply dishonoring to God, it tells a story of our time that we would be remiss to ignore. What the prosperity gospel does undeniably well is lend an ear to the things that keep people up at night. Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School, New York Times bestselling author, and stage IV cancer patient, writes of the very relatable craving for “an iota of power over the things that rip their lives apart at the seams.” 3 Paul primes missionary-in-training Timothy that “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” (2 Tim. 4:3). Truthfully, most Americans probably don’t think that tithing more than 10 percent will catapult them into the one percent. Relief from healthcare bills, healing from opioid addiction, a prospect of your kids being better off than you—these provisions are what people’s ears itch for. In that vein, as Bowler continues, “the prosperity gospel is a theodicy, an explanation for the problem of evil.” This is a reassuring framework for despairing people, and it can so easily allure even the most Scripture-versed, well-meaning believers. We are to be watchmen, vigilant of its stealthy creep into American Christianity.

 

Beholding Jesus himself as the treasure radically reorients our hearts to recognize that finances, once a source of idolatry, can be redeemed by God and used to bless others. Tithing and giving merely return to God what is already His. Just before his death, David blessed the future construction of the temple with this attitude, declaring, “O Lord our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a house for your holy name comes from your hand and is all your own” (1 Chron. 29:16). For the Christian, material possessions are not things to be earned from God but rather things to be stewarded for God—faithfully, discerningly, and generously for the cause of Christ.

 

To know Christ is to know that the poverty of our souls is far greater than the poverty of our wallets. And to experience the gospel—the very power of God for salvation—is to receive firsthand the provision of a God who is far more concerned with our standing in eternal life than our standing in this one.

(1) It’s true that God makes explicit material promises in the Old Testament. For further exposition on this matter, see: Deourchie, Jason. “Is Every Promise ‘Yes’? Old Testament Promises and the Christian.” Themelios 42, no. 1 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/article/is-every-promise-yes old-testament-promises-and-the-christian/. 

(2) https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2006-05-31-0605300255-story.html

(3) Kate Bowler, “I'm a Scholar of the ‘Prosperity Gospel." It Took Cancer to Show Me I Was in Its Grip.,” Vox, March 12, 2018, https://www.vox.com/first-person/2018/3/12/17109306/prosperity-gospel-good-evil-cancer-fate-theology-theodicy.

Chaelin Jung is a junior at Brown studying Economics and International & Public Affairs.

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