Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Christian expectations, part two

It's time for another installment of "Christian Expectations." Last time I examined expectations about how Christian believers fare in the educational system, particularly high school and especially college. This time, I'd like to look at expectations about our life situation. In particular, I want to examine expectations about our lives being blessed with riches, good health, healthy relationships, and so forth.

This notion that confessing, believing Christians will have a good, long life here on Earth is generally lumped under the term "Prosperity Theology." Believers in this strain of Christianity may call it "Word-Faith," "Health and Wealth," or "Name It and Claim It," but it's all pretty much the same thing. Preachers who espouse this doctrine include Kenneth Copeland, Robert Tilton, Benny Hinn, Creflow Dollar, Joel Osteen, and many others. Prosperity theology is generally found in charismatic or pentacostal churches, although it's not limited to these communities.

The basic idea is that by living pious, righteous lives, Christians will be blessed with material success in this life, and salvation in the next. There are plenty of passages in the Bible that can be cited to support this view. [I'm drawing these passages from the NET Bible, available here.] For instance, in 2 Chronicles 6:41, King Solomon is praying, "Now ascend, O Lord God, to your resting place, you and the ark of your strength! May your priests, O Lord God, experience your deliverance! May your loyal followers rejoice in the prosperity you give!" In Deuteronomy 30:15-16, Moses warns the Israelites, "Look! I have set before you today life and prosperity on the one hand, and death and disaster on the other. What I am commanding you today is to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to obey his commandments, his statutes, and his ordinances. Then you will live and become numerous and the Lord your God will bless you in the land which you are about to possess." In Proverbs 13:21, we see this: "Calamity pursues sinners, but prosperity rewards the righteous." Finally, if we've gone astray but later turn to God, we see in Psalm 68:6, "God settles those who have been deserted in their own homes; he frees prisoners and grants them prosperity. But sinful rebels live in the desert."

There are plenty of other passages in Scripture that would seem to support this belief. What's wrong with these passages? They seem clear enough. Is it really wrong to believe that God will reward us on this world if we follow his commandments?

The main point I want to make here is that it is wrong to believe that health and wealth automatically follow from living according to God's rules. There are a couple of very strong reasons for doubting that prosperity theology is valid.

The first reason is that there are passages in Scripture that debunk the notion. Just as there are proof texts to support it, there are texts that go the other way. Here are a few. For instance, Psalm 73:1-9 (it's actually longer than this, but here's the section that makes my point):
73:1 Certainly God is good to Israel,
and to those whose motives are pure!
73:2 But as for me, my feet almost slipped;
my feet almost slid out from under me.
73:3 For I envied those who are proud,
as I observed the prosperity of the wicked.
73:4 For they suffer no pain;
their bodies are strong and well-fed.
73:5 They are immune to the trouble common to men;
they do not suffer as other men do.
73:6 Arrogance is their necklace,
and violence their clothing.
73:7 Their prosperity causes them to do wrong;
their thoughts are sinful.
73:8 They mock and say evil things;
they proudly threaten violence.
73:9 They speak as if they rule in heaven,
and lay claim to the earth.

Psalm 17:14 says this:
17:14 Lord, use your power to deliver me from these murderers,
from the murderers of this world!
They enjoy prosperity;
you overwhelm them with the riches they desire.
They have many children,
and leave their wealth to their offspring.

Ecclesiastes 6:1-7 reads this way:
6:1 Here is another misfortune that I have seen on earth,
and it weighs heavily on people:
6:2 God gives a man riches, property, and wealth
so that he lacks nothing that his heart desires,
yet God does not enable him to enjoy the fruit of his labor –
instead, someone else enjoys it!
This is fruitless and a grave misfortune.
6:3 Even if a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years –
even if he lives a long, long time,
but cannot enjoy his prosperity –
even if he were to live forever –
I would say, “A stillborn child is better off than he is!”
6:4 Though the stillborn child came into the world for no reason
and departed into darkness,
though its name is shrouded in darkness,
6:5 though it never saw the light of day nor knew anything,
yet it has more rest than that man –
6:6 if he should live a thousand years twice,
yet does not enjoy his prosperity.
For both of them die!
6:7 All of man’s labor is for nothing more than to fill his stomach -
yet his appetite is never satisfied!

And finally, from the mouth of Jesus himself, this (from the Sermon on the Plain) in Luke 6:20-31: "Then he looked up at his disciples and said: 'Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God belongs to you. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you and insult you and reject you as evil on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and jump for joy, because your reward is great in heaven. For their ancestors did the same things to the prophets.
'But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your comfort already. Woe to you who are well satisfied with food now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all people speak well of you, for their ancestors did the same things to the false prophets.
'But I say to you who are listening: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. To the person who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other as well, and from the person who takes away your coat, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks you, and do not ask for your possessions back from the person who takes them away. Treat others in the same way that you would want them to treat you.'"

The other reason is evident in that last passage cited. Jesus is pretty definitive in saying that the wealthy may have an easy time of it here on the earthly plane, but that such is not their due after death. He talks elsewhere about it being harder than a camel threading the eye of a needle for a wealthy person to get into the Kingdom of God (Matthew 19). In other words, instead of wealth being a reward, Jesus pronounces it almost a curse. Why do we have this seeming contradiction between what one set of passages promises, and what another set says?

I think the contradiction is one that we actually manufacture ourselves, to a degree. In the Old Testament, when wealth is promised as the reward for following God's commandments, we need to remember that this was a promise to a particular people at a particular time in a specific place. I think we generalize this promise to include ourselves in the twenty-first century at our peril; I don't think it works that way. I come to this conclusion mainly because of what Jesus says in the New Testament. Remember, the New Testament is the record of the new order that God has established. The old is no more, and the new is upon us. Jesus has come into the world, he's re-envisioned the Passover with the Last Supper, and he's shown what a true messiah can do, that even death can not triumph over him. Even the people of his own age wondered how he could speak with such authority.

Moreover, wealth by itself, in this new order, is here for a purpose, not merely for our enjoyment. Here's what Jesus in Luke 12:48 says: "From everyone who has been given much, much will be required, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be asked." It's evident from reading Scripture that the means to do God's work are not evenly distributed; we have a job to do, with whatever resources we have been given.

So what conclusion can we come to after looking at all this evidence? First, I would say that health and wealth may come to us, or they may not. Much is beyond our control. Second, if we are the recipients of wealth--financial, in health, in our relationships--then we have a charter to use it to further the goals of God's kingdom in this world, in this time. Finally, if we are not blessed with bags of money, we are still expected to take part in the work of creating and spreading that kingdom; it's not an optional pursuit.

There's a niggle in all this, though. I've heard friends of mine, even pastors, say that they put their lives totally in God's hands, that they trusted in him to help them meet their needs. They prayed about it, and things happened. I've tried praying for things like that, and largely the prayers have gone unanswered, or so I've felt. I prayed for healing for my father over ten years ago, and he nonetheless died of complications from Alzheimer's. But in the process of coming to grips with that, I learned sympathy for a man I had once intensely disliked, Ronald Reagan, and his family, even as he lingered year after year in the drive-by reality of Alzheimer's. I have prayed for success for a business my wife set up a few years ago. Even as we were beginning to become profitable, she had health issues that developed that required her to give up the business. But out of that, she's developed into a wonderful writer and a person with an iron will that will not admit to defeat. Even as we've gotten used to living on one paycheck, we've been able to meet our financial obligations and even give away a good portion to causes in the church and out. So, even as my prayers have not been answered in the way I wanted them to be, I've received blessing after blessing in ways that were totally unexpected. God has provided, but he chose what he would bless me with, and didn't just play the role of vending machine.

Ultimately, I think that "health and wealth" theology is too restricted, too selfish, to be real. I think God's agenda is much larger than anything that we short-sighted creatures can imagine. And I think that to try to put the Creator of us and the rest of the universe in that sort of box is frankly a very risky move that limits what he can do in our lives, if we're just ready to live a little more dangerously.

What is my expectation? I believe that there will be a tomorrow. I believe that it will be surprising. I hope that I'm up to being receptive to it.

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