Over the last generation or so, what is known as the “Prosperity Gospel” has become increasingly popular, especially within the United States. Wiki defines this theology as “a religious belief among some Protestant Christians that financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one’s material wealth.” You can read more about the history of that development here if you’re interested.
An example from a quote by Joel Osteen – “I can’t find one place in the scripture where we are supposed to drag around not having enough, not able to afford what we want, living off the leftovers, living in the land of not enough. No, we were created to be the head and not the tail. Jesus came that we might live an abundant life. We represent almighty God here on this earth. We should be examples of his goodness, so blessed, so prosperous, so generous, so full of joy that other people want what we have.”
One of the things that stands out to me in that quote is the contrast between his view and the lives of the apostles. Those hand chosen by Christ to become the foundation of His Church (Ephesians 2:20), and I can’t find anywhere they indicated they measured their success or their relationship with Christ as being able to afford anything they want. In contrast, they taught that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22), and with the exception of St. John met rather gruesome deaths on account of their dedication to the Gospel and Christ. (Church history tells us the final fate of the apostles. They were either crucified, beheaded, clubbed to death, skinned alive, or stabbed to death).
And does Sacred Scripture really indicate we should be able to afford what we want? It does say in Philippians 4:19 that “my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” Discerning what is a true “need,” especially in the eyes of God and what is a “want” in the eyes of a person impacted by sin is most important.
When those who profess the “health and wealth” type Gospel are confronted with the Biblical truths taught about suffering, they will often respond with a view that it’s permittable in some way to suffer for the “sake of the kingdom,” but other sufferings are due to a lack of faith. So take St. Paul’s famous “thorn in the flesh” example. Paul speaks to this in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 and how he prayed that Christ would remove it from him. But instead he was told that “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Many believe St. Paul didn’t specifically tell us what his ailment is so we can better identify our own ailments and unique “thorns in the flesh” whatever they may be. But in the mindset of the “prosperity theology” world, the only acceptable answer is that whatever ailment he may have, it was caused by persecution, not illness. Since many of us live in a time and place where true persecution for our faith is non-existent, that sets us up to expect a very easy and cushy life indeed. But is it Truth? What if these things are not “blessings” or a show of God’s favor, but are rather responsibilities given in trust to use for the benefit of others?
Needless to say, what is often called the “health and wealth” Gospel is not something taught or embraced by Catholicism. However, it is definitely another area where we can see an influence that has taken root even among Catholics. We can often interpret our material wealth and relatively good health as evidence that we have been especially favored or blessed by God. We also often fail to look at the logical consequence of that thinking. What about those who have health issues, especially those not caused by lack of self-care but due to genetics, accidents etc? Have they really lost favor with God? What about those who aren’t wealthy but despite a great deal of effort and hard work struggle to make ends meet? What especially about those who live in parts of the world where poverty is the norm? Are we to conclude that their condition is due to a lack of faith? That they have not been blessed by God as we have? Sadly, this is the burden placed upon many who are told all they want is theirs for the taking if they just have enough “faith.” And any failure to achieve such success is due to a lack of faith on their part.
I have a friend who has a much different take on this. He references a Scripture well known to many, that God will not let us be tempted beyond our strength. Specifically 1 Corinthians 10:12-13 – “Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” Poverty and illness are two things that can certainly tempt us to despair and to lose faith. What if those who seemingly have an unfair amount of suffering in their lives are simply those who are stronger in faith? And what if those who see themselves as being “blessed” have a much weaker faith that God in His mercy does not tempt? It’s an interesting thought. And since as Catholics we believe that our suffering can be united to Christ, it may be that those who are suffering a great deal are actually carrying those who suffer less along with them to the kingdom. It is certainly something to reflect on. St. John Chrysostom tells us that “The rich exist for the sake of the poor. The poor exist for the salvation of the rich.”
As Osteen indicates, Christ does indeed tell us that he came that we may have life, and have it “abundantly” (John 10:10). Where Catholics would disagree would be Osteen’s interpretation of what is an “abundant” life. In our view it has nothing to do with achieving all we want, especially in material things. Most importantly we have to realize that due to sin in our lives, what we desire may not be in our best interests at all, especially when the goal is the transformation of our nature to perfection in holiness. A child may want chocolate for dinner but that doesn’t mean giving it to him is what is best for him. St. Paul reminds of in 1 Thessalonians 4:3 that God’s will for us is our sanctification. Our holiness is what God desires for us, much more so than anything in this world. And “abundant life” in the Catholic view is one that is rich in the fruits of the Holy Spirit — “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23)
When we look at world poverty rates they can be disheartening. Almost 10% of the world’s population live in extreme poverty (less than $1.90/day). In the US, poverty is measured at less than $33/day, which is about 12% of the population. By all ways of measuring, most of us would fall into the category of “rich” if we live in the United States compared to the global population.
When we turn to Sacred Scripture there is much that speaks to God’s love for the poor. However, these are often said by those with a “prosperity theology” mindset to be speaking of those who are “poor in spirit,” not literally poor. Perhaps a more effective use of Scripture on this topic is to see how Scripture views the rich. And there are ample examples, like the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), as well as many others. So I will close this post with a rather sobering reminder of what God says about the rich, and perhaps reflect upon the question – from a Biblical perspective do we really want to be one of the rich? Is being rich truly a blessing? How may we better adapt our thinking to reflect the reality of God’s word?
- Luke 1:52-53 he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.
- Matthew 6:19-21,24 Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also….. No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.
- Matthew 13:22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is he who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the delight in riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.
- Matthew 19:21-24 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. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
- James 1:9-11 Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like the flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.
- James 2:5-7 Listen, my beloved brethren. 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? But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you, is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme that honorable name by which you are called?
- James 5:1-5 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.
- 1 Timothy 6:6-10 There is great gain in godliness with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs.