All preachers (prophets and apostles) in the Bible do not preach on the same topic, which means God does not preach the same text or style every time to every audience. Is Paul to be faulted for preaching about the incomparable riches we have in Christ to the Ephesians and not like Jeremiah who complains about life. Is it a lie when Paul talks about joy to the Philippian Church rather than about the wages of sin as he does to the Romans? Why is it wrong to choose to deliver the part of the Gospel Message you know how to talk about best, or are convinced of why to talk about it? Didn’t Paul say he uses any means to win people to Christ? Does that mean he is fake or insincere? Isn’t it our duty to tell the world how kind our heavenly Father is or can be?
It seems to me that for the longest time in traditional evangelical churches “circumstances” has been a bogyman; and the message to believers sometimes sounds like: “Don’t expect easy or comfortable circumstances as you keep your faith.” The message from the podium seems to be that allowing their circumstances to control them is the reason people cannot sustain their faith. The role of circumstances, most probably is at the root of the reason for the popularity of so-called prosperity preaching. Traditional preachers have been telling people to stop looking at their circumstances. What an uphill battle! Is this what our Christian faith is about? Surely it must be evident that heavy circumstances can be compelling. So how then can beleaguered Christians be made to see their God as caring and benevolent? Or is it that Christians are not to want or have “the Good Life”, however it is defined? When we look for guidance from the Lord about this topic, as to what to expect from believing in Him, He said:
“Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps 37:4).
Another spiritual bogyman I observed the traditional evangelical churches used to hammer, for a considerable period relates to “feelings” or “emotions”. I think many pastors tried to get believers to live the proper Christian life by steering them clear of what they likely saw as the corrupting and misleading power of their emotions. One problem with that message is that emotions cause human beings to do good and bad things. It is the same emotional mechanism, which prompts the feeling of joy at robbing that brings joy at donating towards a good cause. Both when two Christians respectively or a single Christian “feels like” going to church or not going is the result of the same emotion, the difference being the nature of the preceding stimulus. The memory of a boring sermon as against an inviting relaxed sleep-in may trigger a push in one direction or another.
The psychological fact is that we can consciously change our emotional state at any time past the first few milliseconds (of which we are not aware anyway). It is utterly ridiculous however to expect a person to be able to ignore their feelings – and incidentally even the ability to ignore is motivated by an emotion. That’s why they are called “feelings”, that is: what we feel inside whether we want to or not. Emotions are what give us motion in a certain direction, as do feelings. These are natural automatic mechanisms God put in us to help us react to promote our survival, as in the case of jumping away from a snake or a fast car prompted by the fear emotion. They are why a person may explode in anger because of a perceived injustice or recoil in disgust. To try to stifle it is to create another uphill battle for the believer. Of course Pastors are not necessarily trained Psychologists but then it is a duty of speakers to know what they are talking about. Only uneducated or emotionally compromised individuals are not aware or don’t believe they need to be informed about the point they are making. Reprimanding Christians or warning them against a necessary and natural condition does not make sense and may succeed in only putting them in a helpless bind. In effect people are not put at ease or made to feel they can cope. Now these comments about “feelings” and “emotions ” may not appear to have much to do with “prosperity preaching”. I have brought them up in the context of why I believe modern traditional evangelism may have failed in attracting or keeping followers in comparison with the newer evangelical movement. This is apropos with addressing how the former church has tended to not respond to ordinary human needs and concerns (their circumstances) as against the focus of newer church.
In John 16:21 Jesus talked about “a woman giving birth…” This is a straightforward use of the events around a baby being born to explain how an event can change very quickly from being painful (in the disciples’ case emotionally so) to joyful; once there was pain and later it’s gone and replaced with joy. It is instructive that Jesus did not just expect the disciples to gain a spiritual perspective of their situation through Scripture or prayer and not pay attention to those circumstances. He took time and showed understanding in making His disciples understand their imminent circumstances along with the role their emotions would play. Once they understood that the pain of the coming events would not last they would be able to deal with them. And so He prepared His disciples from feeling completely crushed by His crucifixion. Jesus acted to give His disciples emotional comfort to deal with their impending circumstances rather than avoid addressing those issues or discourage the disciples from enjoying peace of mind.
In 1 Kings 19 in the Old Testament we meet a strong spiritually accomplished prophet, Elijah, at a very low point in life because of the circumstances he faced. The powerful and ruthless queen Jezebel had vouched to kill him in short order. Elijah, God’s commissioned chief defender was not able to ignore his situation and asked God take his life rather him facing the fate he feared at Jezebel’s hands. God’s approach to this seasoned prophet’s state was to deal first with his human needs and give him the empowerment of His presence in order to keep his trust in Him so that Elijah could continue with the Mission. It appears one of the ways God uses to vitalize or as in this case revitalize faith is to acknowledge the weight of our perceived circumstances. Human life situations are real and need to be addressed in order to keep the faithful engaged. God and Jesus agree!
The solution to sustaining faith in Christ is not that people should not consider their circumstances; and it is not just the presence of bad times or circumstances that can make people lose faith. It is the power of the circumstances over their resilience that tells them their faith is not effective. People cannot help but be overwhelmed when circumstances get them there. The faith they need is in believing that Jesus’ power is greater than the power of any circumstance. It is “prosperity preachers” who consistently emphasize exactly that – “There are no circumstances that our Good God cannot transform for our benefit”. Is this a lie? No! Is it a half-truth? I wouldn’t say so either. Because God transforms only some circumstances as He chooses however, does not mean He is incapable of doing so to all circumstances. Our faith comes from the Holy Spirit transforming our thinking (teaching us) so that we recognize and are able to accept this power of God working in every situation. That there is suffering we must endure in this world is also true. Does that make it a theological crime though, to preach God’s power over everything in the world? Certainly not! Therefore it is not theologically wrong to pick one aspect of God’s larger benevolence to emphasize, as the Spirit leads one.
It is useful to remember that anytime we say a blessing such as: “God bless you” to someone, we are wishing them the good things of life in His Name. Is that “unchristian”? In the Ancient World the “good things of life” included: obedient children, long life and livestock in satisfactory numbers. Today we consider generally that the good things of life consist of fancy reliable vehicles, a large home or a number of them, a lucrative job, comfortable living etc., according to individual needs or wants… – that is, possessing the items some seem to see as objectionable to pray for or preach about. What is not easy to grasp in the context of their complaining about wealthy pastors they label “prosperity preachers” is the message of these objectors that it is not wrong for a Christian to be wealthy. So what is the problem? Is it what one chooses as a Christian leader to put one’s wealth towards? What is the Biblical directive on this matter, especially considering the relativity of wealth? Where also is the Scripture that denies God ever blesses a minister with wealth? Who are we to stipulate who gets blessed how or why? Or is the problem about wanting to be rich and/or telling people that God can give them wealth? Since we know that God does bless with wealth the conclusion then seems to be that it is unchristian to want wealth. Of course it could be true however that the “prosperity preachers” (or at least some of them) receive the blessing of material prosperity that comes their way without even wishing for it seriously.
Clearly there is definitely a huge problem with preachers who base their theology on wishes rather than on Scripture, making people think they only need to want something and God WILL supply it. In this regard they mislead and do preach a false gospel. God knows to give “good gifts”, gifts that He determines are good for us; not just any gift, simply because we ask. God does tell us nonetheless why some people do not receive what they ask for (James 4:1-3). The choice however, of when, where, how or even whether we get a good gift is up to His Sovereign Will. Also I am not saying by any stretch of the imagination that no pastor daubed “prosperity preacher” or for that matter, no Christian pastor is engaged in fraud. On the other hand what sincere preachers choose to present of the truth about Christ and how they do it is up to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Consider these situations: It is acceptable for Christians who are musicians to make money actually trading in Biblical and Christian beliefs and concepts, as commodity. Also churches have designated ministries through which they engage in making money, selling books and other bible-based resources (or asking for donations) just like the so-called prosperity preachers do. Some churches even sell items on the premises on Sundays! One major difference however is probably that a much larger “marketplace” is available to one group than the others and therefore a better chance to bring in more revenue. Preaching and selling items are ways of earning income. So if the objection to what has been labeled as pushing a “prosperity gospel” is based on an accusation of using it for economic gain it should be unacceptable to benefit economically from any Christian activity. Why is it wrong for TV preachers to use their gift of preaching or writing to make money and not for a singer-song writer? If spiritual insincerity is the charge (which may be laid against all Christian entities that engage in economic activity) then even with proof, I don’t believe it is the place of another Christian to pass judgment. Whether to convict or condemn how people relate to God as Christ shows Him to us is totally up to the Holy Spirit. Isn’t it? Other Christians can only expose the “crime” for which they have clear evidence.
If the issue is about wrong theology, I believe it is fair for the leaders who agree on the point(s) of error to set the objections out sensitively and prayerfully on a clear theological basis and give the offender an opportunity to respond. Based on my comments about the paper on 5 Errors of the Prosperity Gospel I cannot recommend that article as a model. I think it is also fair to publish the agreed-upon wrong theology with the agreed upon correct one if the preacher seen to be at fault does not recant. Only biblical texts that specifically refer to the “crime” may be used in the “indictment” and only strict rules of evidence may be used to assign guilt. Being angry, scandalized or appalled never serves any rational purpose when solving a problem especially with a theological offender (Eph. 4:31-32).
By way of self-disclosure I need to state that I do not accept so-called Prosperity Theology totally or exclusively. I accept all Ministries or theological stances that are Bible-based. I have not felt spiritually fulfilled, comfortable in or in “sync” with every church I’ve attended however; the variety and multiplicity of those that meet my criteria allow me to move on. For me, a facilitative way to look at different approaches to centering worship in Christ, such as denominations, movements or specialized teachings is to see them as faith genres within Christianity. The goal in such a classification is to remove the need for conflict and competition, over and above the current divisions, which are already damaging to the Gospel Message.