The idea that holiness equates to monetary gain is not new. It has enjoyed a resurgence over the last generation in the outskirts of some Christian circles: encompassing different forms, yet maintaining a familiarity in message. I say this not to diminish these believers, for many undoubtfully have a “rich” relationship with the Lord (forgive the pun). The Bible is a big book, and takes a concerted amount of effort to understand … lifetimes of effort. As you read it to gain understanding for some query you had, you will find answers, and also more questions based on your greater understanding. This leads you to dig deeper, perpetuating a cycle of ever increasing theological maturity: weaning you from the spiritual milk and giving you some doctrinal beef jerky to chew on. Your curiosity of superficial epidermal inquiry will gradually entice you to dissect deeper, and explore wider, until you find yourself at the bone of the matter, studying the marrow. While admittedly there are some charlatan preachers amongst us, these are not representative of their congregants in the pews. And it’s usually not difficult to help the confused scratch through the surface of the subject to see the furuncle a particular teaching can generate.
It’s Sunday morning and while I’m listening to the sermon, a feel a tap on my shoulder. A friend of mine passes me a note. The note seems to indicate he has reached a crossroads in his faith. Actually, the note is stronger than that, it indicates he is actively spitting on his faith. My friend is marginally poor by our community’s standards. He lives with his girlfriend (still on spiritual milk) in an humble dwelling. He is on assistance and she works a meager job. With a recent downward turn in the economy, she has lost her job. Other circumstances accumulate to discourage him, to the point of disparaging God. To him, he has made an investment, and he sees no return on that investment. No longer does he see the blessings in his life, only the supposed blessings he covets in others. Ironically, he may perhaps covet the curses in the lives of others – things that we cherish so deeply on this planet, that hinder our relationship with the Almighty.
Yet something is wrong with my brother. Our faith is supposed to ground and strengthen us in life’s valleys. Yet he feels he can only have faith when he is enshrouded with material bliss.. Or some semblance of it. He seems to feel that life is a supernaturally rigged roulette wheel, and that if he can please God he will win the jackpot: which doesn’t necessarily equate to money, but can be relationships, positive circumstances, or even health. So prosperity for him could mean accumulating Manna, a good Medical, and an hot Momma (the 3 M’s). Epidermal thinking. I love my dear brother, and I understand life’s bumps hurt, sometimes fatally. We live in a fallen world of egregious sin. Yet faulty teachers have conditioned him to see things in this way. The jackpot God promises isn’t a speck of sand in your shoe (as my friend seems to feel and want), it’s not even the entire moon being made of solid gold (it’s so much more than that). God doesn’t promise copious manna, good medicals, and hot mommas; instead He promises mollification through the blood of His Son. The Good News is that we are no longer at enmity with God. Through His son, Jesus Christ, we have a restored relationship with the Almighty Father, and will enjoy eternity in His company. God’s anger at our iniquity is pacified, and His righteous rage is replaced with love towards us.
I remember watching the former heavy weight boxing champion, Mike Tyson. He went from a relative nobody to an house-hold-name with one well-placed left-hook. Famous and Rich, he suddenly found he had a massive entourage surrounding him. He was known to be loose with his money and spent it freely on everyone around him. Those orbiting his person profited by their proximity to him. Yet Mike was caught up in the moment, and never seemed to wonder why these friends only appeared after his wallet was literally busting at the seams. Later, as life tends to do, Mike hit rock bottom. He was bankrupt and had no more money. And the departure of his money was followed by the departure of his entourage. These people were never his friends. They did not care for him. Their only interest in him was in what they could get from him at that moment. Many times we treat God in this way: seeking rewards and not relationships. I suspect this is where my friends drift began.
As I alluded to, variants of this thinking is hardly unprecedented. Before the advent of the New Covenant, this thinking floated around in some niches of Israelite society. God had instituted a sacrificial system for the atonement of sin. Yet animals were expensive, particularly the choice ones required for the rite. So some of the affluent, as they tend to do, thought they must be more righteous than the poor to be able to afford the more expensive sacrifices. They also reasoned that since these sacrifices removed their sin, and since they could afford to do them more, they must be in a better standing with God. In a sense, they associated their ample estates with God's reward for their supposed holy living: cyclically thinking God perpetuated their ceremonially clean standing by giving them the means to atone for their sins. This despite the fact that God did make numerous accommodations for the poor within His sacrificial framework (ex. For the sin offering and the burnt offering, which normally required two lambs, the impoverished could substitute two turtledoves or two pigeons instead. Lev 14:21-32 … Infact, there are numerous concessions throughout the law in these regards). And these alternative sacrifices were not deemed of lesser quality in God’s eyes. Those using them were as clean publicly as those who purchased the higher costing offerings. Furthermore, it goes without saying that the prophets likewise repeatedly admonished the Israelites haphazard understanding regarding sacrificial law (Isaiah 1:11-13). Some of which might tie into this narrative.
The clarity of the law and its purpose seems to have alluded some within the 1 percenter camp at that time, prompting them to reinterpret God’s law in light of their imaginations instead of His scriptures: again causing them to infer that God preferred the rich sacrifices more than the poor ones. These leaps of logic lead them to surmise that the rich were more righteous than the poor – a form of prosperity doctrine. This cultural perception is evident in the book of Job. Job was a righteous and wealthy man, and after he had lost his worldly standing, and had lost his wealth and his health, his friends interject some of this faulty conjecture. They speculated that Job was rich and healthy because he was holy, and that his loss of status indicated a loss of holiness … or some sinful activity that needed to be repented of. Which resulted in a loss of God’s blessings. Yet the books purpose is to teach us, in part, that this perception is frequently incorrect.
God’s interaction with us is not some simple linear formulation. Can God bless us with riches? Absolutely. Can God call us to poverty? Absolutely. Can we understand the intricacies of God’s purposes in our lives and the greater world around us? Absolutely not. Nor are we privy to that information. We are called to live by faith for a reason, for we are not omniscient.
Yet more poignant is some of today’s manifestations of this teaching. There are goats amongst the sheep. Many moons ago, I identified one such goat, the now quasi defunct Jim Bakker. To those not in the know, he was a hard-core prosperity televangelist. After his embarrassing self-destruction and jail time, many years later, I was surprised to one day spot him hiding in my TV set again. He had paid for some air time during the witch’s hour and was airing old re-runs of his glory days, all the while flogging my retinas for donations to support his sorry arse. Interestingly enough, or perhaps bizarrely would be a better descriptor, Jim claimed to have found a blessedly magical pond or something, located in the glowingly radioactive landscape of Chernobyl. He claimed that despite the nuclear power plants meltdown, and ensuing poisoning of its surroundings, locals that were drinking from this water source were protected from the radioactive death that would normally ensue in that region. On some level, I think it was inferred that this had something to do with God, yet the connection was a tad fuzzy – magic healing water seemed to be the focal marketing tool. Gleefully, Jim apparently bottled this water, and blessed it, and put it into tiny vials, and promised to send it to those who requested it … free of charge (at first). And if you drank it you would be healed … by God, somehow. I smiled. You see, when I witnessed this asinine story, I immediately signed up for my free vial. Why? Because it would cost Mr. Bakker money to send it to me. Therefore on some level, I felt I was damaging his ability to damage others. It seems odd to me, however, that some people would actually send for potentially radioactive water to drink. I guess some people reason unreasonably (luckily for them, the water was likely California tap). Eventually, true to form, my magic miracle water, my elixir or snake oil, found its way into my mail slot. Accompanied with a polite letter with quasi-Christian overtones. This started my amusing relationship with Mr. Bakker, or inmate 286 as I like to call him. Now that Jim had my address, more solicitations ensued, kindly asking me to donate to his ministry with an escalating intensity. I never did. Eventually, another free offer was made, and I grabbed it as well. Can you believe my luck, a verifiable point-of-contact was sent to me, a 1 inch square piece of fabric (cotton I believe) that Jim had personally prayed over. Apparently, he thought he was akin to Paul on some level (whose handkerchief healed the sick). This fabric was supposed to bless me and keep me healthy. I could carry it in my pocket like a magical talisman. Whoopee for me. More letters followed. And more letters. Each gradually becoming increasingly forward and aggressive in asking for my charity. Eventually, I received my last letter, and it was a dozy. My good pal Jim informed me that he had been praying for my health during this time, which was why I was still healthy, and that unless I sent him some money, he would stop praying for my health. Hint, hint. A threat? Unless I sent him money, I would become ill and die. I saved all the letters; they’re more comical to read than Garfield comics. Health and wealth were tied to supporting this ministry. The more you would give, the more God would inturn bless you with currency and vitality. What a scam. In the end, I probably cost Jimmy a couple bucks in stamps and trinkets.
Yet it is people like Bakker that subliminally poison well intentioned people like my friend. Somewhere, he became enamoured with what he could get from God, here and now. He unwittingly bartered his devotion for material accumulation. He presented his faith as a commodity to sell to God. He’s a good man, and didn’t even realize the grievous error he succumbed too. We talked about it, and I hope God uses my words. He missed Church for a couple of months, but eventually showed up again. That was a good sign. But what an odd thing, to associate prosperity with righteousness or faith. And to try and make it a de facto correlation. Even the most shallow readings of scripture quickly dispel such notions. The apostles were not rich men, and all but John were martyred for their faith. And John was exiled on a prison island till the end of his days. I don’t know if these people ever bothered reading about Paul in the Acts. His ministry was not a cake walk. The brutality and suffering this man endured for God is simply mind blowing. Yet apparently, these saintly Christians would be regarded as spiritually regressive. In fact, in light of this teaching, it follows that the greatest sinners would be martyrs. Why else would God allow them to be killed? How can peoples thinking get so turned around? Even the Son of man had no place to lay his head (Luke 9:58).