Prosperity and the Gospel
What is the Connection Between the Gospel and Health and Wealth?
The Bible teaches
that it is
God’s will to prosper us materially and give us good health.
That is true in the Old Testament: “Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits—who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (Psalm 103:2-5).
And Saint Paul clearly teaches a connection between generous, sacrificial giving and our experiencing increasing financial blessing: “Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. . . And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. . . Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God” (2 Corinthians 9:6-11).
While we should not limit this blessing to material things, material things certainly are at least somewhat in view: “ . . so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work” (verse 8). “You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion” (verse 11).
That is the teaching of the 31 chapters of the book of Proverbs. But I said, normally, because Job reveals the fine print in the contract, as I will attempt to lay out below.
First of all, consider health. Essentially, I believe that a person is “immortal” until God’s purpose for his life is completed. That doesn’t mean that we won’t get sick; we will, and unless somebody shoots us or runs over us with a car or something like that, one day, sooner or later, every one of us is going to get sick from something that’s going to kill us: “It is appointed for men to die once” (Hebrews 9:27). We see that in the life of one of the three greatest workers of miracles in the Old Testament, Elisha. “Now Elisha was suffering from the illness from which he died” (2 Kings 13:14). Amazingly, even in his death, this type of Christ brings life: “Elisha died and was buried. Now Moabite raiders used to enter the country every spring. Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man’s body into Elisha’s tomb. When the body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet” (2 Kings 13:20, 21).
I believe that it is normally God’s will that we have sufficient health so that we can go about doing what he’s called us to do, not that we don’t ever get tired, feel bad or have a bout with illness. Due to sickness, I have only missed preaching in our Sunday morning services two times in the past 32 years. But I will let you in on a little secret, if I’m going to feel under the weather when I get up, it’s almost always on Sunday morning. Time and again, my fever has broken while I was preaching. I’m usually ready for a nap after the second morning sermon, but I almost always feel better after I preach than before. Back on Monday, January 26, 2004, I was diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy which left the left side of my face paralyzed to the point I could neither completely close my left eye or the left side of my mouth. I had been eating lunch with a man in my congregation and I realized that the onions in my liver and onions kept falling out of my mouth. Within three weeks I was completely healed, but on two Sundays I had to use my left hand to push my lips together every time I used a bilabial plosive, otherwise I couldn’t pronounce words like “pastor” or “bad.”
As indicated above, the Bible teaches that it is normally God’s will to prosper believers materially, but we must hold fast to certain truths, lest we twist this biblical truth to our own destruction.
1. It belongs to God alone to define what prosperity is.
1.1. Prosperity is not having everything we desire—so much of what we desire is bad for us, afterall, like a little child stuffing himself with candy at holiday time. If I went through my list of desires, let’s see . . . on second thought, I don’t think I want to go there.
1.2. Prosperity varies from place to place, culture to culture and time to time. Having an automobile in modern suburban America is probably a necessity, and one that we may humbly expect that God will provide as we seek to do his will. But having a dirt-floored, log cabin, vegetables and cured meat, homespun clothing, a mule and tools would have met these criteria a couple of hundred years ago.
1.3. Prosperity is having enough “money” so that we are able to provide food and shelter for those for whom we are responsible and to have enough left over to give to advance God’s kingdom in the lives of others.
2. Our ultimate “prosperity” in Christ means that God will sometimes orchestrate the events of our lives in such a way that we find ourselves bewildered by our circumstances. That certainly was often the experience of the Apostle Paul as he describes it in 2 Corinthians 11:21-29: “I have . . . been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?”
2.1. Saint Paul teaches us that God is directing everything in the life of believers so that they will become more and more like the Lord Jesus: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:28, 29).
2.2. Joseph could look back on the trials of his life, the hellish events unleashed by the murderous deeds of his brothers, and confess: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).
2.3. It wasn’t because of Paul’s sin or lack of faith, that our heavenly Father ordained that an angel of Satan would cause Paul to suffer with his thorn in the flesh; it was to produce growth in grace and increasing humility before God: “And because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me—to keep me from exalting myself” (2 Corinthians 12:7)!
Paul experienced real pain from this attack and earnestly sought relief from his Father, “Concerning this I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me” (2 Corinthians 12:8).
But his prayer was not answered the way that he wanted, and this wasn’t due to Paul’s lack of faith or the presence of unconfessed sin in his life: ‘And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
The end result of this was Paul’s joyful submission to God’s good providence, not a bitter, stoic resignation: “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9, 10).
3. Because we do not yet see all things under the feet of our Mediator (Hebrews 2:8), even though everything is under the sovereign plan of God (Ephesians 1:11), life in this world is often marked by futility and frustration. Heaven and the return of Christ are where we will experience things the way they should be in keeping with our inheritance We see that in 2 Corinthians 12, above, but it is profoundly expressed in Ecclesiastes and in one of my favorite Psalms, Psalm 73. The Psalmist is quite overwhelmed with his own trials and this situation is exacerbated as he observes how well off the God-hating, immoral people around him are:
“But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Psalm 73:2, 3).
Trying to understanding life from the perspective of “under the Sun” (Ecclesiastes) leads us to false conclusions; it is only when we factor in the unseen world and the future beyond that we can make sense of things: “When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny” (Psalm 73:16, 17).
Even though it is a cliché and often mocked, we do live for our “pie in the sky,” because our “pie in the sky” is being in the presence of Jesus now and perfectly so in the future. “Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. . . But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds” (Psalm 73:23-28).
4. Psalm 73:23-28 underscores the heart of the matter: it isn’t gold, not even the streets of gold in the new Jerusalem, that brings true joy and fulfillment; it is knowing and loving our blessed, Triune God, and living for his glory, set to the purpose of his kingdom . . .
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field” (Matthew 13:44).
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:45, 46).
To a real Christian, Christ is the Treasure hidden in the field, our Pearl of great price. For him we give up everything and count it but skybalon (Philippians 3:8). Yet, wonder of wonders, we are Christ’s treasure, too, his pearl of great price. For us, he gave up the joy and glory of heaven. He who is and always remains fully God in every way, became a real human being, just like you and me in every way, except he did not have a sinful nature and he never sinned. For us, he endured the shameful, agonizing death of the cross.
A focus on material wealth in preaching, then, is wicked. Our focus must be the glory of God and people coming to enjoy him. We are to seek the Lord and his righteousness and leave to him to order the things in our lives for our good and his glory in the advancement of his kingdom. To be sure, God “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17), but these things add nothing to our lives apart from our loving the Lord Jesus and delighting in him. Indeed, apart from a life lived in devotion to the Lord, these things become sinful snares and deadly poisons, as our Lord warned: “The worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke (the Word), making it unfruitful” (Matthew 13:22).
Finally, health and wealth are never ends in themselves, they are means to an end: the advancement of God’s kingdom. A kingdom centered approach sees material wealth as a trust from God to be used to advance his kingdom in the lives of others—the same goes for good health. I do not believe in the private ownership of property, a damnable lie; the Bible teaches the private stewardship of property. All that I am, all that I have, be it time, energy, spouse, children, parents, money, houses, lands, rights, respect, or what have you—it all belongs to God, and I am called to use it for his glory and the good of others, as he directs by his Word and Spirit in his good providence. That is the happy life. That is the free life. That is the true Christian life.