The Not Quite Gospel of Prosperity

The book of Proverbs gives good advice about becoming prosperous and successful. It is the word of God, but it’s not quite the gospel.

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My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart, for they will prolong your life many years and bring you peace and prosperity. Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart; then you will win favor and a good name in the sight of God and humankind. Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil. This will bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones. Honor the LORD with your wealth, with the first fruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine. Proverbs 3:1-10

There are some who will tell you that the Christian faith is the path to wealth, good fortune and success. There are some, in fact, who seem to put this at the center of their teaching on why one should become a Christian. Although this idea is sometimes called “the prosperity gospel” or “the success gospel,” it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The gospel – the good news – is the story of how Jesus lived and what his life, death and resurrection means for us.

There are passages of scripture, however, which offer good advice on living a successful life. The passage from Proverbs 3:1-10 quoted above captures the essence of Proverb’s wisdom. Proverbs is full of such advice. Several of the Psalms (Psalm 1, for example) contain similar admonitions. While the wisdom of Proverbs is not “the gospel,” it is still generally true that the Proverbs-like choices that people make have a great impact on their lives. Being honest, kind and generous, living frugally, working hard, going to school, avoiding drunkenness, not sleeping around, being faithful in one’s marriage, hanging with the right crowd: these still generally lead people to a healthier, more prosperous and less troubled future than their opposites.

There is a reason that groups that experience “revival” in one generation often experience greater prosperity in the next. To a large degree, the “straight life” is its own reward, what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “immanent righteousness.” Proverbs suggests, in addition, that God chooses to smile on such a life and reward it.

That’s not to say that the world’s evil doesn’t often frustrate those who live with Proverbs-like uprightness. The book of Proverbs itself recognizes this:

The fallow ground of the poor yields much food, but it is swept away through injustice (Proverbs 13:23).

Still, even in an unjust world, the industrious person is more likely to prosper than the lazy and the person faithful to his or her marriage is less likely to cause (and experience) heartbreak than the adulterer.

The good advice of Proverbs is not the gospel, but it is still good advice. It is not the heart of the Christian faith, but it is part of the Christian faith because it is part of God’s word to us.

But if it is the word of God, how do we square it with the words in red in the New Testament? Jesus didn’t seem at all concerned about being successful, having a good name or being prosperous. In fact, he called his itinerant disciples to accept humiliation, not to desire a good reputation. He required them to be penniless, not to seek prosperity. He called them to self-sacrifice, not to self-fulfillment.

All this is true, but it is not the primary reason why the “prosperity gospel” falls short of the gospel. Jesus’ directions to the men and women who followed him from village to village were not abstract, universal teachings about humility, poverty and sacrifice. Rather, they were part-and-parcel of Jesus’ own mission to embody God’s self-abasing, redeeming love. Jesus’ life and teaching culminated on the cross.

The church that followed Jesus saw its life illuminated by Jesus’ life and teaching, but it did not simply mimic the model of discipleship Jesus established between his baptism and crucifixion. Paul, for example, earned a living with his hands and expected most followers of Jesus to do the same:

For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thessalonians 3:7-12)

In the Pastoral Epistles, he lays out rules for those who receive charity from the church (1 Timothy 5:16). He sets standards for church leaders that sound very Proverbs like (not habitual drunks, good husbands, financially responsible, dignified, and respected by outsiders) (1 Timothy 3:1-13). Some early higher critics considered these kinds of statements “early Catholicism” and a departure from the pure teaching of Jesus and Paul’s gospel of pure grace. Consequently, they concluded that Paul could not have written them – a truly circular argument.

Neither prosperity nor poverty in itself is the essence of the gospel. The particular demands that we must obey – both individually and collectively – are the ones commensurate with our calling. Some Christians may be called – like the first disciples – to leave family, property and plow behind them for the sake of their particular call. Proverbs may not have nearly as much to say to them as the words of Jesus. Now, however, as in the New Testament church, the majority of Christians will live rather ordinary looking lives in which the teachings of Proverbs are still quite significant.

Still, the life and teaching of Jesus tower over all our deeds. They shine like a light in the sky, illuminating our destination in the kingdom of God. The gospel reveals that the blessings of prosperity, fame, health and happiness are relative – not absolute – goods. Paul reminds those who live in this world,

From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. (1 Corinthians 7:29-31)

I see the wisdom literature and the gospels as having different functions, both in their original settings and now within the church. To me, the wisdom literature is concerned with ordinary living. Wisdom thinking is still applicable for most Christians who live ordinary-looking lives. They work, they raise families, etc. The gospels show us what God did to accomplish our salvation and gives us a preview of what that ultimate salvation will eventually look like. The gospels are not primarily and directly instructions on how to live, but the vision of what God has done – and will do – in Christ does shape our lives.

The book of Proverbs gives good advice about becoming prosperous and successful. It is the word of God, but it’s not quite the gospel.