The modern ‘prosperity gospel’ had its origins in the 1950s, with the American preacher Kenneth Hagin. It teaches that everything bad in this world (including poverty and sickness) comes from Satan. Those who truly belong to God should therefore not experience such things; if they do, they are either living in sin or lacking in faith. The ‘normal’ Christian life should be one of unbroken health and limitless prosperity.
At first glance, there appears to be a good deal of Biblical support for the idea that “prosperity is the will of God” for every Christian. Abraham (the supreme example of a man of faith) was wealthy (Genesis 13:2). Under the old covenant, Israel’s obedience was rewarded with material blessings (Leviticus 26:3-5). And there are many places in the Old Testament where prosperity is promised to those who fear and obey God (e.g. Psalm 37:4; Psalm 128:1-4; Proverbs 16:20). This is somewhat less obvious in the New Testament, but Jesus does appear on one occasion to promise material rewards for those who follow Him: “Truly I tell you, no-one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for Me and the gospel will fail to receive hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields…” (Mark 10:29,30).
In particular, those who give generously to God can expect Him to respond generously in return. This has support in both the Old Testament (e.g. Proverbs 3:9,10; Malachi 3:10) and the New (e.g. Luke 6:38; II Corinthians 9:6-8).
But does the Bible really teach that prosperity is the will of God for every believer? Emphatically, no! It certainly wasn’t the case even in the Old Testament: Asaph wrote a whole psalm about the perceived injustice of God’s dealings (Psalm 73):
“ I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” (Psalm 73:3)
Despite God’s promises, the actual experience of many faithful Old Testament believers was that (just like today) it’s the wicked and godless who prosper – often at the expense of the righteous! And Jesus Himself was poor; He didn’t even have a home of His own (Matthew 8:20). Following Him didn’t make any of the apostles rich, either. “To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless,” wrote Paul (I Corinthians 4:11). But this description of a ‘typical’ apostle is in complete contrast to the typical prosperity gospel preacher!
So what about all those promises in the Old Testament? Those old covenant blessings were promised to Israel as a nation – not to individuals. And although it’s perfectly possible for the godly to prosper (because they are motivated to work hard), riches aren’t a reliable indicator of righteousness because the wicked also get rich (by stealing from and exploiting their fellow human beings), while all too often it’s the honest man who finds himself at the bottom of the heap. But, as the book of Proverbs also acknowledges, it’s better to be good than to be rich:
“Better a little with the fear of the LORD
than great wealth with turmoil.
Better a dish of vegetables with love
than a fattened calf with hatred.” (Proverbs 15:16,17)
We are told most emphatically that God blesses those who put His Kingdom first (Matthew 6:33), which would seem to rule out any emphasis on material reward. If our main thought when we approach God is, ’What’s in it for me?’ it’s really money that we are worshipping, not God – which is idolatry. But if we put God first (and I mean really first – not using Him as a means to an end), He will look after us. Jesus’ promise that God will ‘reimburse’ us is not a guarantee that we shall be rich in worldly terms, but an assurance that He will supply us with everything we need.
“Riches I need not, nor man’s empty praise;
Be Thou mine inheritance, now and always.
Be Thou and Thou only the first in my heart.
O Sovereign of heaven, my treasure Thou art.” (Old Irish hymn)