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Although this post is part of the “faith and suffering” series, it can stand alone as a post on the “prosperity gospel” – also called the “health and wealth gospel.” There are some Christians who think we should prosper spiritually, mentally, physically and financially in this life. Is this accurate? Is this biblical?

While it would not be accurate to say the opposite (that God overtly wants us to suffer or wishes the worst for us), the implication of the prosperity gospel is that if a Christian is suffering they must lack faith or there is some other type of problem. Also of concern is that the prosperity gospel used to be limited to a certain smaller segment of Christianity, but has subtly weaved its way into more mainstream evangelicalism.There is emphasis on having “the best life now”.  But are we supposed to be having the best life now?

It seems that prosperity gospel proponents forget that we are living in the “already, but not yet.” (See previous post.) The world we live in is not the way it was originally created or meant to be. It is a broken world filled with sinful people on a groaning planet, and we can not expect to avoid all calamity. Suffering will never be eliminated during our present life on earth. The “best life” is in the future on the new heaven and earth!

Perhaps this sounds pessimistic, yet I would argue that it is reality. Randy Alcorn expresses similar thoughts in his book entitled If God is Good.  He states that:

too many evangelical churches “have failed to teach people to think biblically about the realities of evil and suffering” and that this failure has left Christians unprepared for the harsh realities of life, as well as making them vulnerable to abandoning the faith when hardship comes. [1]

We certainly don’t want to overlook that the Bible contains many positive promises of blessing for the believer. However, the problem seems to be that some people lack balance in this regard. They focus on the promises of blessing, while ignoring the promises of hardship. (Indeed, lack of balance leads to much inaccurate theology.)

The Bible promises both blessing and suffering, because we are living in the “already, but not yet.” I appreciated the “balance” in a devotional booklet I receive quarterly. There was an issue on God’s promises, and one part was entitled the “Unpopular Promises.” [2]

For example, John 16:33 clearly states “in the world you will have tribulation” or 2 Timothy 3:12, which states “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

Prosperity gospel proponents encourage believers to “claim” the promises of God by faith. But, of course, they only encourage people to claim the promises of blessing. Isn’t it interesting that they don’t encourage us to claim the promises of persecution and tribulation?

We also need to consider the lives of individuals in both the Old and New Testament. Did people in the Bible always prosper? Abraham and Sarah experienced infertility, and waited and waited for their promised son to be born. Joseph was sold into slavery, falsely accused, sent to jail, and forgotten about. Famous Job suffered horribly in almost every way possible: death of his family, loss of his wealth, severe physical illness, and emotional/mental turmoil. Though King David experienced many blessings, he also spent years running from Saul, had family struggles, and his son Absalom revolted against him. The prophet Jeremiah spent many of his days in tears, and was forbidden to marry.

Some might argue that these figures were in the Old Testament, and the coming of Christ changed everything and we can now prosper in all things because of the death and resurrection of Christ. However, Christian believers are repeatedly commanded in the New Testament to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and imitate their Lord. The life of Christ on earth was far from an easy one.

Jesus stepped out of the glories of heaven and become poor for our sake (2 Corinthians 8:9). During his ministry years, Jesus was ridiculed, falsely accused, and attempts made on his life. Yet he selflessly served and had compassion on the multitudes. Finally he was arrested on false charges, endured a sham trial, abandoned by his friends, flogged, mocked, and crucified on a Roman cross. Philippians 2:6-8 reminds us that Jesus made himself nothing, humbled himself, and became obedient to death. His did not live a glamorous life of prosperity.

Should we as his disciples expect anything different? Matthew 10:24-25 states that a disciple is not above his teacher. Matthew, Mark and Luke all state that a follower of Christ must deny herself and take up her cross daily. This means to be ready to suffer.

Randy Alcorn states:

Christians should expect to suffer more, not less, since they suffer under the Fall and as followers of Christ. If your goal is to avoid suffering in this life, then following Christ will not help you.[3]

We should also consider the apostle Paul, whose life was filled with ongoing suffering. He suffered from a health ailment that he described as a “thorn in his flesh” and despite entreating the Lord three times for healing, he was not healed (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). In 2 Corinthians 11:23-28, Paul summarizes his afflictions: beatings, shipwrecks, prison stays, perils of all sorts, weariness, toil, sleeplessness, and hunger. Yet, the illustrious apostle Paul is perhaps the greatest missionary that has ever lived, and wrote thirteen books of the New Testament.

Paul’s life was not prosperous physically or materially, nor did he have “the best life now.”  However, he realized the best life was to come in the eschatological future and this gave him hope, filled him with joy, and motivated him in ministry. Our attitude should be the same.

 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed….For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. –  2 Corinthians 4

[1] Randy Alcorn, If God is Good (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2009), 14.

[2] Tim Johnson, ed. Moments for You, Theme: God’s Promises (Volume 52, Number 2. Bedford,Pa: Moments with the Book, 2008), 12-13.

[3] Randy Alcorn, If God is Good (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2009), 381.