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. 
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.” 
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.
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
Well said. One of my previous churches taught that great truth, that we are living in the ‘hear but not yet’. I know personally that in the midst of suffering, all we desire is relief. God’s desires are deeper and more complex. There’s a reason why I believe the scriptures focus on Salvation and Hope. Our circumstances, good or bad, do not have the last word.
Hi Ellen! Thanks for your comments. I like how you point out that “God’s desires are deeper and more complex.” I agree that we need a theology of HOPE in this fallen world. Amen that our circumstances don’t have the last word!
I can’t comment on the whole article, so let me mention I few points.
1. Are we supposed to have the best life now? Well obviously no matter how good your life is here, Heaven is going to be far, far better. However John 10:10 says “I came that they may have and enjoy life, and have it in abundance (to the full, till it overflows)” (Amp, CE).
2. Yes, Jesus said that in the world we would have tribulation, but in the next breath He said, “but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world”.
3. The people you mentioned: Abraham, Joseph, Job, David all went through tough times, but God brought them all into prosperity – if you read the account of Joseph it speaks numerous times of how Joseph prospered in everything he did.
I do not believe that prosperity is about being selfish, however I do believe that God wants us to be wealthy. For two reasons (to be brief): to be able to be generous at all times and because he loves us. God does warn about the dangers of riches, but the dangers always involve trusting in money, rather than God.
Thanks for your comments. My only reply is that many faithful Christians of the world are poor or live in meager circumstances. Yet they have a depth of faith and character that should shame us in our western, modern nations. They have so little, but often give so much and sacrificially. They live day by day trusting God to provide. They are much “richer” than us. They have the abundant life.
Since “God wants us to be wealthy because he loves us”, I guess that means God does not actually love many Christians of this world – since many are poor?
I have a number of thoughts concerning prosperity teaching, which I believe, has either been misunderstood, miscommunicated, or misdirected (aimed at the wrong crowd). Of course, it depends on how you define “prosperity”. This is what I believe, based on my experience and what God’s word teaches:
1. Material wealth does not always equate to prosperity, but to the believing Christian who struggles with poor self image prosperity may mean fullness of joy, finding his/her identity in Christ (his/her soul prospering). Those, I believe, are the best audience for Joel Osteen’s message: the are the ones who struggle to make ends meet, who don’t know how to get and keep a good job because of all the loser labels placed upon their heads. It is not for those whose souls are stuffed with pride.
2. Do I believe it’s always God’s will to heal? Yes, I do. But healing is a gift of His grace, and God gives grace to the humble. It is hard for proud people to receive healing. They don’t need to hear how God wants them to prosper. They need to realize that they don’t deserve a thing from God. A rich person who is puffed up with pride needs to repent, lest all the miseries of James 5:1-6 come upon him or her.
(On a side note, I don’t think Paul’s flesh thorn was necessarily a sickness. But even if it was, we do know he called it a messenger of Satan due to pride, and I believe we should reject such messages. However, to think we don’t need others to help us in our spiritual battle is pride. To admit you need prayer from other believers is a humbling thing, so perhaps that was what God was leading Paul to do, as every believer has received some form of grace with which to help others (in this case, him). As we know, Paul was big into the idea that everyone in the body of Christ has a role to play in edifying one another. He makes it very clear in his writings: the Christian life is not a one-man show).
3. In I Corinthians 10:24 Paul tells us not to seek our own “but every man another man’s wealth.” If prosperity equates to selfishness, then obviously the soul that seeks its own wealth is not prospering. If we have material wealth, we should be generous to give to those in need. The poor (those without material wealth) are rich in faith, so in some ways they are prospering much more than the wealthy of this world. The more stuff you have, the more responsibility. It always feels better to give it away.
I know that was long. Thanks for letting me share it.
Thanks for sharing wingandprayer! There are certainly nuances with all this. And as much I am opposed to Joel Osteen’s teachings, I can agree that there are certain ways that certain people could be helped by him. The problem, for me, is that the good gets lost in all the not-so-good, or one can fail to distinguish between the helpful and not-so-helpful and be led astray.
I like your point that “prosperity may mean fullness of joy, finding his/her identity in Christ (his/her soul prospering).”- Yes, amen! And my concern is that too often “prosperity teachers” only or primarily focus on prosperity as material wealth, career success, and otherwise “moving up” in life.
I also like your point that the poor (those without material wealth) can be rich in faith, and in some ways prospering much more than the wealthy of this world. – Yes, amen!
I agree that God wants to heal. But I think it can be a mystery why some are healed and others not, and we need to be cautious about saying the why or why not of healing. I’ve known believers who were humble, and had a strong faith, and who had many other believers praying for them – yet they were not healed. For me, it comes down to the fact that we still live in a fallen, broken world awaiting the final redemption. God sometimes heals, sometimes he doesn’t. Until the eschaton, sickness and death will always be a part of life, and we look forward to the new heaven and new earth where sin and sickness will no longer be. Hallelujah!
I appreciated your thoughts – which I considered balanced and helpful. Thanks for sharing them.
Thanks, Laura. I agree with you, when people aren’t healed it does boil down to the fact that we still live in a fallen, broken world awaiting the final redemption. I think we are pretty much on the same page when it comes to Joel Osteen as well. His teachings can so easily be taken to a me-centered extreme. I would like to hear more sermons focused on how we can love our neighbors and help them prosper as opposed to how we ourselves can prosper, and it would be nice to hear him teach on the rich man and Lazarus – though it’s hard to imagine him delivering it in a way that would convict people of sin. In an interview one time he pretty much said that wasn’t his gift (or maybe it was that he didn’t talk about hell). If it’s not his gift, then I do agree. For my part I believe “Man shall not live by Joel alone,” (or any other famous televangelist for that matter). What we need is God’s full counsel, with beliefs based on scripture as illuminated by the Holy Spirit. No one person has a corner on the truth, but it is encouraging when we as believers can find common ground in Christ. I know that’s what you’re after, and appreciate that you have taken the time to discuss these topics in a reasonable manner. I look forward to reading more articles from you.