I wonder what it would be like to be wealthy. Like Tevye, the lead character in Fiddler on the Roof, I paint scenarios in my mind about what I would do "if I were a wealthy man." I think of the trust funds I'd set up for my wife, kids, nieces, and nephews, of the good causes to which I'd contribute, of how my wife would no longer be forced to work both a full- and a part-time job, of donating money to organizations like Lutheran World Relief and the Boys and Girls Club, of how I would give to the cause of Jesus Christ in the world, and of course, of all the money I would give to our church.
Occasionally, I've even asked God to make these fantasies come true. But they haven't. Instead, my wife and I slog on, part of the comfortable but always scrimping American middle class.
Prosperity preacher Creflo Dollar, profiled in today's New York Times, might say that turn of events represents a failure in our faith. If only I had more faith, he and others of his ilk would say, I would have more money.
Proponents of the Prosperity Gospel claim that if Christians believe enough and give enough, God will give them prosperity. As Readeriam points out in her post on the Times profile, Dollar and others claim that for them, prosperity is more than just a financial matter; but these folks do talk an awful lot about cash! Believe in God, they say, and you'll have money.
Are the poor of the world, which includes among its number, Jesus Christ, the Savior we follow and claim to be God-enfleshed, deficient in their faith?
If we believed more, would those of us working to make ends meet be on Easy Street?
I readily admit to deficiencies in my faith. But there are also massive deficiencies in the "theology" of Mr. Dollar and other proponents of the Prosperity Gospel. I want to address just three of them here.
The first problem with it is that they completely distort how faith in Christ comes to us. Dollar and others turn faith into something we manufacture, rather than something that God, through His Holy Spirit, constructs within those who are willing to let Jesus Christ into their lives. "No one says, 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit," Paul writes in the New Testament (First Corinthians 12:3).
A person can invite Christ to be their God and Savior. The more open we are to Christ, the more faith God will construct in us. But faith isn't the result of our efforts. You can't, like the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, who squinted his eyes and screwed up his face to sell himself on the idea that there were no such things as ghosts, sell yourself on the reliability of Jesus Christ. Instead, God creates faith within people who find trusting anyone or anything other than themselves foreign. As the New Testament book of Ephesians says:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:8-10)A second problem with Dollar's distortions of Biblical Christian belief is his teaching that to be prosperous, we need more faith. That's wrong. "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed," Jesus once told His disciples, "you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you" (Luke 17:6). In other words, what matters is not the size of our faith, but the size of the God in Whom we place our faith.
Even tiny faith in a big God can bring great results! A man once brought his demon-possessed son to Jesus. "If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us," the desperate father pleaded. Mark's Gospel goes on to relate:
Jesus said to him, “If you are able! —All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23-24)That man's faith was small and deficient. But Jesus made his boy well.
A third problem is that Dollar's theology appears to ignore the will of God. News flash: God doesn't will for all people to be wealthy. While there were wealthy believers in both the Old and New Testaments and have been throughout the history of the Church, most believers haven't been rich. A term used for the vast majority of Old Testament believers, for example, was anawim, the humble poor. Jesus was poor, as were His earthly parents who, when they came to the Temple, couldn't afford to sacrifice a lamb. Instead, they offered the sacrifice of those of more modest means, a dove.
None of this is to say that God is opposed to people working to advance themselves financially. As several recent books by historians point out, Christianity was the indispensable foundation for the free enterprise system. That's because every Christian knows himself and herself to be a child of God, set free from the constraints of stereotypes associated with class, race, nationality, or gender. As it relates to Christian faith, Karl Marx got it precisely wrong: Christianity isn't an opiate of people; it's smelling salts for us: awaking us to our capacity to for things like inventiveness and productivity, as well as for fighting injustice and loving our neighbors.
The Christian works hard and prays hard for personal success, but also prays, "Thy will be done!" I have come to accept, however reluctantly, that God has not decided--at least until this point--for me to be wealthy. That means that I'm called to live responsibly within those means I have and to be as generous as my current income allows me to be, keeping in mind that I must pay my bills on time and take care of my family.
I may write more about this topic later. But for some great reactions to it, you might also want to look these posts by two of my favorite fellow bloggers: Readeriam and Pastor Jeff.