‘Being blessed’ and the ‘prosperity gospel’

  • Question from JM, United Kingdom

    I’ve noticed that I sometimes say: “God really protected me through a difficult time or from something bad happening.” The problem is that the sub-text of what I am saying is that “God blessed me by protecting me from X, therefore if you have been through X, God obviously wasn’t blessing you.” So a person who wasn’t protected from X could think “God obviously doesn’t care about me as much…”

    If we describe positive circumstances or experiences God’s blessings, then are we also saying that negative circumstances are God’s punishment or, to be less drastic, his withdrawal of blessing? This would seem inconsistent with stories in the Bible such as Job. It would also mean that those who follow Jesus would not develop the character and perseverance such circumstances bring (as pointed out by Paul).

    The prosperity gospel is an obvious extreme of this mechanism at work. By stating that material prosperity is a sign of God’s favour the message conveyed is that those who do not experience such prosperity are somehow out of favour with God. If this were the case Jesus himself would appear to have been out of favour with God (“Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” Luke 9:58)!!

    When is it fair to describe our blessings as having been given by God, and when is it simply bad theology? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

    This is a similar dilemma to one sometimes set up by critics of religion – when a highly unlikely set of circumstances results in someone being saved from certain death we call it a miracle, so why do we call an equally unlikely set of circumstances resulting in someone’s death a freak accident?

    Populist preaching and teaching in Western countries has, in recent times, looked more for God’s blessing than God’s punishment. This is partly due to an unconscious adoption of capitalist cultural norms – peace, prosperity, longevity and good health are all good (and they certainly are), but the positive growth of human beings through situations of suffering has been overlooked. In fact what society is apparently reaping in the West is a generation of  obese children who are going to die before their parents. In this respect the ‘good things’ of life are turning out to be not so good.

    There are several Bible passages that explain suffering as a) a punishment from God for sinful behaviour (in 1 Corinthians chapter 11 verse 30 sickness and death within the church are because of sin), b) rejection from God (most of the Old Testament history books), c) something that just happens because we live in a fallen world (Luke 13 verses 1-5), and d) because God planned to use it for something good (see John chapter 9). Equally there are plenty of examples of situations where God preserves people from suffering.

    One problem with ‘prosperity teaching’ is that it does not apply to the majority of Christians in the world – particularly those who suffer daily under oppressive regimes because they have chosen to follow Christ. Those Christians would, in contrast, consider it a blessing to suffer abuse and rejection for the name and in that way they are living a key theme of Scripture (Matthew chapter 5 verses 10-12 and chapter 16 verses 24-26, John chapter 15 verses 18-21). Arguably, they have more of an insight into what being blessed really means whereas wealthy Christians ‘prospering’ in the democratic West are missing out.

    To answer the very last question, it is perfectly acceptable to be thankful for the times when you have been blessed. The important thing is to realise that any blessing you have received comes out of God’s grace (James chapter 1, verse 17) not because of your own faith or conviction that you should ‘name it and claim it’. The difficult part in all this is to discern the motives and reasons (even if there is no reason) when suffering comes, as it probably will.

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