In a recent article historian Kate Bowler recounts her study of the prosperity gospel in tandem with her cancer diagnosis. What arises from the article are several questions, but one of the most important to understand is the idea of being blessed. Bowler writes,
Over the last 10 years, “being blessed” has become a full-fledged American phenomenon. Drivers can choose between the standard, mass-produced “Jesus Is Lord” novelty license plate or “Blessed” for $16.99 in a tasteful aluminum. When an “America’s Next Top Model” star took off his shirt, audiences saw it tattooed above his bulging pectorals. When Americans boast on Twitter about how well they’re doing on Thanksgiving, #blessed is the standard hashtag. It is the humble brag of the stars. #Blessed is the only caption suitable for viral images of alpine vacations and family yachting in barely there bikinis. It says: “I totally get it. I am down-to-earth enough to know that this is crazy.” But it also says: “God gave this to me. [Adorable shrug.] Don’t blame me, I’m blessed.”
American Christians live in a world and a manner that is increasingly foreign to that of the Christians of Acts and the early church. More than that, it is increasingly foreign to Christianity in other parts of the world today. At my church yesterday, two missionaries ascended to the stage to update the church on their ministry and prayer needs. They briefly told a story of a young man from a Muslim background who committed his life to Jesus only to have to recant after extended persecutions by his family. From beatings to forcing him to live on the street with no means to buy food. A heart breaking story and not the most extreme one that I have heard. I have to ask, is Joel Osteen blessed:
One of the prosperity gospel’s greatest triumphs is its popularization of the term “blessed.” Though it predated the prosperity gospel, particularly in the black church where “blessed” signified affirmation of God’s goodness, it was prosperity preachers who blanketed the airwaves with it. “Blessed” is the shorthand for the prosperity message. We see it everywhere, from a TV show called “The Blessed Life” to the self-justification of Joel Osteen, the pastor of America’s largest church, who told Oprah in his Texas mansion that “Jesus died that we might live an abundant life.”
Or is a homeless Christian, persecuted by his islamic family blessed?
I can not think about blessedness without thinking about the Beatitudes, a few brief sayings that Jesus uses to introduce the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:
And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:2-12 ESV)
- The Poor in Spirit
- Those Who Mourn
- The Meek
- Those Who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness
- The Merciful
- The Pure in Heart
- The Peacemakers
- Those Who Are Persecuted for Righteousness Sake
- Those Who Are Reviled because of Jesus’ Name
These are the people who are blessed, but lest we misunderstand, these are not different groups of people. This is one description of those who are disciples of Jesus Christ. They are poor in spirit because they know that they have nothing in themselves to be justified before a holy God. Then, because of their poverty of spirit, they mourn. Having mourned they become humble or meek. In their humility, mourning, and poverty of spirit they begin to hunger and thirst for the righteousness that they lack. In understanding their deficiencies, their inability to satisfy their hunger and thirst, they become merciful toward others who are lacking as well. They desire pure hearts and they seek peace, for these things they are persecuted, misunderstood, or ignored. These are the blessed. Tim Keller, pastor and author, points out why it is that blessing flows to a group so counter-intuitive today:
Look at the beatitudes (the “Blessed are the . . .” statements) in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5: 1– 10). Most scholars argue rightly that the beatitudes do not depict different groups of people— the poor in spirit, then the mourners, then the meek, then the hungry after righteousness, then the merciful— but rather list the characteristics of one group of people— Jesus’ disciples. If we humble ourselves in spirit, if we mourn over our sins— if we are and do these things— then we are truly his disciples…
Why can you and I be as rich as kings? Because [Jesus] became spiritually and utterly poor. Why can you and I be comforted? Only because he mourned; because he wept inconsolably and died in the dark. Why are you and I inheriting the earth? Because he became meek; because he was like a lamb before his shearers. Because he was stripped of everything— they even cast lots for his garment. Why can you and I be filled and satisfied? Because on the cross he said, “I thirst.” Why are you and I obtaining mercy? Because he got none: not from Pilate, not from the crowd, not even from his Father. Why will you and I be able to someday see God? Because he was pure. Do you know what the word “pure” means? It means to be single-minded, absolutely undivided, laser focused. So why is it that someday we will see God? Because Jesus Christ set his face like a flint to go up to Jerusalem and die for us (Luke 9: 51). You and I can see God because, on the cross, Jesus could not. (Timothy Keller, Preaching, 63-64).
This is the problem of the prosperity gospel. They do two things that are deeply hurtful to those who truly are meek and mourning, those who are poor in spirit. First, the prosperity gospel is not a gospel at all. It is not good news but more law. It is closer to Job’s friends, who accuse him of some hidden wrong, than to Jesus. They see a one-to-one this life parallel between doing good and receiving God’s blessing:
The prosperity gospel holds to this illusion of control until the very end. If a believer gets sick and dies, shame compounds the grief. Those who are loved and lost are just that — those who have lost the test of faith. In my work, I have heard countless stories of refusing to acknowledge that the end had finally come. An emaciated man was pushed about a megachurch in a wheelchair as churchgoers declared that he was already healed. A woman danced around her sister’s deathbed shouting to horrified family members that the body can yet live. There is no graceful death, no ars moriendi, in the prosperity gospel. There are only jarring disappointments after fevered attempts to deny its inevitability.
God will bless you, heal, raise you up if you can muster enough faith. This is the law, not the gospel. The gospel is the opposite:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:1-10 ESV)
The gospel is that we are saved by grace before we could do anything good, righteous, or faithful. Our state was in fact so bleak, so ineffectual, that it was as if we were dead men. Dead men don’t make themselves live.
The above quote from the article also draws out another issue with the prosperity gospel. Bowler writes, “A woman danced around her sister’s deathbed shouting to horrified family members that the body can yet live. There is no graceful death, no ars moriendi, in the prosperity gospel. There are only jarring disappointments after fevered attempts to deny its inevitability.” Consider that story. Is God able to make that woman’s sister live again? Yes, he is. But she would then die again. Just as Lazarus did. The prosperity gospel gets things out of order. Joel Osteen says, “Jesus died that we might live an abundant life.” Yet a quick study of church history will prove that statement false or misunderstood by Osteen’s interpretation. Osteen has in mind one of my favorite verses, John 10:10 -“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly,” but he has forgotten the rest of the passage. For the rest of John 10 is about being with the Father, not about owning a mansion. In theological terms, we usually say that the prosperity gospel preachers have an “over-realized eschatology,” a fancy way of saying that they read passages about our rewards in heaven and import them on to today.
This is a grievous false teaching because it misunderstands what being blessed is. It is not about things. It is about relationship with God. The disciples are blessed (Matthew 5) in spite of poverty, mourning, persecution, and alike because Jesus makes a way for them to come to God the Father. The same is true in John 10, blessing is about knowing the good shepherd Christ and the Father through him:
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” (John 10:10-18 ESV)
So much more to say, but this is where I leave you.
Thanks for reading,