December 3, 2020

iMonk: The “Real” Prosperity Gospel

rain walk

Excerpt from a classic Michael Spencer post, September, 2008

* * *

The real prosperity gospel isn’t the overt appeal to wealth. It is the more subtle appeal to God guaranteeing that we are going to be happy, and the accompanying pressure to be happy in ways that are acceptable and recognizable to the community of Christians we belong to.

The real prosperity gospel is the belief that God will — must? — keep things at a level where it is still possible for us to follow Jesus without overt appeal to rewards in this life. The real prosperity gospel is revealed not in the promises of a yacht or a large home, but in the unspoken approval of a level of prosperity that allows us to live the Christian life on our own terms. It is the ratification of our private, sometimes entirely secret, arrangements with God of what his “goodness” means.

… We evangelicals apparently need to believe a version of the prosperity gospel where, at the least, none of us are below an understood “line of credibility” in Christian experience. And if we happen to go below that line, don’t expect instant encouragement. You may be surprised at what happens to you when you become walking evidence that not everyone is as happy, blessed, obedient and satisfied as they are supposed to be.

… The “real prosperity” gospel especially appeals to the idea that the church is fixing things, people and situations. In this kind of thinking the church has a repository of wisdom and power that can actually cause us to live in a different world than our neighbors, a world with different rules and a different outcome to the usual situations.

I don’t know of many Christians who want to stand up in front of a room full of unbelievers and say:

“I live in the same world as you do; a world with the same problems, the same questions and the same kinds of pain and failure. God doesn’t provide some kind of insurance or protection from this world, and Christians aren’t wise enough to understand or fix everything in this world. In some ways, you (atheists) may be wiser than any one of us. What we have to offer is the gospel of Jesus, and the truth of the gospel isn’t a pay off in this world. Whatever changes the Gospel makes in us, we remain human, fallen and in need of final rescue, redemption and resurrection. There is plenty wrong with us, and some of it is shocking and terrible. In this world, we’re on a pilgrimage to follow Jesus, to love neighbor and to live our lives in an authentically human way.”

What’s scary about that paragraph? It refutes the real prosperity gospel.

That’s why it scares me.


  1. these were the kind of michael spencer posts that help me when i hit really hard patches with faith….i love the honesty.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Because Reality isn’t 24/7 Shiny Happy Clappy Joy Joy Joy.
      (Not unless you’re completely delusional.)

  2. Wow and Thank you for re posting. It’s so hard to admit to Christians that everything isn’t perfect. Somehow, we’ve come to believe that Christ will solve all of our problems. No, He doesn’t. The trouble is that we’ve sold that for so long that we’ve forgotten why we should believe in the first place.

  3. I just read something written by Henri Nouwen in which he said that, as he got older and deeper into his faith and prayer life, he worried less and less about what happens after this life, and had stopped thinking about afterlife, because eternal life is here and now, not then and later, and God in his fullness is in the midst of life in the present, and wherever God is in his fullness. there also is eternal life. Spencer seems to be saying the opposite of what Nouwen was saying.

    I think both have compelling points, but how do I reconcile them?

    • Does “God in his fullness in the midst of life in the present” equate to living “in a different world than our neighbors, a world with different rules and a different outcome to the usual situations”? Or to nobody going below “an understood ‘line of credibility’ in Christian experience”? Does it mean we will “be happy in ways that are acceptable and recognizable to the community of Christians we belong to”?

      • What Nouwen is expressing does not look to ratification by the consensus of any community for its justification or validation; neither can it be indexed and quantified by the vicissitudes of life. But there is a sense in which it involves living in “a different world from our neighbors,” not because it grants immunity from common suffering or increase in common happiness, but because it involves living in the awareness and grasp of a dimension of existence that can transform the quotidian ordinariness of life into the richness, the prosperity if you will, of the presence of the eternal. Though it may look the same to a surface view, this is an altogether different world from the one limited by secular horizons, with different rules and different outcomes that defy formulations. It is the upside-down Kingdom of God, and it embodies a transcendent, wild hope, an open, eschatological secret, within the confines of imminence.

    • Is it too weird to think that both ideas can be operating in our every day walk with Christ?

      • Now, I think I need to explain myself better. I love this post by Michael. It exactly points up the need for honesty in our walk of faith. It also illustrates the million ways we rationalize oursleve out of having to endure the disappointment and suffering of…wel..suffering. It is a part of this human life. But at the same time we do have an eternal hope. One of our distinctives is that we are a people who fully believe that the divinity of Jesus Christ means something powerful and eternal. So we do have a hope and we carry that with us along with our stumbing humanity.

  4. I just posted a brief thought on the scene from American Beauty where Annette Benning’s character has a breakdown because she can’t sell the house she’s mentality invested herself in selling. She ends up in tears, calling herself weak and telling herself to stop it. A powerful scene, and one that does a great deal of good in illustrating the tortuous mindset behind the prosperity gospel.

  5. Christiane says

    I don’t think that there IS a conflict between Michael’s post and Nouen.

    Essentially, the Catholic point of view is ‘in tune’ with living a life that is focused on Christ, or ‘anchored in Him’ which is a Christian expression that is very ancient . . . it has something to do with our ‘hope’.

    Take a look at the following quotes, and see how they compared with the false ‘prosperity gospel’ of the charlatans,
    and with what Michael had to say, and you might see my reasoning supporting Michael’s point of view as not being in conflict with Nouwen:

    “But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation.” (Gospel of St. Luke 6:24)

    “Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons . . . It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.
    (Vaclav Havel)

  6. I reread the post and I think I get it now. Spencer is talking about the pretenses that evangelical churches often maintain that they have the answers to life’s problems, and that, if one will only submit to the program, one will live a balanced and successful, though not necessarily a too-ostentatiously-successful, life; the angry hostility that is aimed at those who don’t fit the profile; and the hypocrisy and denial necessary to maintain appearances when the program in fact does not work as advertised.

    Yes, yes, yes. Never having been an evangelical, I was reading the post within the wrong framework.

    Having said that, I must also say that much the same attitude is taken in the larger secular world outside evangelicalism with regard to those who don’t rise to the level of performance and success that popular culture measures the worth of individuals by. I think that in this case, those churches that hold this attitude are really just reflecting the standards of the wider culture with a religious accent.

  7. Richard McNeeley says

    The other lie of the prosperity gospel is that when bad things happen you are either in sin, God is trying to get your attention or God is trying to tell you something.

  8. When we provide for the poor because of Christ, aren’t we setting, in a roundabout way, the benchmark for a prosperity Gospel, too? that the poor “should have” this or that standard of living?

    • That Other Jean says

      Um, no. We are following the injunction to love your neighbor as yourself.

    • It is a legitimate question, but two thoughts:
      1. I think you would be hard pressed today to find a community of believers that meets the radical standards of ‘providing for the poor because of Christ’ that you see in the early church. They seemed less concerned then about whether providing for people’s needs would give them a sense of entitlement to a certain standard of living.
      2. Most provision for the poor today is mainly mitigating crisis situations. People without food are given food. People without homes are given shelter. People about to lose their home are given rent. People without transportation are given rides. People without money for a tank of gas are given a tank of gas. People without emotional/community support are given conversation or a listening ear. I think that people should have a standard of living that allows them to rest from a constant emotional and mental state of crisis. At the very least, the Christian community should be striving to set a standard that gives the ‘poor’ a chance to reflect on God’s grace and mercy.
      Does that make any sense?

      • Christiane says

        the Christian community must never give in to the temptation to follow those who would bring further injury to the poor. This includes favoring laws that single out the poor to be held to account while the middle-class and wealthy have options to evade such laws . . . this is something that needs to be addressed by conservative Christians especially, but we all need to think about the ramifications of anything we do as ‘Church’ that might cause more grief for the poor.

  9. I really loved this post. The prosperity gospel is alive, kicking and well. There are many people who have bought into it and let it guide their faith.

  10. Great post. I attended a number of Pentecostal churches a decade ago and they were full-on enamored with the name it, claim it, tithe to success mantra. I began to see it as a sham and lost my interest in a good bit of what was passing for Christianity. I read a quote… “God is not a vending machine.” I’ve seen so many people flaunt their wealth at church but reveal themselves to be as broken and shallow as anyone. You can easily fool yourself into thinking health and wealth make you better than someone. I know sickly, poverty-stricken little old ladies with more authentic faith than the most popular prosperity preachers out there.