The Subtle Prosperity Gospel

The gospel of prosperity is rampant in many churches in a subtle and deceptive manner.

There are many flavors of the prosperity Gospel from the overtly obvious to the deceptively subtle. On the extreme end there is the obvious prosperity Gospel that we see being fed by the likes of Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, Joyce Meyer, Paula White and many others. It should be no surprise that these leaders have such a large following of people who are eating up every tasty empty morsel, there are many warnings in Scripture about false teachers and how many will be deceived. The heresy is obvious to those who read the Bible and are discerning but if you look at the website of Osteen’s church you will find a statement of beliefs that is shallow but mostly sound in appearance and he also speaks with smooth authority so his followers assume he is teaching the truth, it is also easy to trust because it is what they want to hear…

Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 2 Timothy 4:2–4

The extreme end of prosperity theology is extremely heretical and deceives people into thinking they are saved while they are probably not. There is however a more subtle side of prosperity theology that has crept into the church which concerns me even more because it is just as appealing and even more deceptive.

Churches and Pastors are feeding cotton candy to their people and telling them its nutritious.

I am sure just about everyone has at least once in their life experienced cotton candy. Cotton candy is simply liquid sugar mixed with food coloring that is spun and allowed to form into cotton like fiber when it is cooled. Cotton candy has no nutritional value at all, the empty calories simply confuse your body into thinking it is being fed while causing harm that you cannot see. What is the purpose of cotton candy and why do people eat it? It is fun and sweet. I doubt anyone eats cotton candy thinking they are consuming something that is good for them or nutritious in any way nor making it a staple in their diets.

Many people are being fed cotton candy that is re branded as health food. There are churches and Pastors that are feeding their people something that tickles the ears and makes them feel good but is void of nutrition and deceptively harmful.

This softer prosperity gospel is present in many churches and crosses all denominations. This is a shift from a God centered gospel to a man centered (or self-centered) gospel that can appear very subtle, but the distinction is very important. A man centered gospel highlights our worldly needs. It teaches that our greatest problem is living with the consequences of a fallen world and other people’s sin. It also teaches that our joy comes from being rescued from that trouble and that a lack of conflict is our peace. A proper God centered gospel describes our greatest problem as being our own sin and our joy comes from being forgiven and reconciled to God, who is our peace.

My goal here is not to call out any particular church or denomination but to take a moment and highlight some common errors I have seen and experienced and how to recognize them.  It is a great blessing that there are so many churches in the U.S. to choose from but that blessing of religious freedom has also created a “church shopping” mentality where we get to pick the church that is a best fit, feels right, or meets our needs. This is important to consider and be discerning because many of those needs are very real and the Church should look to meet them, however the meeting of these needs is meant to point us to God, not replace Him. When we elevate these needs and cures and place them on the throne where only God belongs, they become idols.  Below are some flavors of prosperity theology that are mixed through many churches and ways to spot them.

The Gospel of Freedom: This can have many variations but is all rooted in the false idea that Jesus has set us free to live our best life or to be happy. Patriotism or individualism are common elements of a false Gospel and ring true for those celebrating freedom from worldly trouble. This false belief tends to believe that we have been set free and have no master at all and that the Bible was provided by God as a road map to a better, safer, and more peaceful life. In a subtle way, it avoids any ideas that suffering is a part of the Christian life. The teaching and overall message may also have a constant focus on joy and peace in this world. God shows us in His Word that we are not set free to ourselves in order to seek our own joy and happiness but to follow God and give Him glory – “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” 1 Co 6:19–20.

Much more could be said about this but in reality, this world is not our home and we should not expect it to feel and look like it is. Jesus created the world and yet even He was grieved at living here in the flesh (Matt 17:17, John 11:35, Isaiah 53:3). Our reward in this world and for eternity is God Himself and we can have joy in Him alone in spite of the troubles of the world.

The Gospel of Community: This is another great gift that we can turn into an idol. Many people go to church because of the community, sense of belonging and for friendships. These are all great things and we are told in Scripture to live in community as the church, in fact we were built for it but when community and friendships are seen as the reward, we have elevated them wrongly. You can recognize this improper teaching and belief because when community is elevated wrongly you will rarely see real accountability, the confession of sins, or repentance. Community wrongly becomes the end goal and a savior. Community is meant to compel us to follow God and help one another along the way, not to replace Him.

The Gospel of Experience: This is most often linked to worship, but it can also be the overall setting including the lighting, video, and so on. These things have turned from being an element that can help support teaching and worship to becoming an element that produces the feeling of worship. Worship is not something that is restricted to Sunday mornings, it is an outpouring of our hearts when we understand our position as adopted sons and daughters of God through the blood of Jesus. When we are instructed and hear the word of God and the good news of the gospel it ought to cause us to worship God (Psalm 32). A way to recognize emotionalism or experiential churches is to watch for things that are intended to set a mood and lack clear teaching from the Bible.

These are just an example of a subtle prosperity theology that shifts from being God centered to man centered. As followers of Jesus we are to love what God loves and hate what He hates. This means that attending and participating in the body of a church (Which God loves) is partly a sacrificial act and not one of ease and complete peace.

By the way, the machine that made cotton candy popular was invented by a dentist.

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:1-2

John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.” Jn 3:27–30

Identity Crisis

Identity Crisis – “why do I not live according to my identity?”

Can you imagine waking up from a surgery or recovering from a traumatic event and having no memory of who you are? That almost seems too difficult to process but there are cases of this medical phenomena happening throughout history from either physical or psychological trauma. These people had friends and families, habits, preferences, and a whole lifetime of history – all of which is completely gone from their memories. The interesting question is, did their identity change? They were unable to recall their past and their history was lost to them, but their history did not change, and they were still very much the same person from everyone else’s perspective. That is, until they begin to act according to what they consider to be their new identity.

Before we can answer any questions about why we do not live according to our identity we must first define what our identity is. That very question has been deeply analyzed and answered. The answers vary greatly depending on the worldview of the researcher, from the evolutionary perspective of Freuds ID, Ego, and Superego to a more contemporary version of “being true to yourself” but those are explanations that can be explored elsewhere if desired. Because Gods word is truth, I define identity from a Biblical perspective which turns that view from “what is true for me” to “what is true about me”. The difference here is a repositioning of my feelings from being the driving and defining force of my life and replacing it with a more supreme truth. Our feelings are still very important, and they play a crucial role as gauges of our hopes and desires, they often tell us what or who we love. When feelings and emotions are moved from the engine compartment to the dashboard, we can replace it with “what is true about me” or more simply put – what is your position.

Our position can be viewed from ourselves looking in or out, others looking at, or God looking in. Being introspective can have value as we will discuss later but only with the correct lens and knowing that our own views are flawed since sin was introduced at the Fall of man (Jer 17:9) we should look to understand our position from Gods view looking in. For the sake of brevity, I will simplify this view into two categories from where we can align all our many thoughts, feelings, and history to fill out a more complex identity. From a sense of position, we land in one of the following places.

  1. At enmity with God and under His wrath. Here we are under Gods judgement and cannot escape His presence. In this position we are sinners by nature and choice and fall under the punishment and consequences of sin which are spiritual and physical death, eternally. All people born of Adam either once were or are currently in this position.
  2. Justified by Gods grace through the blood of Jesus and by faith that is granted by the softening of our hearts by God. We are redeemed, unified with Christ, and adopted children of God. Our sins are put onto Jesus and His righteousness is placed onto us. God becomes our reward now and for eternity.

The person who is at enmity with God, the unsaved, typically does not know it nor do they care if told, they are unable and unwilling to see the position that they are in to the fullest extent but in some sense they are aware of a Holy God and yet the chose to live as an end to themselves and opposed to God (Rom 1:18-23). The adopted child however cannot help but to know of their former condition and we will focus on this identity. They are grateful for grace and rejoice at being saved. But then spiritual amnesia can set in. The troubles of the world are very real and at times can seem overwhelming to the point of despair. Paul of all people knew this feeling all too well when he tells of his trials in 2 Corinthians…

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. 10 He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.

From this statement we can know that every word of encouragement written by Paul, every push to be steadfast and each word of truth proclaiming Gods grace and goodness is not a light hearted motivational statement to a detached audience but instead, each word was given by God and experienced personally through trials and rescue. Paul believed God.

Like Paul, when we are facing the burdens of life, the truth of our identity in Christ can be temporarily overshadowed. Why do we stray from our identity and how do we keep that from happening?

Worldly Difficulties – Do the troubles of the world overshadow the love of God in your life and cause you to forget your identity? This can be very confusing for some people, especially if they believe the false statement that “God does not give you more than you can handle”. This phrase or anything like it is found no where in Scripture and in fact you see the opposite of it in the passage mentioned above, Paul despaired of life itself. What Paul realized though is that God uses worldly trouble to show us that while we are not strong enough to overcome the world, God is! He will deliver us again! What an amazing statement that is completely lost for most people who believe that God does not give them more than they can handle. When that is your belief then being overwhelmed is a failure and your faith, which is in yourself, weakens. The proper response is to cry out to God and long for Him to rescue you during those trials and then God draws you in. Christian, a Biblical perspective on suffering and trials will keep you from forgetting that God has saved you, and is still saving you, and will save you to eternity.

Worldly Distractions – We have plenty of warnings in scripture about following the world which should tell us how much of a problem it is and how easy it is to be distracted or even consumed by the world. These distractions are the small, everyday mundane distractions that just become part of our lives when we are not paying attention. Major trials and temptations grab our attention and make it easier to recognize that there is a spiritual battle about to take place, but these guerilla warfare distractions can occur almost without notice. These distractions can be the usual vices such as video games, social media, binging shows, alcohol, smoking, etc but they can also be good things such as family, work, even church that are simply a part of life as you trudge along. Any use of time, moral or immoral that deadens the awareness of our identity is a worldly distraction. Peter recognized this inclination for people to forget their identity and warned that it would make us ineffective and unfruitful…

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. 2 Pe 1:5–9

So then how do we avoid these ninja-like worldly distractions? The solution is to become so distracted by our true identity in Christ that it leaves no room for anything else. This happens over time and it takes concentrated effort. The lie that is believed here is that since we are Christians, we will just naturally change and do what is good and right but that is not the case. We must work against the flesh and in the Spirit (Galatians 5:16–17). Thank God we have His Spirit where we CAN work against the flesh! Look at the qualities Peter calls us to engage in – Faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness with Godliness. These all require steady constant effort over the whole course of your life. You cannot do them without the Holy Spirit but you can resist them. Be in the Word often, engage in prayer constantly, be at Church as often as you are able to be taught from the Scriptures and surround yourself with Godly people who will point you to Jesus and point out your sins.

Worldly Satisfaction – This would be more accurately stated as Godly dissatisfaction. The Israelites are a great example of being dissatisfied with God as they were wandering through the wilderness. God provided everything they needed and protected them from their enemies on all sides. They were given bread from heaven that was sweet like honey (Manna), water came from a rock, bitter water was made sweet, and the most amazing of all – God was with them. But still they became dissatisfied…

And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” Nu 11:4–6

They did not remember accurately the life they previously lived back in Egypt, they forgot that they were slaves and were afflicted, given a heavy burden, and forced to kill their male children! But at least they had leeks. Oh, the good old days. We become dissatisfied with God in the same way when we look for satisfaction materialistically and compare what we used to have with what we now have. The unspoken assumption is that our lives should become richer and fuller after being saved by Jesus and then we compare our present circumstances with the past they may or may not be better. The truth is that our lives are rewarded and fuller and richer, but the reward is God himself.

The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance. Ps 16:5–6

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great. Ge 15:1

What God is telling Abram here is that God himself is the great reward and that is true for all believers. We are saved by Gods mercy through the blood of Jesus and given the Holy Spirit to sustain us through this world until we are glorified and fully in Gods presence. It all points to God being our reward yet we look to the world and compare our lives with others on social media and say “everyone else has leeks, I want some leeks”

You can overcome this identity crisis by first understanding your identity in its fullness as a child of God and then setting your desires on Him, not on the world which is not your home and very temporary.

Not a new identity –Finally I must present one last possible identity crisis. You may be in a different position that you think you are. There will be many who stand before God thinking they are saved but they will hear those dreadful words – Go away, I never knew you. (Matthew 7:21–23)

Make sure that you understand what saving faith looks like and be sure that you understand who you are placing your faith in. There are many who are going to Church regularly, serving, doing good things, and maybe even preaching but their faith is in their own works and it will not stand.

Saving faith is not complicated but you must agree that God is who He says He is in the Bible, you must agree that Jesus is God and came in the flesh. You must agree that you are a sinner who is unable to overcome your own sins and that Jesus bore them for you on the Cross, and your repentance must be genuine which means you have grief for being at enmity with God and now you despise your sinful flesh and love what God loves.

Remember who you are and who you belong to!

17Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come 2 Co 5:17

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. Ga 4:4–7