“Being poor is a sin” (Robert Tilton).
“If we please God we will be rich” (Jerry Savelle).
“God wants his children to wear the best clothes…drive the best cars and have the best of everything; just ask for what we need” (Kenneth Hagin, Sr.).
These are some bewildering but common statements from “prosperity gospel” preachers. Their god is a sort of cosmic entrepreneur who can be used, by tithing and offering, to attain what really matters: a prosperous life in merely earthly terms.
“FROM SUCH PEOPLE TURN AWAY”
Paul compels us to stay away from “men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Tim. 6:5). And in his second letter to Timothy he warns his son in the faith “that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, boasters, proud... lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!” (2 Tim. 3:1-5).
Peter also advises us that, just as there were false prophets among the people of God in the old covenant, “there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies…And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words” (2 Pet. 2:1-3; cf. Jude 11-16).
Sadly, in spite of the Scriptures’ clear warnings, the prosperity gospel has a large and growing group of followers. This isn’t hard to understand, since the message appeals so directly to our native greed. Yet it is sad and bewildering that many people remain in the movement for a long time, even their whole life, since its preachers cannot fulfill their promises.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL
Why is the prosperity gospel so attractive? How does it gain and retain followers? I recently spoke with a brother who was involved in the movement for 10 years, who shed some light on the psychology of the prosperity gospel.
1. An Easily Manipulated God
The prosperity gospel is attractive because it offers us an easily manipulated god. Despite the militant atheist attacks in recent decades, man cannot eliminate from his heart the idea of God, because God has left evidences of his presence in all of creation and has given man the capacity to understand the evidence (Rom. 1:18-21). What makes the prosperity gospel attractive for fallen man is that it seems to place God on his side, while eliminating the hindrance of his sanctity and sovereignty.
The god of these evangelists is not the one reveled in the Scriptures, whom we must approach on his terms. Instead, their god is a combination of Aladdin’s lamp genie and Psychiatrist Almighty, who can be easily manipulated through offerings and “words of faith.”
2. Guilt and Greed
Second, the prosperity gospel draws people in because it creates a cycle of guilt and greed. When the offers of riches or health take long to materialize, people blame themselves for their lack of faith, or for not being generous enough. This guilt, combined with the greed in their hearts, keeps them clinging to these evangelists’ false promises, just like the gambler goes back to the casino again and again hoping that one day he will get lucky.
3. Religious Fear
These “evangelists” tend to instill religious fear in their followers so they don’t dare to question the “Lord’s anointed one.” This hinders their listeners’ capacity to objectively analyze the content of their message and the evident dichotomy between their lifestyle and what the Scriptures say about how a gospel minister should live (1 Cor. 4:9-13; 2 Cor. 4:7-11, 11:23-28).
4. Stewardship Brings Prosperity
Another factor that supports the spread of this false gospel is that some do experience a degree of financial prosperity, as a consequence of putting into practice general principles of good administration that they learn in these churches. This seems to confirm the truthfulness of the message which, in turn, increases the greed of their hearts because “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money” (Eccl. 5:10).
How can we immunize our listeners against this threat? I’ve got seven suggestions.
1. Teach them to read the Bible in its context. Prosperity preachers cite the Scriptures, especially the Old Testament, but overlook the general and immediate contexts of the texts they cite.
2. Clearly present the demands of the gospel (Mk. 1:14-15; Acts 2:38, 3:19, 26) and of true discipleship (Mk. 8:34-37; Lk. 14:25-33; Phil. 1:29).
3. Instill in them the spirit of the Bereans (Acts 17.11). It is one thing to respect pastoral authority (Heb. 13:17), but a very different thing to blindly follow a leader even when he walks away from the clear teachings of the Scriptures (Rom. 16:17-18; Phil. 3:17-19).
4. Preach the Bible’s warnings against greed (Pr. 23:4-5; Lk. 12:15; 1Tim. 6:6-10, 17-19; Acts 13:5-6).
5. Teach them that God is good, wise, and sovereign in the dispensation of his gifts. Not all his children will be prosperous and healthy on this side of eternity, but all will experience the same paternal love and care, manifested in diverse ways for his glory and the good of our souls (Jn. 11:3; Phil. 2:25-30; 1 Tim. 5:23).
6. Teach them how to handle the tension of being a child of God living in a fallen world (Jn. 15:18-21; 17:14-16; Acts 11:13).
7. Above all, present Christ as the pearl of great price, who infinitely surpasses in value anything that this fleeting world may offer (Mt. 13:44-46; Phil. 3:7-8).
Sugel Michelén has been an elder and regular preacher at Iglesia Bíblica del Señor Jesucristo in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, for more than 30 years.