09 Oct HOW THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL LEADS TO ATHEISM
Much of our ministry occurs on the internet. I regularly get questions about various theological issues- particularly from atheists or family members of atheists. I recently got a question/comment that I feel needs addressing on a larger scale. My response, however, is not what I imagine many pastors and religious teachers would say today. My comments fly in the face of much of today’s teachings and frankly it is not what people want to hear. Nevertheless, both theology and experience have shown me that these truths are unavoidable. I pray you’ll stay with me through this explanation, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Let me begin by sharing the comments that this young man left for me:
“Chris, I am a believer moving towards agnostic ’cause God has abandoned me. Can’t find a reason to believe anymore, my life is filled with disappointment and turmoil. God has taken everything I love!”
While reading his comments several things came to mind. First, I empathize with him. Since becoming a believer my health has deteriorated, my finances have dwindled, and much of the earthly pleasures that I once “enjoyed” are now “off limits.” At times I have felt as does this young man. Second, when I read his comments I hear unmet expectation. God has not lived up to his expectations. Third, his expectations are focused inward – on himself. “God has abandoned ME… taken everything I love… MY life is filled with disappointment and turmoil.” Fourth, he inaccurately blames God for hardship (a common error based on other bad theology that I won’t address here.)
What is the result? He is moving toward agnosticism. Of course, you can tell that it pains him greatly and that he still believes in God – after all he is blaming God for the problems and you can’t blame someone that doesn’t exist. He’s trying to reconcile unmet expectations. There are two possibilities. Either God doesn’t exist. Or God exists and hasn’t met his expectations. Assuming, for now, that God exists, how could he respond to God not meeting his expectations? Is it possible that the problem is not God? Is it possible that the problem is the expectations?
I mentioned before that I empathized with this fellow. You see, all my believing life, certain expectations about God have been placed on me. God is our healer. He is our deliverer. He is our provider. These are legitimate truths. However, we, as Americans like to focus on these titles, often to the detriment of theology. We like to take verses out of context and leverage them as personal promises of material blessing. We focus the Gospel inward instead of outward (Incurvatus in se).
The problem is that much of those promises were not given to us personally and are certainly not a guarantee of physical health or wealth. In fact, we see quite the opposite in Scripture – whether it is Jesus promising persecution, Paul having prayers go unanswered (at least in the way He would like to have them answered – according to his expectations), all but one of the disciples being tortured and killed, or any other hardship that befell the NT Church and God’s people. God doesn’t promise us a “comfortable” life. He doesn’t promise us wealth and health. Certainly he still provides, still heals, still gives us gifts. However, these are not guarantees and they are not to be the priorities of the believer- not according to good theology. I was reminded of this during some particularly whiny seasons of my life.
The first, was a complaint that I had against God. I hear a lot about sonship and so one day in my hardship I told God and myself that I felt more like a servant than a son. I was immediately reminded of the Son of God. Jesus did not live a “prosperous” life by our modern materialistic standards. Whether He had nice things or not (don’t want to get into that right now), this was not the priority of His life. Jesus lived a life that blessed others and it showed in His final earthly acts. How did Jesus fulfill His sonship? Jesus manifested his sonship by being tortured, killed, and mocked by those to whom He was ministering. In the Kingdom of God, sonship isn’t about being spoiled by our daddy. It’s about giving up our own lives for the sake of His glory and the eternal benefit of our brothers and sisters. My expectations were wrong (just as I suggest are the expectations of this young man that wrote to me) It’s not that I am not a son; it’s that I had the wrong definition of son. I have viewed sonship through the eyes of a spoiled millennial American – not through the eyes of God.
The second encounter came when I realized that I, much like the young man who wrote to me, no longer trusted God. I sat down to pray and immediately I realized something to the contrary. It’s not that I don’t trust God. It’s that I don’t trust Him to meet MY expectations. Here is what I wrote down:
“I trust God to do what He said He would do. I just don’t trust Him to do what I want Him to do.
I trust God to do what His word says he’ll do. I just don’t trust Him to do what His Church often says He will do.”
With this in mind I will leave you with a final thought. If we set people up with false expectations and misrepresent God’s promises to provide physical prosperity, we miss the true Gospel. We miss the repeated commandment to take up our cross and lay down our lives. It’s not that God won’t give us health and finances. It’s that He might not give us health and finances. The question then becomes – will we worship Him only if He blesses us? It’s been said that Christ went to the cross so we wouldn’t have to (and there is a degree of truth to that statement). However, it is more accurate to say that He went to the cross so that we could bear the weight of our own. If we preach one without the other, we have misrepresented God and when we misrepresent God we set people up for failure in their relationship with Him. Hope deferred makes the heart sick – and if our hope is turned inward on personal gain, we will always end up disappointed in this life. Did you know that for every person being evangelized into the church, three are leaving? There are many reasons for the mass exodus from the Church and belief in God, but part of it is buyers remorse. We are pitching them the wrong Gospel. When they realize that the sales pitch was a scam, they leave- they “return the purchase.” In hopes of filling seats and “saving souls” we have compromised our message -we have repackaged truth to look prettier and more attractive. We are not telling people the Truth and it is the Truth that sets us free. If we want people free, we need to give them the Truth, The Whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth – so help us God.
What about you? What are your expectations of being a son/daughter of God? Examine and share your thoughts below.