Monday, August 23, 2010

The Stealth Prosperity Gospel and Spiritual Greed

The real devil in the details of the prosperity-type teaching overtaking evangelicalism is not really that it skips over the stuff about sin. Sure, it does that too, but the pernicious paradox of this stuff is that it champions "victorious Christian living" yet does not equip believers for sustainable discipleship. It emphasizes feelings and "outlook," not the power of the Spirit, which is hard for some folks to notice since the latter is often conflated with the former (so that being optimistic or a go-getter is ipso facto being Spirit-empowered). The problem over time is that, going from victory to victory, expecting victory after victory, cultivates a contagious form of spiritual greed. (Is it any wonder that this sort of teaching often goes hand and hand with talk of financial riches and prosperity?) The real stuff of discipleship -- what Eugene Peterson calls "a long obedience in the same direction" -- involves hard stuff like discipline and the fruit of the Spirit. In pop discipleship discipline is replaced by steps, tips, and amazingsupercolossal breakthroughs.

When my children were tiny, we had a couple of Laws of Raising Children active in the house. The first law is that no item in the universe is more interesting than the one a sibling is currently holding. The second law is that no matter where you are (and it could be Disney World), there is some other place you'd rather be.
Getting what we don't have, being somewhere we aren't. That defines the childishness of the children in our house. But they are children, so they have an excuse.

Prosperity gospel then, ironically, breeds discontentment. We are never abiding with God where we are, because we always consider what we have less than what's available (or at least less than what our neighbor has). We always think of today as less than tomorrow. But you cannot get to resurrection day without going through the cross.

There's a fine line between contentment and complacency, also, and I think this implicit confusion is why contentment is rarely spoken of these days. It implies stagnation or laziness. But complacency is about not caring. Contentment is about caring for the needs of the moment. It is about obedience and faith. Paul was not complacent about his repeated imprisonment and torture. But, amazingly enough, he was content.

Contentment trusts God to be God. Discontent evidences our fear of everything but God -- it fears for safety, for financial solvency, for what others might think of us, for even "spiritual maturity." The content soul, however, fears God.

So the great irony of prosperity gospelism -- and more people teach and believe this stuff than the walking cartoons on TBN, trust me -- is that it actually cultivates its own need for itself. It is built on discontentment and greed and desire and accumulating (whether stuff or "spirituality"), and therefore it turns in on itself, self perpetuating, continuing to create the needs it promises to fill. We all know what happens when you try to fill a God-shaped void with anything not God-shaped. We all know that money doesn't buy happiness, etc etc.
But contentment! Being content with what we've got, with where God has us, whether it be on top of a mountain surrounded by beauty or down in a valley walking toward a pit we cannot see -- now that is true gain!

But there are no easy steps to contentment. The word "content" evokes feelings of peace and tranquility, of being carefree. And those things are true, in a sense. But the way to contentment is difficult, and the place of contentment itself may be in a harsh and barren land. That is, after all, how you know you've reached contentment anyway. Being content involves the tough stuff of trust and discipline and obedience and biblical love. As Chesterton said:
True contentment is a thing as active as agriculture. It is the power of getting out of any situation all that there is in it. It is arduous and it is rare.

And to quote Mark Galli, we believe that "God loves you and has a difficult plan for your life."

So how do we get it? How do we reach contentment?
We start where we are, not looking ahead to what is next. We begin with a hope for deliverance, provided we are really in need of it, but also with a trust that God is refining us through the circumstances in which He's presently placed us. It just that -- being present. Show up, in this moment, for submission to God. Trust that the cross you are bearing is not the end of His story, but accept that cross as necessary and get everything out of it that is there to get.

There are no steps or strategies. Just the Spirit and the power He gives by His good pleasure. You cannot achieve being discontent with achievements alone.
I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
-- Philippians 4.12-13


Anonymous said...

If you haven't already, check out The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Burroughs. some great stuff.

Rob and Mary said...

I think contentment, goes back to what was demonstrated by Job.
Regardless of the circumstances, I bless and trust in God.
When we add the wonderful life we have in Christ, do we have any situation where we can say that our will is better than His for our life?

Roberta said...

I was born anti-materialistic. It is genetic. But I was fortunate to have a sister who let me borrow all of her clothes. She would shop for both of us!

Bob Spencer said...

Yes! This post names exactly what I've often wondered about but never could quite put my finger on or explain: the undercurrent of discontent even in the midst of their shows of jubilation among many believers. And it's important to recognize, as you do, that this kind of preaching is widespread, not just among the easily dismissed TBN crowd.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this Jared. This is great and brilliant stuff and I agree wholeheartedly. I have come lately to believe that there is a sense in which contentment is the ground of pretty much everything else in the Christian life. If you are not content with who God made you to be, where He placed you on earth, and especially all that Christ is for you, then all other spirituality seems to me to be nothing vain striving after something.
Sadly though, I can preach this and say a loud amen to every word you have written here but I don't think I began to embrace all of this until I entered into my recent time of trouble. So I wonder if maybe real experiential contentment is forged in the furnace of loss and suffering. There is something to that old cheesy cliche that when you find that God is all you have, you'll find that God is all you need.
Anyway, thanks for encouraging us all with this.

Jared said...

David, thank you for writing.

I agree with you. I think wakefulness is born of brokenness. This is the major premise of my current book in progress because I think it is crucial to whole-life worship.

I am grateful for your exemplary witness, brother.