Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Suffering and the Prosperity Gospel

There is no Biblical explanation for the popularity of the prosperity gospel except for the inherent worldliness of the soul. Never in the imaginations of the apostles would they have equated worldly advancement necessarily following faith in Christ. The entire philosophy vanishes under even a cursory reading of the book of Acts.

I understand Acts 1:8 to be a sort of thesis statement for the book as a whole. Jesus told his disciples, "You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." The story of Acts is the progress of the exaltation of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth, beginning in Jerusalem and advanced by the power of the Holy Spirit and obedience of His witnesses.

But the gospel was not advanced by the disciples having all that they wanted. Indeed, if you look at how the gospel advanced in Jerusalem and Judea, you will find that it was advanced via suffering. Peter and John were arrested, then all of the apostles were rounded up and beaten when they refused to stop telling of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. After being beaten, they went home and rejoiced that they were counted worthy of suffering. Before long, Saul of Tarsus came on the scene and began dragging men and women out of their homes and imprisoning them. He even went so far as to condone the murder of Stephen.

Stephen's death led to an exodus of Christians from Jerusalem. One of those was Stephen's compatriot Phillip. On his journey, he went to Samaria and spread the gospel there. A journey borne out of the necessity of fleeing for his life.

Everywhere the message of the gospel went, riots ensued and the people of God suffered tremendously. The writer of Hebrews tells us that the early Christians "joyfully accepted the plundering of your goods, knowing that you have a better and an enduring possession for yourselves in heaven" (Heb. 10:34). Paul himself was in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness— besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches. (2 Cor. 11:23-28). Does this sound like Paul's "Best Life Now"? Does it sound like that for the audience of the epistle of the Hebrews?

This is why I find the prosperity gospel utterly revolting. It is the antithesis of storing up our treasures in heaven. If that isn't enough, you think of what it says about our brothers and sisters who suffered the loss of all things: from land to spouse to children to their our lives. It says that they lost these things because: a) They didn't have enough faith, or b) They didn't experience the fullness of God's blessing. Both are absolutely ridiculous.

The prosperity gospel is such an affront to the true gospel of Jesus Christ that I hardly have the strength or stamina to point out the parody. It is well-known that the early Christians faced death by the lion's paw in the Roman arenas, and it is also known that Nero dipped them in tar and lit them on fire to light his garden parties. Do you suppose that the sort of "smiley" gospel that is peddled by pastors today would hold any comfort for those in the dungeon awaiting execution? Indeed, would it not give them sorrow upon sorrow? They would believe that they died out of the favor of God, because if they had God's favor, they wouldn't be in the dungeon in the first place. They'd be driving a fine chariot in a big house with plenty of servants surrounding them.

The Biblical exhortation to endure suffering, Paul's long to know the fellowship of Christ's sufferings, the death of James by beheading, Stephen's martyrdom by stoning, Phillip fleeing for his life, the fact that for Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter just doesn't make any sense. Beware of worldliness preached as gospel, it is a deadly cancer to the soul.

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