Link: The Vatican Speaks Out About the Dangers of the Prosperity Gospel

Relevant: The Vatican Is Speaking Out About the Dangers of the Prosperity Gospel

The article, “The Prosperity Gospel: Dangerous and Different” directly calls out the idea as fake theology intertwined with the American dream and Donald Trump, and specifically references American megachurch pastors and televangelists, Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson and Joel Osteen. The article mentions that the prosperity gospel has made those preachers wealthy while they spread a “pseudo-gospel” that is counter-biblical. The prosperity gospel essentially says “wealth and success as synonymous with true religious conviction, and consequently, sees ‘poverty, sickness and unhappiness’ as a lack of faith,” according to Cruxnow.com.

The authors, the Rev. Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa, talk about how the prosperity gospel ends up being directly in contrast to social justice, salvation and the charge to love the less fortunate: “In truth, one of the serious problems that the prosperity gospel brings is its perverse effects on the poor. … In fact, it not only exasperates individualism and knocks down the sense of solidarity, but it pushes people to adopt a miracle-centered outlook because faith alone—not social or political commitment—can procure prosperity.”

I can think of few major Christian movements that contradict the message of Christ so directly as the prosperity gospel. From the emphasis on humility in the Sermon on the Mount, to Jesus’s warnings to the rich young man in Matthew 19:16–24, to His portrayal of wealthy people in parables like the Rich Man & Lazarus in Luke 16:19–31, there is no indication anywhere that God will tie economic success to righteousness in the New Testament. None. The rain falls on the just and the unjust; and the sun shines on both as well.

The insidious nature of this doctrine comes in two major ways:

  1. It clouds our attitudes toward our own sins. If we’re relatively financially healthy, we may decide God must be pleased with us. We then do nothing to right our wrongs or seek forgiveness for our transgressions. Repentance is hard when you think everything is great.
  2. It makes us unsympathetic toward underprivileged people and groups. We then reason with ourselves that they would be better off if only they were more pleasing to God. Therefore, who am I to interfere with God’s punishment for their apparent lack of faith?

I never thought I would see the day when the prosperity gospel would escape from its niche of televangelism and gullibility, but here we are. While certain sins may have consequences that will affect your prosperity in this life, God does not guarantee physical wealth or comfort to His faithful. He promises eternal life and joy to those who faithfully endure the struggles of this world, but He does not promise us success; He does not promise us possessions; He does not promise us wealth.

an image of the first page of the letter to James in the Bible

An Overview of James Chapter 1: Maturity in Faith

James is a book written to help Christians take their faith to a higher level. Based on the text, it’s written to people who already have a faith in Christ, possibly of Jewish heritage, and who understand the fundamentals of Christianity; but they’re having problems putting it into practice. James spends little time on things like Christ’s deity, baptism, or the nature of the church. Rather, this is a letter about putting faith into action. It speaks to what Christian living looks like in practice. It’s about owning our faith and making it a part of who we are — not just a name we wear.

In this and following articles, I’m going to go chapter by chapter, but it’s always best to read each epistle in one sitting. James and the other New Testament writers didn’t include the chapter breaks or verse numbers we use today. Useful as they are for study purposes, they can also make it easy to take things out of context — adding meaning or removing it from larger thoughts.

As a note, I’m working from the Christian Standard Bible.

Verses 1–18: Trials and Maturity

Consider it a great joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you experience various trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.

James 1:2–4

James opens with an unexpected theme — maturity through trials. Right after his greeting, James says to his readers that they will endure challenges as Christians. He goes so far as to say these challenges are a good thing because they will result in greater maturity. He then address two seemingly unrelated topics: wisdom and humility. Verses 5–8 say we should ask God for wisdom with confidence, and verses 9–11  tell us we should value humility over riches. In the context, it makes sense that we’d seek wisdom from God in our trials; it’s the eternal question of, “Why is this happening?” Wisdom helps us see past the events of the moment to God’s greater purpose.

Additionally, our trials can challenge us financially. For early Christians, persecution could include the loss of business relationships and even personal property. James reminds us these things don’t matter in the big picture, that we are exulted in humility. Instead of letting trials beat us down, our relationship with God and the love of our fellow Christians can help us emerge with a stronger faith. When we face challenges, persecution, and temptations in this life, we have an opportunity to grow in Christ.

Don’t be deceived, my dearly loved brothers. Every generous act and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights; with Him there is no variation or shadow cast by turning. By His own choice, He gave us a new birth by the message of truth so that we would be the first-fruits of His creatures.

James 1:16–18

James concludes this thought by reminding us that all goodness comes from God. That should be our focus in trials.

  • When persecuted we should look beyond the pain of the moment to remember God’s love for us, and those who persecute us should see that love and hope in our conduct under pressure.
  • When facing temptation, we should remember the promises of God are better than the passing pleasures of sin.
  • When facing personal tragedy or challenges, we should lean on the goodness of our God and our fellow Christians to help carry us past the pain and back to our hope in Christ.

Verses 19–27: Hearing and Doing

But be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. Because if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man looking at his own face in a mirror. For he looks at himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but one who does good works — this person will be blessed in what he does.

James 1:22–25

James introduces a couple of ideas in the second half of chapter 1 that he will come back to later in his letter. The first is that we should watch our speech, and the second is that a complete faith takes action. Verses 19–21 tell us we should be quick to hear but slow to speak in anger. In this direct context, James says we should rid ourselves of “moral filth.” Sometimes, we think nothing of the words we use online and in other public spaces, but this passage equates those angry words with trash. Verse 26 goes on to say that anyone who claims to be a Christian but does not control their tongue has a useless faith. Hateful, cruel, or impulsive speech has no place in a mature Christian’s walk.

In the midst of talking about our speech, James says we need to do more than listen to God’s word. We have to put it in action. It’s a stern warning about our speech that he puts this exhortation right here. He’s essentially saying, “Watch your words. Don’t just listen to God’s word; put it into action, or your words will invalidate your faith.” There are many ways we put faith into action and let God’s word change us, but the direct context here is in our language. If we study God’s word and then we cannot control our own words, then we’re like this person who forgets their own face in the mirror.

Miscellaneous Thoughts & Conclusion

  • Verse 13 should caution us against attributing tragedy to God. I’m talking specifically about statements like, “I guess God needed another angel in Heaven,” or “Well, God has His reasons.” These statements may mean well, but they do not correctly reflect the nature of God as presented by James.
  • In verse 14, James is making the case that God cannot be tempted. In doing so, he presents the path to sin as an equation — desire + temptation = sin. Remove one, and Satan loses his power. He can’t tempt you with something you have defeated desire for, nor can your desires overwhelm you if you don’t invite the temptation in.
  • Verse 25 says Christians are under the law of freedom (or liberty, depending on translation). Consistently, the New Testament writers only speak of spiritual freedoms in Christ. They put no stake in the freedoms of this world, and we too should be careful how much emphasis we place on the civil freedoms we enjoy.
  • The number of times Jesus, James, and other New Testament writers make a point about what we say and how we say it should give us pause when listening to, praising, or repeating public personalities who “tell it like it is” in harsh, vulgar, or otherwise mean-spirited ways.

In James 2, we’ll look at applying the perfect law of liberty to how we treat prejudice, and we’ll study some more about how faith and action compliment each other.

hands visible above a wooden table as two people are engaged in a discussion

Teaching in Love

Not many should become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive a stricter judgment, for we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a mature man who is also able to control his whole body. Now when we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we also guide the whole animal. And consider ships: Though very large and driven by fierce winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things. Consider how large a forest a small fire ignites. And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among the parts of our bodies. It pollutes the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is set on fire by hell.

Every sea creature, reptile, bird, or animal is tamed and has been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. We praise our Lord and Father with it, and we curse men who are made in God’s likeness with it. Praising and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers, these things should not be this way.

James 3:1–10

We teach because we love other people, but it’s also important that we approach our teaching in a loving way. James 3 offers a warning about our teaching — that it matters howwe speak to and about other people. This is an increasingly challenging topic in our modern culture. Our ability to instruct and discuss things in a civil and kind way is steadily deteriorating. As ambassadors of God’s word, we cannot blind ourselves to the way this kind of discourse influences us, and we have to be self-reflective about the way we talk about our faith and beliefs with others.

Am I Teaching or Arguing?

The first thing we need to think about is whether we are discussing God’s word or arguing about it. The easiest way to do this is to look at our own motivations: Am I trying to win, or am I trying to help someone on their journey? If it’s the latter, then we will watch what we say and how we say it. That’s being loving toward that person. On the other hand, if I just want to win, then I’ll treat the other person however it takes for them to back down and let me feel validated. If I’m in a discussion for myself — even if it’s about spiritual topics — then I’m not teaching in love.

This was one of the challenges the Pharisees had in the First Century. Matthew 16:1, Matthew 22:15, Matthew 22:23, Mark 8:11, Mark 10:2 — these are just a sampling of passages where religious leaders come to Jesus to antagonize, argue, or try to paint Jesus into a corner. Those who should have been the most intimate with God’s word used it as a weapon instead of a tool, sought technicalities instead of truth. This is what it looks like to argue instead of teach. If love is our motivator, then we’ll take the sword out of our words and humbly lean on the sword of truth.

Seasoning Our Words

Act wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Your speech should always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person.

Colossians 4:5–6

Theres’s a whole article at The Atlantic about how Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhoodfame) was incredibly intentional about how he used language with children. We should be so thoughtful about the words we use to teach or correct others. Galatians 6:1 and 2 Timothy 2:25 both emphasize the importance of gentleness in correcting one another. It’s when we believe that someone else is wrong that we let our guard down and become verbally harsh. We don’t have to be defensive to defend the truth.

That’s not to say there is never a place for a sharp rebuke, but the overwhelming message of Jesus and His apostles is that when we teach, we should do so with an attitude of gentleness, humility, and love.

But What About That One Time?

There are indeed times where we find Christ and His apostles using stronger words to correct or rebuke. Galatians 2:11 – 14 contains a record of Paul publicly rebuking Peter for hypocrisy and prejudice. 2 Timothy 2:16 – 18 has Paul comparing a couple of false teachers to a disease that needs to be removed. In Matthew 12:33 – 37, Jesus calls the Pharisees in his audience a group of vipers. And there are certainly a few more examples where Jesus or an apostle does use harsh words in their instruction.

The thing to keep in mind with these is that they are an exception rather than the rule. That Jesus used harsh words a handful of times over the course of His three-year ministry is not justification for nightly online tirades or frequent mean-spirited arguments. That we see Paul publicly rebuking Peter once for public sin does not mean we need to turn every disagreement into a spectacle. Proverbs 16:32 says, “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, And he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city.”

Conclusion

Our love for the world and our fellow Christians will drive us to teach; it will cause us to instruct, correct, explain, and even rebuke when needed. Whatever the need, we should fulfill it with love. We have to fight the urge to let misunderstanding or misapplication of God’s word drive us to angry or mean-spirited conduct. We need to avoid tools like sarcasm and insults. We have to be better than that, and we can be if we first fill ourselves with the same love Christ had when He went to the cross. If that’s our starting point, then we can approach our opportunities to teach with love and gentleness.

Photo by Nik MacMillanon Unsplash

Link: This is Not a Love Story

Wes McAdams: This is NOT a Love Story: What I Noticed When I Read Ruth

It would be easy to see the book of Ruth as a love story: A beautiful young woman, who has tragically lost her husband, meets a rich, handsome, and godly man who marries her and they live happily ever after. But that’s a modern fairytale, not a biblical story. Romance and beauty are important themes in our stories, but the important themes in this story are things like showing kindness to the dead and caring for destitute immigrant workers and widows (things most Christians hardly think of as important biblical themes). So, let’s take a closer look.

Link: Perfect People Need Not Apply

Timothy Archer: Perfect People Need Not Apply

But here’s the secret I want to share with you: people like to see a little vulnerability. If you come across as the skilled professional with all the answers, you set yourself apart from the person you’re talking to. If I’m talking about astrophysics with a NASA engineer, I’ll probably learn some things, but I won’t come away saying, “I can see myself being like them.” If we present ourselves as sinless saints who know everything there is to know about Christianity, we project an image that people can’t relate to.

In evangelism, we want to show ourselves as imperfect people who are trying to become like a perfect Jesus. We don’t want them to see us as perfect, or they’ll feel like they can never really join us. We want them to see Jesus as perfect and understand that they take a lifelong journey down the road to being like Jesus, just like we’re doing.

bible, notebook, and backpack on a wooden bench outside

Love Through Teaching

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

Romans 10:14–17

Teaching Because You Love

Love and acts of love are important to the Christian life. John 13:34–35 says that our loving service should be the defining trait that separates us from the world, and teaching others about Christ is one of those acts of love. No one can know about Christ and salvation unless we share it with them, so if we love the world the way Jesus loves, then we’re going to teach. John 3:16–17 says that all who believe in Christ will be saved, and Romans 10:14 rhetorically asks how anyone can believe in Christ if they have not been taught about Him.

We must feel urgently compelled to teach. When we fail to teach others about Christ and salvation, then we are failing in that labor of love. We are instead showing indifference toward the fate of their souls. Being a Christian and claiming you’re not called to teach is self-contradictory. We should always be finding opportunities to help each other grow and help the world grow closer to Christ. We teach because we love.

Teaching When It’s Hard

We must love others enough that we’re willing to teach them about Christ and salvation even when those teachings aren’t popular.

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 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. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

2 Timothy 4:1–5

“If you love me, you’ll just accept me for who I am.” This is a common dismissal of Christian teaching, but we don’t argue this in any other context. If you or I see a loved one living in a self-destructive way, we’re going to try to intervene. We naturally want to show them a better way because we love them. Likewise, if we know a beloved friend is putting their soul in danger, we will also want to show them a better way. If we care for each others’ bodies, how much more should we care for each others’ souls?

Yes, Jesus receives us and forgives us just as we are — with all our faults, our sins, and our struggles. But then He calls us to do something with those faults. He calls us to mature, grow closer to Him, and put those impurities behind us. In Colossians 3:5–9, Paul says those who have been raised in Christ should put away immorality, impurity, covetousness, deceit, malice, and other imperfections. He then says we should replace those things with compassion, kindness, humility, and forgiveness. To do this, we have to be open to the correction and guidance of other Christians who love us.

James 5:19–20 says the one that corrects another’s error saves their soul from death. 2 Timothy 2:24–26 says that a servant of God must be able to teach patiently, correcting those in error with gentleness. The goal of this teaching is repentance. Even when it’s uncomfortable or unwelcome, we should be willing to teach. Love drives us to do so, understanding that we are helping Christ save souls. This is love.

Conclusion

If I love you, then I care about your spiritual health as much as anything else about you. In fact, I should care about your soul even more than anything physical and transient. Teaching about Christ and His ways is a natural extension of that love. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy. That doesn’t mean we’ll never disagree. But it does mean that I want what’s best for your eternal soul. We’re often willing to overcome a great many things for the sake of love in our lives. We should also be willing to overcome whatever is standing between us and teaching those we love about Christ.

Photo by Aaron Burdenon Unsplash