This post is inspired by reflections in Dominic Foo's piece here
I was one of those people who used to ridicule and denounce the Prosperity Gospel. I would be baffled how this not only held a grip on a large portion of people, but continued to grow and grow. It wasn't just Joel Osteen, but across the continent of Africa, Asia, and Europe, people flocked to hear this message. I would just shake my head and sneer. But I was an idiot.
This is not because the Prosperity Gospel is true, good or right. No, it's mostly demonic doctrine fueled to con people out of money and confuse the Gospel of Christ for the American Dream, whether for people who are trying to reach, or secure, Middle Class status, or people across the globe trying to emulate American fashion and method. The vision of prosperity is intoxicating, and people lust over this stuff.
However, it's easy to judge this when you are a beneficiary of this life style and embrace it unwittingly. This thought is not new to me. Years ago I realized that I had the wealth that many people signed up to acquire. However, I stupidly missed the boat for years, until I recently was able to put the pieces together in a way that is more cogent and shareable.
As I said, I was aware that people wanted some marker of material prosperity, but my solution was stupid. I would claim to have divested myself of my wealth, in terms of attachment (I hadn't), and that they (and I) needed to turn to spiritual worship, a more pure Gospel. Sometimes this meant going on an intellectual quest to properly understand doctrines and turning knowledge of the Living God into a scholastic enterprise. I woke up to this flaw pretty quickly, but the alternative was even worse.
I thought the solution was a kind of spiritualization. I thought that people needed to focus on Christ, and not on material goods. But what does this actually mean? How is this not just a pious platitude? For 2-3 years I couldn't work it out. Following Christ seemed to slowly morph into a collision of moralistic activism, self-hating spirituality, and the occasional existential jolt, accompanied by plenty of reading and learning.
However, what the Prosperity Gospel gets right, in the way that a broken clock is right twice a day, is that man is a material creature who needs material sustenance. Many Evangelicals have completely spiritualized the God of the Bible out of the concerns of living. Most people signing up for the Prosperity Gospel at least know that the God of the Bible attends to physical needs and promises to be present in the miraculous in reality. This is the key. All people, when push comes to shove, will deal with economic necessities of life. When money becomes tight, that is where real pain will be. When nice Middle-Class people are threatened with diminution of their life-styles, they will become vicious and justify in all sorts of convoluted ways (the sacred right of private property being one of them).
This is where God's power must be made manifest, otherwise the Gospel is a pleasant fantasy. Other activities take place. Some turn to stock markets, or job obsession, or other things that are tangible. Spiritualization is, if anything, epiphenomenal.
But while the Gospel preaches a God who cares at the most minute detail about our individual lives, material or otherwise, it also brings the promise of a life where we might come to grips with our dependence on material reality. For Man does not live by bread alone, but on every word from the mouth of God. This means, yes, God takes care of our material state, but its that very fact that we must come to terms with. Following Christ means battling with Satan and overcoming sin's inversion of the flesh, making us turn inward towards serving cravings and desires, instead of turning the body and soul towards glorifying God in all of Creation.
This is not spiritualization, but in counting of cost of material reality. It's knowing that true generosity means giving away, sometimes to the point of depending on God for livelihood. It's knowing the agony of overcoming and rejecting the fantasies we believe to be the reasons for living. It's fasting to re-order our desires (more on this in another post). It's about receiving the power through Christ's work to bring about a new life in the body and the soul. It's not about rejecting the body, but in recovering it for worship. It means being able to walk this earth with peace.
Prayer and fasting free you from the snares of the Devil and relativizes the cravings of the belly. This is less about a fetishization of an inner-life rather than directing one's outward life. This is the power of the Gospel that gave martyrs strength, the promise that the Spirit of God would provide the words to speak when dragged before courts and crowds. This is a way to take account of the material world that God creates and maintains, while also deriving what life in a darkened age looks like.