Joel Osteen, the pastor of America’s largest church, preaches a message of hope and inspiration that many people consider to be “prosperity theology,” the idea that God wants you to be healthy and wealthy in your time on this earth and that the Bible provides instructions on how to achieve those things in your life. It’s been said that “lies” or misleading claims are most dangerous when truth is mixed in. I believe this is the case with false doctrines as well. And let me be the first to say that prosperity theology can be a very dangerous doctrine.
High-profile televangelists and mega-church pastors who proclaim to their followers the virtues of Christian giving and tithing, while themselves living the high life with Armani suits and private jets have always struck this WalMart shopper as self-serving opportunists. As a pastor, I have frequently criticized “health and wealth” prosperity preaching as being dangerous and often heretical. While I stand by those warnings, I nevertheless feel that perhaps evangelical Christians critical of prosperity theology in general, and preachers like Joel Osteen in particular, too often “throw out the baby with the bathwater.”
Does God Want You to be Poor?
Recently, I attended a multi-day training event in Los Angeles, California for motivational speakers. I went because I believe that pastors can and should borrow insights, at times, from the business world. And I knew that the conference would provide some excellent training on public speaking, time management, organization, and marketing. I was not disappointed. It also allowed me to meet some very interesting people, including Bob Yates, a fellow ordained minister who runs a company called Circle of Champions. Bob’s company trains people, especially Christians, in the areas of personal and professional development. Many of his seminars deal with how Christians can achieve financial success through starting businesses and establishing what he (and other financial experts call) “multiple streams of income.”
During one of our many conversations this past weekend, we talked about how many Bible-believing Christians approach what they perceive as “prosperity theology” with deep suspicion. I too shared my concerns with prosperity theologians, including how there’s too much emphasis on financial gain and not enough on eternity. At one point, Bob posed a question that I will never forget. Without meaning to get melodramatic, the question has shifted my thinking on this subject. His question was simple: “How many people do you benefit by being poor?”
Chewing on that question for some time, I realized that it could easily be asked in this way: “Does God really want you to be poor?” I think many conscientious, well-intentioned, Bible-believing Christians feel (deep down) that He does. And let me say that I think there are seasons in which God will take His followers through poverty. The best example of this is Jesus Christ Himself, who had an interesting encounter with a would-be follower while traveling toward Jerusalem. In the ninth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, we read this:
Now it happened as they journeyed on the road, that someone said to Him, “Lord, I will follow You wherever You go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” -Luke 9:57-58
Clearly, there will be times when answering God’s call in your life means giving up material comforts and/or possessions. The early church in Acts brought all that they had to the apostles. Such was their commitment to God’s work! The “Great Faith Chapter” in Hebrews tells of men and women losing all that they had, including their lives, to follow Christ. The examples of this are numerous. And anyone who preaches that God only wants or even that He primarily wants physical health and/or material wealth for His followers is distorting Scripture.
Nevertheless, the Bible provides too many teachings on healthy financial living for us to conclude that the above paragraph represents the complete story. Returning to the example of Jesus, what about the thirty years before He began His ministry? Can we agree that the Son of Man most certainly did have a place to “lay his head” while likely serving as an apprentice to His earthly carpenter-father, Joseph? I’m not suggesting that Jesus was materially wealthy prior to beginning His ministry, but I am saying that His needs were provided for. Not provided for in some mystical, abstract “God will provide” kind of way, but rather due to timeless principles of work, stewardship, and provision that God wrote into the very DNA of Creation and the human race.
The Spiritual Cost of Poverty
While I understand that God does call people, at times, to financial sacrifice, let’s get one thing straight. I agree with Bob Yates, Joel Osteen, and others who say that there’s nothing inherently noble in poverty. In and of itself, poverty isn’t noble. It’s tragic.
Have you been in a situation where you can’t earn enough to put food on the table for yourself or for your family? Do you know what it’s like to lose your home because you can’t pay the rent or mortgage? Or perhaps you haven’t actually lost your home, but the shadow of losing it haunts you and your family? I know of many Christians who are completely dependent on the compassion and generosity of others, because they lack the ability (be it the health, skills, resources, know-how, or circumstances) to provide for themselves? While there are exceptions to this next statement, I’ve found that every Christian in such a situation feels trapped in more than just financial poverty. They feel emotionally and spiritually impoverished as well. Is that God’s plan for them?
Let’s take the focus off middle-class or lower-class America and shine the spotlight on other people groups in the world. Picture in your mind’s eye the millions of children suffering right now from excruciating poverty, who live in disease-ridden squalor and who are literally starving to death? Not only do I want to ask you whether that represents “God’s best” for them, I also want to ask whether you’re financially in a position to do anything about their suffering?
Consider how physical, emotional, and financial health all intertwine and deeply impact one’s spiritual outlook on life. In disadvantaged nations, those things can intertwine to impact your health and safety. In America, their effects may not be quite as dramatic, but they are there. Do I actually need to cite the statistics to prove how money-related challenges can lead to anxiety, stress, and depression as well as serious marriage and health problems? The evidence is so overwhelming that one would be foolish to deny such an obvious truth.
Not only is the cost of poverty evident in the lives of individuals and families, but it’s also felt in churches. It’s no secret that these recessionary times in which we live have resulted in decreased financial giving to churches and ministries. With less money to go around in their personal finances, Christians are giving less to God’s work, even though tithing is a fundamental teaching of God’s Word. As a result, churches are not able to do as much as they could to expand God’s kingdom. In the church I’m currently privileged to pastor, we’ve seen almost double growth in our attendance in the last two years, but financial giving has barely increased. More people are coming to church, but only a fraction of them are giving financially.
Commenting on the dangers of prosperity theology, well-known evangelical leader Rick Warren categories the idea that “God wants everyone to be wealthy” as “baloney.” Warren, the pastor of Saddleback Church in California and author of the bestselling The Purpose-Driven Life, says: “You don’t measure your self-worth by your net worth. I can show you millions of faithful followers of Christ who live in poverty.” I agree, but should Christians strive for poverty? That is the question.
And let’s be clear. That is the question we’re talking about in this article. You’ve heard the saying: “If you’re not growing, you’re dying.” Likewise, if you’re not growing financially, you’re declining financially. Money is fluid. It’s dynamic, especially in our changing economic times. If you make $50,000 in 2011 and do not get a raise in 2012, then you are making less money in 2012. You are falling behind financially. That’s an economic fact. It’s true that we shouldn’t put our primary focus on material gain, but what Bible passage teaches that we should aim for financial loss? Where does it say in the Bible that, to be a good Christian, you should do what you can to make sure you make less money each year?
I would rather hear a message preached by Rick Warren or, even better, John MacArthur, than, say, Joel Osteen. But I agree wholeheartedly with Osteen, when he says: “I think we should have a mindset that God wants us to prosper in our relationships, our health, and our finances.” Is that not what the apostle John wishes for his readers in 3 John 2?
The Dangers in Prosperity Theology
It’s absolutely true that many well-known prosperity preachers have succumbed to greed and excess. And it’s also true that many “health and wealth” ministries have milked their adherents of millions of hard-earned dollars, so that the privileged few at the top can live the high life. This is shameful and reprehensible. God doesn’t command His followers to tithe, so that pastors can sport Armani suits and $500 watches!
I also agree that it’s dangerous to teach Christians that there’s a specific formula you can follow that guarantees you’ll achieve incredible prosperity in every area of your life. What’s more, we as God’s people are not to put our main focus on the things of this earth. Jesus is clear that we are to “lay up treasures in heaven.”
While I read, and was encouraged by, Joel Osteen’s first book Your Best Life Now, I must confess that I was troubled by his emphasis on this life. Jesus wants to bless us now, but the Christian’s best life is not in this fallen earth. There is no better life than eternity with God. In fairness, I believe Osteen would agree with that statement. I just feel that sometimes we get our focus off track.
Most importantly, while Osteen does mention the salvation plan in his books and at the end of his broadcasts, it’s often just that: a mention. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is to be the primary message of the church. I have no problem with a Christian writing a motivational, self-help book. Zig Ziglar has written some great ones! But I do have a concern when an entire ministry seems to revolve around a motivational, self-help message that relegates the Gospel to a mere “mention.” Of course, Osteen would likely respond that he’s merely following Paul’s instructions in I Corinthians 9 to become “all things to all men” and thus meet audiences where they are. And it’s a fair point. I think there is value in addressing people’s felt needs. Rick Warren would likewise agree.
I will also concede that God has probably used Osteen’s inspirational messages to draw people to salvation in Jesus Christ. But I do believe major caution is in order here. If a person sees Jesus as an add-on (an impression one can easily get when Jesus is simply tacked on as a final, parting mention to an otherwise secular-sounding message), that person hasn’t experienced the call to repentance necessary for salvation. And that’s no small matter. How many of the professions of faith in Christ attributable to Osteen’s ministry represent true repentance (and thus true salvation) versus how many constitute people just trying to tack Jesus onto their lives with no real heart change? I don’t know the answer, and neither do you. Only God does. But it is a question I hope Joel Osteen and the leaders of Lakewood Church are praying about.
Putting God in Charge of Your Life
Nevertheless, I return to Bob’s question: “Who benefits from your being poor?” Rick Warren, for all his just criticisms of the excesses of prosperity theology, is himself doing quite well. God has provided for his needs and given Pastor Warren a global reach that he wouldn’t have otherwise had, were it not for the fame and fortune. True to his character, Pastor Warren has shoveled most of the fortune back God’s way. I read that Warren has paid back his church all the money they ever paid him in a salary and, if I remember correctly, only takes a dollar a year salary now. As to his book earnings, he tithes 90 percent of those earnings and lives off the 10 percent. What a testimony! Likewise, Joel Osteen several years ago stopped taking a salary from his church. Other pastors over the years, such as the legendary W.A. Criswell, were able to do the same when their royalties provided well beyond their needs. There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, it’s a great thing. It helps them and it helps their churches. And it illustrates precisely where I think people like Bob Yates are coming from. The more resources God gives you – whether it be in the way of time, talents, or wealth – the more God can use you.
In our conversations, Bob never said money should be viewed as anything more than a tool. It is a means to an end. And the “end” is where you can really tell a person’s heart. If you desire more money so that you can fly in private jets, own your own yacht, wear expensive clothes to show off to your acquaintances, shop in status-oriented stores, and just “enjoy the good life,” then you are “laying up treasures on earth.” But if, like Rick Warren, you want God to bless you financially, so that you can do more for Him, then your heart is in the right place.
There is nothing morally wrong or sinful with a person being rich. If so, then how do you explain Abraham, Job, Solomon, and Esther (who, can we agree, married into significant wealth)? The issue is not how much money you make or have, but rather what you do with it.
For my own part, I hope that God provides me with whatever I need to fulfill the call He has placed on my life. For I am here for Him, not for myself. I am fully responsible to God for what He gives me now and what He chooses to give me in the future. And, based on the promise of His Word, the more faithful I am to following Him, obeying Him, and serving Him, the better positioned I will be for His blessings along with His additional instructions.