I’m a charismatic, and plenty of others who would claim that label believe some fairly kooky things. It thus occasionally falls to us to carefully disassociate ourselves from what others might believe.
It’s pretty normal that we would occasionally denounce what is commonly called the ‘Prosperity Gospel’—essentially that if you follow the way of Jesus God will bless you financially. You will become rich, or sometimes healthy and rich.
This is a pernicious lie from the pit of hell, but I don’t have a lot of desire to spend time writing about why it is. Here’s the challenge I’d like to offer instead: I think most Christians I know believe something pretty similar.
I think that because I think I do.
Let’s back up a bit. We’re very careful to exclude financial blessing from the blessings that God will give you if you follow the way of Jesus. This is not to suggest that God could not bless us financially—as though Adam Smith’s invisible hand was a spiritual force not under Yahweh’s ultimate command—nor to say that if we receive wealth we shouldn’t thank God.
The problem comes when we imply that finances come as a reward for obedience.
Yet, there are plenty of passages in the Bible that suggest that God does bless the obedient. I think it’s a very reasonable thing to say. Normally we would want to qualify blessing to exclude health and wealth as a rule. Which I would happily agree with.
Here’s the rub. I believe that if I am obedient that God will bless me with comfort. I think it’s likely you do too. This is a lie. I believe that he will secure me gainful employment, a nice house, and a middle-classed lifestyle. God had given me much of the window dressing of middle-classed life, and some of it has come in ways that were frankly miraculous. I am deeply thankful, when I remember to be.
The problem is that if I think it’s a reward—even though I would deny I do if asked—and I experience pain, or even simple discomfort, I’m thrown for a loop. The problem is that I have, and I think we have, a doctrine of blessing that only works for middle-classed knowledge workers like me. The problem is that it’s a doctrine of blessing that would make no sense in South Sudan, or India, or North Korea. The problem is that it’s a false gospel.
Anything that requires us to exclude sharing in the sufferings of Christ from the blessings that God may choose to gift us with is a lie.
I have suffered. Not as much as some, and more than others. Comparing scars is generally odious. I have questioned why in aching pain. I don’t anymore. I have had dreams—that seemed God given—be torn to tatters as my life took unexpected twists and turns. Perhaps they will be resurrected soon, I know not, though eventually they will be.
And still I believe that if I obey God he will bless me with comfort. He will bless me. I know this because God is good, and worthy of worship, and will not gift his children scorpions (Matthew 7).
What I’m not so sure about is my own ability to recognise a scorpion when I’m presented with it.
If we aren’t careful at rightly dividing the word of God we sound like Job’s friends amplified. We tell the suffering that it is their fault, their sin, that has brought calamity on them. Not in so many words, we wouldn’t be so crass, but in the way we talk about what God has gifted us with, in the way we speak of blessing, in the way we speak of the gospel.
The gospel is not “follow Jesus and be blessed”. It is not. You may be blessed, but that is not the gospel. The gospel is not “follow Jesus and go to Heaven.” You will be saved from Hell by following Jesus, but that is not the gospel. The gospel is not even, at its root, “follow Jesus and have your sins forgiven, your shame wiped, and the powers unmanned on your behalf.” The gospel, the good news we proclaim, does include all of these things. If you follow Jesus you will have your sins forgiven. Your shame will be wiped away to be replaced by the Father’s smile on his beloved daughter, his beloved son. Your fears and afflictions from evil spiritual forces will be defeated by the victory of Jesus on the cross. But they are not the good news.
They sound like good news, they are wonderfully good news, but they are not the Good News. They are not the proclamation gifted to the Church to tell the world, though we must say them all.
Friends, this is the gospel:
You get Christ.
The gospel is not a concept or a thing, it is an offer of a person. Jesus wants us. He offers himself. He is the gift.
Which for those who are struggling, or suffering, or steadfastly continuing to follow Jesus, is good news.
You are not failing, beloved, amidst your pain. You are not weighed down and crushed by the heft of the small sadnesses and the burden of the great griefs that life had thrown your way. You are not left behind because you are not ‘too blessed to be stressed’. Jesus is for sinners and sufferers. Jesus is for the weary and world-worn. Jesus is for the sad and the sorrowful. Jesus is for you, and for me.
You are not failing, because it’s not “follow Jesus and be blessed”. It’s “follow Jesus and get Jesus”.
Which is, of course, the greatest blessing we could possibly get.
Preacher, here is my plea. When you stand up to preach, paint yourself in your pain. You live under the Sun, in the days before the Sun is torn away to reveal the light of the Lamb, so you must know pain and the taste of death. If you don’t, you may not yet be ready to preach. Feel the ash of this life on your lips. Place the sparkle of the resurrection in your eye. Let your mouth twitch with a secret joy for you know the end from the beginning. And, for the sake of all that is holy, offer me Jesus.
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