The First Article.
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.
What does this mean?–Answer.
I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my limbs, my reason, and all my senses, and still preserves them; in addition thereto, clothing and shoes, meat and drink, house and homestead, wife and children, fields, cattle, and all my goods; that He provides me richly and daily with all that I need to support this body and life, protects me from all danger, and guards me and preserves me from all evil; and all this out of pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all which I owe it to Him to thank, praise, serve, and obey Him. This is most certainly true.
Martin Luther, The Small Catechism
It is undeniable that there are many things we rightly reject and dislike in the prosperity gospel and the preaching of the megachurches. Among the most evident of faults includes the “simony” of getting members to donate in exchange for God’s blessings (along with the convenient enriching of the pastors at the expense of the congregation), the raising of false expectations and hopes of material wealth and advancement, and finally the crass materialism which the prosperity Gospel breeds with regards to the idea of a God who gave his Son to die just so that we can own a Mercedes.
However, as right, proper and true as our criticisms of the falsehoods of the prosperity gospel might be, and the crude materialism it engenders, we must exercise discernment in our critique and not err on the other side. Is there not a kernel of truth in the prosperity Gospel, that God cares about our material and economic well-being? Is God purely concerned with our “moral” or “spiritual” conduct and gives not a fig about whether we have food on the table or a roof over our heads? Has the universal government of God shrank to that of a mere moral policeman?
While it is undeniable that many prosperity gospel believers hope for an “unnecessary” expansion of property and accumulation of wealth, but there are also many in their ranks who live in a hand to mouth situation, who is worried about their next bill, to the finances necessary to the raising of their children, or whose livelihood depends on the success of their business ventures. Are we to tell them that God gives not a damn about their material survival and economic well-being simply because He is too pure for such material concerns and lends his aids only in moral and spiritual enterprises?
We must not in our iconoclastic zeal to cast down the idols of false hopes and expectation, replace it instead with a despair of God’s providence. We must not substitute the paganism of material gods with the Gnosticism of purely “spiritual” God. Is not indeed a Job-like lamentation of an extravagant expectation frustrated to be preferred to Judas-like suicidal despair of God’s bounty? I myself admittedly have erred on the latter side of the alternatives, but perhaps there is something to be said for erring on the side of the magnification of our expectation of God than a transgressive despairing of the power and grace of God.
It is not by accident that the megachurches draw in the crowds from the lower social and economic classes while their critics stemmed from mainliners who are economically secured in middleclass vocations. Is there not perhaps a sort of pelagian “Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” going on here, whereby we critics trust in our own efforts, works and talents to secure our economic and material well-being, and scoff those who “superstitious” masses who believes that God will “magically” provide for their material well being? Are we critics not in fact those who dishonour God by banishing his providential care from the material realm, confining Him to the rarefied field of moral and spiritual edification?
Do not the believers of the prosperity gospel possess a greater sense and awareness of the grace of God, the very substance of their material lives dependent upon the sheer grace of God without secure empirical or material helps, than us whose lives are secured by sight and whose faith pertains only to “spiritual things”? Does not the prosperity gospel believer take more seriously Luther’s faith in the First Article, that God provides me not only for my eternal salvation, but “clothing and shoes, meat and drink, house and homestead, wife and children, fields, cattle, and all my goods”?
Separating the wheat and the tares from the prosperity Gospel will not be an easy task, but it would demand discernment rather than visceral instinctive reactions. There is much to be said about Christian communal sharing of wealth in aiding one another financially as the ordained means by God for the relief of material and economic poverty. But at the end, we must still avoid the Scylla of a materialistic god and the Charybdis of a gnostic god, and hold in tension his penultimate providential concern for our material and economic well-being, as well as his ultimate concern for our salvation at the resurrection future, when at last mankind shall not longer hunger nor thirst and where the true riches of God are to be found and pursued with all our heart, soul, mind and body.
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