Does God Want You To Be Rich?

A growing number of Protestant evangelists raise a joyful Yes! But the idea is poison to other, more mainstream pastors

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The brickbats--both theological and practical (who really gets rich from this?)--come especially thick from Evangelicals like Warren. Evangelicalism is more prominent and influential than ever before. Yet the movement, which has never had a robust theology of money, finds an aggressive philosophy advancing within its ranks that many of its leaders regard as simplistic, possibly heretical and certainly embarrassing.

Prosperity's defenders claim to be able to match their critics chapter and verse. They caution against broad-brushing a wide spectrum that ranges from pastors who crassly solicit sky's-the-limit financial offerings from their congregations to those whose services tend more toward God-fueled self-help. Advocates note Prosperity's racial diversity--a welcome exception to the American norm--and point out that some Prosperity churches engage in significant charity. And they see in it a happy corrective for Christians who are more used to being chastened for their sins than celebrated as God's children. "Who would want to get in on something where you're miserable, poor, broke and ugly and you just have to muddle through until you get to heaven?" asks Joyce Meyer, a popular television preacher and author often lumped in the Prosperity Lite camp. "I believe God wants to give us nice things." If nothing else, Meyer and other new-breed preachers broach a neglected topic that should really be a staple of Sunday messages: Does God want you to be rich?

As with almost any important religious question, the first response of most Christians (especially Protestants) is to ask how Scripture treats the topic. But Scripture is not definitive when it comes to faith and income. Deuteronomy commands believers to "remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth", and the rest of the Old Testament is dotted with celebrations of God's bestowal of the good life. On at least one occasion--the so-called parable of the talents (a type of coin)--Jesus holds up savvy business practice (investing rather than saving) as a metaphor for spiritual practice. Yet he spent far more time among the poor than the rich, and a majority of scholars quote two of his most direct comments on wealth: the passage in the Sermon on the Mount in which he warns, "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth ... but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven"; and his encounter with the "rich young ruler" who cannot bring himself to part with his money, after which Jesus famously comments, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

Both statements can be read as more nuanced than they at first may seem. In each case it is not wealth itself that disqualifies but the inability to understand its relative worthlessness compared with the riches of heaven. The same thing applies to Paul's famous line, "Money is the root of all evil," in his first letter to Timothy. The actual quote is, "The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil."

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