Prosperity Gospel Promotes Privilege

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I am a cynic. I’m not sure if I was born this way, or if life shaped me into this, but either way, I question long before I believe. I am a car salesman’s worst nightmare, a televangelist’s biggest critic. I read voraciously, sometimes a book or more a day, and I probably leave more advice and ideas than I take. One thing no one has ever had to sell me on is the character of Christ and the life He has called me to, so when I see the world twisting the Truth, I get nervous, and sometimes angry.

The twisting that concerns me most is prosperity gospel teaching. Whether well-intended (“Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart” Psalms 37:4) or blatantly self-serving, the message is both deceptive and dangerous. Following Christ is about Him, not us. We are molding our will to His, not vice versa.  Teaching that our desires for health, wealth, etc. Is about us is self-serving and dishonest. We as Americans love the idea that God will provide in ways we deem necessary, but that is not His promise. We teach our kids about needs and wants, and the girls are finally getting it. We need to eat, but we want Olive Garden. Not in the budget? Ask and you shall receive! But that is not Truth. I consider missions trips I have taken to impoverished countries. I have seen God praised and glorified in shacks more highly than in beautiful cathedrals I visited in England. Are the needs different between those 2 dichotomies? I’d argue not. Humans have the same basic needs wherever they are. Is their understanding of blessing different? Certainly. And sadly, I think we as Americans align more with cathedral worshipping. Prosperity gospel is selling us a lie that God will provide beyond His promises. We are setting people up for constant disappointment with God. Why didn’t I get that promotion? Why wasn’t I healed? Why didn’t He save my marriage? If I go back to that verse in Psalms, I see that if I am aligning myself to God, my desire will be to do His will. I may not see the role a job loss or end of a relationship might play in a bigger Plan. But He promises me peace, strength, wisdom as I face it. Selling prosperity as a biblical promise ensures people who will turn from God when they need Him most.

Recently, I have found myself thinking more and more about how this dangerous prosperity gospel relates to privilege. In just the first chapter of bestselling book, Girl, Wash Your Face, Rachel Hollis writes, “You are meant to be the hero of your own story…You, and only you, are ultimately responsible for who you become and how happy you are.”  Yikes. Great advice for self-love, but terrible advice when marketed as Christian nonfiction, along with numerous other culprits. But as I thought more, and read more, about it, I became more deeply troubled that so many Christian advice books are written by white, wealthy, privileged people, and read by the same. This self-love, pull yourself up by your bootstraps writing is nice, but it isn’t reality. Jesus sat amongst the broken, the poor, the outcast, the ill. Now we publish books selling an idea of self and prosperity that for many is out of reach. So they set it aside, along with the flawed picture of Jesus that accompanies it. We have taken the dangerous gospel of prosperity and made it also a wedge of privilege. 

I’ve come to read fewer and fewer Christian books about self. Sell me gospel or sell me nothing. The world does not need another wealthy, privileged person branding herself as a self-love guru, parceling out bits of the gospel in between drivel of “work harder, be better” and all this can be yours. We are living in a society deeply divided by haves and have-nots, by bigots, by self-idolaters. And among the piles of books and blogs, I go back to the one thing that promises the same advantage to everyone- the gospel. Jesus does not promise us equal health or wealth or happiness. He promises equal love, grace, and forgiveness, something we all need. 

Read what you will. Winnow out the truth and throw away the lies. Read thoughtfully and critically. Speak the same. Someone’s understanding of Jesus is at stake. Recognize privilege and prosperity for what they are, divisive and dangerous tools to continue to draw us away from the God who created all in His image. 

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Ghosted

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Pain has a way of curling us inward.  Our protective spine furls around our soft hearts and suffering. Pain has a quiet way of separating us, of muffling our cries for help and hiding our hurting souls.  And as we huddle into our spirits for safety, others fold away like the petals of a dying flower. It is slow at first; a peeling back of a layer of closeness. Fewer phone calls, avoided conversations, awkward responses become commonplace.  The separation is quiet, at times hardly noticeable, but nonetheless full of hurt. As the flower dies, the petals brown and crumble, and what was once one unit against the elements is now skeletal and fragile.

So it is with life.  There is a ghosting that surrounds pain, layering hurt upon hurt.  It is sometimes slow, even unnoticeable. Other times it is an obvious gaping division between the ghosted and the ghoster.  Much time is spent blaming the person in pain: for not reaching out, for handling criticism poorly, for failing to share. Less time seems to be spent on self-reflection by those most capable of helping carry the weight of the pain of another.  Many do not want to, or feel they simply cannot, sit with the suffering of others. It takes peace, inward and outward calmness, fortitude of faith in God and humanity, and perhaps above all, humility. Humility says, “I can’t fix this for you, but I can sit in the broken pieces; I cannot clean this, but I can accept the mess right now.”  Humility creates the opportunity for empathy, the choice to take on suffering to lift someone else.  

Sharing in someone’s suffering is a holy responsibility, but it is one often shirked by those who most highly tout it.  We are uncomfortable in our society to over-involve ourselves in the lives of others, and someone who is suffering is at times prickly, tenuous, and even invisible.  To help the hurting, we must see beyond painted smiles, we must approach rather than retreat. We also must be willing to hold on to faith, but accept that the other person may be letting go.  To be there for them, the tired cliche we tell people when they are struggling, we must actually be there. Telling someone who is suffering to call you if they need anything is akin to ignoring them.  Even if the person would ask, they sometimes simply can’t. Instead, show up. Make the phone call. Knock on the door with a meal in hand.  Sit in silence if they need to talk. Pray continuously. Be there without excuse, without explanation, and without judgment.  

I have made a mess of this so many times.  I have retreated. I have ignored or assumed. I have forgotten.  But sometimes I get it right. Sometimes I think I have been there in a God-ordained way.  And the more I study the character of Christ, the more I want to bear burdens alongside others. There is a lightness in the communal experience when done right.  It might not heal the pain or change the circumstance, but it affirms the sufferer that she is not alone. And sometimes, it changes literally everything. When Moses grew weary of holding up his arms in the battle with the Amalekites, Aaron and Hur were there to help him.  It was a simple task: just raise those weary arms up, but with help, it changed the course of the battle. Consider the friends who brought the paralyzed man to Jesus. Think of the symbolism there. Out of no fault of his own, he was separated, unable to get to Jesus or bring about his own healing.  His friends were willing to carry him and wise enough to find a way into the crowd. Their willingness changed his life completely. Not every experience will be miraculous, but every experience will be valuable. Every offering of time and concern will change something for the person who needs you.  Suffering wears so many faces in our society, and we become immune to its power. But worse, we often become immune to our calling to help ease suffering. God, let me never forget to be the hands and feet.