So I’ve spent the better part of this week writing a sermon that wrestles with suffering. Actually I’ve spent longer than that wrestling with it. Sometimes a teaching is birthed out of a need to have something to say, and sometimes it comes out of having to say something. This week is one of the latter.
A couple of days ago I got the book, Will Jesus Buy Me a Double-Wide, written by Karen Spears Zacharias. The book is the product of several years of interviews as she alternates interviewing people who preach a Health and Wealth gospel (also known as the Prosperity gospel) and people who have been burnt by that kind of perspective of God.
At one point she recounts speaking to a well known female televangelist who explained her lavish Jesus following lifestyle by saying, “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? I believe God wants us to have nice things.”
Anytime I talk about this, I always feel torn to back up and say, God doesn’t hate wealthier people. And the longer I live the more I realize how wealthy I am. But I hope Jesus followers, especially wealthy Jesus followers (read people who have a roof over the heads) feel the great responsibility that comes with their wealth.
Because this really isn’t about money, it’s really a topic about how God works.
I like the way William Willimon talks about this:
“Martin Luther was fond of contrasting a “theology of glory,” in which the cross was seen as avoidable, optional equipment for Christians, a mere ladder by which we climb up to God with a “theology of the cross” which, according to Luther, calls things by their proper names and is unimpressed with most that impresses the world. A theology of glory (the current “Prosperity Theology”?) preaches the cross as just another technique for getting what we want whereas a theology of the cross proclaims the cross as the supreme sign of how God gets what God wants. The cross is a statement that our salvation is in God’s hands, not ours, that our relationship to God is based upon something that God suffers and does rather than upon something that we do. To bear the cross of Christ is to bear its continual rebuke of the false gods to which we are tempted to give our lives. Autosalvation is the lie beneath most theologies of glory. When self-salvation is preached, reducing the gospel to a means for saving ourselves — by our good works, or our good feelings, or our good thinking – then worldly wisdom and common sense are substituted for cruciform gospel foolishness and blasphemy is the result.”
In other words, the prosperity gospel is just as much a heresy as someone who thinks they can be saved based on their own merit, because both ways of talking about God skip over the Cross. It is to stand in the desert with the Satan listening to his offers for world domination, or bread, or flying lessons and think, “This guy’s really sounding reasonable.”
Phillip Yancey talks about a conversation he had with a man who visits unregistered house churches in China. Yancey asked the man whether these Chinese Christians pray against the government’s harsh policies toward them to change, or for relief. He replied, “No, they don’t. I’ve never heard them pray for relief. They assume they’ll face opposition. They can’t imagine anything else.”
The prosperity gospel can fool us into thinking that God’s best life for us can be measured in dollars and dimes, or square footage. But I think the deeper danger is that it can forget the very essence of the way of Jesus. That suffering can be redemptive. That God can take even our worst moments and do something beyond our wildest dreams with it.
That is, after all, what happened at the Cross. We can try to sidestep the true implications of the cross for a Theology of Glory, but we might never realize that the unexpected Glory of God was there all along.