Recently, Time magazine explored the popularity of “prosperity theology,” a movement that goes by various other names, too: “word of faith,” “health and wealth” or “name it and claim it.”
I have more than a passing interest in this theology.
I hold it partly responsible for my wife’s death.
Time highlighted pastors Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes and Creflo Dollar as prosperity theology’s most visible spokesmen. It focused on their belief in material riches.
However, although Time didn’t say so, divine healing is another core tenet of this system — thus the alternate name, health and wealth.
I’ve heard Osteen, to cite one example, preach about his mother’s recovery from advanced cancer, which he attributes to her unwavering faith. When my wife, Renee, was sick, she read Dodie Osteen’s book Healed of Cancer.
In any case, Joel Osteen, Jakes and Dollar are only three representatives of a much larger movement. Many lesser-known ministers preach prosperity theology. The details of their teachings vary — and some are far more radical than Osteen, Jakes or Dollar.
Generally, prosperity theology says that whatever happens to us is the result of our personal faith in God, or lack thereof. If we exhibit enough faith, God gives us what we want, whether it’s a Harley motorcycle or a miraculous healing from AIDS.
Prosperity preachers demand that Christians maintain stratospherically high levels of faith, what I’d describe as super-faith. They insist that Christians speak only positive words; negative words are symptoms of doubt.
You might get attacked by a “spirit of poverty,” the preachers say, a demonic spirit that wants to keep you poor. But if you stand firm by refusing to admit you’re poor, and if you have enough faith (and, too often, if you send that particular minister a sizable offering), God is obligated, by his biblical promises, to make you wealthy.
– The Bible, 1 Timothy 6:3-10 NIV
Likewise, you might get attacked by sickness. But if you flex your faith enough, and continually tell everyone you’re well, God absolutely must heal you, every time.
The subtext is clear: If you’re not healthy or wealthy, you’re a weak Christian. It’s your own fault you’re suffering — you don’t believe what God said.
In late 1996 or early 1997, Renee found a lump in her left breast.
Years before, she’d started watching, then ordering audio- and videotapes from TV preachers Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, mainstays of the prosperity movement. She followed other prosperity preachers as well, but the Copelands were her favorites.
I enjoyed hearing them myself. I used some of their points in my own sermons. Renee and I had traveled to one of the Copelands’ huge rallies in Texas and were edified.
But I didn’t accept the prosperity message nearly to the extent Renee did.
To me, there were elements of truth in what super-faith preachers taught. Many of us do hamstring ourselves by being too negative in our thoughts, by selling God short.
Still, I didn’t think faith was a magic wand with which you could ward off life’s vicissitudes. The idea that believers can always escape poverty and sickness not only violates Christ’s teachings, it violates 2,000 years of Christian history and all of Christian experience. It violates common sense.
After all, Jesus was crucified. St. Peter said, “Silver and gold have I none.” St. Paul bemoaned his bodily ailments and those of his fellow missionaries.
When Renee found that lump, she decided she could overcome it through faith. She would pray for her breast and proclaim that she was healed. God had to deliver her, she believed.
God wants us to have faith, I argued, but he also gave us brains and intended us to use them. Sure, we should pray, I said. But get medical help, too.
She said I was walking in “doubt and unbelief,” a prosperity gospel catch-phrase.
She wouldn’t see a doctor — for three years. By then, the cancer had spread to both her breasts, her lungs, her bones and her liver. It was incurable.
For five more years, she talked about the awesome testimony she would have when God healed her. Daily she watched the Copelands, Dollar or Osteen on TV, or listened to their tapes. She enrolled in correspondence courses on divine healing.
We couldn’t even discuss our situation honestly, because Renee thought it was heresy to admit she might not get well. It was maddening.
I don’t blame the prosperity preachers totally for Renee’s death.
It’s not their fault she got cancer. And, to be fair, prosperity ministers don’t explicitly instruct Christians to refuse medical treatment.
Nevertheless, having listened to hundreds of prosperity sermons, I think Renee’s reactions were predictable. The health-and-wealth gospel’s foundational message is this: Faith is all you need. It’s very seductive.
But God isn’t a cosmic ATM hooked to a bottomless bank account. You don’t feed him your password — a few pet Scriptures, the right prayer incantation — and withdraw heaping stacks of $50 bills. Neither does God grant you a miraculous cure any time you want it. Maybe it was God who gave us doctors and science.
An old adage reminds us that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. That’s the case with health-and-wealth theology.
It sounds too good to be true because, mostly, it is.
In extreme cases, it can even prove deadly.
Former Herald-Leader religion writer Paul Prather is a Mount Sterling minister.