Some thoughts on the ‘prosperity gospel’

January 29, 2016 at 12:50 pm Leave a comment

Moral theologian Fr David Garcia dissects the notion that God wants people to be rich

“Good actions are all that matters. The best good action is charity. The best kind of charity is giving money. The best thing to give money to is the Church. So hand us over £10,000 and we will see you through.” In this vein, C S Lewis (Mere Christianity, c. 12 Faith) described a corruption of the idea of “good works” and we may apply a similar concept to a corruption of the idea of the gospel these days, concretely the idea of the so-called “prosperity gospel”.

One of the strengths of the prosperity-gospel preachers lies precisely in the simplicity and apparent coherence of the argument: “God blesses us with good things. Wealth is good, and so part of God’s blessings. God wants to bless you. Therefore God wants you rich. And thus He will multiply your riches when (here comes the interesting part) you give a substantial amount of wealth to the Church.”

Pepper this argument with convenient biblical quotes and you have a most profitable formula for success.

Even if the argument would hold true, why should I give money to preachers so that God blesses me? Why not do it the other way around? Preachers could give me their money so that God immediately blesses me with their money and hopefully one day, through His generous providence, blesses them too. Who gave preachers the privilege of believers’ tithes?

It is true, however, that many Bible passages see material wealth as God’s blessings. To quote only one among many: “Job owned 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 oxen, 500 donkeys… Satan said,… you have blessed all he undertakes, and his flock throng the countryside”(Job 1:3-10).

Conversely, poverty is contrary to the will of God: “Every seven years you must announce, ‘The Lord says loans do not need to be paid back’… No one in Israel should ever be poor.” (Dt 15:1-4).

But to reduce the message of the Scriptures to such a simplistic understanding would be betraying the Scriptures themselves. Even in the Old Testament we find an ambivalent evaluation of riches. Prophets condemned fraud, usury, exploitation and injustice, especially when directed against the poor (Is 58:3-11; Jer 7:4-7; Hos 4:1-2; Am 2:6-7; Mic 2:1-2). And just in case we could think that it is a simple moral issue of right use versus wrong use of riches, the book of Proverbs prays wisely, “Remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches” (Pr 30:8). Is there anything wrong with riches other than its unjust use?

The suspicious evaluation of riches is even more patent in the New Testament. Jesus himself warns His disciples, “In truth I tell you, it is hard for someone rich to enter the kingdom of Heaven. Yes, I tell you again, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone rich to enter the kingdom of Heaven.” (Mt 19:24).

And how about Jesus’ own understanding of blessedness? “How blessed are you who are poor: the kingdom of God is yours… But alas for you who are rich, you are having your consolation now.” (Lk 6:20. 26)

The early Church received the same mistrust about riches from Jesus. St Paul warns Timothy, “The love of money is the root of all evils” (1 Tim 6:10). Now if money represents wealth and wealth is God’s blessing, what could be wrong with loving God’s blessings?

A clarification is badly needed here. The phrase “love of money” translates a single Greek term (philargyria). We could split the word etymologically into “philia” (some kind of love) and argyrós (silver, money), and simply translating it as “love of money”. But paedophilia can also be split into “paidos” (child) and “philia” (love).

Would we admit that paedophiles love children? So, if we think that paedophiles have a wrong desire for children, so we should also think that the wrong desire for money is what is the root of all evils. Nothing surprising about that. In fact, there is an English term that translates that accurately: greed.

Popular misunderstandings about capital sins are indeed at the root of this confusion. Gluttony is not eating too much; but the wrong desire to eat. Lust is not having too much sexual activity; but the wrong desire for sexual activity. And so greed is not having too much money or desiring money but the wrong desire for money. The wrongness lies not in the quantity of the good but in the desire.

As St Thomas constantly repeats, the objects of lust, greed and gluttony are not sexual acts, money or food respectively, but the desires for those goods.

WE CAN now try to understand a bit more deeply the crux of the problem. Money is not just neutral stuff, neither good nor bad, like a knife is neither good nor bad unless it is used to murder someone. Humans are not born with a desire for using knives but we are designed to eat, secure intelligently our future with some wealth, and procreate if we want to develop ourselves as persons. Wealth, sexual acts and food are not neutral stuff; they are goods that, unlike knives, we are designed to desire.

Unfortunately, those inclinations are mostly distorted in all of us and just as we tend to use people or their bodies as means to our own ends (lust), we also may consider money or food as ends in themselves rather than means to their proper ends (gluttony and greed). Understandably, the more excellent the quality of the good at stake is, the more serious the wrongness of the distorted desire.

Now we can understand that Jesus sees money, not as something morally neutral, but as something “tainted” that nonetheless can still be used well: “And so I tell you this: use money, tainted as it is, to win you friends, and thus make sure that when it fails you, they will welcome you into the tents of eternity.” (Lk 16:9)

Princes in fairy tales often disguise themselves as plain commoners and set out in search of “authentic love”, that is, someone who loves them for who they are and not for what they have.

In the book of Job, the devil tempts God to suspect Job’s fidelity. Paraphrasing, Satan tells God, “Of course Job loves you. You blessed all his undertakings. That is why he loves you. But he does not really love you, he loves only your blessings.”

This is how money can taint personal relationships and the most important personal relationship, our relationship with God. “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” but in being “rich before God” (Lk 12:15-21). In other words, we should not use people nor God as means for profit but we may put our wealth at the service of others and our relationship with God.

This is why the Church has always been realistically aware of the complex relationship we have with riches.

On the one hand, the Church acknowledges the goodness of riches and private property as the means of developing ourselves and helping others in solidarity to develop. St Clement of Alexandria commented, “How could we ever do good to our neighbour if none of us possessed anything?”

On the other hand, there is the realistic danger of riches as Paul VI wrote,  “St Ambrose put it: ‘You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone.” (Populorum Progressio, 23)

The appropriate ownership of riches should therefore be directed towards its proper use: “God destined the earth and all it contains for all men and all peoples …man should regard the external goods he legitimately owns not merely as exclusive to himself but common to others” (Gaudium et Spes
69).

St Basil put it more graphically, “Wealth is like water that issues forth from the fountain: the greater the frequency with which it is drawn, the purer it is, while it becomes foul if the fountain remains unused.” We should notice that St Basil does not say that the more you withdraw the more you will receive!

WE SHOULD like to end with a quotation of Pope St Gregory the Great, “The rich man is only an administrator of what he possesses; giving what is required to the needy is a task that is to be performed with humility because the goods do not belong to the one who distributes them. He who retains riches only for himself is not innocent; giving to those in need means paying a debt.”

To make matters even more complicated, the Church has practised some reasonable giving up of good things for spiritual gain, such as the practices of fasting and celibacy. And so it happens with riches; some people are called to embrace voluntary poverty for evangelical reasons. These are neither universal moral commandments nor necessary virtues (like chastity, sobriety, justice and generosity).

Moral virtue and moral law are universal and no one should be attached to riches; that’s simply the moral level. Evangelical counsels, however, advise some people to give up marriage or riches when they are called and empowered to put those omissions at the service of the kingdom of God.

Following the counsel of evangelical poverty is different from suffering abject economic poverty. One is to experience the absence of necessary material goods; the other is the acceptance or even deliberate choice to lack unnecessary material goods as a way to imitate the poverty of Christ who gave up the glory of his divinity and “had no place to recline his head” (Mt 8:20), and in so doing, giving testimony to the whole Church of the importance of the exclusive pursuit of the eternal riches.

At this point we are able to understand that the making of Churches as business is one of the worst form of abuse: the abuse of God, that is, using God, the desire for God or even greed to make a profit.
St Paul was very much aware of the difference between using God for profit and using profits for God: “Religion, of course, does bring large profits, but only to those who are content with what they have. We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it; but as long as we have food and clothing, let us be content with that. People who long to be rich are a prey to temptation; they get trapped into all sorts of foolish and dangerous ambitions which eventually plunge them into ruin and destruction. The love of money [greed] is the root of all evils, and there are some who, pursuing it, have wandered away from the faith, and so given their souls any number of fatal wounds.” (1 Tim 6: 6-10)

TO SUMMARISE, wealth is good, but to be rich is not automatically good and can be spiritually bad. Poverty is bad but to be poor or choose to suffer some material poverty may result in some spiritual benefit.

What is wrong with the so called “prosperity gospel”? Preaching that God wants us to be rich without any further qualification is “canonising” greed (the distorted desire to amass riches and put in them our trust) and contributing to the sin of greed in others. Promising riches from God and asking for riches in return is manipulating God and people to become rich. In brief, the prosperity gospel may be an illicit kind of prosperity but certainly is not a kind of gospel.

So, does God want you to be rich? God wants everyone to be saved, that is, to be a saint. Now, being rich can easily be an obstacle for our salvation, but riches could also be an instrument to fulfil the will of God in this world by using wealth for the kingdom of God. The question is not “how much money God wants me to have” but “is the money I own making me more or less of a saint?”

 

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