One of the most distinctly American movements in the contemporary church is that of the “prosperity gospel.” Joel Osteen’s million dollar smile probably cost that much. Leroy Thompson is not lying when he says “money cometh to me now.” It seems that the prosperity its proponent ministers teach is mostly their own. Treating Christianity as a self-help strategy or a get-rich-quick scheme impoverishes the soul and critics have correctly targeted the singularly-focused teaching that takes verses out of context.
Growing up, I was exposed to many of the more moderate manifestations of the prosperity gospel, for which reason I think that there are valuable lessons to glean from it which had been underappreciated in Christianity previously for some time. Placing the popular verses back into the contexts in which they would have been understood when written helps us to see an overlooked aspect of God’s character without the insular focus of the prosperity gospel movement.
One example of such proper interpretation is to recognize that provision, even prosperity, should be understood within the context of Christian community, not Western individualism. This is not to criticize Western individualism, but simply to say that interpreting God’s promises in our contemporary context prevents us from understanding His will as He was conveying it in these scriptures.
Acts 4:32-35 tells of the new Church in which everyone had everything in common. They did not sell everything they had, as they continued to meet in the homes of some of the early Christians. They did, however, sell their surplus often in the form of land, giving the money for the provision of the Church.
Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
Among other things, Luke is making reference to promises from Deuteronomy in order to draw a line of consistency and inheritance from the Israelites and the early church. The first six verses of the fifteenth chapter of Deuteronomy reads as follows:
“At the end of every seven years you shall grant a remission of debts. This is the manner of remission: every creditor shall release what he has loaned to his neighbor; he shall not exact it of his neighbor and his brother, because the Lord’s remission has been proclaimed. From a foreigner you may exact it, but your hand shall release whatever of yours is with your brother. However, there will be no poor among you, since the Lord will surely bless you in the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, if only you listen obediently to the voice of the Lord your God, to observe carefully all this commandment which I am commanding you today. For the Lord your God will bless you as He has promised you, and you will lend to many nations, but you will not borrow; and you will rule over many nations, but they will not rule over you.”
Reading these two scriptures together and considering the context, we can see blessing and provision alongside community. The Lord promised the nation of Israel that there would be no poor among them because he would bless their land. At the same time, debts were to be periodically canceled among neighbors. God wanted His people to prosper to the point of avoiding poverty, but no one was to become rich from others, at least through lending, within the community. Certainly, it was entirely possible for God to bless Israel to the extent that they never went into debt or could afford it, making such a commandment unnecessary. But in addition to provision and prosperity, He also fostered solidarity. The Israelites were to bless each other as fellow members of people; that is to say, prosperity did not only come directly from God, but also through people learning to act like Him.
Luke deliberately words his story in a similar manner to that in Deuteronomy, drawing the lineage of God’s chosen people to the new Christian Church. Here we see again that God ensured that no one would be poor. How did he do it? Partly God blessed individuals and the Church directly; partly he provided indirectly through some members of the Church. (Deuteronomy 15:6 shows that the source of prosperity can come from outside.)
Some people are blessed with substantial inheritance, good fortune or exceptional talent that brings them great wealth. Others are blessed to know these people. The Lord can make anyone wealthy at anytime if he wishes, but it is important to remember that just much as the Lord is interested in blessing and prospering all of his people, he is interesting in making them more like him. He wants to make them more giving and less selfish. He wants to them to become more thankful and less prideful. He wants them to be in communion with each other, just as he wants to be in communion with them.
It is easy from an individualistic Western perspective to interpret verses regarding material blessings, provision and prosperity — such as the ones in Deuteronomy 15 (see also verse 10) — in a way that we expect them to be fulfilled personally and directly. It may be done that way, but it is at least as likely that there is to be an element of human community to it as well. For every Proverbs 10:22 in scripture, there is a Luke 3:11.
Verses about prosperity and blessing should not be interpreted as a get-rich-quick scheme, but as part of God’s plan to simultaneously provide for his people and bring them together. If you are a successful businessman, for example, part of God’s will for your wealth is to bless the Church, from those who are temporarily down and out to the underprivileged to those in poor countries. If you have no talent for bringing in money, but minister in other ways, He wants to provide for you in part through the wealth of others.
His promises apply to us individually in the sense that we are all a part of His people. Understanding that is the key to moving from dangerous misapplications of scripture that only result in self-centeredness and disappointment to truly blessing and being blessed by others.