(23)It’s dangerous to rely on faith as a magic elixir

By Paul Prather

Published in Lexington Herald-Leader, Kentucky

on October 14, 2006

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.

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.

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