(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
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
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,
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
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
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
It sounds too good to be true because, mostly, it is.
In extreme cases, it can even prove deadly.