(07)Does God Want You to be Rich?(abridged version)

 The following is the abridged version of an article published

in the [Time Magazine] on Sunday, September 10, 2006,

entitled [ Does God Want You to be Rich?]

Does God Want You To Be Rich?

A growing number of Protestant evangelists raise a joyful Yes!

But the idea is poison to other, more mainstream pastors

When George Adams lost his job at an Ohio tile factory

last October, the most practical thing he did, he thinks,

was go to a new church, even though he had to move his

wife and four preteen boys to Conroe, a suburb of Houston,

to do it. Conroe, you see, is not far from Lakewood,

the home church of megapastor and best-selling author

Joel Osteen.

Osteen’s relentlessly upbeat television sermons had helped

Adams, 49, get through the hard times, and now Adams was

expecting the smiling, Texas-twanged 43-year-old to help

boost him back toward success. And Osteen did.

Inspired by the preacher’s insistence that one of God’s top

priorities is to shower blessings on Christians in this

lifetime--and by the corollary assumption that one of the

worst things a person can do is to expect anything less–

Adams marched into Gullo Ford in Conroe looking for work.

 

He didn’t have entry-level aspirations: “God has showed

me that he doesn’t want me to be a run-of-the-mill person,”

he explains. He demanded to know what the dealership’s

top salesmen made–and got the job. Banishing all doubt–

 

“You can’t sell a $40,000-to-$50,000 car with menial

thoughts”–Adams took four days to retail his first vehicle,

a Ford F-150 Lariat with leather interior. He knew that

many fellow salesmen don’t notch their first score until

their second week.

“Right now, I’m above average!” he exclaims. “It’s a new

day God has given me! I’m on my way to a six-figure

income!” The sales commission will help with this

month’s rent, but Adams hates renting.

 

Once that six-figure income has been rolling in for a while,

he will buy his dream house: “Twenty-five acres,” he says.

“And three bedrooms. We’re going to have a schoolhouse

(his children are home schooled). We want horses and ponies

for the boys, so a horse barn. And a pond. And maybe some

cattle.”

 

I’m dreaming big–because all of heaven is dreaming

big,” Adams continues. “Jesus died for our sins. That was the

best gift God could give us,” he says. “But we have something

else. Because I want to follow Jesus and do what he ordained,

God wants to support us. It’s Joel Osteen’s ministry that told me.

Why would an awesome and mighty God want anything

less for his children?

 

In three of the Gospels, Jesus warns that each of his disciples

may have to “deny himself” and even “take up his Cross.”

In support of this alarming prediction, he forcefully contrasts

the fleeting pleasures of today with the promise of

eternity: “For what profit is it to a man,” he asks, “if he

gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” It is one

of the New Testament’s hardest teachings, yet generations of

churchgoers have understood that being Christian, on some

level, means being ready to sacrifice–money, autonomy or

even their lives.

 

But for a growing number of Christians like George Adams,

the question is better restated, “Why not gain the whole

world plus my soul?” For several decades, a philosophy

has been percolating in the 10 million–strong Pentecostal

wing of Christianity that seems to turn the Gospels’ passage

on its head: certainly, it allows, Christians should keep one

eye on heaven. But the new good news is that God

doesn’t want us to wait. Known (or vilified) under a

variety of names–Word of Faith, Health and Wealth,

Name It and Claim It, Prosperity Theology–its

emphasis is on God’s promised generosity in this life

and the ability of believers to claim it for themselves.

 

In a nutshell, it suggests that a God who loves you does not

want you to be broke. Its signature verse could be

John 10: 10: “I have come that they may have life, and that

they may have it more abundantly.”

 

In a TIME poll, 17% of Christians surveyed said they

considered themselves part of such a movement, while a full

61% believed that God wants people to be prosperous.

And 31%–a far higher percentage than there are Pentecostals

in America–agreed that if you give your money to God,

God will bless you with more money.

“Prosperity” first blazed to public attention as the driveshaft

in the moneymaking machine that was 1980s televangelism

and faded from mainstream view with the Jim Bakker and

Jimmy Swaggart scandals. But now, after some key

modifications (which have inspired some to redub it

Prosperity Lite), it has not only recovered but is booming.

While they don’t exclusively teach that God’s riches want to be

in believers’ wallets, it is a key part of their doctrine.

Prosperity Lite is everywhere in Christian culture.

Go into any Christian bookstore, and see what

they’re offering.”

 

The movement’s renaissance has infuriated a number

of prominent pastors, theologians and commentators.

Fellow megapastor Rick Warren, whose book The

Purpose Driven Life has outsold Osteen’s by a ratio

of 7 to 1, finds the very basis of Prosperity laughable.

“This idea that God wants everybody to be wealthy?”,

he snorts. “There is a word for that: baloney. It’s creating

a false idol. You don’t measure your self-worth by

your net worth. I can show you millions of faithful

followers of Christ who live in poverty. Why isn’t

everyone in the church a millionaire?”

 

“Who would want to get in on something where you’re miserable,

poor, broke and ugly and you just have to muddle through until

you get to heaven?” asks Joyce Meyer, a popular television

preacher and author often lumped in the Prosperity Lite

camp. “I believe God wants to give us nice things.” If nothing

else, Meyer and other new-breed preachers broach a neglected

topic that should really be a staple of Sunday messages:

Does God want you to be rich?

 

As with almost any important religious question, the first

response of most Christians (especially Protestants) is to

ask how Scripture treats the topic. But Scripture is not

definitive when it comes to faith and income. Deuteronomy

commands believers to “remember the Lord your God, for

it is He who gives you power to get wealth”, and the rest of

the Old Testament is dotted with celebrations of God’s

bestowal of the good life. On at least one occasion–the

so-called parable of the talents (a type of coin)–Jesus

holds up savvy business practice (investing rather than

saving) as a metaphor for spiritual practice. Yet he spent

far more time among the poor than the rich, and a majority

of scholars quote two of his most direct comments on wealth:

the passage in the Sermon on the Mount in which he warns,

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth …

but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven”; and

his encounter with the “rich young ruler” who cannot

bring himself to part with his money, after which

Jesus famously comments, “It is easier for a camel to go

through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter

the kingdom of God.”

 

Both statements can be read as more nuanced than they at

first may seem. In each case it is not wealth itself that

disqualifies but the inability to understand its relative

worthlessness compared with the riches of heaven.

The same thing applies to Paul’s famous line, “Money is the

root of all evil,” in his first letter to Timothy. The actual

quote is, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”

 

So the Bible leaves plenty of room for a discussion on the role,

positive or negative, that money should play in the lives of

believers. But it’s not a discussion that many pastors are willing

to have. “Jesus’ words about money don’t make us very

comfortable, and people don’t want to hear about it,”

notes Collin Hansen, an editor at the evangelical monthly

Christianity Today. Princeton University sociologist Robert

Wuthnow says much of the U.S. church “talks about giving

but does not talk about the broader financial concerns people

have, or the pressures at work. There has long been a taboo

on talking candidly about money.

 

In addition to personal finances, a lot of evangelical churches

have also avoided any pulpit talk about social inequality.

When conservative Christianity split from the Mainline in

the early 20th century, the latter pursued their commitment

to the “social gospel” by working on poverty and other

causes such as civil rights and the Vietnam-era peace

movement. Evangelicals went the other way: they largely

concentrated on issues of individual piety. “We took on

personal salvation–we need our sins redeemed, and we need

our Saviour,” says Warren. But “some people tended to go too

individualistic, and justice and righteousness issues

were overlooked.”

 

A recent Sunday at Lakewood gives some idea of the

emphasis on worldly gain that disturbs Warren. Several

hundred stage lights flash on, and Osteen, his gigawatt smile

matching them, strides onto the stage of what used to be the

Compaq Center sports arena but is now his church. “Let’s just

celebrate the goodness of the Lord!” Osteen yells. His wife

Victoria says, “Our Daddy God is the strongest! He’s the

mightiest!”

And so it goes, before 14,000 attendees, a nonstop declaration

of God’s love and his intent to show it in the here and now,

sometimes verging on the language of an annual report. During

prayer, Osteen thanks God for “your unprecedented favor.

We believe that 2006 will be our best year so far. We declare it

by faith.” Today’s sermon is about how gratitude can

“save a marriage, save your job [and] get you a

promotion.”

 

“I don’t think I’ve ever preached a sermon about money,” he says

a few hours later. He and Victoria meet with TIME in their

pastoral suite, once the Houston Rockets’ locker and shower area

but now a zone of overstuffed sofas and imposing oak bookcases.

“Does God want us to be rich?” he asks. “When I hear that

word rich, I think people say, ‘Well, he’s preaching that

everybody’s going to be a millionaire.’ I don’t think that’s it.”

Rather, he explains, “I preach that anybody can improve

their lives. I think God wants us to be prosperous.

I think he wants us to be happy. To me, you need to

have money to pay your bills. I think God wants us

to send our kids to college. I think he wants us to be

a blessing to other people. But I don’t think I’d say

God wants us to be rich. It’s all relative, isn’t it?”

The room’s warm lamplight reflects softly off his crocodile

shoes.

 

Osteen is a second-generation Prosperity teacher. His father John

Osteen started out Baptist but in 1959 withdrew from that

fellowship to found a church in one of Houston’s poorer

neighborhoods and explore a new philosophy developing

among Pentecostals. If the rest of Protestantism ignored

finances, Prosperity placed them center stage, marrying

Pentecostalism’s ebullient notion of God’s gifts with an

older tradition that stressed the power of positive thinking.

Practically, it emphasized hard work and good home

economics.

 

But the real heat was in its spiritual premise:

that if a believer could establish, through word

and deed (usually donation), that he or she was

“in Jesus Christ,” then Jesus’ father would respond

with paternal gifts of health and wealth in this life.

A favorite verse is from Malachi: “‘Bring all the

tithes into the storehouse … and try Me now in

this,’ says the Lord of hosts. ‘If I will not for you

open the windows of heaven and pour out for

you such blessing that there will not be room

enough to receive it.'”  

Hard-core Prosperity doctrine reads those Bible verses

as a spiritual contract. Outsiders often see it as “another

form of the church abusing people so ministers could make

money.”

 

In the past decade, however, the new generation of

preachers, like Osteen, have repackaged the doctrine.

Gone are the divine profit-to-earnings ratios, the requests for

offerings far above a normal 10% tithe (although many of the new

breed continue to insist that congregants tithe on their pretax

rather than their net income). What remains is a materialism

framed in a kind of Tony Robbins positivism.

No one exemplifies this better than Osteen, who ran his father’s

television-production department until John died in 1999.

“Joel has learned from his dad, but he has toned it back and

tapped into basic, everyday folks’ ways of talking,” says Ben

Phillips, a theology professor at the Southwestern Baptist

Theological Seminary. That language is reflected in Your

Best Life Now, an extraordinarily accessible exhortation

to this-world empowerment through God.

“To live your best life now,” it opens, to see “your

business taking off. See your marriage restored.

See your family prospering. See your dreams

come to pass ...” you must “start looking at life

through eyes of faith.Jesus is front and center

but not his Crucifixion, Resurrection or

Atonement. There are chapters on overcoming

trauma and a late chapter on emulating God’s

generosity. (And indeed, Osteen’s church gave more

than $1 million in relief money after Hurricane Katrina.)

But there are many more illustrations of how the

Prosperity doctrine has produced personal gain,

most memorably, perhaps, for the Osteen family:

how Victoria’s “speaking words of faith and victory”

eventually brought the couple their dream house;

how Joel discerned God’s favor in being bumped

from economy to business class.

 

Confronting such stories, certain more doctrinally

traditional Christians go ballistic. Last March, Ben

Witherington, an influential evangelical theologian at Asbury

Seminary in Kentucky, thundered that “we need to

renounce the false gospel of wealth and health–

it is a disease of our American culture; it is not a

solution or answer to life’s problems.” Respected

blogger Michael Spencer–known as the Internet Monk–

asked, “How many young people are going to be pointed

to Osteen as a true shepherd of Jesus Christ? He’s not.

He’s not one of us.” Osteen is an irresistible target for

experts from right to left on the Christian spectrum

who–beyond worrying that he is living too high or

inflating the hopes of people with real money problems

–think he is dragging people down with a heavy interlocked

chain of theological and ethical errors that could

amount to heresy.

 

Most start out by saying that Osteen and his ilk have it

“half right”: that God’s goodness is biblical, as is the idea

that he means us to enjoy the material world. But while

Prosperity claims to be celebrating that goodness, the critics

see it as treating God as a celestial ATM.

 

“God becomes a means to an end, not the end in

himself,” says Southwestern Baptist’s Phillips. Others are more

upset about what it de-emphasizes.

“[Prosperity] wants the positive but not the negative,” says

another Southern Baptist, Alan Branch of Midwestern Baptist

Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo.

Problem is, we live on this side of Eden. We’re fallen.”

That is, Prosperity soft-pedals the consequences of

Adam’s fall–sin, pain and death--and their New Testament

antidote: Jesus’ atoning sacrifice and the importance

of repentance. And social liberals express a related frustration

that preachers like Osteen show little interest in battling

the ills of society at large. Perhaps appropriately so, since,

as Prosperity scholar Harrison explains, “philosophically,

their main way of helping the poor is encouraging people not

to be one of them.”

 

Most unnerving for Osteen’s critics is the suspicion that they are

 fighting not just one idiosyncratic misreading of the gospel

but something more daunting: the latest lurch in

Protestantism’s ongoing descent into full-blown

American materialism. After the eclipse of Calvinist

Puritanism, whose respect for money was counterbalanced

by a horror of worldliness, much of Protestantism

quietly adopted the idea that “you don’t have to give

up the American Dream (materialism). You just

see it as a sign of God’s blessing,” says Edith Blumhofer,

director of Wheaton College’s Center for the Study of

American Evangelicals.

 

And Osteen’s version, while it abandons part of that

magical thinking, may strike some as self-centered rather

than God centered. But American Protestantism is a

dynamic faith. If God does want us to be rich in

this life, no doubt it’s this richness in spirit that

he is most eager for us to acquire.

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