(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
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
“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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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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- Tagged: American Materialism、Calvinist Puritanism、Deny himself、Does God want you to be rich?、Fleeting pleasures of today、God's goodness、Jim Bakker、Jimmy Swaggart scandal、Joel Osteen、Promise of eternity、Prosperity Gosepel、Richness in spirit、Rick Warren、Take up his cross、The Purpose Driven Life、Worldliness