Monday, October 23, 2006

Faith: Neither a Chewable Tylenol nor a Magic Elixir

While doing my daily internet search for Christian persecution information, I stumbled upon an article called "It's dangerous to rely on faith as a magic elixir", which is a reaction to the religious movement called "prosperity theology." This theology is one that I'm only vaguely familiar with. Even so, the few times I've heard a friend or family member's experience with it have left me feeling dismayed, troubled and, to be honest, even disgusted. Thus, I knew it was a theological movement that I had to continue learning about and wrestling with.

According to prosperity theology, both a believer's wealth and their health are directly connected to the amount of faith that they possess. Paul Prather, the article's author, explains that prosperity theology believes: "[W]hatever 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." That's right, this theology is not just about having faith itself, but about having a certain amount of faith. And if you don't have the required amount, well, then you apparently deserve any and every negative situation that befalls you. Thus, faith becomes a sort of chewable Tylenol (a great analogy used by Glenn in his October 17 weblog entitled "Thoughts About Faith on Day 7") or, as Prather says, a "magic elixir." You take the correct amount and *presto*---you have a life without pain or trial.

Prosperity theology is largely fostered by a deliberate denial of reality. You can never admit that you're suffering, because that is seen as doubting God. If you're sick, must proclaim to everyone that you're well; if you're poor, you must pretend that you're wealthy. "The sub-text [of these actions] is clear," says Prather . "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."

Prather writes from the perspective of someone who has personally experienced the toll that prosperity theology can take on its followers and, by extension, on their loved ones. He saw his wife fully embrace prosperity theology and then apply its approach to her battle with breast cancer. After her diagnosis, his wife deliberately refused medical care, believing this was the only way she could be faithful to Christ. Prather's pleas with her to seek proper medial treatment were dismissed as heretical expressions of "doubt and unbelief." After three years, her cancer grew to the point of incurability. Five years later, she passed away.

Although Prather admits that he does not hold prosperity preachers wholly responsible, for his wife's death, he does not refrain from pointing an unflinching finger at its false implications. "The idea that believers can always escape poverty and sickness not only violates Christ's teachings," he says. "It violates 2,000 years of Christian history and all of Christian experience. It violates common sense."

Despite the recent popularity of prosperity theology, its approach to suffering is far from new. In fact, it is essentially a whole belief system based upon the response of Job's friends when they try claim that his suffering must be a direct result of his spiritual failure or weakness. Prosperity theology wants Christians to heed Bildad's advice that: "if you are pure and upright, even now he will rouse himself on your behalf and restore you to your rightful place" (Job 8:6). Bildad's statement defeats itself, of course, if you consider that man's "rightful place" isn't a place of prosperity, but a place of depravity. It is only by the grace of God that we do not get what we deserve and are instead given the unwarranted gift of His mercy. Furthermore, the Book of Job does not demonstrate that suffering is a result of unfaithfulness; Job suffered because he was faithful, or else the Lord would not have allowed Satan to test him through affliction.

Christ's death on the cross was an unfathomable act of mercy and love. So why do some people still insist on believing that God's mercy is indeed fathomable to the human mind? When will they realize that they cannot, themselves, dispense God's justice or even begin to predict or alter his will for their lives?

But as I ask such questions, I realize that these problems do not only arise in those who officially subscribe to prosperity theology. I've heard the question "What have I done to deserve this?" fly from the mouths of Christians suffering misfortune as well as Christians enjoying fortune. I myself have too often linked unfaithfulness with suffering, even if I don't intend to. When I'm discontent or frustrated with my life, I sometimes find myself thinking that it would get better if I was a more faithful Christian, which is a completely false idea. Yes, living faithfully is crucial and beneficial for Christians, but it does not make us immune from trials or guarantee us earthly rewards and possessions.

As I think of our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world, I shudder to think how prosperity theology followers might interpret their plight. I feel twinges of anger, frustration and fear when I realize that this skewed theology could actually make a suffering Christian believe that he or she is not a faithful servant to Christ. However, instead of giving myself over to these bitter feelings, I am trying to focus on the hope brought about by Persecuted Christians. Their willingness to live for Christ---despite the physical, emotional and financial cost of their faith---is the most powerful weapon that we have against beliefs such as prosperity theology. I pray that the enduring faithfulness of suffering Christians will open the eyes of those who are blinded by misinterpretations of scripture and false promises of an ever-wealthy or ever-healthy walk with Christ.


Anonymous said...

Keep writing, Adele. God is using you.

Alcuin Bramerton said...

Might religion be a serious spiritual mistake?

Glenn Penner said...

I don't think that the problem is with Christianity, if that is what you mean, Alciun, but with its distortions, which is what Adele is talking about. Distortions which, incidently, have more in common with New Spirituality than true Christianity. Bad religion is the serious mistake; Christianity is, at its very roots, not a religion at all, but a response to the revelation of God in Christ and a personal response to that revelation of truth resulting in a personal relationship with God.

Andy said...


I was brought up in Peru during 1980 -1994 the worst time of Persecution faced by Christians there under the Shining Path Communist guerrilla and government backlash.

I know of persecuted Christians who faithfully love God and have theology very akin to prosperity doctrine, I have also met those that have a poverty mentality, and poeple in between.

Andy Miller said...

To be honest Persecution has nothing to do with your doctrine but your faithfulness.

I think persecuted Christians aren't too bothered about what exact doctrine we hold. But more about if we will join with them, reach out to them and pray for them.

Glenn Penner said...

To be honest, Andy, you don't know what you are talking about. Persecuted Christians do care about doctrine; I should know having visited them in more than 30 countries over the past 20 years.

Anonymous said...

Great article.

The only person we've ever had try to explain the health/wealth doctrine was an older man who'd been in a motorcycle accident years earlier and now walks with a cane. His condition seemed to us to conflict with his beliefs. While we never mentioned his situation, he did tell us that the faith of the person needing healing wasn't the only consideration; someone else nearby may not truly believe the healing can be done. This reasoning seems like a loophole to cover for what would otherwise indicate a lack of fatih on one's part.