Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

How un-Christian is the prosperity gospel?

Jerry Stratton, May 29, 2024

Chesterton: martyrs and fools: G. K. Chesterton, from Heretics: “A man who has faith must be prepared not only to be a martyr, but to be a fool. It is absurd to say that a man is ready to toil and die for his convictions when he is not even ready to wear a wreath round his head for them.”; hard faith; G. K. Chesterton

One of the weird results of the February shooting at Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church is seeing how bipartisan the hatred for Osteen, and the so-called prosperity gospel1, is. The reaction in comments and even in some public postings come very close to advocating violence against him. They start with a superficial acknowledgment that it’s too bad the violence occurred against a child, and then use the violence as a platform to complain about the existence of Osteen, Lakewood Church, and the message of those kinds of megachurches.

These responses highlight that there are still popular people who are nonetheless open season, literally, for attacks from both sides of the political spectrum. The left hates Osteen because he’s Christian, and the right hates him because he’s not.

So there are obviously a lot of people who do not like prosperity gospel preachers and prosperity gospel. But by the same token, a lot of people are clearly fans of either the preachers or the message. I know very little about prosperity gospel. I did, with a friend, see Joel Osteen once, and there’s definitely a sense of asking God for material things that seems way over the top for me as a Catholic.

Catholics have moved away from asking God for earthly things. In the period between when I went to Mass regularly as a child and when I returned to the church several years ago, the Ecce Agnus Dei2 response changed from “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” to “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

Now, that’s probably not a change in meaning. Judging from the original Latin, it was probably always supposed to be a plea for spiritual healing, and my understanding is that this was a change in the American missal, not the worldwide missal. It was a change to better translate the Latin missal of Rome.

Domine, non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum, sed tantum dic verbo, et sanabitur anima mea.

“Anima” is normally translated as “soul” or “spirit”. But it’s important to remember that the Bible story that line comes from was about physical healing. The centurion in Matthew 8:5-13 asked Jesus to heal his servant, not his soul.

C.S. Lewis: one weed: C.S. Lewis over military prayers: “You cannot be sure of a good harvest whatever you do to a field. But you can be sure that if you pull up one weed that one weed will no longer be there.”; military; prayers; C. S. Lewis

When he entered Capernaum, a centurion approached him and appealed to him, saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, suffering dreadfully.”

He said to him, “I will come and cure him.”

The centurion said in reply, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed.

There’s a very important message in the centurion’s version of the events referenced by this plea. He had faith that he could ask for earthly aid and that Jesus would provide it.

We also, of course, ask for material things every time we say the Lord’s Prayer. “Give us this day our daily bread” is a plea for every day sustenance. And my sense from that lone visit to Lakewood is that this is what most people were asking God for. They’d lost their jobs, or they were drowning financially, or they were overwhelmed emotionally and spiritually from loss, from disease, from the relentless buffets of worldly hatred. These are worthwhile things to pray for assistance with and from.

More importantly, however, I remember nothing of what Osteen said except for this: too many times we pray to God as if we don’t believe in God or prayer. We pray for help—and then we ignore all the help God sends our way.

If we prayed and believed our prayer was being answered, if we believed that God has the power to help and that God was sending His help, we would, like the centurion, act a lot differently. We would act like we believed that help was on its way. We would examine every blessing and trial and ask, is this an answer to my prayers? Is this an opportunity? If I ignore this person or this situation that has just come my way, even treat it as a trial to be avoided, am I refusing God’s answer?

Osteen’s message was, once you pray for something, act as if you believe the answer is on the way. Act as if the world is filled with God’s gifts to us. Examine every new person and event in your life with the expectation that some of them will be in answer to your prayers. Believe that God answers prayers, and you will act differently than if you fear there is no God or that God does not care for you.

Too often, we pray and then complain that God doesn’t answer prayer. We may even assume that God replied no, but we never listened for an answer.

Certainly, looking back on my own life, I can see with hindsight that there were times when God answered my prayers but I did not have the confidence to recognize the gifts He was all but forcing me to accept. As often as not I assumed that the opportunities He was sending me were problems to be avoided.

At best, I trusted my own judgement more than God’s. At worst, I didn’t believe God was taking any part in my life.

Chesterton: dirty work: G. K. Chesterton, from The Everlasting Man: “…the man consulting a demon felt as many a man has felt in consulting a detective: that it was dirty work but the work would really be done.”; demons; G. K. Chesterton; paganism

Mark 11:24 is specific:

Amen I say to you, whatever you ask when you pray, believe that you shall receive, and it shall be done to you.

St. Augustine of Hippo wrote in more detail about confidence in the Lord:

God certainly desires our greatest good more than we ourselves desire it. He knows better than we by what way it can come to us; and the choice of ways is wholly in His hands, as it is He Who governs and regulates all that occurs in the world. It is, then, most certain that in all chances that can befall, whatever may happen, will always be best for us.

Do you desire security? Here you have it. The Lord says to thee, “I will never abandon thee, I will always be with thee!” If a good man made you such a promise, you would trust him. God makes it, and do you doubt? Do you seek a support more sure than the word of God, which is infallible? Surely, He has made the promise, He has written it, He has pledged His word for it, it is most certain.3

You can petition God, and God will answer. Most of us choose to sleep through the watches when God answers. Sometimes, because we’re uncomfortable relying on religious belief in our daily lives. Sometimes, because we’re afraid of what a divine answer would mean about life on Earth. Sometimes, because we know His answers mean work and it’s easier to believe there was no answer. It’s easier to suffer.

I do not pretend to know how God will answer. It may be that God will sometimes say no. But will His refusal be a single word? As C. S. Lewis pointed out, even Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane was not told, in response to his repeated prayers, ok, no problem. There won’t be a crucifixion. Isn’t hearing a “no, but…” from God something worth listening for?

I think we’ve gone too rationalistic in our relationship with God. We’re afraid to ask him for things we humanly want, not just because we’re afraid of the answer but because that would be “pagan” or “treating God like a genie”.

But to badly paraphrase Chesterton and Lewis, pagans had one advantage over modern Christians: they really believed they could speak with their gods, directly and through oracles, of human things—and hope for a beneficial response. This was also a belief and hope held by Jesus’s earlier followers and in the early Church.

We’ve lost that belief and that faith in the modern world. But that belief and hope is part of what God has written into our hearts. It is worth restoring to our lives.

  1. If there’s an agreed-on name for this preaching among its practitioners, I do not know what it is, so I will use “prosperity gospel” throughout this post.

  2. Ecce: Behold; Agnus: Lamb; Dei: of God.

  3. From Benedictus, October, 2022, p. 5.

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