After unprecedented rains, images are flowing out of Houston. Many are startling, but many are fake — like the Freeway Shark.
My Facebook feed brought a report about a Christian lobbyist whose home was flooded. Of course he previously preached that natural disasters were the wrath of God – an ironic twist. But soon I realized (since his house wasn’t in Houston) that this was in fact an old story, shared as current.
In the midst of this my Twitter feed reported Joel Olsteen’s church refused to help flood victims. Soon enough the church responded – Joel himself – that the church “never closed” and was in fact open as a shelter. I am not sure which report is fake – maybe all of them to some degree.
We live in a world where it is hard to tell fact from fiction. It is not just a problem for politics and current events, but also our theology. I preach that Natural disasters are not God’s wrath. But how many claimed Katrina was God’s judgment? Thankfully I doubt many will claim Harvey was God’s judgment (Maybe because our theology has matured or maybe because Houston is the land of a 1000 mega churches).
Through our misunderstanding of blessing and punishment – thinking good are blessed, evil punished – we also do not hold a complete theology of sacrifice.1 And this has given rise to the prosperity gospel. Not just in Houston’s stadium churches, but nearly every Christian carries a bit of this idea: If I live God’s life I will have health and wealth.
1 Our theology of sacrifice is incomplete because we rejoice at God’s sacrifice, but avoid our own.
I understand why the Prosperity Gospel is popular. Who doesn’t want your best life now – rather than waiting for heaven. And who doesn’t want the best life to include all the trappings of the world’s successful life? But how does this fit with the gospel?
If we simply read the four gospels, we gather than Jesus is important. We probably pick up the idea that we are to be like him or follow him. And I understand how prosperity fits into this reading. As I turn the pages I clearly see Jesus has a big house and fancy clothes. He is respected by important people. He lives a long life and at his death he passes the mantel of leadership to steadfast and faithful followers. I see myself in these followers! … of course you know the only accurate words I wrote is the last phrase. I am a lot like the first disciples – prone to abandon Jesus when the way gets hard.
If being like Jesus has anything to do with the gospel; then health and wealth have nothing to do with the gospel. Not to say we won’t have health or wealth – but bank statements and health charts are not markings of the Jesus. He was marked by sacrifice.
The idea of sacrifice is outside our normal thought process (which tends toward keeping us safe). James begins his letter talking about sacrifice. Trials and suffering. The rich are low. The poor should take pride in their high positions. In the midst of these ideas he writes a phrase that seems out of place, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously…” But James realizes when we talk about sacrifice people respond with logic or with tradition. They quickly try to water down the concept. So James cut through and says, if you don’t understand the gospel I am talking about, don’t talk to me, pray to God. (James 1:1-12)
The Prosperity Gospel is an easy way to follow Jesus – a freeway. But like freeway sharks, it is a fake gospel. The church traveling that path will find they aren’t walking the path of Jesus. He is on the path of sacrifice. The church with him may discover he is all they have. But the love God and the love for our neighbor is more than enough.
13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matthew 7)