On Christian teachers who teach that getting stuff from God is not mysterious but scientific

27 Jun

Recently, a friend asked me to comment on the teachings of a Christian speaker.  The speaker insisted that figuring out how to succeed in one human endevour after another is pretty simple.  We need only follow a few biblically-derived steps or formulas.  Just do X in the Christian life and you’ll get Y.  Here’s my response:

When we confront the “property gospel” and its next of kin, we do so for the following reasons:

1.  We object to any contamination of the gospel that mixes justification with obedience (except, of course, the perfect obedience of Christ).

2.  We object to the notion or insinuation that the primary purpose behind our salvation is the accumulation of earthly goods (health, wealth, fame, success).  Rather, the purpose behind our salvation is righteousness and holiness, and to glorify God and enjoy him forever (Eph. 4).

3.  We object to any alleged biblical axiom which stipulates that all trouble, suffering, pain, sickness, poverty, persecution, in this earthly life on this side of the New Earth is due to unfaithfulness or disobedience in the Christian’s life.  The providence of God over the lives of believers can not be reduced to a mathematical formula.

It seems to me that this latter one is probably the point of conflict for most.  Certainly, as a general rule (and many proverbial passages indicate it), obedience tends to lend itself to greater ease of mind and life than rank persistent blatant disobedience to God.  These principles he refers to usually are found in the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament.  It wouldn’t be wise to blatantly and persistently disregard the commands of God.  That normally won’t result in our good generally (however defined), especially ultimately.  But these are proverbs, not axioms.  We read of the prosperity of the wicked as a great puzzle to the faithful, for instance (Jer. 12:1).  Take the verse which says that if we train a child up in the way he should go when he is older he will not stray from it (Prov. 22:6).  Is that a biblical proverb indicating a general rule or is that a biblical axiom indicating a necessary result?  Clearly it is the former (if it were the latter, we would be reduced to robots whose choices are entirely determined by external programming; such a view of human nature hardly squares with the biblical truth that humans are free moral agents made in the image of God).  The problem with prosperity theology is that it turns proverbs into axioms and since God can’t lie, they must blame a contrary result (straying child or impoverished Christian) on the Christian.  It must be, they reason, that the person lacks faith or is living in disobedience, and of course all of this leads to painful introspection and an inability to rest in the sovereign providence of God no matter life’s circumstances.  If suffering or earthly failure necessarily meant disobedience, then Peter (for instance) would have said that we should not be surprised by suffering in this life because of our disobedience.  But that’s not what he says.  He says we should not be surprised by suffering DESPITE OUR FAITHFULNESS precisely because suffering is a normal part of the Christian life/experience (1 Peter 4:12).  It doesn’t occur despite our Christianity but because of it.  Jesus himself said that we would be persecuted and even killed (now that’s quite the opposite of prosperity in my book!) not because of disobedience or failing to dial up the right biblical formula for earthly success (7 step program) but simply because we are followers of our Master Jesus and the servant is not greater than the Master (John 15:20).  I’d simply ask, were Jesus and the Apostles greater or lesser in their obedience and holiness to God than us?  And what did that obedience yield them, earthly success or failure (tradition has it that only John was not executed; he was only exiled to live out life in destitution)?  In prosperity theology, human failure and pain (sickness, poverty, persecution, calamity) MUST be due to spiritual failure and CAN’T be due to divine discipline, pruning, chastening, etc., but scripture teaches otherwise (Luke 13:1-5 and especially John 9:1-3).  We should of course check to see if our bad circumstances are due to divine judgement for unrepentant sin, but judgment isn’t the only biblical reason we have troubles (suffering builds endurance and character, we are told; Roms 5:3-5).  Rather, we know that “in this life, we are going to have trouble” (John 16:33). Moreover, our concern ought not to be focused as much on success in this life but in the life to come.  Heaven, and not earth, is to be where our heart and treasure is placed.  “Christian” teachings which encourage folks to focus on God as the path to worldly success are getting things just exactly backwards from scripture.  Christianity is not a financial or medical method to quality living.  Instead, we are not to worry about what we wear, food or drink, but we are to fixate on the Kingdom of God first.  Everything else, the Lord said, is secondary, the Father knows we need them, and perhaps He will add these things unto us as we follow Him (Matt. 6), which He often does because the Father loves to give good gifts to His children (Matt. 7).

So this teacher… where are his teachings focused?  Is he presenting God as a means to our earthly ends?  Or is he presenting God as the end for which man was made?  Is he presenting God as a means to our ends or is he presenting our lives as a means to God’s ends?

There is a passage I remember from Packer’s Knowing God that comes to mind that might be helpful here.  It’s from his chapter on God’s Wisdom and ours:

What does God do when he bestows wisdom to men?  Some… “suppose that the gift of wisdom consists in a deepened insight into the providential meaning and purpose of events going on around us, an ability to see why God has done what he has done in a particular case, and what he is going to do next.  [the instructor seems to think he has the actions of God in anyone’s life figured out with mathematical precision].  People feel that if they are really walking close to God, so that he could impart wisdom to them freely, then they would, so to speak, find themselves in the signal-box [of a train station; directing trains]; they would discern the real purpose of everything that happened to them, and it would be clear to them every moment how God was making all things work together for good.  Such people spend much time poring over the book of providence, wondering why God should have allowed this or that to take place, whether they should take it as a sign to stop doing one thing and start doing another, or what they should deduce from it.  If they end up baffled, they put it down to their own lack of spirituality.
Christians suffering from depression, physical, mental, or spiritual may drive themselves almost crazy with this kind of futile inquiry.  For it is futile: make no mistake about that.”

So I find it dangerous, spiritually suicidal even, when Christian teachers start laying down principles as axioms about how to get God moving on our worldly behalf (the Prayer of Jabez book comes to mind).  Just do these steps, they tell us, and God will perform for you.  It assumes too much access to the divine and providential counsels of the Triune God.  It confuses biblical literature (proverbs are not divine decrees).  It causes Christians to focus on worldly concerns, earthly goods, rather than God and His kingdom; on gifts rather than the Giver.  It presents holiness as a means of getting what we want from God rather than the reason he called us out of darkness into His marvelous light (we are to obey because it pleases our Heavenly Father, not because it unlocks heaven’s treasure chest of material blessings, which may or may not happen anyways).  It causes them to obsessively and unhealthily expect to understand the ultimate cause of every event providentially occurring in their lives, and to control them given some spiritual formula.  It especially causes them to assume that prosperity (or the like) is always due to divine blessing and poverty (or the like) is always due to divine cursing, which is just blatantly un-biblical.

Hope this helps!


One Response to “On Christian teachers who teach that getting stuff from God is not mysterious but scientific”

  1. bart ingraldi June 27, 2013 at 11:08 am #

    A very good and necessary topic. I think too many people confuse Christ with a genie, wanting to rub a a lamp and have wishes come true.


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