Thinking Really Big: Prosperity and Success in Light of the Gospel

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[Editor’s Note: This past summer I spoke at the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church’s Family Bible Conference on a topic derived from Joshua 1:7-9, part of which reads, “For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.” What follows below is a slightly edited version of that presentation.]

Prosperity and Success are always timely topics. After all, nearly everybody wants to be prosperous and successful. The list of seminars on how to be successful and prosperous is nearly endless, even in Christian circles. There is even a brand of theology that has arisen in American Christianity catering to these desires—we call this theology the “prosperity theology,” or the “health and wealth gospel.”

The context of this passage in Joshua is one of leadership transition. The book of Joshua begins with “After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD.” God’s first words in the book to Joshua are “Moses my servant is dead.” We then learn that the promises God has given to Moses still apply, and these promises focus especially on a promised land (v. 4). Joshua’s conquest will be successful, because God will be with him, just as God was with Moses (v. 5). But in response to God’s grace and blessing Joshua has a task. He must be “strong and courageous,” and he must be obedient to God’s law as it was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. And if Joshua is strong and courageous, and obedient, his way will be prosperous and he will have “good success.”

We also have to pay attention to the broader cultural context of the Israelites in the ancient Near East. The concerns of most Israelites at this time were primarily this worldly. That is, they were focused on this life. Success and prosperity were defined largely in terms of long life, material blessings, possession of land, and many children who would carry on one’s legacy after one died. At death a person went to sheol (the place of the dead), and rested with one’s ancestors. That’s not to say that they had no conception of life after death—quite a number of texts suggest that death was thought to involve a cold, shadowy, semi-conscious existence in sheol. At this point they did not yet think of two destinations after death (the hot place and the air-conditioned place). They didn’t think in terms of pearly gates and streets of gold. God’s revelation is progressive, and those were later developments that we rightly associate with the inter-testamental and New Testament periods. In light of this, we should not be too surprised at what we see here in this passage.

In a nutshell, then, this text seems to be teaching that faithful observance of the law and obedience to God’s commands will lead to prosperity and success. And we can’t help but be struck by the way these blessings are presented primarily as temporal blessings in this life. First, the prosperity in view here is the occupation of the promised land, elsewhere called a “land flowing with milk and honey.” The Israelites would dwell in a land prepared for them by others, in cities they did not build, using cisterns they did not dig, feasting on vineyards they did not plant (see Deuteronomy 6:10-12). They would live in a land sufficient to provide for their needs, and all of this was God’s gift to them. This was their inheritance from God. Second, the success spoken of here refers primarily to the conquest and to the way that they would displace the Canaanites. This was cultural success, success against their enemies. The Israelites would be in charge; their religion and their culture would prevail within the land.

We read these words to Joshua and we may find them comforting, but that comfort is not without ambiguity and uncertainty. We wonder: Can we expect to experience God’s blessing in the same way that Joshua and the Israelites did?   Do the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ make a difference? Does our rather different location in redemptive history mean that our expectations on these matters should be different from Joshua and his generation?  If the answer to these last questions is yes, then what does this text in Joshua mean for us here today? Two key issues emerge here—material prosperity and success in our cultural endeavors. We will examine both in this article.

Before we do that, however, we need to keep in mind three theological principles which have to do with the past, the present, and the future: First, the land of Israel was a provisional anticipation in the past of much greater blessings to come. Second, Jesus presently calls his disciples to follow him in the path of the cross, and through our union with Christ this cruciform mode of existence is replicated in our lives. Third, regarding the future, we as Christians have not yet arrived at our final destination. We are sojourners and pilgrims. In a very real sense we are awaiting our final salvation. Christ has decisively defeated the powers of sin and death, but that final victory is not yet fully manifested.

I.   Material Prosperity

Some things come immediately to mind when we think about Christians and material prosperity. How about Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now! Many Christians seem convinced that God wants us to be healthy, wealthy, and wise, with a BMW in the garage. Back in the 1960s Janis Joplin sang: “O Lord, Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz; My Friends All Drive Porsches, I Must Make Amends.” We all viewed the song as sort of a joke, but the joke has become reality for many. In other words, when we filter such texts regarding God’s blessing through the lenses of American expressive individualism and materialism we tend to get the prosperity Gospel. Sometimes this impulse takes cartoonish forms—Tammy Fay Bakker’s makeup and Creflo Dollar’s private jet. Sometimes it comes in slightly more subdued and respectable forms—take Bruce Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez. But in each case what emerges is a religion of consumption, a quasi-Christian justification of materialism and consumerism.

Back in 2012 my friend Ross Douthat of the New York Times published a book entitled Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press, 2012). According to Douthat, prosperity theology has helped “millions of believers reconcile their religious faith with their nation’s seemingly unbiblical wealth and un-Christian consumer culture” (p. 183). He notes that traditional Christianity contains a critique of mammon and acquisition that creates tensions for many Americans who are avidly pursuing wealth at all costs, and that prosperity theology seeks to resolve this tension by doing away with it. But Douthat also rightly notes that this theology puts many of its adherents in a bind: God wants you to be rich, but what if you are poor? The too easy answer is that you lack faith!

Such people tend to love the “sowing and reaping” language of the Bible. If you do things for God, and especially for some television evangelist’s ministry, you will reap a harvest. They especially like what Paul has to say in 2 Corinthians 9: “whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. . . . And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.” But they misread this key text—Paul’s point is not that if you give money to God he will make you rich. Rather, his point is that the pattern of God’s activity is that generosity is rewarded so that God’s people will have enough to care for themselves and for others.

But even more serious than bad exegesis, the advocates of the prosperity theology fundamentally misinterpret the nature of the Christian life itself. Jesus told his disciples to take up their cross and follow him. Not surprisingly, Jesus also suggests that the Christian life is one of difficulty and hardship: “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Paul tells us that God’s grace and power is made perfect in our times of weakness: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). The pattern of the Christian life is the same as Christ’s—we too have to go through the cross to get to the resurrection. We have to die to our sins and selfish desires in order to come alive to new life in the Spirit.

But I would also suggest that the problem of the prosperity theology is not that it thinks too big. Rather, it thinks too small! How can we reduce the gospel to questions of color TVs and new cars and larger houses, to creature comforts in this life when Scripture offers us so much more? We serve a Lord and Savior who has defeated the powers of sin and death at the cross, who is seated in the heavenly places “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Ephesians 1:21). We serve a Savior who rules over all things for the church (Ephesians 1:23), and whose triumph will finally be evident to all when he comes in power to wipe away every tear, remove every pain, rectify every injustice, and renew heaven and earth in accordance with God’s perfect will. In light of this cosmic dimension of the gospel, who cares about color TVs! Once again, the problem is not that the prosperity gospel thinks too big; it thinks way too small.

II.   Cultural Success

How shall we characterize this problem in a nutshell? How about Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges? These two Supreme Court decisions seem to exemplify the failure of Christians in this country to influence culture. They are the markers and measures of our lack of cultural success.   We are understandably anguished over this, not only because of the human tragedy involved but also because we hope and pray that God has better things for us. In other words, some of this unhappiness stems from our unique history as Americans, and of our perception of America as a promised land inhabited by chosen people.

America was founded by Puritans. They viewed themselves as in covenant with God, as a new Israel. They thought that the covenant promises made to Israel applied quite literally to them. They thought that if Americans were obedient God would bless our land, just as he blessed ancient Israel. That’s why many American Christians love to quote 2 Chronicles 7:14: “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” This is where American exceptionalism, our notion of America as a special, chosen nation originates from.

In the early nineteenth century American Christians worked diligently to usher in the kingdom of God in the context of the Second Great Awakening. The so-called Evangelical United Front used a phalanx of voluntary societies—missionary societies, literacy societies, temperance societies, anti-slavery societies, and so forth—to seek to transform American culture and society. And they were remarkably successful. Sometimes God blesses the efforts of his people in dramatic and exciting ways. There is plenty of sociological evidence, in Europe, in America, and in Latin America (see, e.g., Amy Sherman, The Soul of Development: Biblical Christianity and Economic Transformation in Guatemala, Oxford UP, 1997), that good things happen socially and culturally when evangelical Christianity becomes pervasive. Men work harder. They care for their families. They stop drinking to excess. They move up the socio-economic ladder. Poverty is lessened. As a result of this pervasive Christian influence on American culture, it became plausible to think of America as a “Christian nation.”

But then in the latter part of the nineteenth century Evangelical Christian influence began to wane. Church-affiliated colleges and universities began to depart from their religious roots.   American society was slowly but surely becoming more secular, and by the 1950s many people were becoming uneasy about this. It was during this period that we added the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance (1954) and “in God we trust” became the official motto of the nation (1956). But by the 1960s the larger trends were clear. The Supreme Court outlawed mandated prayer and Bible reading in the public schools.   Religious influences were increasingly excluded from the public square; appeals to transcendent authority outside the self were rejected, and the path to where we are now was pretty clear.

Of course, these secular trends sparked reactions by some Christians. By 1980 the Religious Right of Jerry Falwell and his ilk was in full swing, and helped to elect Ronald Reagan as President. The idea was that if we change the laws of the nation in top-down fashion we can move the culture in a more Christian direction.   A subset of the Religious Right, the Christian Reconstructionist or Theonomy movement, argued that the Old Testament civil laws should be implemented on American society. Unfortunately, this latter move was an unmitigated disaster. Exegetically, the Theonomists failed to reckon with the way that the Old Testament civil laws only made sense in the context of the promised land of Canaan. Confessionally, the Theonomists (many of whom were conservative Presbyterians) failed to recognize that the Westminster Confession expressly declares that the “sundry judicial laws” of ancient Israel “expired together with the State of that people,” and that such laws only oblige us today to the extent that they express timeless principles of “general equity.” Finally, the Theonomist program was a political disaster in that it seemed to confirm the worst theocratic nightmares of many about conservative Christians.

Needless to say, none of this worked very well, and we are now in the midst of a full-scale reaction by both the broader culture and many Christians against the Religious Right. For example, advocates of a Radical or Reformed Two-Kingdoms movement (sometimes abbreviated as R2K) argue that the role of the church is exclusively spiritual rather than social, and that Christians as Christians have nothing to say on civil or social issues such as same-sex marriage (I’ve written a brief critique of R2K here). More moderately, Christian sociologist J. D. Hunter in his widely read To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford UP, 2010) has argued for what he calls a stance of “faithful presence,” in which Christians eschew the use of political power and simply seek to be salt and light by their very presence in society. That pretty much brings us up to the present, which is not a particularly happy place for conservative Christians to be.

But it is precisely here that a biblical theology of the Land may be helpful to us.   As we survey the biblical materials dealing with the Promised Land, some key principles come to light. First, the land is owned by God himself and it is graciously bestowed upon his people as an inheritance. In Leviticus 25:23 we read, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me.” Second, the land is given specifically to the offspring of Abraham, the Israelites. That is, it was ethnically defined. Here we recall that remarkable vision in Genesis 15 as God promises Abraham’s offspring the land upon pain of death. Third, obedience to the Mosaic was required for continued occupancy of the land. Here we recall the blessings for obedience and the curses for disobedience as they are listed in Deuteronomy 28, and the climactic covenant curse is exile from the Promised Land. And, of course, this final covenant curse was invoked by the prophet Jeremiah and accomplished by the Babylonians. Fourth, the key issue here was the saving presence of God with his people. The goal of the Mosaic covenant was that the LORD might be their God, and they might be his people—God and his chosen people living together in fellowship and peace. Moreover, this saving presence of God found its focus in the tabernacle and later in Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Promised Land was a foretaste of much greater blessings. In that sense, it was provisional; it was not the last word in God’s plan for his people. Rather, it was a way for them to begin thinking about what God might have in store for them in the future.

This last point is especially crucial. Even within the Old Testament we see indications that the land of Canaan was not a final or ultimate arrangement, that it pointed forward to a greater eschatological reality. In Psalm 2 we read that the Messiah will have the nations for his inheritance and the ends of the earth for his possession. The depiction of the messianic kingdom in Isaiah often seems to be universal in scope, as the peoples stream to the “holy mountain of the LORD” and as the nations of the world live in peace under his righteous rule (Isaiah 2). In other words, the OT prophets intuited that God’s plans included Gentiles as well as Jews and they used the motif of the land to express this reality that ultimately encompasses not just Canaan but the entire world.

Turning to the New Testament, we see that the notion of the Land as the inheritance of God’s people is picked up in a powerful way. Scholars such as Christopher Wright, N. T. Wright, and J. G. Millar have explored this issue at great length and my own understanding of this issue is indebted to them. Jesus says that the “meek will inherit the earth” (or the land, Matt. 5:5). Paul connects the dots for us in Romans 4:13: “For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be the heir of the world did not come through the law but though the righteousness of faith.” Significantly, the author of Hebrews understands the promise of entering the Promised Land as pointing forward to an eternal Sabbath rest for God’s people as they are joined with Christ. The point should be clear to us now—with the coming of the Messiah, the notion of the “promised land” is christologically defined. The promise of “land” is fulfilled concretely in Christ, who rules over the world as God’s kingdom, and his people. A principle of redemptive history is that when God takes something away, he replaces it with something much, much better.

All this should be a warning to us not to identify the Promised Land with any particular nation, or particular piece of real estate. The covenant promises of God regarding land do not apply to America as a nation in covenant with God, or as some sort of new Israel. God’s plans are not going down the tube because of America’s present unfaithfulness. We know that ultimate individual and collective transformation are God’s work that will not be completed until Christ comes again, and that, while real (albeit provisional) successes are at times realized today, this eschatological horizon implies that the ministry of the church is not going to usher in the millennium.

Nevertheless, we also know that despite the setbacks and frustrations of our present existence (and in ways that are quite mysterious to us from our present earthly perspective) God is building his kingdom and using us his people to that end. It is not without reason that the metaphor of sowing and reaping is so prominent in the New Testament. Our deeds make a difference, and our task as Christians is to be faithful.

Once again, we see that the danger is not that we think too big, but that we think too small. We want to have some success in changing American culture.   And God in his providence may allow that as he has in the past, or he may not. But God is at work transforming the cosmos and using us his people to that end. That’s real success!

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