Monday, July 9, 2007

Understanding Prosperity

Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers. (3 John 2)
Alongside every country road there are usually two ditches, one on either side. Controversial issues are generally like that; there are extremes and reactions on either side. I find this to be true about how Christians react to the Biblical teaching concerning prosperity. In 3 John 2, we see the will of God, as expressed in the prayer of the apostle John, is for His people to prosper in all things and be in health, according to how they are prospering in their souls.

That seems pretty straightforward, and it is just one of many equally clear Scriptures in the Bible concerning prosperity. But, oh how Christians can get into the ditches concerning this.

On the one hand, there are some Christians who, by their preaching, seem to think that it is all about money, and who appear to live it out as greed and self-aggrandizement. Some of the televangelists fit into this category and very often earn the harsh criticism they receive.

On the other hand, there are some who react so vehemently to this first group that they actually fall into the same error: They think that prosperity is about money and greed. They see the ditch on one side of the road and back so far away from it that they stumble into the ditch on the other side. Since, to their reactionary way of thinking, prosperity is all about money and greed, they wonder God could possibly want prosperity for His people? Or as one fellow asked, “How does that benefit the kingdom of God?”

Show them the Scriptures which reveal God’s desire to prosper His people, such as Joshua 1:8, Psalm 1:1-3, Psalm 35:17, Psalm 112 or Proverbs 3:9-10, and the response will likely be, “Oh, but that is Old Testament.” As if God has somehow changed His mind and that the new and better covenant that was instituted in Jesus Christ and which is based upon better promises is in some way inferior to the Old Covenant (see Hebrews 8:6). Not so.

Others will resort to the old standby, “Yes, but that is spiritual prosperity” when the Biblical context reveals that it is about all kinds of prosperity. (Part of the error I see here is the mistake that sees the spiritual realm as good but the natural realm as evil. The Bible, however, teaches that the natural realm derives from the spiritual realm, because God, who is Spirit, created the natural realm. But that is a discussion for another time.)

Many of those who oppose prosperity teaching from the Scriptures and who reject the Old Testament promises of prosperity, when it comes to the same teaching in the New Testament, they are oblivious to it. They have learned how to gloss over, ignore or otherwise explain away. It is not intentional, but reactionary. They do not mean to do it, but their disgust with those who think prosperity is all about money and greed causes their eyes to be blinkered to what the Scriptures actually have to say.

So what does the Bible really have to say about prosperity? Simply put, to prosper means to do well. What is the extent of the prosperity God has for us? I think the apostle John said it pretty well: “Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers.” Note, first, that God wants us to prosper in ALL things (even as He already said so many times and in so many ways in the Old Testament). Since John adds, “Just as your soul prospers,” we can see that this is not only about inward, spiritual prosperity but about outward, physical prosperity as well. Truly, it is prosperity in ALL things that God desires to release into your life and mine. It is not limited to finances — that is probably the least of what it is about—but finances are by no means excluded from the promise.

Second, and this is very important, the measure and qualifier of outward, physical prosperity is inward, spiritual prosperity. Again, we see that when John says, “Just as your soul prospers.” It is a comparative statement. If you are not prospering in your soul, in your inward man, you will not truly be able to prosper in anything else. But when you are prospering in your inward being, you are positioning yourself to receive prosperity in all things.

Prosperity of soul, as we learn from the context (3 John 3-5), has everything to do with walking in love. So, greed and self-aggrandizement are out. Jesus taught us that when we make the kingdom of God our priority, everything else will be taken care of (Matthew 6:33). That’s prosperity!

Paul gives us a good description of prosperity in 2 Corinthians 9:8, which happens to be in a financial context. In exhorting the Church about giving, Paul gives this promise:
And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work.
When we put God first in all things, He will cover all the bases — even the financial ones — with plenty more besides in order to support good works. For His desire is not only to bless us, but to bless others through us. Or as it has been so frequently expressed, “We are blessed to be a blessing.”

Prosperity is not something to be feared, not when it comes from God’s hand. And that is exactly what He has promised for you and me. It is not just about you, but about God and what He wants to do in and through you.