by Andrew Shi
There is no prosperity. God’s people have rebelled against Him, refusing to heed His prophet’s warnings to acknowledge their sins and return to their God. As a result, God sends a foreign nation to invade and conquer them. But just when all seems lost in this moment of deep despair, the prophet of God writes a letter to the exiles, informing them that there is hope and deliverance to come. One verse epitomizes the hope and relief promised in this letter:
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11 NIV)
For many who grew up in Christian homes or perhaps recently plugged in to the Christian community, this is a well-known verse. I remember having to memorize this verse in Sunday School when I was a little kid. I can also recall writing out this verse on birthday cards and goodbye notes and other occasions when I felt that it would be nice to give a blessing.
The other day, as I was rereading the book of Jeremiah, I stumbled upon this passage once more. But this time, the wording was different:
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11 ESV, bold added)
Because the Bible was originally written in Hebrew and Greek, every English translation has its own idiosyncrasies and no two are the same. I, presumably along with many others, have always known Jeremiah 29:11 in the New International Version (NIV) translation. The above translation that I read the other day is in the English Standard Version (ESV).
The point of this blog piece isn’t to argue for or against a particular English translation of the Bible (but in case you’re wondering: 1) NIV and ESV are both solid choices 2) and yes, there are bad translations out there). Instead, I find it fascinating that the ESV translation uses the word “welfare” instead of “prosperity”. To be honest, the former sounds pretty lame. The latter, however, has a punch to it. “Prosperity” is a buzzword. Think about how much we talk and dream about prosperity. That sentiment—the American Dream—is arguably the foundation upon which this country was built.
Joel Osteen, a megachurch pastor in Texas, became prosperous through his teachings on nothing other than prosperity. His 2004 book Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential has sold millions of copies. In it, Osteen writes that
“God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us…”
Many Christians and non-Christians alike think or behave as if Osteen was right. God will give you health and wealth if you just have the faith. God doesn’t allow real Christians to suffer. God has to bless you now that you’ve tithed so generously. Arguably, Osteen could have some defense for each of those statements and maybe even pull out a few Bible verses here and there. But from a strict textualist approach—taking the quotation word by word, not embellishing or qualifying it or interpreting the author’s intent—I find his claim to be absurd.
Osteen preaches the prosperity gospel. Taken literally, this phrase means “the good news that God will prosper you.” God becomes your best financial advisor, your biggest fan, the most reliable benefactor. The logical extension of this belief is that if God made everything, and if He wants you to have a lot of it, then something must be wrong with you—or, dare I say it, with God—if you’re not experiencing a comfortable and financially secure life. In this way, God becomes the means through which we secure prosperity, instead of the ends of our joy itself. This is why all of us, at some point, have thought, said, or felt these sentiments: God, where are you? How could you allow this to happen to me? Isn’t my life supposed to be better now that I believe in you?
The prosperity gospel does not provide satisfying responses to why bad things happen to good people. It cannot ignore the fact that most of Jesus’ twelve disciples were just as illiterate, poor, and of low social standing after they met him as compared to before. Many leaders of the early church became martyrs who gave themselves up to excruciating deaths. The Apostle Paul’s account of his sufferings is the antithesis of what the prosperity gospel offers.
Something is clearly amiss with the prosperity gospel. It does not sound like good news at all. We must turn then, to the real Gospel.
Note: this is the first piece in a series exploring what the Gospel is and how it changes our lives.