Sunday, November 23, 2008

Prosperity vs Psalm 23

It’s no secret that I’m not a big fan of the Prosperity movement. Now I don’t wish to make sweeping generalizations and declare everyone in the movement evil. My dislike comes in various degrees – there are those in the movement who I think aren’t necessarily bad people – people like the Copeland’s and Joyce Meyer. I may not agree with a lot of what they teach but I still respect them. Then there are the people like Benny Hinn and Peter Popoff who I believe are just using the Gospel to make themselves rich – these people I don’t like or respect. Just to clarify, I don’t believe there is anything wrong with having things and money. I don’t believe everyone needs to be poor. I don’t believe preachers need to be paupers. I have no problem with giving money to the church – as long as it is clear what I’m giving to and where my money is going. I do have a problem with being told that I’m “supporting the Lord’s work” when all I’m really doing is helping make a car payment. On a Porsche.

But I have a confession to make, my dislike of the Prosperity movement is also due to a bad experience I had with it personally. Long, long ago when I first heard of the movement I was completely taken by it. I soaked up its teachings and I heartily supported it. Every testimony just spurred me on to delve deeper. So much so that I even decided to truly put it to the test. After finishing my studies, I had no source of income except for my savings and I decided to try living by “sowing and reaping” and to put the whole philosophy of “give and it will be given to you”, “you can never out give God” (the slogan list goes on but I will stop here) to the test. I gave, I tithed, I prayed, I confessed – I will save you the details but in short I did everything I ever heard recommended. Suffice it to say it didn’t end well for me. I found out the hard way that prosperity teachings work great, IF you happen to be a prosperity preacher! Not so much when you are not the one passing around the money bucket promising great returns to all who give generously! I quite literally gave myself into poverty and came within an inch of having to live on the street. In the end I had to do what both common sense and the Bible had been telling me all along (if only I cared to listen…): I got a job, worked for my money, learned to be content with what I had and how to live within my means. Good lesson, but an expensive one that cost me all my savings.

However, let me be clear that I am not bitter. I take full responsibility for my own stupidity and I’m not going to pretend that this is anyone’s fault but my own. It’s convenient to blame the prosperity movement and preachers for this but the truth is that what is really to blame is our innate willingness to believe that there is an easy way out – that we can get something for nothing (or next to nothing). Add to this our very human tendency to hear what we want to hear and mix in some select Bible verses and you have a very dangerous cocktail!

Now I can’t so much about basic human nature and there is little more I can do beyond posting my own misadventures in charismania as a cautionary tale (though I don’t really believe that to be very necessary since not that many in the movement will actually try to live the talk in the first place!). I would like to post just one good example to show how the Bible doesn’t always say what we would like to think it says. To prove my point I will use arguably the worlds best know and best loved Psalm, Psalm 23 – The Lord is my Shepherd. It serves as a fantastic example of a piece of scripture that doesn’t quite say what prosperity teachers think it says or would like it to say.

Psalm 23:2 “He makes me lie down in green pastures…”

When you hear “green pastures” what is the image that jumps to mind? Lush meadows? Waving fields of grass? Knee deep alfalfa? Something like this perhaps?

Sure it is. Well it was my mental picture anyway. So imagine my surprise when I learned it does not match the one David was describing in this Psalm at all. The green pasture David was describing looked more like this:

See our image may be one of fat, fluffy white sheep grazing the Irish countryside to their hearts content, but David didn’t come from that part of the world. We easily forget that the Israeli people were a desert people and David’s memories of his shepherding days would have looked far more like this:

The green pastures in Israeli wilderness actually look like rocky, barren hillsides. Scattered amidst the rocks are blades of grass. Where a drop of rain fell or dew collected beneath a rock, a little tuft of grass can sprout up. The job of the shepherd was to find these grassy places so that his sheep could have a few mouthfuls to eat at a time. Now this may not be a great image of prosperity but I find it to be a particularly beautiful image none the less. See the green pastures David spoke about gave enough for now and only the now. The afternoon’s green pasture was something the sheep would be led to in the afternoon. Tomorrows green pasture was something they would be taken to tomorrow. The sheep never landed in a place of lifelong luxury but the shepherd always made sure that they had all the food they needed to eat in the present. Isn’t this exactly how God supplied the Israelites when they wandered the desert? God supplied enough manna for one day every day. Also, doesn’t this absolutely reflect what Jesus, our Good Shepherd taught about the provision God gave? Did He not teach that in prayer we are to ask for our “daily bread” (Matt 6:11)? Did He not teach that we are not to worry about tomorrow and can rest in the knowledge that the God who takes care of us today will take care of us tomorrow (Matt 6:25-34)?

“…he leads me beside quiet waters”

OK so after that first refresher about desert life you probably don’t expect me to tell you that “quiet waters” look like this:

Crater lake USA - considered to be the clearest lake in the world

And you would be right. But here is a little factoid I was surprised to learn. The most frequent cause of death in the wilderness is not starvation, thirst, or heat exhaustion – its drowning! The nearby limestone mountains cannot absorb rainwater. The water runs into the desert, creating sudden and violent floods that fill the wadis—canyons that have been carved out by past floods. Effectively turning this:

Into this:

Within moments and without much warning. Anyone standing in the wadi when a flood comes will be swept away. Shortly after the flood, a wadi becomes dry again. Sometimes a bit of water from a previous flood will remain on the wadi floor, and these waters are attractive to the thirsty wilderness flocks. A wise shepherd knows that walking through a wadi can be dangerous because even on a clear sunny day, a flash flood may come without warning. They know where to find springs of water where the flocks can drink without the danger of a flash flood.

The metaphor here is incredibly rich isn’t it? For one thing it doesn’t warn against being thirsty or against drinking water but instead focuses on the place/source of the water. I mean we all thirst for things – careers, lifestyles, friends, love, the list goes on. This tells me that it’s not wrong to want/need things and it’s not wrong to get these things. The problem is not getting these thirsts satisfied, its getting them satisfied in the right place. If God our Shepherd seems to be steering us away from something we are sure we need then we can know that it is because he wants to supply that need in a safer way. Didn't Jesus clearly teach that God knows that we need things? Did He not teach that as a good Father, He would supply our needs with something good and wholesome, not something harmful (Matt 7:9-11; Luk 11:11-13)? This image of the “quiet waters” reminds me to quit acting like a spoiled child who believes that his parents are just trying to spoil his fun when they are in truth only trying to keep him out of harms way. If I truly believe what I say I do then I should trust that as a good Father, God knows what I really need (Matt 6:8).

Considering how immensely stupid I can be at times, its probably best that I don’t have the kind of Father that gives me everything I want when I want it!

[For most of this information I am heavily indebted to the “That the World may know” series by teacher and historian Ray van der Laan. If you are interested in learning even more from this amazing Psalm, you can read some short notes here. I recommend the entire series of videos very strongly to any Christian interested in stripping away the layers of western theology and thinking and actually hearing and seeing the Scriptures in the context the original audience received it. For interest sake it also happens to be the strange place in the universe where Focus on the Family and Rob Bell meet. (
I do so love juxtapose where I can find it!) Focus on the Family distributes the videos and Dr James Dobson personally endorses them and yet they also provide the source material for the very same teachings that Rob Bell gets labeled as a heretic for teaching! (For instance his controversial “Dust” video in the Nooma series draws almost word for word from one of the That the World may know faith lessons - yet you never see anyone attacking those!) ]


RandomSue said...

Particularly meaningful to me in the season I am in. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

It makes me so sad that you gave all of your money away to these people.

What I love is the fact that God sees your heart and he kept his promise to you. You did not end up on the street. You have food to eat, a roof over your head and good friends to love and care for you.

Eugene said...

That is very true - while none of the fake prosperity promises came true, none of the promises about God providing for my needs failed. No matter how bad it got I always had food to eat and a place to sleep and I never had to beg.

GumbyTheCat said...

Just goes to show ya, interpretation of carefully pre-selected verses of Scripture usually doesn't work.

Although, maybe in a way, it did. You have grown into a more spiritually prosperous being than most of these preachers - partly by experiencing that brand of religious teaching. You received your rewards, just not the rewards you were expecting.

I do watch Joyce Meyers' show once in a while though. Not because I follow that brand of religious fervor, but because I think she's a hoot. I like a bit of sass in my preachers.

Eugene said...

I have to say that of everyone in the Prosperity movement I like Joyce Meyers best. To date she is the only one I have ever heard telling her audience explicitly that giving wasn't going to bring them automatic wealth and wellness and that good character is more important to God.

She's also the only one who admits freely to getting plastic surgery!

Tania said...

Wow. You have really opened my eyes to the truth of the matter, I particularly love the idea that our Father provides when and as we need it. And from the best source, not where we think it should come from! I have experienced this myself, asking for something and expecting a specific thing, only to get something different that completely blew me away.

digapigmy said...

good post. joyce meyer irritates me, but it has nothing to do with her message.

prosperity doesn't simply mean material wealth, but try to convince some of these "pastors" of that. it reminds me of the whole stupid jabez thing. i remember feeling physically ill after i read the book that everyone was raving about and recommending.

RandomSue said...

Diga!!!! I am so happy to finally find another person that get's pissed about that Jabez book! That is just annoying as hell.