True and False Prosperity
By: Michael Otieno Maura
In Africa today, people are talking about prosperity. It dominates our imaginations and permeates our conversations. And as it grips our culture, it is also entering our pulpits. There are many preachers who are preaching a gospel of material prosperity. But this prosperity that grips the hearts and minds of men and women, from the streets to the churches, is a false prosperity. It is a false prosperity against which the Bible repeatedly warns us.
As far back as Genesis 4:17-26, we find a contrast between the godless family of Cain and the godly family of Seth. Cain’s family could boast of great achievements and material prosperity. They appeared to be successful, but their achievements were made without reference to God. Far from God, their prosperity was temporary and fleeting; of and for this world. Seth’s family did not have such material achievements to display. But they called on the name of the Lord; that was their glory. This family knew a true and lasting prosperity that was grounded in God. In many of our pulpits today, the preaching is centred on worldly achievement and material prosperity: houses and cars, success in business, money, health, and happiness. Such preaching is in direct conflict with the word of God from Genesis through to the gospels and epistles. Our preaching should lead sinners to call upon the name of the Lord. It should lead people to cry out for mercy and salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ in repentance and faith, depending upon the promises of God and looking forward to a future inheritance.
Cain was building a city (Gen. 4:17). Outwardly you could say that he was prospering. In the eyes of this world, Cain was making progress and achieving great things. Like many of us, Cain felt that he needed security. After Cain killed his brother, God drove him from his presence and condemned him to a fugitive life. But to help Cain when he was afraid of suffering Abel’s fate, God had graciously marked him for protection. Yet despite God’s kindness, Cain took matters into his own hands. What does this tell us about Cain and what he was building?
Cain was working extremely hard to establish himself on earth. His thoughts and energy were centred on this life. He craved family honour and named a city after his son. And he was doing all this in a time of great social change. Notice all the firsts that you can see in these verses: the first man to farm in a scientific way; the beginning of music and the arts; and progress in metal work and technology. This was an enterprising and successful community. But they were living without God. Cain had walked out of God’s presence and was working for himself. Even today, men and women are struggling and working hard to make it here on earth. If I get a good job, people say to themselves, if I find a wife/husband, if I am living comfortably, then I will be happy and content. This is the way of Cain and we must beware of it. Things may look good outwardly, but spiritually we may be in great danger. Cain’s story demonstrates to us that having a city or a big house is not evidence that a person is right with God. What is important is spiritual wealth which comes through a radical change in our innermost being. This is how the Lord Jesus put it: “you must be born again” (John 3:7). Cain’s city was built for man’s glory. His misplaced zeal to establish his name on earth finds echoes down the ages up to our own materialistic era. Work, possessions, entertainment, fame; this, our world assures us, is the path to fulfilment. These are the materials of which our cities are built. And it is man’s glory that inspires us to build them. But the way of Cain leads to destruction because “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labour in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain” (Ps. 127:1).
But God is building a different city; a city that is for his glory. Those who love him are looking forward to this heavenly city. We read of the heroes of the faith that “they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city” (Heb. 11:16). The reality is that “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14). Paul wrote: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20). It is tragic that many preachers are no longer preaching about this heavenly city. Instead, they are busy turning our eyes to Cain’s worldly city. They no longer preach about the Christian’s sure and certain hope, which is an “inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Pet. 1:4). Instead they motivate people to pursue worldly success, happiness, and fulfilment in this short life. My fellow preacher, there are two cities. Which one are you preaching? My fellow believer, which city are you wholeheartedly pursuing? The city of Cain was not abiding; it did not last. Some commentators even suggest that Cain never finished building it. Those who seek fulfillment in the things that this world offers will only be disappointed in the end. They will find themselves alienated from God for all eternity. But the family of Seth called upon the name of the Lord. They knew true prosperity, they believed in God’s promises, and they looked forward to the eternal, heavenly city. True believers rest on the hope of eternal life with God and they will not be disappointed.
Do Not Envy the Godless
Cain and his descendants would certainly be regarded as successful today: property, cultural sophistication, technology, and multiple wives. The logic of the prosperity gospel leads many to wrongly assume that the modern day equivalents of Cain’s family are blessed. But even for believers who refuse to base their hope on worldly possessions, there are still temptations to overcome. Envy constantly distracts us from the single-minded pursuit of God’s city. We look at the prosperity and achievements of godless people and are perplexed like the psalmist: “But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Ps. 73:2-3). The psalmist then lists some characteristics, similar to those we saw in Cain’s family, which modern prosperity gospel preachers are now exalting. The wicked, he writes, appear to have no struggles, their bodies are healthy and strong, they are proud and at ease, and they increase in riches. But while the Bible recognizes how we are tempted, it also opens our eyes to help us fight temptation. God showed the psalmist that rich people who are arrogant and uncaring are standing on the edge of the abyss. The destiny of these people is destruction (Ps. 73:17-20) and we need to pity and warn them rather than envy them. The presence and wisdom of God changed the psalmist’s perspective on the godlessly prosperous. We must think and live in the light of eternity. The descendants of Cain were not known for their worship but for their worldly achievements and prosperity. They did not know God and their accomplishments could not cover their rejection of the one they needed the most. Of course, material things are not necessarily bad. But if we live for material prosperity and success, then we are building our house on sand. The descendants of Cain were on slippery ground and their destiny was judgement. They thought that they had achieved so much, but they had built nothing that could last. God has declared to his people: “And do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not” (Jer. 45:5). He repeatedly warned the children of Israel not to boast about their wisdom, strength, and wealth (Jer. 9:23). And yet today’s prosperity preachers want us to live for these very things. We see over and over again that the most important thing in life is having an intimate and right relationship with God. As God has declared, “let him who boasts boast in this: that he understands and knows me” (Jer. 9:24).
But what exactly does this spiritual prosperity, which God wants us to seek, look like? After showing us the bad example of Cain’s family, Genesis 4 points us in the right direction: “At that time people began to call on the name of the LORD” (Gen. 4:26). For these early believers, God was where he belonged—at the centre of their lives. They trusted, sought, and worshipped God. And worshipping God is what man was made for; as the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” From the descendants of Seth to the early Christians, God’s people have distinguished themselves as worshippers. God’s people are separate from the world because God’s name, honour, glory, and reputation thrill them more than anything this world can offer. Seth’s family worshipped the promise giver and promise keeper; the one who had promised a Saviour. Christians today worship the same faithful God; the one who has kept his promise and sent the Lord Jesus Christ. They believe in the promises of God and look forward with great joy to the return of the Lord Jesus Christ and to the new heavens and the new earth. The prosperity gospel distracts people from the God-centred truth of the gospel. It diverts their focus away from the death of the Lord Jesus at Calvary. It distracts from the substitutionary atonement, the crucified life, and holiness. It obscures the great future hope of Christ’s return and the age to come when we will be with him.
God does not save us primarily to bless us with material things, but to change us to be like Christ. Paul writes: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). The Christian church throughout the ages has recognized that the atonement, which the Lord Jesus accomplished on the cross of Calvary, is the central theme of the Christian message (Isa. 53:5, John 1:29, 2 Cor. 5:21, 1 John 4:10). But this is contrary to what we are hearing today when the central theme is man and what God can do for him. Even singing is dominated by ‘God-bless-me’ choruses. We need to go back to the central message of the Bible. Those who know the Lord and worship him as the centre of their lives have true prosperity.
Spiritual Prosperity above Temporary Prosperity
The consequences of embracing false prosperity are deadly to our faith. Once we have removed God from the centre, and replaced him with material things, other errors quickly follow. Firstly, we forget the source of all blessing. And, secondly, we lose the reality that, even on this earth, spiritual blessings are infinitely superior to material ones. The Apostle Paul helps us correct these errors: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3). These spiritual blessings come from God. They do not come from bishops, reverends, pastors, or churches. Many prosperity gospel preachers even want us to believe that blessings come from anointing oil, falling backward, or holy water. Some have now gone as far as selling brooms and salt with which, they claim, demons are swept away and Christians preserved from attacks. But the Bible tells us clearly that our blessings come from God. But, you may ask, how do we receive these blessings? How does God deliver his blessings to us? Again, Ephesians 1:3 gives us the answer. They are received in and through Christ alone. All the blessings from God the Father reach us through Christ. Do not let people fool you into believing that they have power in themselves to bless others. Just as Seth and his descendants paid more attention to spiritual things than external achievements, the Apostle Paul assures us that God has blessed his people with every spiritual blessing. The blessings are called spiritual because they are from God and invisible to man’s eyes. They do not primarily concern our outward circumstances here in this world. They are eternal. Paul shows us that the blessings we already have in Christ, which Christ won for all God’s people, are of greater value than any material thing we could possess:
Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. (Eph. 1:4-14)
Look at the list of a Christian’s wonderful spiritual blessings: chosen, predestined, loved, adopted, accepted, redeemed, enlightened, forgiven, and sealed by the Holy Spirit to guarantee a divine inheritance. These are everlasting blessings that cannot be destroyed and, therefore, can also provide more joy, purer delight, and firmer contentment now than any of the temporary blessings in which we are urged by prosperity preachers to place our hope. God’s people possess a joy and contentment that is beyond the reach of the difficulty and sadness we experience. If you are a married couple without children, let no one look down on you. You are blessed and your marriage is complete with or without children. If you are born again, born of God, you have been richly blessed whether you are living in a thatched house or in a mansion. A man may live in material poverty his whole life and yet be better off than a rich businessman because his treasure is in heaven where moth and rust do not destroy (Matt. 6:19). A Christian woman may endure an illness for many years and yet that suffering cannot rob her of the blessings of Ephesians 1 and she can savour the promise of heaven where there will be no more crying or pain (Rev. 21:4). You may be persecuted, but Jesus said you are blessed because the kingdom of heaven is yours (Matt. 5:10).
Prayer and Prosperity
We have seen that God consistently warns us not to focus on temporary honour and blessings that only last as long as this life. And just as firmly, God points us toward the God-centred, eternal blessings that God has promised and given us in Jesus Christ. How can we gauge where we stand in this struggle? Are there warning signs that we are abandoning the prosperity that comes from God in exchange for this world’s inferior substitute? According to Jesus, how we pray indicates our priorities and our relationship with God. The prosperity gospel has changed the way people pray. Many prayers today are focused on earthly rather than spiritual things – you just need to switch on your radio or TV and you will hear the evidence. Often these materialistic prayers are based on Bible verses which have been taken completely out of context. If you pray for spiritual things today, you may even find that some church members will start complaining. So how should we pray? In Colossians we see that priority is given to spiritual prosperity:
And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Col. 1:914)
What does Paul pray for the Colossian Christians? Paul does not pray that they may be materially wealthy; he does not pray that they may be successful in business; he does not pray that they may buy a better house; he does not pray that they always be healthy; he does not pray that they will not die. Instead, he prays that God will fill them with the knowledge of his will through spiritual wisdom and understanding. He prays this in order that they may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way. And Paul shows us what it means to live a life worthy of the Lord, which is in contrast to what the prosperity preachers focus on. A life worthy of the Lord is a life of bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened by God’s power to endure, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father. Is this how you pray for others and yourself? Or when you pray are you only concentrating on promotions, cars, and comfort? We may and should pray for our physical needs (Luke 11:3), but such prayers must not push out or dominate prayers for our spiritual needs and the kingdom of God (Luke 11:2-4). Our prayers must give priority to spiritual things.
Conclusion: The Great Division
Since the fall there has been a great division: those who reject God, like Cain, and those who call on the name of the Lord, like Seth. There is a divide between those who store up, and live for, treasures in this life, and those who store up treasures in heaven. The clash between these two sides is not new; but as the prosperity gospel spreads through our churches, we must confront it with the wisdom of God in the clear teaching of the Bible. When we are bombarded with the false prosperity of worldliness, we need to hold on to the true prosperity of godliness. We must reject Cain’s city which exists for the glory of man and is heading for oblivion, in order to seek the better, heavenly, and eternal city that God has prepared for his people…And while the fleeting benefits of Cain’s city sometimes cause us to envy, God draws our attention to the bigger picture; the godlessly prosperous are destined for destruction. True prosperity is enjoyed by those whose focus is God. In all ages, God’s people have been defined, distinguished, and blessed by their worship of Him. Their worship is filled with the knowledge that God alone is the source of all blessing in and through Jesus Christ. And it is deepened by the truth that the spiritual blessings God gives his people are secure from anything or anyone in this world. This is why their prayers are dominated by spiritual desires. We live in a materialistic world, but God calls his people to something better by far.