78. Christianity for Consumers

            The TV preacher appeared on a beautiful stage.  He was a handsome man, with a slender physique, a full head of hair and a winning smile.  In other words, he wasn’t me.  I tried not to hate him for it.  Just kidding.  He was fun to listen to, and he spoke to a huge, enthusiastic crowd. One could see why he attracted so many.  Later, when I had time to digest what he was saying, the essence of it was this: “God wants to bless you; to make your life good.”

            I don’t feel qualified to evaluate this particular preacher, but I’ve heard a number of these sorts of sermons. They feel like pep rallies, seeming to promise that if we follow Jesus, our lives will become happier, easier, and more prosperous.

            Part of me resonates with these messages.  There is joy in serving Jesus. It’s wonderful to have our sins forgiven, to have the infilling strength of the Holy Spirit, and to have Heaven just around the corner. And God does provide for us in many practical ways – food, clothing, jobs, etc.  Too often I forget how truly blessed I am right at this moment and just how much God loves me.  

            On the other hand, there is a danger, in what at least some of these preachers seem to be implying, that I’d like to address today. Some of this danger lies in outright exaggeration, but a lot of it is more a question of what is not said, or at least in what is under-emphasized.  These tendencies make the gospel more appealing to spiritual consumers, but sometimes seem to sacrifice Biblical accuracy and balance, which are a critical part of living a solid, God-pleasing life.  So let’s address at least some potential dangers of a regular diet of this sort of preaching

 #1:  There’s a danger of over-focusing on the lesser blessings

A lot of the emphasis seems to be on physical blessings such as money or health or a parking space. While we do need these, ultimately, God’s spiritual gifts are far more valuable.  To become like Jesus (Rom. 8:29) – holy, compassionate, loving, unselfish and courageous, is far more valuable. These spiritual traits, and others, are the gold, silver, and precious jewels that Paul speaks about when God evaluates our lives on Judgement Day (1 Cor.3:12).  Physical benefits are mainly a means to an end; tools to be used. Which would you rather be – rich in faith or rich in dollars?

#2:  There’s a danger of relating to God primarily as a resource

Instead of becoming our Lord, and our closest friend, God may be seen mostly as a divine vending machine.  We reach out to God in the same way that crowds flock to a rich person. It’s right to depend on God to meet our needs, in fact, we have to do that. But an over-emphasis on getting, even getting spiritual things, can crowd out our focus on the deep mutual love that God wants to build between us.  We become more leeches than lovers.

#3:  There’s a danger in claiming promises never given in Scripture

Not all, but some teachers at least, imply that God wants all His kids to be rich and healthy. I won’t try to seriously debate this in a single paragraph, but just looking through Scripture one notes only a few rich people (Abraham, Job, etc.), lots of poor people, and even the so-called “middle-class” in Bible times would have been considered lower-class or poor according to American standards today.  In 1 Timothy 6:8 Paul makes an astounding statement: “But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that”.    Paul knew what it meant to be “hungry” and “in want” (Phil. 4:12) as well as “in rags and homeless” (I Cor. 4:11). The idea that God wants all His children wealthy has little biblical warrant. And anyway, wealth is often a mixed blessing, easily distracting and ensnaring immature believers (1 Tim. 6:9,10).

            The arguments for physical health are more complicated. Certainly God can heal and we’re told to pray for healing (Jas. 5:14,15). But lots of godly people still get sick and everyone atrophies and dies eventually.

#4:  There’s a danger of undervaluing suffering

While God does give us many pleasures in this life, He also allows us to face numerous trials as well.  Ironically, suffering is one of His best gifts to us.  James 1:2 tells us to “consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds,” Peter and Paul echo similar teachings (1 Pet. 1:6, Rom. 5:3-5).  God uses suffering to produce spiritual gold in our character.  Preaching that focuses too much on how prosperous and happy the Christian life is supposed to be, is not only unrealistic, it can cause us to become disillusioned with God when life is tough, or to focus more on escaping problems rather than learning from them what God wants to teach us.

 #5:  There’s the danger of becoming judgmental

If God’s goal for us is prosperity in this life, especially in material/physical ways, what are we to make of believers who aren’t prospering? It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that their position in life is due to a lack of faith. I even heard of a church where parents were told that the death of their young child was their own fault; that if they’d had enough faith, he would have lived.  That’s extreme, I admit, and not typical, but if prosperity is related to our level of faith then it will be tempting to judge ourselves and others negatively if that material prosperity is lacking.  Again, the Bible does not teach this.  Remember, it was the poor man, Lazarus, who went to Abraham’s bosom in Jesus’ story and the rich man who ended up suffering in Hades (Luke 16:19-31).

#6:  There’s the danger of mistaking our prosperity as a sign of God’s approval

Our material prosperity may reflect God’s approval of us.  This is stated in some of the  promises to ancient Israel (Prov. 3;10).  But the fact is that I may also be living a selfish, sinful life and still be healthy as a horse and possess a nice bank account.  In the Bible, the wicked sometimes also prosper (Jer. 12:1).  We’re wiser to assess our lives based on the beauty of our spiritual character and obedience than on our external blessings.

#7:  There’s the danger of over-focusing on popular themes while under-focusing
        on others  

 Every preacher and every Christian faces this challenge.  We tend to want to pick and choose when it comes to which Scriptures we focus most on.  But the whole of Scripture needs to be taught. This allows various biblical themes to balance each other out.  By all means, preach the happier promise verses, but let’s also regularly hear the verses about taking up our cross, living sacrificial lives, serving one another, and seeking God’s glory ahead of our own.

            The sum of all of it is this:  God does want to bless us, but His way of blessing does not match the selfish consumerism that we so easily desire. True blessing comes through following Christ wherever He leads, whether through pleasure or pain, comfort or conflict, honor or dishonor, wealth or poverty, health or sickness. The joy is in journeying by His side.