By Katya Konopacki, St. Louis University
It was the winter of 2018, my Junior year of high school, when I was first introduced to the Prosperity Gospel. You see, my great home state of Wisconsin is not known for having kind winter weather and my 2008 Chevy Impala named Aragorn needed to be outfitted with proper snow tires. Until then, however, my family thought it best that I drive my mother’s newer Jeep to school. Since my own car did not have Sirius XM radio, I naturally found myself taking full advantage of this feature in my mother’s Jeep. Every day I would flip through the stations on my commute to and from school until one day I landed on a Christian station called “Joel Osteen Radio.” Since I had no knowledge of who this man was or the nature of his message, I kept it on out of curiosity.
Since then, I have grown and been formed in my Catholic faith, and I now know that Joel Osteen is one of the most, if not the most, prominent televangelists and promoters of the heresy that is known as the Prosperity Gospel today. Osteen is the pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. During any given week, Osteen’s church, which is the former Houston Rockets Stadium, packs in more than 50,000 people for his services. The basic tenets of this Prosperity Gospel are centered on the idea of (you guessed it), prosperity. The word prosperity comes from the Latin word prosperitas, meaning “good fortune.” Sometimes called the “health and wealth” gospel, the theology of the Prosperity Gospel is that it is always God’s will to bless us with financial wealth, physical health, and advancement in life. To quote the man himself, Joel Osteen once wrote in a letter to his flock, “God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us.” According to the Prosperity Gospel, if you keep the Commandments and pray hard enough, God will bless you. If you give a little money to the Church, God will reward you financially a thousand times over. Keep your head up in the trials of life because your time of blessing is coming.
At the time, I myself was going through some difficult challenges which I now believe made me significantly more vulnerable to absorbing this seemingly uplifting message of false comfort. Quite honestly, it made me feel better to turn on the radio every day and hear Joel assure me that good things were coming. The magic fix to my problems was that I just needed to pray harder! Maybe if I prayed an extra rosary, snow tires would appear on my doorstep with a little note from God saying, “Great job, Katya! This bestowing of materialistic wealth and possessions is a direct result of your commitment to keeping my commandments. Level up your prayer even more and we’ll start talking about those heated seats.” Sounds ridiculous, right? That’s because it is.
Now don’t get me wrong, God does want us to prosper! God says so Himself in the Book of Deuteronomy, “And you shall obey the Lord, and observe all His commandments which I command you today. Then the Lord your God will prosper you abundantly in all the work of your hand” (Deuteronomy 30:8-9). Joel Osteen and the countless others like him are not wrong to say that God wants us to prosper. They are wrong, however, when it comes to answering the question of how God wants us to prosper. In a 2010 article published by the Word on Fire media organization, Bishop Barron commented on this very subject. In this article, he proposed the Book of Job as a valuable counterpart which nuances the Deuteronomistic viewpoint. Right from the outset we read, “…that man was blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil” (Job 1:1). Nevertheless, God allowed everything to be taken from Job: his wealth, animals, family, even his very health. As Job laments to his friends, their responses sound very similar to the basic line of thought in the Prosperity Gospel. For Job’s friends, there is a direct correlation between one’s actions and God’s response. They tell Job that he must have done something wrong to offend God and thus, he is being punished for it. Instead of seeing Job’s piety being transactionally exchanged for material wealth, Job’s friends see the opposite; Job’s lack of piety has led to his ultimate loss of all material and worldly goods.
Later, however, God Himself enters the scene to deliver a powerful message. God asks Job a series of rhetorical questions about the vast expanse of the universe and its creation. The questions are meant to demonstrate that we cannot possibly begin to comprehend the will and intellect of God. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts higher than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9). Therefore, God is not dependent upon us although we are entirely dependent upon Him. According to Bishop Barron, “The deepest reason for Job’s suffering, we learn, is lost in the infinite abyss of God’s permissive will and is by no means easily correlatable to Job’s virtue or lack thereof.” Ultimately, our virtue and piety do not automatically result in a response from God. In fact, as we read in 1 John 4:19, “We love because He first loved us.” All that we do as an act of love towards God is only a response to God who first loved us.
However, this still leaves the question of why it seems that good people like Job suffer while the wicked prosper. St. Thomas Aquinas sought to answer this very question and in doing so, opened a whole new perspective on the understanding of prosperity. Aquinas proposed that perhaps the poor are actually being blessed by their lack of material wealth because this detachment from earthly treasures increases their ability to embrace heavenly treasures instead. On the contrary, those who wickedly store up riches for themselves will find it exceedingly difficult to prosper in what truly matters for salvation. According to the words of Jesus, “Truly I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). It is important, then, to draw a distinction between poverty and destitution. When Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” he was referring to those who recognize their utter dependence on God and who are detached from the things of this world. In these words, Jesus affirmed the virtue which grows from a life of poverty. Destitution, however, is much different. Destitution can simply be defined as being without the basic necessities for life.
In Pope Francis’ yearly Lenten message in 2014, he distinguished between three types of destitution: material, moral, and spiritual. Spiritual destitution is the opposite of true poverty. If spiritual poverty is an intimate closeness and reliance on God, then spiritual destitution is being cut off from the eternal life source which is God. Thus, spiritual destitution is the gravest of the three. Cardinal Robert Sarah echoed this in his book titled God or Nothing. He said, “Mankind has never been so rich, yet it reaches astounding heights of moral and spiritual destitution because of the poverty of our interpersonal relationships and the globalization of indifference…The poor person is someone who knows that by himself he cannot live. He needs God and other people…On the contrary, rich people expect nothing of anyone…In this sense wealth can lead to great sadness…and terrible spiritual destitution.”
The truth is that God wants us to prosper in virtue and sanctity through living a life of material and spiritual poverty, not to be confused with destitution. The Prosperity Gospel is wrong to believe that material wealth or worldly success will bring any sort of true fulfillment.
No one is called to live a life of destitution, but all are called to live a life of poverty. How then can we strive to live a life of poverty in the midst of such a broken and materialistic world? I believe the answer is boldly proclaimed in the papal encyclical, Gaudium et Spes. “The spirit of poverty and charity is the glory and witness of the Church of Christ.” As a Church, we must strive to be poor in spirit while ministering to those who are destitute in our broken world. In the words of Pope Francis, “Oh, how I wish for a Church that is poor and for the poor.”
The resulting question we must ask ourselves is this: Do I desire to prosper in the same way God desires for me? Do I seek health and wealth, or do I seek virtues such as patience, prudence, and humility? As a naive Junior in high school, I was attracted by the shininess of the Prosperity Gospel. I wanted to believe that there was certainty in my faith. And there is but just not in the way I was hoping. Actually, the reality is far better. Christianity does not come with the certainty of a new car or a promotion at work. As Christians, we are not guaranteed a comfortable life, let alone a luxurious one. In truth, being a Christian does not even guarantee you will be liked. The only real certainty of Christianity is the Cross. As Christians, we can believe with full confidence that Love Himself willingly suffered and died for us, for the whole world in fact. On Good Friday, all the allure and value of worldly things was nailed to a cross and because of this, we are free to seek the things of heaven instead.
The truth is that we are entirely undeserving of God’s abundant merciful love. Yet, this merciful love flows inexhaustibly from His divine heart which is always and everywhere beckoning to us. We would be wise to heed the counsel of St. Paul when he wrote, “Set your mind on the things above, not on earthly things. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory” (Colossians 3:2-4). As we go through life, may our prayer closely resemble that of St. Thomas Aquinas, “May all transitory things, O Lord, be worthless to me and may all things eternal be ever cherished by me.” Amen.
Edited by: Christopher Centrella