Archive for April 2013

Does the Theology of the Old Testament Wisdom Books speak to and refute the “Prosperity Gospel?”

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Does the Theology of the Old Testament Wisdom Books speak to and refute the “Prosperity Gospel?”

By

Jose de Carvalho

 

The thesis of the argument in the article is that it does!

The writer distances himself from the counter-productive and divisive force that seeks to drive a wedge between charismatic and non-charismatic Christians. I am well aware of the raging debate among committed Christians over the spiritual gifts. This article is not about peripheral issues that should not divide us or the Charismatic movement; it’s about drawing the line when it comes to the ‘Word of Faith Movement’.

The predominant message of Job’s three friends (Job 2:11-13) is that suffering is a direct consequence of sin. The complementary assumption is that prosperity is the reward of right living. On the basis of these premises and in view of Job’s plight, Jobs friends could only agree that he must be a sinner and in need of repentance. This viewpoint led them to the certain conclusion (from their perspective) that Job must have been sinning in secret, since no one could identify any overt transgression. It also led them to charge Job and compounding his guilt despite Job asserting his innocence.

Although the Book of Job is not an all-encompassing exposition of human suffering, it has always caused readers to question the nature of suffering. Scripture offers some reasons, but it is difficult (often impossible) even with the benefit of complete biblical revelation to understand specific experiences of sorrow and tribulation. I believe we need to be mindful that creation provides an environment for the development of God’s children. Therefore: When is the suffering of believers God’s discipline for misbehaviour (Ps 39:11; Jer. 30:11; Heb. 12:5–11; Rev 3:19), when is it aimed at developing spiritual maturity (Rom 5:3–5; 2 Cor. 1:3–9; 2 Tim 2:3; 4:5–8; James 1:2–4) and when it is an opportunity to glorify God through sincere faith (1 Thess. 1:6–10; 2 Thess. 1:4–5; Heb. 11:37–12:1)?

Is it then write to say that suffering is all bad? Life without it would probably produce spoilt brats, not mature saints. Rabbi Abraham Heschel says simply, “The man who has not suffered, what can he possibly know, anyway?” Suffering can work for the greater good of wisdom. It is not true that all things are good, but it is true that “all things work together for good to those who love God.” (Rom. 8:28).

Nevertheless from the text it is clear that the suffering in Job’s life originated with the devil, although permitted by God (Job 2:7); Satan is the opponent, the hater, the adversary, the enemy and the resister of what is good. The New Testament also confirms that some sickness comes from Satan (Luke 13:11-13). There is an important distinction to be made between God controlling evil versus God creating evil and His perfect will versus His permissible will.

This affirms a strong doctrine of God’s providential sovereignty which is akin to classical Arminianism confirming that although God has the right and the power to do whatever He wishes with any creature, God’s holiness, love and justice makes certain acts of God inconceivable, namely: the creation of evil and sin.

I arrived at this conclusion by conceptualizing God’s nature as revealed in the incarnation of Christ, our benevolent holy Lord who is without sin.

Simultaneously also affirming the sovereignty of God as an overarching principle of scripture; God has not decreed to allow or inflict suffering on His servants but it is affirmed in scripture as a way in which He deals with man throughout the history of redemption. (1 Cor. 10: 6-8; Acts 5:5-11; 1 Peter 4:17; Prov. 3:11-12).

It may appear schizophrenic if scripture did not affirm it. The conundrum for some believers is living with this tension – serving a benevolent God who disciplines His Children and allows suffering to befall them. The fact that God loves us does not mean he is willing to overlook our sin. We sometimes naively think that God should demonstrate His love by delivering us from the hardships of life. Actually, the opposite is the case — these trials prove His love (Heb. 12:5-6) whilst temptations prove our faith (Job 2:4-7, 9-10; 2 Cor. 2:11).

This tension exists because it is a thought lesson for believers especially when they come to the faith, having been promised health and wealth and that the plan of God for their lives only involves abundant blessing to now comprehend and accept any form of suffering. Kenneth Copeland says, “The religious idea that God chastises ‘His own with sickness and disease and poverty is the very thing that has caused the church to go 1500 years without the knowledge of the Holy Spirit”. Fortunately Charles Spurgeon well known as the prince of preachers nevertheless afflicted most of his life with pain, not a living a long robust life provided a more sophisticated perspective, “I am certain that I never did grow in grace one-half as much anywhere as I have upon the bed of pain”.

The evidence is convincing from King David’s life that Copeland and the ‘Word of Faith’ teachers are dead wrong. God does indeed chastise His own. David was a man after God’s own heart; therefore true to his nature he wrote “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.” (Psalm 119:71).

A responsible interpretation of God’s Word should embrace that “everyone who names the name of the Lord should depart from iniquity.” thus emphasizing the believer’s responsibility to strive to live a holy life (2 Cor. 7:1; Heb. 12:14; 1 John 3:3; 2 Peter 3:12). Believers should also examine themselves to see whether they are in the faith, i.e. “Test yourselves” (2 Cor. 13:5) or run the risk of discipline (Heb. 12:5; 1 Cor. 11:30; 1 John 5:16). We should consider the cost of discipleship (John 15:18-20; 1 Pet 4:1; 2 Tim. 3:12; 2 Tim 3:12) and accept our share of the hardship that faithfulness to the gospel entails; to test our faith and the strength that God gives us (2 Tim 1:8; 1 Peter 1:6-7; James 1:2-4) with the objective to form Christ in us (1 peter 5:10) which is the goal of salvation (Rom. 8:29) within the process of an Holy Spirit empowered sanctification process.

Therefore the serious Bible exegete cannot avoid the conclusion that the scriptures speak of three kinds of “trouble” for the believer: 1) discipline, judgment or rebuke from the Lord; 2) tests, trials, persecutions, suffering; and 3) temptations or attacks from Satan.

Many Christians wilfully ignore the above synopsis and blame the devil for all suffering or what I most object to, cruelly imply that those who are suffering have only themselves to blame as a result of sin and/or lack of faith. (By their own interpretation of James 5:14 faith healers encourage believers who are suffering to call for the elders (referring to themselves) and that their prayer of faith will heal the sick (God’s will to heal all); therefore, the question that begs asking is, why is it that they don’t blame themselves for all those that come to them and are not healed? (Which is most), what about the fact that faith healers suffer malady and die of sickness and many are sick while claiming divine healing? shall we then similarly conclude  that their personal faith is deficient? or that they are living in sin? (Just a thought) (See annex A).

I suggest that blaming all suffering on Satan and sin without duly considering the following is irresponsible.

  • Introspection and acknowledgment that sinners are enticed by their own evil desires
  •  A balanced biblical understanding that a follower of God is not immune from life’s problems; to coin the cliché “bad things happen to good people”
  • Recognising that evil is present in the natural fallen world
  • Mankind knowingly engages in sin “free will”
  • Suffering could be a consequence and not the result of sin
  • God’s discipline (this may be the exception, rather than the rule, but certainly applicable for gross wilful  disobedience to God’s commandments)
  • Failure to recognize suffering in context with God’s Sovereignty

Do we have to know all of God’s reasons? Whoever promised us all the answers? “Shall we accept good from God, and not accept trouble?” (Job 2:10), no one can stop God or challenge what He is doing (9:12).

We often cannot comprehend as human suffering often remains secret to human beings; we can only trust and find comfort in the knowledge that nothing happens to us that God is not aware of. Therefore the message of Job is comforting in that nothing happens to us that are not ultimately controlled by the knowledge, love, wisdom, and power of our God.

Nevertheless, “God has revealed a lot to us. He has lifted the curtain on the problem of evil with Christ at the cross. There, the greatest evil that ever happened, both the greatest spiritual evil and the greatest physical evil, both the greatest sin and the greatest suffering is revealed as His wise and loving plan to bring about the greatest good, the salvation of the world from sin and suffering eternally.”

Were Job’s friends correct in their assumptions? No!

Their response to Job’s suffering needs to be dealt with by understanding the prevailing traditional wisdom of the day, specifically with regards to suffering that it is the consequence of sin. Job’s wrestling with his suffering began to challenge the conventional wisdom of the time, specifically to the concept of retribution – namely if you are faithful you will be blessed and prosper.  If not, you will be punished; the wicked and the ungodly will suffer.  From the text it is apparent that the patriarch from Uz (Job), however, did not fit that pattern. He was a righteous man who suffered as if he were guilty of great wickedness. Neither he nor his friends could explain his condition, because their thought patterns did not allow for exceptions embedded in simple wisdom. Therefore, Job, due to his circumstances challenged this major theological view of the day – the oversimplification of the doctrine of retribution, because as he explained it to God, he was suffering unjustly. It would be remiss of me not to point out that it is not only Job’s friends that blame him for his condition. Despite the fact that today we have scriptural text to indicate otherwise Kenneth Copeland says, “When are we all going to wake up and learn that God didn’t allow the devil to get on Job. Job allowed the devil to get on Job…” Charles Capp says ‘Job activated Satan by his fear when he said “the thing which I greatly fear as come upon me” (Job 3:25), pointing to his negative confession, ignoring that it had already come upon him. Even more viciously from the same camp Benny Hinn called Job a “carnal bad boy” also asserting that Job’s mouth was the problem. Most disconcerting is that in the first two chapters of Job God called Job blameless, upright and good (Job 1:1, 8; 2.3), thus most appropriately commended by James in his epistle (5:11).

Certainly, the arguments of the three friends were flawed; assuming Job had sinned on the basis of his suffering is problematic. After all, if suffering always indicates sin, what might one say about Jesus’s suffering?

Jesus confirmed that the condition of the man born blind, for example, was not caused by his sin or that of his parents, but it happened so that God might be glorified in his healing (John 9:2–3).

Our wise and perfect God can and sometimes does use the sin already existing in our world to fulfil His purposes. This revelation caused Habakkuk to then ask how God could use a nation more wickeder than Judah to judge Judah (1:12-2:1). God’s response was the promise that He would later punish Babylon as well (2:2-20). Ultimately Habakkuk could only acknowledge the Lord’s perfect wisdom; the prophet ends with a song of praise in chapter 3.

A casual reading of the Book of Job offers two answers: suffering is a test, and you will be rewarded later for passing it; another that God is not held accountable to human perceptions of morality. However, the accuser (Satan) insinuates that Job’s allegiance is hypocritical (1:9). Should God would remove the protective hedge and blessings He has bestowed on Job (v.10), this ‘devout’ servant would curse God to His face. Therefore, the attack is on God through Job, and the only way the accuser can be proven false is through Job (Satan’s predictions do not come true as Job did not sin).

How will man react to God when God seems unconcerned about his problems?

In reflection the book of Job as a whole illustrates that a full understanding of God’s reasons for events is a not a prerequisite for remaining faithful amid terrible suffering. We need to realize that our blessings are not just dependent on the strength of our faith, but on His purposes and power.

Does Job’s theology challenge the limitations of the simplistic conventional wisdom intrinsic to the Old Testament Wisdom Books and refute a popular tradition of today?

How about Ecclesiastes?

Ecclesiastes another Wisdom book presents a realistic approach and a view of life that counter balances the unqualified optimism of traditional simplistic wisdom, which in real life may not produce the desired results. This therefore challenges the traditional simplistic wisdom as presented in the book of Proverbs, characterised by Job’s friends and the overoptimistic contemporary ‘Prosperity Gospel’.

According to Proverbs 13:4 “the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied” but Ecclesiastes 2:22-23 questions whether this is always true! Proverbs 10:6 affirms that justice is dispensed both to the righteous and the wicked, but Ecclesiastes 8:14 observes that this is not always the case in life. Ecclesiastes however points out that while the righteous order of Proverbs does exist, it is not always evident to man as he views life from his finite perspective. Proverbs usually looks at the opposites in life without noting exceptions (the serious biblical exegete understands and will consider that different biblical genres have their own interpretive methodology). Thus, Ecclesiastes contradicts traditional, simplistic, wisdom portions of scripture and some say that it presents an allegedly pessimistic outlook on life. It is relevant to note that Solomon wrote Proverbs probably in the prime of his life and Ecclesiastes late in his life and I disagree that the writer presents a pessimistic or fatalistic outlook on life; it is just the product of a vacillating mind grappling with the complexities of life.

Perhaps we should consider the “Word of Faith Movement” or mostly common referred to as “Prosperity Gospel” that sees the Holy Spirit as a power to be put to use for whatever the believer wills.  This belief-system or practise certainly is not in full submission and trust of God’s will for our lives or accordance to His universal purposes that are unbeknown to His servants. “Word of Faith” “Prosperity Gospel”, and “Positive Confession” all refer to the heretical teaching akin to the “law of attraction”; namely that words and thoughts themselves have creative power. Word of Faith teachers claim that what you say determines what that happens to you. Your confessions, especially the favours you demand of God, must all be stated positively and without wavering, then God is expected to respond accordingly (as though man could demand anything of God! when a responsible interpretation of scripture indicates that only God has the right to make demands on His people) to some degree prohibiting God from working on His own according to His sovereign good will.  By implication this means that God is not Lord of all, because He will only work when we release Him to do so by the manipulative power of prayer, faith and confession. Thus, God’s ability to bless us supposedly depends on our confessions of faith rendering God to a type of a cosmic Santa Claus. I regard all of this to be a misinterpretation of the Word emanating from a secular and humanistic selfish ambition which is embedded in a syncretism of Mind Science, Christian Science and Eastern Philosophy rather than a responsible interpretation of the Word of God.

These teachings remains embedded on the old Jobian belief that suffering in the form of illness and poverty are a type of punishment for sin, a lack of faith or unfaithfulness – the entire book of Job and Ecclesiastes refutes this. This doctrine is based on a simplistic, and covetous selective interpretation of the Word which fails to consider the exceptions to the rule; for example, Proverbs 11:25, “The generous soul will be made rich” where empirical evidence in the body of Christ expressly and clearly indicates this not to be true, as there are many generous souls in the Church whom are not rich.

To this end it must also be noted that cherry-picking scripture out of context to support a particular doctrine is also not very helpful; scripture must interpret scripture. The same Jesus that said “if you ask anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:14) also expressed the motive for praying in Matthew 6:10 “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” also John in his epistles contextualises by penning in 1John 5:14, “Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us.” It should come as no surprise at this point to allude to Benny Hinn’ irresponsible exhortations to his followers to “never, ever, go to the Lord and say ‘if it is thy will…’ as they are faith destroying words”; “an insult to God” (Fred Price).

There are no conflicts in scripture, only poor interpretations that require revaluation!

Our prayer life begins by acknowledging that apart from Christ we are helpless, thus acknowledging our dependency on God. We are also to submit our desires before our sovereign Saviour believing that He is able to provide “exceeding abundantly beyond all that we can ask or think” (Eph. 3:20). Jesus modelled these patterns when He taught us to pray in Matthew 6. As well as when He agonized in the garden of Gethsemane (Matt. 26:39) “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.”

Jesus’s life is clearly in conflict with the ‘Word of Faith Theology’. Jesus Himself suffered and calls His disciples to take up the cross, forsake the world, and be prepared to suffer as He suffered (Matt. 16:24-28; John 15:18-20) and was tempted and suffered willingly for the Father’s will, yet without sin, not taking advantage of His power to eradicate suffering or to gain personal comfort (Matt. 4). This totally contradicts a doctrine that emphasizes the use of spiritual power for personal gain and rejects all forms of suffering, labelling it outside of God’s will for New Testament believers.

What about other New Testament saints?

Paul life is also in conflict with the ‘Word of Faith Theology’:

“Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:7-10). The constant pattern of Paul’s life was suffering. He certainly was not focused on self agrandisation and prosperity, not only modelling the Lord’s life but also teaching “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth… “(Mat 6:19).

Paul’s life also affirms what the apostolic writers tell us, namely that God often uses suffering as the means by which He sanctifies His people (2 Cor. 1:3-10; 1 Peter 4:12). Paul’s Epistles further affirm that believers cannot avoid suffering at will, namely, Timothy (in 1 Tim. 5:23); Trophimus (in 2 Tim. 4:20) and Epaphroditus (in Phil. 2:25-30).

It also seemed fitting for Paul to pray “in the will of God” (Rom 1:10).

In the letter to the Hebrews (Heb. 11) believed by some to be author by Paul we read time and again of New Testament saints who experienced one hardship after another.

We have looked at the teachings of John and the life of Paul that offers, like Jesus, a pattern of self-denial.  Now how about the teaching in James, written by the brother of the Lord?

We have confirmation of all that the believer will face in this life; trials (James 1:2), the plight of the poor (v. 9), that they will always be among us (Deut. 15:11), temptations for proving our faith (v. 12), the enticement of our own desires (v 14), the call for holiness (vv. 21, 27), and impending judgement for transgressors (2:13). It also seemed fitting for James, like the apostles, to pray “if the Lord wills” (James 4:15).

Most importantly James touches on the covetous aspect of seeking after what one desires, pointing out that it is in conflict with the Torah’s tenth commandment reflected in James 4:2, concluding in verse 3; “You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.”

I conclude from the sage’s reflection in the book of Ecclesiastes that also turned to the doctrine of simple retribution or traditional simplistic wisdom to balance the scales to compensate for life’s inadequacies; however he realizes that both the fool (ungodly) and the wise (godly) are experiencing an obscure life and destined to death.  The value he seeks therefore cannot be found in this life (2:12-16), as not even godly wisdom guarantees him justice.

In chapters 9:11-12 and 11:7-10 the entire mood of the book changes in the summary.  He begins to conclude that since he has failed to find any value or justice “under the sun” over and above enjoying life, value must then be found transcendent to this life, rooted in the justice of God (12: 9-14), a view point that I concur. The second summary states that although knowledge and wisdom yields value, it brings weariness and passes away (v 13).  In contrast, reverence and obedience to God will stand on the Day of Judgment (v 14), therefore ones priorities should not lie in the things of this life, but in God.

Appendix A

Faith teacher Hobart freeman may have blamed the death of his grandson on the lack of faith of his son-in-law, but the truth is that a routine medical procedure could have easily saved the boy’s life. Ironically, Freeman’s own disdain for science and medicine along with his flawed faith formulas led to his apparently premature death in 1984, Freeman died of pneumonia and heart failure.

After a 15-year-old girl died of a medically treatable malady, the parents were convicted of negligent homicide and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Freeman was charged with aiding and inducing reckless homicide in the case.

Fred Price may proudly proclaim, “We don’t allow sickness in our home” but the reality is that his wife was stricken with cancer and has humbly and profusely thanked the doctors for the painful radiation and chemotherapy she received from them.

Price’s absurdity reaches a climax when he states that medicine is a crutch for the immature believer, “when you have developed your faith to such an extent that you can stand on the promises of God, then you won’t need medicine. That’s the reason I don’t take medicine”

Veteran faith healer Oral Roberts suffered a heart attack just hours after supposedly being healed of chest pains by Paul Crouch on TBN’s live television show on October 6, 1992 just a few months after Crouch himself suffered from two days of heart pains flatters and stops.

A A Allen famed tent Evangelist and faith healer died of sclerosis of the liver in 1970, having secretly struggled with alcoholism for many years prior. Allen was actually expelled from the assemblies of God’s denomination when he jumped bail after being arrested for drunk driving.

Robert Tilton ‘faith’ guru message is simple: “God wants you to flourish financially and physically”, but you need faith. To prove your faith you need to make a vow faith, and all vows should be sent in care of brother Bob. Typical vows begin at $1000, but the sky is the limit. Brother Bob had two small strokes in his brain that brought numbness in his body. Here is rebuttal:

The pray requests forms had ink on them and all kinds of chemicals, as I laid on top of those prayer requests the chemicals actually got into my bloodstream and began to swell my capillaries, it got into my immune system.

Cathryn kuhlman died of heart problems in 1976. She had battled heart disease for nearly 20 years. It must be said that Cathryn at least at the common sense to admit that she doesn’t know why some people are healed and some are not.

Kenneth Hagin may brag that for years not add a headache, the flu or even “one sick” day in nearly 60 years, yet he suffered at least four cardiovascular crisis, including one full scale heart stoppage and another episode persisting for six weeks.

Does the teaching really work? If so then why are the proponents suffering just like anyone else? If believers are able to live in divine health, why do we all suffer and die from disease?

The reality of the matter is that those that are close to the proponents that claim they live in divine health can vouch for the fact that they are actually not. Purely for contextualization, it can be said that there are many non-believers that live in comparatively perfect health, if there is such a thing.

All faith healers do not seem troubled by the absurdity of claiming and continuing to proclaiming to be healed for instance from disease, yet continuing to suffer just as badly from the symptoms. Absurdity on three accounts:

  • the clear evidence of the presence of the virus
  • not recognising that ignoring symptoms of disease may be lethal
  • The symptoms that cause patients alarm are usually spectacular demonstrations of the body’s healing mechanisms at work – Divine demonstration of God’s sovereign healing power in progress.

Regardless of the many assurances from the “faith healers” that their teaching is in line with the Word of God and has origins in ‘new’ Holy Spirit revealed interpretations the fact of the matter is that the their teachings are indistinguishable from the metaphysical cults. For instance Hagin claimed by some as the father of the movement teachings in this regard are so strikingly similar to Phineas Quimby (new thought guru of the time) that by transcript analyses are basically the same, even more so than Christian Science/Religious Science cult leader Mary Baker. Whilst on Hagin has a father of the movement it would be remiss of me not to state that having read and heard many of his transcripts, it appears to me that he has borrowed his healing doctrine from T.L.Osborn.

In the same category is Benny Hinn’s outrageous interpretation from Ephesians 5:23 in his book “Rise & be Healed” he writes that Jesus Christ is the saviour of the body, therefore then your body ought to be made whole” (Paraphrased). The actual Bible text has nothing to do with the physical body rather the ‘body’ referred to in the text is clearly identifiable as the ‘Church’. In some cases misinterpretations of the Word to justify a bias position are difficult to reject by the unsuspecting and blind trust to God’s anointed, but in some cases the claims are so downright ridiculous that are easy to reject. Again it must be said that this misrepresentation of the Word again has roots in T.L.Osborn.

Actually Essek William Kenyon whose life was enormously impacted by such cults as Science of Mind, Unity School of Christianity, Christian Science and New Thought metaphysics is the true father of the modern day ‘Word of Faith Movement’. Many of the phrases popularised by today’s prosperity teachers, such as “what I confess, I possess.” Were originally is coined by Kenyon.

The interaction between Osborne and the metaphysical gurus is evident in his book “healing the sick” when he quotes Kenyon’s misinterpretation of Isaiah 53 “Jesus bore our infirmities, our disease, our sicknesses, and what He bore, we do not need to bear. What He took upon Himself, we do not need to suffer.”, this as a vindication that we can live this life in divine health and suffering free.