Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Prosperity Gospel

Today there are on the one hand the forces of the market, of traffic in weapons, in drugs, and in human beings, all forces that weigh upon the world and ensnare humanity irresistibly. Today, on the other hand, there is also the ideology of success, of well-being, that tells us, ‘God is just a fiction, he only robs us on our time and our enjoyment of life. Don’t bother with him! Just try to squeeze as much out of life as you can.’ These temptations seem irresistible as well.

The Our Father in general and the petition ‘deliver us from evil’ in particular are trying to tell us that it is only when you have lost God that you have lost yourself; then you are nothing more than a random product of evolution. Then the ‘dragon’ really has won. So long as the dragon cannot wrest God from you, your deepest being remains unharmed, even in the midst of all the evils that threaten you.

Jesus of Nazareth 1, 165-6

Reflection – This lovely passage from Pope Benedict evokes the deep wisdom of the Gospel: ‘What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose himself?’ (Matt 16:26). This is a wisdom we need to reclaim, recapture in our time.

So often we marry the Gospel, awkwardly, to material concepts of worldly gain and prosperity. There is the crude, obvious form of this in some types of evangelical Protestantism, the so-called ‘properity Gospel’ where God makes all the elect rich, and healthy. God wants you to drive a BMW and wear the latest designer labels, you know (ignore all that ‘blessed are the poor’ nonsense!).

But aside from that easily debunked parody of Christianity, prosperity gospels can come in other more subtle forms, too. As soon as we identify ‘life in Christ’ with a shopping list of goods, as soon as ‘union with God’ is measured by some other qualities, we are slipping, more often than not quite innocently and unaware, into prosperity Christianity.

‘Christ should bring us inner peace’, so if I’m not at peace, something is wrong. Really? The world is full of trouble, you know. Sometimes our lives are very troubled, and that trouble can be deeply interior, not just outside of us. ‘Christian life should result in a loving community.’ Well, perhaps, but many saints didn’t have that. Many holy people had to contend with opposition, loneliness, rejection. ‘If I’m united with God, my life should be working out.’ If you are united with God, your life is indeed working out… but not necessarily in any way that you can see it.

It goes on and on—all sorts of ways that the prosperity gospel manifests itself in our lives. Few of us are entirely free of it. So we have to go back to the basics—the Our Father being a good place to start. ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done… lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’ To know that it is God and God alone who secures our life, that it is God and God alone who matters, that it is God and God alone who is our desire, our hope, our happiness—this is basic Christianity.

To lose God is to lose everything. To have God is to have everything, even if our lives are plunged into turmoil, full of loneliness and pain, and wrapped in deep mystery. Do we ever need to tell ourselves this, over and over again, daily!

There is a measure of our union with God—the only measure, in fact. It is our growth in love. The only way we can know we are in union with God is that we love more. But this is invisible to us, and only partially visible to others. So we cannot actually know that we are in union with God—we can only turn to Him and cry out for His mercy and ask Him to make it so. And this is Christian life in the world.

Paradoxically, it is a great life, a life that does (even in turmoil, darkness, loneliness, mystery) lead to joy and peace in abundance. But it only leads to that joy and peace when we no longer seek them as ‘prosperity’, but turn to God and seek Him alone. He is our prosperity; He is our treasure. When we seek first the kingdom of God, all else is added to us, but we have to be sincere in seeking the kingdom, and not the ‘all else.’