I hate the prosperity gospel or any teaching that suggests good Christians will be healthy, wealthy and happy. As a counselor I see its wretched fruit. I hate it, and I am not alone. The number of haters is reaching a critical mass, maybe even a tipping point. But I can understand why this pernicious teaching endures. In many places, Scripture seems to teach it, so there will always be a contingent of prosperity folks among us.
When I go to Africa, the preaching I hear is almost solely from the Old Testament. The preachers want vivid stories where good people get good things and bad people get bad things, and these stories abound in the Old Testament. This is why we remind ourselves that Scripture reaches its zenith in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Or, as the Apostle Paul purposefully summarizes, “Christ and him crucified.” When our attention is riveted to the Suffering Servant, the prosperity doctrines fade quickly.
But even the New Testament throws us a curve here. For example, though he speaks against wealth, James does tell us to pray for healing of the sick (5:14-15). He is straightforward and clear—people will be healed as a result of these prayers. Now what? Is James preaching a more limited form of the prosperity gospel? I don’t think so, but it is confusing and this is why we aim to be theologians. We want to understand this passage in the larger context of James’s letter and then see how it fits with other Scripture.
Earlier in the epistle, James says we will have all kinds of trials (1:2), and then in chapter 5 he says we must be patient in suffering (5:7-10). So he is not preaching prosperity because he does not expect God to remove difficulties from our lives. But what then is he saying about healing? I think it is this: we are to always pray for those who are sick, and realize that there are times when God will heal someone to remind us that the death and resurrection of Jesus is displacing everything connected to death, including sickness. But James is not saying all people will be made well—he cannot be saying that—because he has seen faithful saints die. We also know, from the story of the Apostle Paul, that not everyone is healed through prayer. Despite many prayers, his physical malady remained and yet this weakness was a better display of God’s strength than healing would have been. (2 Cor. 12).
The James passage is still confusing—but I know healings do happen and I am glad that they do. I believe I saw one in the last month. But I hate the prosperity gospel. It focuses on here-and-now benefits, leaving people unprepared for hardships. Some even feel guilty when they suffer because they assume they have done something wrong and have yet to figure out what it is. In the end, some are angry at God because he seems to have reneged on his promises to give us a merry life. Argh.