A few days ago, in a very long text message conversation, a good friend of mine made the following point:
I think if God were to predestine great things for people he would do it for Christians. Meanwhile, I don’t think God predestines greatness for people. What I believe is that there are opportunities for people to achieve great things (if they make) the right sort of choices.
By “great things” and “greatness,” my friend was referring to fame, fortune, and contributions that changed society in a major way—all things that can be grouped under the general heading of success, as we define it in 21st century America. What he was getting at was the idea of absolute predestination, and what followed was a conversation about the difficult and mysterious tension between free will and the sovereignty of God.
But along the way, I made the following point about success, on which my friend agreed with me:
I question the idea that “success,” as the world defines it, is actually what’s good for us, and therefore that it’s what God ordains for believers (or those he has favor on).
More recently, I stumbled on an article by Scott Dannemiller, who writes the blog The Accidental Missionary, on the subject of blessing. Dannemiller suggests that Christians need to stop equating blessing with success and calling ourselves “blessed” when we experience material prosperity (a word you could easily substitute for success above). He makes the following points:
First, when I say that my material fortune is the result of God’s blessing, it reduces The Almighty to some sort of sky-bound, wish-granting fairy who spends his days randomly bestowing cars and cash upon his followers.
Second, and more importantly, calling myself blessed because of material good fortune is just plain wrong. For starters, it can be offensive to the hundreds of millions of Christians in the world who live on less than $10 per day. You read that right. Hundreds of millions who receive a single-digit dollar “blessing” per day.
During our year in Guatemala, Gabby and I witnessed first-hand the damage done by the theology of prosperity, where faithful people scraping by to feed their families were simply told they must not be faithful enough. If they were, God would pull them out of their nightmare. Just try harder, and God will show favor.
The problem? Nowhere in scripture are we promised worldly ease in return for our pledge of faith. In fact, the most devout saints from the Bible usually died penniless, receiving a one-way ticket to prison or death by torture.
He’s right. And, as he subtly implies, there’s a certain amount of prosperity gospel hidden behind our conflation of prosperity with blessing, and it is widespread even among those of us who vociferously oppose the prosperity gospel message. Related to that, I’d like to add a third point to the two quoted above.
Equating success with blessing implies that worldly success and prosperity are the good that God wishes for us, and that when he wants to bless us, He does so by giving us material prosperity. By equating material wealth with blessing, and thereby making it the good that God blesses us with, we incorporate materialism directly into our theology and thereby validate and even encourage it, rather than standing opposed to it, as Scripture does.
As Dannemiller correctly points out, Jesus explicitly gave us his definition of blessing in the Beattitudes, at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12)—and none of it equates with material prosperity. Jesus also told us that if we want to be first in the kingdom of heaven, we should seek to be last in this life.
But my favorite of Dannemiller’s points is this:
Still, if I take advantage of the opportunities set before me, a comfortable life may come my way. It’s not guaranteed. But if it does happen, I don’t believe Jesus will call me blessed.
He will call me “burdened.”
Burdened. Before you react, take a moment to let that idea sink in. Burdened by prosperity. This is what I meant when I told my friend that I wasn’t sure that success is actually what’s good for us and what God wants for us.
When the rich young ruler approaches Jesus and asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life (Matthew 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-31), Jesus tells him to obey the commandments. When he replies that he has always done so, Jesus tells him to sell everything he owns and give it to the poor, and then to come and follow him. The man goes away sad, because he is unwilling to part with his riches.
When Jesus turns to his disciples, can’t you almost see him giving a sad, wistful sigh as he watches the man leave and tells them, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven”?
And notice what that wealth prevents the young man from doing. We tend to focus on the fact that he didn’t sell his possessions and give to the poor—and if Jesus hadn’t said what he did to the disciples, we might conclude that the rich man simply missed out on “treasure in heaven,” for that was the promise attached to the instruction. But right after that instruction, Jesus had said, “Then come, follow me.” Instead, the man goes away. His wealth becomes the obstacle that prevents him from accepting the invitation to follow Jesus.
If that’s not a burden, I don’t know what it is.