God is not a vending machine: the problem with the prosperity gospel

Oh Lord, wont you buy me a Mercedes Benz ?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, wont you buy me a Mercedes Benz ?

–Janis Joplin

This song was written to be a satire on the materialistic culture of America.  Like all satires, it’s funny because it’s true: we do pray to God for that ‘Mercedes-Benz,’ whatever that may be for us.  There is a widespread belief that in the “prosperity Gospel”: if God loves you, you will be healthy and wealthy.  If you are spiritual enough, if you pray the right prayers, if you go to the right churches, if you have the right positive attitude, God will give you what material gifts you ask for.  And it makes sense–we all know people who self-sabotage, who assume the worst or prepare for the worst and through that very belief cause, in some sense, the worst to happen to them.  So if the opposite is true, that you can influence what happens to you by having a positive attitude, well, that seems fair.  And after all, didn’t Christ say “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8).  It seems clear enough.  Decide what you want, trust in God, ask, and it’s yours.

A best-selling book was written about the Prayer of Jabez from 1 Chronicles 4:10, explaining how this one verse can lead you to a deeper spirituality that will result in material prosperity, as if God were a vending machine.  Put in the correct change (the right belief and the right attitude), make the correct selection (the right prayer) and the treat drops down into your hand.  Joel Osteen and other televangelists make similar claims, as do a wide variety of other spiritual figures from Conservative Christians to New Age gurus to business consultants and life coaches.  (And what does it say about our society that business consultants give spiritual advice?)  We all want a good, long, prosperous life.  God loves us and wants us to be happy, and has said he’ll take care of us.  Surely, putting the two together can’t be a bad thing?

But what happens when things go wrong?  What happens when we don’t get that Mercedes-Benz?  What happens when bad things happen–abuse, illness, injury, the death of a loved one, the breakup of a marriage, the loss of a job?  If God rewards the right attitude, the right faith, and the right prayers with material prosperity, then the only explanation is a failure of the person in trouble.  Maybe they didn’t have a positive enough attitude.  Maybe they didn’t pray for the right things.  Maybe their faith wasn’t strong enough.  This is the fundamental problem with the prosperity gospel: during the darkest times of our lives, when we need the love and presence of our God the most, we are abandoned.

Now, I don’t mean to say that God actually leaves us, because he doesn’t.  But if we assume God only works through material prosperity and good fortune, if we assume that bad things are a sign that he is not with us, we will almost certainly blind ourselves to the ways that he is with us during times of trouble.  And then we have nothing to fall back on.  God is always with us, even if we can’t see him.  But if we can’t see or feel him, we feel as bereft as if he was truly absent.  I worked for a summer as chaplain in a mental facility, and one of the people living there was a woman with severe depression who had suffered many things in her life and so believed God was not with her.  However untrue that belief was, her anguish over the perceived abandonment was real.

But God does tell us “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8).  How do we interpret this if not through the lens of the prosperity gospel?  How do we pray to God and share with him our needs and concerns without assuming that if those needs and desires aren’t met, God has ignored us?  Let’s compare Jesus’ words in Matthew with those of James in his letter to the church:

You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

-James 4:2-3

Why do we ask for things?  How do we decide what we need, and how does that relate to God?  James points out that our attitude and our greed matter.  If we try to treat God like a cosmic vending machine, handing out treats on demand, we’re asking wrongly.  It’s not that pleasure is by itself bad, and it’s not that wealth itself is bad.  The problem comes when we allow our wants and desires and appetites to direct our thinking instead of our relationship with God.  If we’re focused on our own wealth and well-being, we’re probably ignoring both God and our neighbor.  James points out that selfish thinking separates us from the community as we try and get what we want through whatever means we can; we shouldn’t be surprised if it has the same effect of separating us from God, so that we cannot see the ways in which God is calling us and supporting us.

God is always with us, even when we can’t see or feel him.  God is with us even when we focus on our own selfish desires.  God is with us in good times and bad, and God knows our true needs better than we do ourselves.  God will never forsake us, in good times or in bad.  God’s love cannot be measured by health or wealth, but only in the fullness of his grace and mercy.

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5 thoughts on “God is not a vending machine: the problem with the prosperity gospel

  1. ANNA,

    please get blogging. Your writing is very succinct and your interpretations of the Bible and CWA actions were very helpful to me.

    I’ve been praying for you, sending you encouragement from your home parish!

    Janice

  2. Anna,

    Any comments on the number of people purported to be leaving ELCA churches because of the actions of the CWA regarding human sexuality, especially the rostering of gay and lesbian clergy?

    I’m slogging through some reconciling in Christ material and it doesn’t always make sense as far as the interpretation of scripture various authors cite.

    I’ll get back to you on that.
    How is life?

    Janice

    • There are a lot fewer congregations actually leaving the ELCA than are rumored. What there is right now is a lot of talk and debate and associations of churchs forming within the ELCA that might leave in the future but for now are mostly staying put.

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