Health and Wealth?

I’ve been nearly writing this entry for ages, so I thought I’d better bite the bullet and actually put it together, even though I’m not sure exactly how it’s going to turn out. One of the things I’ve been thinking about is attitudes to “health and wealth” teaching in churches both in Argentina and in the UK, and I’m coming to the conclusion that even churches who appear to be at totally opposite ends of the spectrum, seem to end up saying and believing pretty much the same things.
For the uninitiated “Health and Wealth” is the tag-name given to a brand of Christian teaching which says that God wants to give all his followers good health and material prosperity, and that if we don’t have good health and material prosperity then that must be our fault because we are variously failing in obedience, in faith, to tithe, to “claim” what God wants to do for us, or that we are otherwise separated from God through our unconfessed sin.

There is some evidence for health and wealth teaching. After all the Old Testament in general, and the pentateuch particularly, is littered with exhortations to obedience, and promises of prosperity as a result of obedience. Jesus himself said that the Father knows how to give good gifts to his children. When Solomon asks God for wisdom, he is given not only wisdom, but also material wealth as a reward by God for asking wisely, so we can presumably understand therefore that God would recognise health and wealth as falling under the heading of “good gifts” which the Father knows how to give.

No, the flaw in the scheme is not that it is entirely untrue, but in that it attempts to expound one bit of the plot as though it were a systematic model for the entire play. The thing very quickly falls apart when we notice that some of the most obedient people were some of the least materially prosperous, and thus in a caricatured world we might find ourselves asking whether John the Baptist, the apostle Paul, or the Lord Jesus Christ were terribly lacking in faith, or if they had just slightly miscalculated their tithe. We might also sneak a glance at Jacob who became materially rich, but was also deliberately given his dislocated hip as a blessing from God. And going back to Solomon, sure he was given great wealth, but as a reward for asking for wisdom, suggesting that the wisest thing is not to seek material riches.

Overt health and wealth teaching tends to be the domain of the “livelier” churches, both in Argentina and the UK. Here we hear quite a lot of fairly starkly “health and wealth” theology. We have heard that “the only reason why people ever die is because the church isn’t praying enough, and if we really had faith we would be down at the hospital ordering sick people to get better”. We have also heard that the way to be prosperous is to give more money to the church, and that if you are poor it is because you are not giving enough money to the church; or that if you are faithful in your tithe then you have the authority to ask God for anything and it will be done. There is even a church here which refers to its offering envelopes as “the keys to the blessing”.

In the UK at least, we tend to move in more conservative theological circles, and people in conservative theological circles tend to get a bit squeaky about such teaching, arguably with good reason. But I’m starting to wonder if we of the conservative church might in the final instance actually covertly hold the same beliefs that we appear to look down on.

Why do I say that? Firstly we need to understand that the position of the church in UK society generally belongs to a higher social strata than in Argentina. This means that where Argentinians are aspiring to “health and wealth”, the conservative UK church generally is healthy and wealthy, at least by comparison, and therefore doesn’t need to look to God to meet those aspirations. However, take away the health or the wealth to which a conservative UK Christian has become accustomed, and watch what happens. “God’s got to heal her, he’s just got to”; a friend whose wife was having surgery (why?). “Why is God making me go through this?”; a friend during a long period of unemployment (why not?). And when Martin had his road accident a lot of people said “Why did God allow this to happen?” (What divine right grants us protection from breaking our necks, especially if we’re going to walk out in front of moving Ford Escorts?)

Which makes me wonder if somewhere we of the conservative church haven’t sold out to a respectable conservative middle class UK form of “health and wealth” teaching which goes something like “God wants to bless you, his followers with good health and material prosperity to the level at which you have become accustomed”.

In the case of overt “health and wealth” theology, we put our faith in that which we want God to give us, and in the faith of covert “health and wealth” theology, we put our faith in that which God has already given us. In some cases the latter might be even more dangerous than the former, since we have also frequently forgotten that the gifts were his in the first place. In either case I would suggest that the result is about the same, give or take a nuance; that we have lost sight of Jesus, because we don’t trust that we are safe in Jesus, probably because we have no idea what it means to be safe in Jesus:

“The centrality of Jesus has been subject to continual usurpment by money, buildings, hard work, good works, Myers Briggs, efficient organisation, computers, food, the Bible, church activities, principles, religion, theology, virtue, sex, sexuality, party spirit, meetings, soundness, politics, fame, talent, tradition, single-issue fanaticism, alcohol, and family to name but a few” (Adrian Plass, in “Jesus: Safe, Tender, Extreme”)

Now I’m thinking I should stop right here if only because it’s going to take me half the night to put this into Spanish. But I haven’t finished thinking about this yet, so post a comment, send an email….

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