Just about every Australian Christian I know has a prosperity theology.We find it abhorrent to suggest that God wants us to be rich but then speak of how ‘blessed’ we are in Australia. Meanwhile we live as if we believe God wants us to be rich, gladly renovating our homes, buying new cars, traveling overseas and investing in super so that we can continue all these things in our retirement. So does God want us to be prosperous or not?
Rather than rejecting prosperity theology I believe we need a thoroughly biblical prosperity theology. Modern prosperity preachers are right to point out that the bible speaks of blessing in material terms, that God created a world of amazing productivity and abundance, but they err in reading biblical texts through an individualist, consumerist lens. As a result, instead of a biblical understanding of prosperity they end up baptising greed. And those of us who reject the theology of the prosperity preachers don’t know what to do with texts that speak of material blessing. We may not baptise greed but we live it.
The first key to a biblical prosperity theology is to read the biblical texts through a communitarian lens rather than an individualist lens. That is, the earth’s abundance is to be shared by all, both humans and animals (Genesis 1:29-31). We are called to construct communities where everyone has sufficient, both by creating social-political-economic systems that foster this and by responding with generosity to the needs of those who are poor. This is why God gave Israel particular laws around debt (Deuteronomy 15), jubilee (Leviticus 25) and harvest. These were designed to ensure land and its produce always remained available to everyone. The biblical vision of sufficiency for all is why Jesus condemned the rich (Luke 6:24-26), who in a subsistence economy amassed wealth by taking the land of the poor, and crafted a community built on sharing and generous care (Matthew 25:31-46).
So there is something terribly wrong with a global economic system that allows more than a billion people to live in extreme poverty while another billion live in extreme affluence. There is something terribly wrong with affluent Christians (which includes me and most Australian Christians) when our discretionary spending on ourselves ourstrips by many multiples the amount we share with the poor. The bible doesn’t call this blessing. It calls it greed.
The second key is to read biblical statements from the perspective of a subsistence society rather than a consumerist one. A consumerist perspective equates well being with increasing consumption. Collectively we seem believe improving our well being means growing our economy and individually we believe it means having more, doing more, experiencing more. In the biblical eras the economies were based on subsistence agriculture. Here ‘blessing’ and ‘abundance’ meant something very different:
One fact of far-reaching significance about the difference between such ancient societies and modern society is that the two interdependent a priori expectations of a modern economy – that individuals expect constantly to improve their standard of living and that the economy is expected to grow without limit – were completely unknown to biblical and other ancient societies. The OT’s classic picture of utopian existence – ‘everyone under his vine and his fig tree’ (1 Kings 4:25; Mic 4:4; etc) – is simply the life of the ordinary peasant family at its best: owning their own modest smallholding, producing enough to live and with leisure enough to enjoy it, and with no threat from the rapacious rich or foreign invasion. Even when imagining the idyllic future, Israelite peasants wanted no more than this in material terms.
Richard Bauckham, “Wealth and Poverty in the Bible” http://richardbauckham.co.uk/uploads/Accessible/Wealth%20&%20Poverty%20in%20the%20Bible.pdf
So does God want us to be prosperous? Yes, but in biblical terms ‘us’ must be understood collectively, ‘us’ as in all of us, all human beings. And in biblical terms ‘prosperous’ must be understood as having sufficient to live a life of love for God and others, not as having more. If we can grasp and live this vision of prosperity then we will be truly blessed.