A couple nights ago I was watching a program that CNN did called “What Would Jesus Really Do?” The premise of the show was very interesting. They brought in all kinds of pastors to weigh in on what Jesus would be doing today if he was on earth. They talked to Rick Warren, Jerry Falwell, and T.D. Jakes, just to name a few. There was also a woman on the panel who pastors a church of 26,000 in Florida. Given that I had never heard of a woman pastoring a mega-church before, I immediately went to her website to check out what she believes. I have to say, I was disappointed. Even though she has clearly been very successful and is a powerful teacher, I was sad to learn that her teaching, as well as that of some of the other panelists on the show, was soft on doctrine. She seemed to be among the ranks of popular pastors today who tell people that God simply wants them to be happy. These church leaders are selling a touchy-feely Gospel for people who only need Jesus to make them feel better…conveniently over-looking the reality that taking up the cross and being crucified with Christ isn’t exactly a feel-good experience.
This kind of preaching is often referred to as “The Prosperity Gospel” since it can be boiled down to the idea that God’s main concern for us is to prosper. But before I get on my soap box, let me be the first to admit that it’s difficult to avoid the pitfalls of such a teaching. In women’s ministry, for instance, there is a great temptation to preach the prosperity Gospel because a lot of women need that message. A lot of women are wounded, and need healing and blessing. A lot of women don’t value themselves, and need to know that God loves them. A lot of women are barely surviving in life, and need to know that God wants them to live abundantly. For that reason, the “prosperity”element of the Gospel is indeed vital to women’s ministry.
Unfortunately, a lot of women, and a lot of Christians, stall out there. Suddently, discipleship and worship of God is not the end goal–me feeling good about myself and having a good life becomes the end goal. But while loving yourself is of course important, these gospels tend to be theologically anemic because they leave out the meat of the one, true Gospel: the cross. Throughout Scripture we see that, while God’s followers are definitely blessed, they also suffer. Jesus himself reminds us that following him means undergoing persecution, so if the gospel you’re preaching somehow leaves that part out, then it’s possible you have departed from the teachings of Jesus. You’re probably closer to the teachings of Oprah.
Suffering for Christ is a truly integral part of being a Christian. Why? For two reasons. First, we live in a sinful world. If your gospel does not involve suffering, then your gospel does not involve earth. Second, enduring suffering for the sake of Christ lends legitimacy to our words. We cannot profess with any kind of authenticity that we follow God “because His love is better than life” (Psalm 63:1), if we are not, in fact, willing to surrender our lives. Take Abraham, for example. The first time that the word “worship” appears in Scripture is right before Abraham goes to sacrifice his son, Isaac. I think it’s so remarkable that this gut-wrenching tale is our first account of worship! But why is worship associated with such a seemingly terrible situation? Because sacrifice is our truest, purest form of worship. When we sacrifice something, especially something dear to us, we attest to the reality that God IS greater than anything on earth. In sacrificing, we are not merely *saying* that God is greater than anything in the universe, but we are demonstrating it. Our actions should should line up with our words, and sacrifice is where we make that happen. It’s what Abraham did when he offered up Isaac, and it’s what we as Christians are also called to do.
For this reason, a gospel defined only by “health and wealth” is not a gospel we find in Scripture. Yes, the Gospel helps us combat the lies and the wounds that the world throws at us, but it also calls us to hardship. Christ was not “happy” or “smiley” when he was on the cross, but he was holy, so let us not forget that element of discipleship.
So when you hear ministers who talk excessively about “blessing” and “success” and “abundant life,” be on your guard, because those are the warnings signs that their theology doens’t go any further than “me, myself and I.” In those gospels, God is domesticated to the form of a psychologist in the sky, but God is not merely here to listen to your problems and make you feel better. He is here to wrench your eyes off of yourself and fix them on Him so that when you do walk through the valley of the shadow of death (and you will), your light will shine in the darkness, and He will be glorified. That’s the Gospel, so don’t settle for any lesser alternatives.
P.S. I would be interested to see what a women’s ministry that calls women to suffer for Christ would even look like….