If you’re like me, you’re sick and tired, disgusted and dismayed, at a movement in contemporary Christianity called the Prosperity Gospel. You probably know that it’s misguided, that it baptizes worldly criteria for success with Christian language, that it manipulates people’s hopes and produces disillusioned followers and wealthy preachers. You feel in your gut that the way of the cross is the way of life, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it, and that the Prosperity Gospel is neither the way of the cross nor of life. Kate Bowler’s recent book Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (Oxford University Press) analyses the movement, and judging from reviews, such as one at Christianity Today, it looks like an insightful read.
Still, the Bible does talk and often promise prosperity to those who fear and obey God, doesn’t it? What are we to make of this? We can’t of course ignore these passages, like we wouldn’t want people to ignore other biblical texts which they feel do not fit with the way they approach life. So I’ve often found myself thinking: if biblical prosperity is not the “’health and wealth, ‘name it and claim it,’ ‘confess it and possess it’” contemporary message we hear, what is the nature of this prosperity?
I recently found a curious clue when reading Psalm 1. The psalm talks about two ways of life: one in the company of the wicked and which finishes in ruins, the other which the Lord knows and which, as the third verse puts it, leads to prosperity.
Blessed is the one …
whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.
What struck me was that image of the tree. The person who finds her pleasure in God’s guidance is rooted and fruitful like a tree; she is a person who provides sustenance, flavor, shelter and orientation to others. Just like a tree which nourishes a whole ecosystem – shade for people and animals, protection to birds, fruit to feed and delight, oxygen to the air and minerals to the soil – these people are a source of life.
I liked the Psalm’s image of the tree because it measures our prosperity not in the base of how much we receive but in how much we give, not in what we accumulate but in what we contribute. To be prosperous is to be a source of life. It is to give, to bless, to contribute to the lives of the people around us.
This may include having money … or not. This may include being recognized as a successful person … or not. It is not a prosperity measured in dollars or magazine covers or Tweeter followers, but by the lives we bless. Our model of success is not a magnate, it is not a celebrity, it is the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus didn’t have much money, but no one has blessed so many like Jesus did.
I’ve written a book, The Paradox of Happiness, which develops this understanding more fully and which outlines what I believe is the biblical theology of happiness and how it’s shaped by Jesus’ way of the cross. But the Psalm’s beautiful and clarifying image is enough for today. More than money, more than fame, more than power, I aspire to be most of all like a tree: I want to give. I want to contribute. I want my existence to nourish and bless many. I want to be a source of life.
That is what I believe is to be prosperous. Happy are those who share their happiness with others. Prosperous are those to make others prosperous.