Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” And God granted his request.
– 1 Chronicles 4:10
One of the most odious movements to emerge from American Protestant Christianity in the last 20 years is what is popularly known as “The Prosperity Gospel.” Although the prosperity gospel first took hold in the United States in the 1950s, it wasn’t until the book The Prayer of Jabez came out in 2000 that the prosperity gospel really took off in the public consciousness. Written by Bruce Wilkinson, The Prayer of Jabez is based almost entirely on the above verse in 1 Chronicles in the Old Testament. The simple idea is that if a Christian is to repeat this prayer on a daily basis, their material and financial well-being will improve. The prosperity gospel revolves around the idea that faith is a contract with God, and as long as the Christian maintains his faith, he will be rewarded materially in this world. While some Christians roundly criticized the book and the theology underpinning it, The Prayer of Jabez was wildly popular. The book sold over 9 million copies and reached the New York Times bestseller list.
I was a young Christian at the time of this book’s release, but even though I left the Church, my disagreement with the prosperity gospel has only intensified. At the time, in 2000, my primary disagreement with the book is that I thought it was not Biblical. Yes, it quotes a scripture from the Old Testament, but the message of The Prayer of Jabez directly flies in the face of nearly all the primary teachings of Christ in the New Testament. The message of Christ, as I understood it at the time, was that the most important thing in life was to love God and love your neighbor. Material wealth, and focusing on material wealth was a distraction from the truly important things. Christ admonished the rich man who asked him what he must do to be saved, saying in Matthew 19:21, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Sadly, the rich young man refused, because he could not part with his wealth. I felt at the time this was a striking parable to describe the problems I had with American Christianity. Christ wanted his followers to live the spiritual life as they were trying to emulate the kingdom of heaven on earth, and not be tied down by meaningless material trappings that distract from the goal, which is fellowship with God and their fellow man.
After I left the faith, my criticism of the Prayer of Jabez only intensified. Not only did I view it as a hypocritical violation of the central tenets of Christianity for 2000 years, but I viewed it on a sociological level as extremely harmful. The Prayer of Jabez, and related attitudes from the prosperity gospel encourage and enforce greed and short-sighted attitudes about the distribution of wealth and resources. I believe the prosperity gospel encourages selfishness. If a person spends each day praying for money, then the focus of their life will become all about acquiring more and more money, perhaps to the detriment of all other things. I think churches that focus on the prosperity gospel don’t care as much about outreach or helping the poor, and this attitude filters into politics as well. We see this attitude in the reduction of medical care, food stamps, and other benefits for the poor. The notion that “God helps those who help themselves” is part of the flawed thinking that leads to a more selfish society, one that is less willing to help the poor and less fortunate. The important work of society involving lifting people out of poverty and educating our children falls by the wayside as the primary focus in life becomes the almighty dollar.
Perhaps I am being too critical of Christianity here, since it certainly seems like the focus of the vast majority of people, Christian or not, is on the accumulation of wealth. I still think it is important to point out the flaws in this thinking, however. It is really no better or different than ancient shamanistic practices in human history, praying for rain or good weather, thinking the gods are in control of the elements. It just goes to show that religion has really not progressed that much conceptually in the last several thousand years, even with the rapid advances in technology in recent human history. I believe it is also important to talk about in terms of our priorities as people in society. What’s the goal of our civilization? Is it to accumulate as much wealth as possible before we die, or is it to safeguard and secure the world for future generations? Looked at through this lens, I’m of the belief that the prosperity gospel is really nothing but bad news.