ive long and prosper.”
Star Trek’s Mr. Spock spoke this salutation accompanied by one raised hand with a trademark set of divided fingers. The Jewish tradition and greeting for ages has been shalom—a Hebrew word rich in meaning that connotes peace, completeness, prosperity, and welfare; also used as an idiom for “hello” and “goodbye.”
The dictionary defines prosperity as “a successful, flourishing, or thriving condition, especially in financial respects; good fortune.” When it comes to prosperity and how it is taught in the church, we risk (by overuse or misuse) missing an important component of our faith and our community-life experience. Prosperity is an important concept and a promise not to be missed; the term needs to be reexamined.
No Magic Wand
Some leaders have misused or perhaps overused the term prosperity, making Christianity sound like nothing more than a get-rich-quick scheme. The “health-and-wealth gospel” has too often tried to turn faith into a magic wand we use to get whatever we want. This is not the kind of faith taught by Christ or the apostles.
Unbalanced ideas of prosperity can be confusing and harmful, especially to young believers. I will never forget what an older lady in our church said to me years ago when I was a brand-new believer.
“Pray for me,” she said. “I need a new car and I am asking God to help me get one.”
“Sure, I’ll pray,” I promised.
She added, “And pray that I will have ‘Cadillac faith’ and not just ‘Ford faith.’” I was puzzled. My idea of faith was not tied to the kind of car one drove, but rather the kind of life one lived.
One great mistake some Christians make is assuming that popular economic theories are synonymous with biblical principles of stewardship. I recall one “Christian” television program not long ago in which the host interviewed a multimillionaire on the subject, “Why God Wants You Rich.” The host repeatedly implied and stated that financial prosperity is always assured to the Christian who “follows my proven formula.” This smacks of materialism and does not mesh with the whole of the biblical record.
Prosperity in the Old Testament
What does the Bible say about prosperity? The word’s first appearance in the Old Testament is in the story of a servant’s search for a wife for Isaac. Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for his son, not among the Canaanites but among his relatives. When the servant first saw Rebekah, who would ultimately become Isaac’s wife, he “gazed at her in silence to learn whether the Lord had prospered his journey or not” (Gen. 24:21).* Here, prospered meant that his journey was “successful” or “profitable”—that he would find the wife God had chosen.
In Deuteronomy 27:11-13, God instructed Moses to build an altar at Mount Ebal, and then to divide all of the Israelites— half of them standing on the side of Mount Ebal, the other half on Mount Gerizim. Picture it: hundreds of thousands standing in the world’s largest “stadium.” Once gathered, they were to shout from one side the blessings promised for obedience to God and from the other side the curses that would come for disobedience to His Word.
The promises of prosperity for obedience (ch. 28) are astounding. Here are a few of them:
• “God will set you high above all the nations of the earth” (v. 1).
• “The Lord will make you abound in prosperity” (v. 11).
• “The Lord will open to you his good treasury, the heavens” (v. 12).
These powerful promises were directed to Israel as she became a nation. While we can use them to help us understand the gracious and good heart of God, and to inspire our trust in Him, they are specific and prophetic in nature to a particular time and people.
One of the most beautiful passages on prosperity is in Psalm 1. In this chapter, the promise is connected to the practices of the person whose “delight is in the law of the Lord” and who “meditates” on it “day and night” (v. 2). Such a person is assured that “in all that he does, he prospers” (v. 3). However, it is important to realize this promise is not some vending machine that pops out a blessing when we hurriedly toss a scripture into our minds or on our lips. No, the writer here is talk- ing about the prosperity that flows from a life steeped in the Word of God.
He is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its sea- son, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers (v. 3).
The Bible does not teach us only how to be prosperous; it also teaches us how we are to trust God during difficult times of lack and loss. So much of God’s Word is about helping people overcome difficulty, struggle, need, and even envy. King David, who knew times of both great wealth and utter desperation, said to “fret not yourself over him who prospers in his way” (Ps. 37:7).
Principles on Prosperity
Paul told the Philippian church that “my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (4:19). The same apostle told his protégé, Timothy, that those “who have been robbed of the truth” are those who “think that godliness is a means to financial gain” (1 Tim. 6:5 NIV). Faith is no magic wand we use to get what we want but, rather,
With this in mind, here are a few biblical principles of prosperity:
• It is God and not ourselves who gives us the “ability to produce wealth” and “so confirms his covenant” (Deut. 8:18 NIV).
• Financial prosperity is not always synonymous with spiritual blessing and favor (Rev. 3:17).
• The Christian faith is not about a life full of possessions, but one full of God’s presence and acts of service (1 Tim. 6:5).
• An increased prosperity in the lives of Christ-followers should be matched with a growing generosity to God’s work and to those in need (1 Cor. 16:1-2).
• Investing our lives and resources in a variety of ways is wise and can lead to prosperity. “In the morning sow your seed, and at evening, . . . for you do not know which will prosper” (Eccl. 11:6).
Two Big Mistakes
I believe there are two major mistakes Christians tend to make in this area of prosperity. One, is to place too much focus on financial prosperity. Two, some are so opposed to the term prosperity that they overlook an undeniably prominent theme in Scripture.
“Live long and prosper,” as it turns out, is an appropriate and even biblical blessing to extend to others. In the balance of passages on the subject, it is good and godly to seek prosperity for both God’s people and for our lives; in that sense, our faith helps us trust the God who “will supply all [our] needs” (Phil. 4:19 NASB). However, it is also godly to trust God when times are tough financially. In those times, our faith helps us to trust God’s heart even when for the moment His hand may appear empty.
The right balance on prosperity is struck by the man best known for his God-given wisdom, King Solomon: “He who pursues righteousness and love finds life, prosperity and honor” (Prov. 21:21 NIV).