I'd like to start this blog off with a confession: I'm tired of hearing about the evils of the prosperity gospel preachers. If that term is one which is unfamiliar to you, it's the belief that's been popularized by a whole slew of televangelists which boils down to this: follow Jesus and things will go well. Sickness will have no place in your life, and you'll always have nice things as a reward for your faithfulness. It has rightly been criticized ad nauseum by pastors, theologians, and scholars. But I'm just tired of hearing the critiques. It's not because I agree with this incipient form of false teaching: it's patently unbiblical and spiritually destructive. But it seems at this point like heaping criticism on the televangelists who espouse these ideas is the equivalent killing a dead horse. All the while we have become participants in the subtle practices that continue to inculcate us into a similar form of thinking.
In his brilliant little book, "Disappearing Church" Mark Sayers draws attention to the more subtle prosperity gospel stream that we're all swimming in unconsciously, "We have only to trawl through our Instagram feeds to find pastors, believing musicians, artists, authors, and activists who seem to live incredible lives. These people seem to have the best of both worlds: they follow Jesus and get to travel, live in cool neighborhoods, and connect with the most amazing people."
Herein lies the danger that we're all ignoring. None of us, myself included are posting pictures of our lives intending to convey the message, "follow Jesus and everything will be great." But when we only post the best, and carefully screen out all imperfection, that’s exactly what we’re saying. It’s important to recognize that it’s not intentional, it’s not malicious, but the consequences are still very real. Every time we post our carefully curated bible and latte photos, every stockpile of vacation pictures we spread throughout the year to make it seem like we’re jet setters, every carefully staged "candid" shot of us laughing with our friends in a hip urban eatery is thread in the tapestry, subtly weaving and unrealistic image of the Christian life for everyone who follows us. We may not show up to church in a Rolls Royce to the tune of, “Great is Thy Faithfulness” but we are every bit as guilty. Without even noticing, we can turn our social media feeds into our own prersonalized version of the prosperity gospel.
The fallout of this can be just as devastating. Those who have come from prosperity gospel backgrounds often describe the crisis that came when their sick loved one wasn’t made well, or when they weren’t delivered from their financial troubles. These tragic situations lead many to ask painful questions, “Is it my fault that I wasn’t healed? Should I have had more faith? Maybe none of this is true.”
When life doesn’t match our feed full of hip and curated posts, we likewise begin to wonder where the problem lies. We start to ask all sorts of similar questions,
“These people look so happy in these pictures, why don’t I experience that sort of joy?”
“Am I not living the fullness of what Christ has to offer?”
“Maybe none of this is real, if it were my life would look different...”
Never mind the fact that we know that the candid photos of friends laughing together took 45 attempts and a separate app to look, “natural.” Never mind the fact that we know there’s no way someone can spend that much time vacation and still have enough in their bank account to afford an 8 dollar latte with every morning devotional.
It seems to me that we desperately need to recognize our subtle role in cultivating a prosperity gospel mentality. One that doesn’t come in the form of biblically dubious sermons, but carefully curated feeds that don’t tell the whole truth about the ups and downs of the Christian life. It’s not to say that our social media presence should become glum, or devoted to difficulty. Nor should we abandon the iconic top-down photo of latte art and an open bible. What we need is a refreshing dose of Paul’s honesty. The same apostle who says in the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord!” Also says a few verses later, “for his sake I have suffered the loss of all things.” This is an unfiltered window into the life of a Christian, it is full of highs and lows, peaks and valleys, but it’s honest. As a people who have been filled with the Spirit of Truth, he doesn’t need our help curating away the messy parts of his work in our lives, he knows what he’s doing.