Mormonism and the Prosperity Gospel

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Mette Ivie Harrison is a well-known mystery and young-adult novelist and frequent guest here. She is the author of The Book of Laman, published by BCC Press.

Most Mormons have no idea what the “prosperity gospel” is, and if you point them to typical TV evangelicals, they insist that Mormonism is nothing like that. Yet, there are far too frequent occasions when I find myself biting my tongue about something a fellow Mormon says, either casually, at a wedding or other social event, or on the stand during a talk, that translates into precisely that: prosperity gospel.

For the sake of clarity, let me give a useful definition of “prosperity gospel:” a modern version of the gospel in which those who follow God in strict obedience are given blessings of wealth, health, and power.

Yes, when you see people being healed publicly on a stage, that is prosperity gospel. When you see a TV evangelist telling you to send him money so he can buy a jet because God will bless you in return—offering many examples of those who have received monetary blessings after such giving—that is prosperity gospel.

But it’s also prosperity gospel when at church, we talk about paying tithing first, before paying for rent or food for our children, because God will bless us with monetary blessings for our obedience. I mean, it does sometimes happen. But I don’t think it’s a rational strategy in life to count on it. And I do think it sounds like blasphemy to insist that God will bless us in one particular way because that’s what we want. God isn’t a vending machine. You don’t put obedience in and get money out.

It’s prosperity gospel when we tell young people to serve missions because they will get very specific blessings, among them a beautiful spouse or more knowledge to do well in college, or physical strength if they’re an athlete and are taking two years off. It’s not that I’m denying that God gives blessings to missionaries. I absolutely believe that God does. I just don’t see that we can command God in what kind of blessings God gives us, and to even jokingly suggest that a spouse is a blessing in this way turns people into an exchange that makes me very uncomfortable.

Let’s take a step back and ask this: if you are a returned missionary and marry a wonderful person, that’s a blessing from your mission? But what if your spouse gets a chronic illness? Or cancer? Or dies in a car accident? Or cheats on you and you end up divorced? People will say they see the hand of God in this, as well. And yes, we can find meaning and truth and the mercy of God in the good and bad that happens in our lives.

But if we expect that God blesses us in particular ways, and then we end up not getting those specific blessings, do we lose faith? I think that the best way to inoculate ourselves against this kind of tragic hurt is to never pretend in the first place that all blessings look like new cars and beautiful/handsome spouses. Or to practice from the beginning thanking God for all that has happened, for life itself, however difficult, and not to demand in prayer a laundry list of things that would make our lives easier (which, honestly, is what I did for many years into my adulthood).

As for health as a gift of God to those who are obedient, this is part of parcel of American society, in which health care is something that we pay for, rather than are given as a right. And for those who can’t afford to pay for their own care, it’s their fault.  It’s their fault when they die of not being able to afford insulin for their diabetes or when they die because they can’t afford to pay for chemo therapy or for a transplant or for mental health care.  Please, let’s do better within the church. Let’s not see those who are chronically ill as also spiritually ill.  (There’s also no need to do the reverse, and automatically assume that they are “blessed.”)

One of my sisters has a chronic illness and she found out years ago that her youngest son also had a chronic illness. Some well-meaning sister in her ward made a comment about her being so good at dealing with illness that this was the hand of God, choosing someone who would really understand to care for a sick child. My sister was pretty dismissive of the comment, but it has bothered her off and on for years, the idea that God “chose” her to suffer more because she was already suffering and was good at it. What kind of a God does that?

My understanding of God has changed a lot as I have suffered the loss of a child and a faith crisis. It has changed as I have seen more and more of the evil in the world and have found it insufficient to simply say, “But the plan of happiness.” I have come to believe that we all have a responsibility to make the gospel what we want it to be. I don’t believe that God sends money or anything else to me because I follow church teachings. I also don’t believe that blessings are taken away from those who have never heard the gospel or who have rejected it for various reasons. If we are to find happiness, it is in building the kingdom of God, not waiting for God to send it to us as a blessing.

*image via Flickr.

Comments

  1. This is one of those big things I hope to get my children to learn; that no one, not society, not God, not your parents, “owes” you -anything-. You do the right things not to get something in return, but because it’s the right thing to do or because you are willingly doing what is asked of you (tithing fits here).

  2. Larry the Cable Guy says:

    J.R. Holland, paraphrasing the Screwtape Letters:

    “The work of devils and of darkness is never more certain to be defeated than when men and women, not finding it easy or pleasant but still determined to do the Father’s will, look out upon their lives from which it may seem every trace of God has vanished, and asking why they have been so forsaken, still bow their heads and obey.”

    That strikes me as diametrically opposed to the Prosperity Gospel, and carries a weightier burden and blessing.

  3. jaxjensen says:

    I’m totally anti-prosperity gospel… equating material wealth with righteousness. Or the opposite, that poverty is a sign of lack of righteousness. I cringe every time I hear it. But, I also recognize that God can give blessings, and wealth might be one he does to some people. But I don’t think it is a patterned event; not something you can count on.

    “You do the right things not to get something in return,” I’m not sure this comment is correct either. Obedience (right thing) gives Eternal Life (thing in return). Marry in the temple (right thing) so you can be a forever family (thing in return). Be baptized (right thing) so your sins can be washed away (thing in return). There is a whole list of ‘things in return” that even God uses as motivation for us: Holy Ghost, days long upon the earth (health), angels surround us for protection… etc. I don’t have any problem with people doing the right thing BECAUSE they want to receive these good things they’ve been promised.

  4. I agree with the post. And yet, we’ve been commanded to recognize God’s hand in all things. The only way I can reconcile these two is by grace: Blessings are proof of God’s goodness, not yours. It’s not about you.

  5. It is an important observation on the human psyche, I think, that the essential argument of the prosperity gospel have persisted for the last 2,500 years, in spite of the fact that the Bible includes one entire book–The Book of Job–whose entire purpose is to dismantle its assumptions.

  6. There is a lot of grey or nuance when I think of “prosperity gospel”. I am not sure where to draw the line between evangelical style heresy on the topic and what you typically hear in LDS meetings.

    Wealth or lack therof is a complicated topic.

  7. Ex-mo’s talk a lot about confirmation bias. I believe in confirmation bias. I don’t believe in Prosperity gospel. Such a first world topic (what did all of those kids being torn from their parents do to God??). We all have a station in life that can be marginally better or worse depending on a thousand different things. This is not to say that we can’t recognize places in our lives where we *feel* blessed and experience gratitude (necessary for happy living), but to assign blame to God for every good thing that happens would require me to also believe that God is also to blame for every bad thing that happens in life.

  8. Brother Sky says:

    I agree with the post, but also with Bbell about nuance and grey areas. I definitely think, though, that some forms of Buddhism have figured out what a lot of Christianity hasn’t : If you commit any act, follow any commandment or obey any/every rule for “blessings,” either here or in the next life, then you’re doing it for selfish reasons, which, I would argue (and I think the OP says) is a kind of prosperity gospel. The only pure moral acts are the ones which we commit with no hope of reward. In fact, one could argue that Mormonism is built on a prosperity framework: Do all of these things, obey all commandments, follow your leaders absolutely, and you’ll get to be with your family forever. The transactional nature of this kind of theology is, to my sensibilities, deeply offensive and not something we should emphasize. Yes, Jesus talks about doing stuff in secret and getting rewarded openly, but he also taught and lived a kind of elevated selflessness that I don’t really hear talked about much at church.

  9. Part of the issue comes from reading the promises about tithing in Malachi 3, where we are promised that the Lord will “open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.” It is pretty easy to leap from that to financial blessings, and we hear plenty of those kinds of stories. I don’t doubt that many of those are true. But for me, the verse in Malachi 3:11 often gets skipped in these discussions, where the Lord promises

    “And I will rebuke the devourer for your sakes, and he shall not destroy the fruits of your ground; neither shall your vine cast her fruit before the time in the field, saith the Lord of hosts.”

    Again, you might read that as prosperity in your temporal doings, but “rebuking the devourer (Satan) for your sakes” usually means to me that we will have greater strength to resist temptation and bear our burdens, in whatever form they come. It seems in many ways to counter the expectation of prosperity.

    I think you are right on in rejecting the notion that obedience in specific ways allows us to bind the Lord into offering up specific blessings of our own choice. That seems like a sure fire path to a faith crisis when things don’t always go our way.

  10. I don’t think it’s entirely fair to say that Christianity hasn’t figured it out. Rather, a very shallow, transactional version of Christianity has forgotten it.

  11. Jack Hughes says:

    Once again, Mette hits the nail squarely on the head.

    Tithing is always a minefield of a subject, because it links eternal blessings with temporal, tangible finite resources (our money). It’s nearly impossible to present tithing (as presently constituted in the LDS Church) as anything but prosperity gospel. Essentially, we pay for blessings, and we’re buying our exaltation.

    I particularly struggle with tithing because I don’t agree with how the Church is spending our money these days, as well as the financial opacity. But that’s a whole other discussion for another thread.

  12. Loursat says:

    It is not stupid to believe that a God who loves us and wants us to be happy would bless us with material things. It is also not stupid to believe that if we feel a personal connection to a personal God, then our own actions might have some effect on the blessings that we receive.

    Obvious greed is an easy target. But it is not easy to discern the point where greed crowds out the pursuit of happiness. In fact, I think it’s often impossible to see that point except in retrospect.

  13. Joseph Stanford says:

    The book of Job notwithstanding, there is plenty of prosperity gospel in the scriptures. It’s the framework of the entire Deuteronomic corpus within the Old Testament. Obey=blessings; disobey=cursings. The Book of Mormon is full of scriptures that can be interpreted in that way: if ye keep the commandments of God, ye shall prosper in the land. I think there is some truth in this viewpoint. Not God as a vending machine, but principles of the universe. If you follow certain spiritual/economic/relational principles, things are much more likely to go well than if you don’t. What we do has impact on our lives and the lives of others, for good or for ill. On the other hand, there are scriptures that indicate that good outcomes are not guaranteed, and that blessings are not earned. Job, of course. Many of Jesus’ sayings and parables (rain on the just and the unjust). I really like the overarching message of the Bhagavad Gita: seek to do right action regardless of consequences.

  14. Jack Hughes says:

    I’ve used the “Vending Machine God” metaphor many times in the past to explain the faultiness of having a transactional relationship with deity; obedience/righteousness in, blessings out. This mentality certainly feeds the prosperity gospel, but chafes at lived experience for most people and leads to cognitive dissonance and faith crises.

    These days, God seems to be more like a slot machine; obedience in, nothing out, nothing out, nothing out, then once in a great while something good does come out that has nothing to do with what you put in, but could just be explained as a random occurrence.

  15. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    That’s Prosperity Avenue in Fairfax County, VA, right? I used to live at the intersection of Prosperity Avenue and Gallows Road, which is some sort of cosmic joke.

  16. christiankimball says:

    After what feels like a lifetime of untangling correlation and causation in earthly affairs, I find it a small leap to do the same with God. I can and do recognize all sorts of blessings, both tangible and intangible, and all sorts of correlations (coincidences?, observation bias?), yet my mind and heart and theology find negligible causation.

    That human beings WANT a vending machine god seems obvious. All the way back to times when healthy babies and a bountiful harvest were the prime stock in trade. But I don’t believe God in fact works that way.

    On the other hand, I have seen real damage (to belief, to confidence, to life) from awakening out of a vending machine model. I regret things I have said, including a recent Sunday School discussion where I said “obedience is not about winning” and the most immediate reaction looked like “then what is the point—of trying, of living?”

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    A couple of years ago as a SS teacher I tried to spur a discussion of the prosperity gospel, using those very words. Not a soul in the room had any idea what I was talking about. I had just assumed it was a common, well known expression, but in Mormon world at least it’s not well known. On the spot I decided I wasn’t prepared tp pursue it if I was going to have to start from scratch, so we never had the discussion. But I’m glad to see that discussion happening here.

  18. I’m going to come down more on Joseph Stanford’s and Brother Sky’s (and possibly Michael Austin’s) side than on JKC’s, I think: the form of Prosperity Gospel which the original post is getting at–and, in my view, rightly condemning–really does seem to me to be baked into the whole warp and woof of Biblical Christianity, including the Book of Mormon. That doesn’t mean it is the correct interpretation of how God relates to human beings (I think it clearly is not), but it does mean that, if we’re going to both accept the Bible as a normatively guiding record of God’s involvement with humankind and reject any form of Prosperity Gospel thinking, then we are going to have to severely edit what we accept out of the Biblical record (and out of the BoM), and we’re going to have to rethink what are, fundamentally, pretty basic and ordinary aspects of our whole religious perspective. An ethos of “maybe God will bless you, maybe God won’t, it’s utterly irrelevant to whether you choose to do a thing or not anyway” could be a profoundly moral and God-centered way of living, but it’s not going to be mainline American Christianity, or mainstream American Mormonism, I suspect.

  19. If it’s a debate, I’m with Russell Armen Fox on this. Blessings-for-dollars-for-jets may be new. But that extreme example can divert attention from the fact the earthly blessings for earthly right doing is baked in.

  20. -— I would like a line editor; apologies on the name especially —-

  21. I’m a fan of this talk by Frances Bennion in the church’s new At the Pulpit book. Titled, A Theology of Suffering, I feel like it gives some good thoughts and reasoning on why bad things happen to good people, how you can faith despite promised blessings not seeming to appear. Why our thoughts on how God works matter in our actions, etc. Ultimately, it seemed to have some good pushback on the prosperity gospel idea.
    http://www.churchhistorianspress.org/at-the-pulpit/part-4/chapter-43?lang=eng

  22. I like to use myself as an example to show the disconnect between prosperity and righteousness. As far as I know, we have the largest house in the ward, with a pool and a beautiful view both of the mountains and of the city. Our cars are paid for, we eat out at least once a week, and we have money left over at the end of the month. Under the ideas of the Prosperity Gospel, we would be the most righteous family in the ward. But without even trying I can count at least a half dozen men in the ward who I believe are better men than I can hope to be, and many of them have houses that could fit inside ours with room to spare.

    My favorite saying of Dave Ramsey applies to me. Whenever a caller asks him how he is doing, he says “Better than I deserve.”

  23. I honestly don’t see how the LDS Church doesn’t teach the prosperity gospel. The only thing that makes it different from televangelists’ preaching is that LDS leaders use a softer tone. Just watch this clip that Thinker of Thoughts put together splicing clips of LDS Church leaders talking about tithing with John Oliver talking about televangelists. LDS leaders routinely link paying tithing with acquiring wealth, health, and prosperity. “You cannot afford not to pay tithing” has been a common refrain from them. President Nelson recently told members in Kenya that tithing payment will break the cycle of poverty.

    Also, consider this, televangelists are simply asking more or less anonymous people to make donations over the TV, mail, and phone. They also tell them upfront what much of the money will be spent on (private planes). The LDS church strongarms hundreds of thousands of households most in the Mormon belt but also elsewhere into paying huge, huge sums of tithing (even to the point of not paying off credit card debt and providing adequate care for family) through tithing settlement and temple recommend interviews, not to mention high social pressure through ward structure and the social expectations that the LDS church conditions spouses to exert on each other. Yet the LDS leaders do not reveal how much money they make and what they spend it on. Other than the differences I have pointed out, I don’t see much difference between televangelists and the LDS church when it comes to tithing.

  24. James Stone says:

    “I have come to believe that we all have a responsibility to make the gospel what we want it to be.”

    This sentence undercuts Harrison’s entire essay. If we all have the “responsibility to make the gospel what we want it to be” then why knock those who believe in the gospel of prosperity? They’re just making it what they want it to be instead of what Harrison wants it to be.

  25. Mike H. says:

    The whole “The harder you work as a Missionary, the hotter your spouse will be” type of “motivation” really sets one up for future failure. Can’t we just tell Missionaries that they will be blessed for their efforts.

    Also, what about the members who lost jobs in the Enron/Arthur Anderson mess? You mean their paying tithes didn’t force events to change, allowing them to continue on in their jobs? Again, we set up people for disappointment, & the judgment of others with the variants of the Prosperity Gospel. I know I’ve had members tell me that if I was any good as an employee, I would never lose a job, for one.

    And, I still remember, from years ago, the ads for the book “Mormon Fortune Builders : And How They Did It”, which hinted if you followed those guidelines, you also would gain a fortune.

  26. I’m not sure that prosperity gospel is quite what many in the Church believe. Instead, I’d suggest that the companion belief is more prevalent. Those experiencing adversity are being punished for a lack of belief or some hidden sin. This is an easy out, excusing them from helping or even from having to feel compassion for someone in dire straits. If God is withholding blessings then aiding someone actually circumvents God’s plan. What an excuse for inaction; you can feel virtuous and feather your own nest at the same time! Naturally, rationalization is harder when someone like the stake president has financial reversals and never, never bring up Joseph Smith’s lack of financial success. No one actually puts this belief into words; words require more thought than is usually given. Tut-tutting between like thinkers is all that generally happens.

  27. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    STW is terrifyingly correct.

  28. Old Man says:

    Let’s see, we have a personal God, who intervenes in our lives, and He seems to ignore BCC posts. He blesses us in many ways, including financially and materially. I was poor and He blessed me.

    But he also demands of those blessings by asking me to sacrifice and consecrate of what I have to build the kingdom. He asks me to forsake greed and personal indulgence. He also asks me to be grateful for what I have.

    As far as God being a “vending machine.” I think D&C 130 confirms it:

    20 There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—

    21 And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.

    ALL blessings come from God by obedience to specific laws. Seems pretty clear to me.

  29. Jack Hughes says:

    D&C 130 is an example of the circular reasoning fallacy.

  30. contributor says:

    A very strong case can be made that the second largest industry in the State of Utah is multi-level marketing. Utah County may well be the world’s capital for multi-level marketing. Those of us living in the State are not aware of the negative impact of such “economic activity” because the vast majority of the marks for the downline live outside the country. Most of the people involved in this form of rent seeking behavior, usually from those least able to afford the economic loss, are Mormon. As long as this is so, I will believe there are serious misunderstandings among many of my faith about what it means to live the gospel and what prosperity is really all about.

  31. “Prosperity” has different meanings.
    To one guy, it’s owning a boat.
    To another, it’s being able to take a vacation.

    To me, it means getting a better job.
    “Better” means work I enjoy more, even if it didn’t pay much more.

    I’ve worked very hard to qualify for that better job. I am counting on God to open the doors I can’t open; I’m not related to anyone influential; I am pretty much alone. But I hope God wants me to build a better life, so I can feel more fulfilled and proud of myself than I now feel. That hope has moved me to study hard, pray, and do things commandments-wise…cause I don’t want to mess things up with self-sabotaging behaviors.

    Maybe that’s what some not-so-articulate people mean when they oversimplify life and preach the Properity Gospel. Maybe they’re saying God saved them from settling for something less when there was more. Not a greedy “more.”

    But a heart-filling more.

  32. Old Man says:

    Jack Hughes,
    Not really. It is a cause and effect statement.

  33. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    contributor, I genuinely wonder what percentage of Utah’s growth in exports (both to the rest of the country and to the rest of the world) in the past twenty years–which has been miraculous–has come from MLM and snake-oil “supplements.” I suspect that it may even be the majority of it.

    Ours is a religion of hucksters and patent medicine shills, and that terrifies me. I suspect that it terrifies the Brethren, too, because to condemn this would quite literally tear apart many congregations.

  34. Thank you for your post. You do bring up some important points.

    My understanding of prosperity gospel is the opposite: that blessings of wealth and power etc. are a sign of righteousness. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with seeking God’s blessings through obedience or encouraging others to do so. The real problem is assuming one’s own righteousness due to wealth. Obedience can lead to wealth, but wealth does not mean you are obedient.

  35. Perhaps it is the narrow definition of prosperity to mean financial well-being.
    I try to live righteously because that is the kind of person I would like to become. But I do count on or have faith in the idea that God will bless me in many ways for doing so. I would find the trials of life unbearable if I felt I could not count on that help. Better health, financial help, more opportunities and sometimes actual miracles have occurred in my life that I attribute to my attempts to live the gospel. Opposite outcomes have occurred that I attribute sometimes to failures in obedience and sometimes to attempts by God to purify me for a better life in the world to come. My major regret in this time of life is that I need so much purification.
    As I have grown older I find myself still wishing for more financial well-being but willing to trade everything for a righteous happy family. That has become the prosperity I seek.

  36. One thing that the Book of Mormon teaches pretty clearly is that whatever “prosper” or “blessing” means, to God it doesn’t even have a correlation with material wealth. Take a close look at the story of the Anti-Nephi-Lehites and this becomes very clear.

  37. One interesting thing is that because of the nuances on this topic one mans obvious heretical prosperity gospel can be seen by another in a completely different light.

    So we can all agree that asking for a jet is an unrighteous example of the prosperity gospel. I do not see Pres Nelson making promises in Kenya as prosperity gospel. I see it as scriptural. But not everybody sees in thru my eyes.

  38. Can you blame them with one of the main themes of the Keystone of our Religion being the Deuteronomist refrain: if you keep my commandments ye shall /prosper/ in the land?

  39. Latam Girl says:

    Daveed-my understanding is the same as yours.

    Separately, though, I feel there is a disdain in the post and in some of the comments for the teachings within the church that in general, if one follows church teachings one will be “better off” (whatever that means). I have no problem in general with the values I’ve been taught in my family (get an education, wait until marriage for sex, and thus kids, live below your means, be thrifty, take care of those around you, get food storage, etc) being promised as highly correlated with a greater likelihood of being “better off” (i.e. self-reliant, out of debt).

    What I’m saying I guess is that the idea of a prosperity gospel is problematic if it’s defined narrowly as Daveed described it but if it’s described as i did above, I don’t think there’s a problem at all. Granted, there are no guarantees and there are always exceptions but IN GENERAL there is a greater statistical likelihood of being “better off” by following the teachings of Christianity in general and LDS-specific ones.

  40. Latam Girl says:

    Jim Bob, thanks for the link to the timesandseasons post. John Muir’s comment was excellent and I think more accurately describes what I was trying to get at -this idea that in general (and at a community level) a people will prosper by living gospel principles.

    I’ve pasted the comment here,

    “This article and associated commentary has focused mainly on personal religiousity and personal wealth. I believe that the wealth the Lord has in mind is more communal, and stems not from special blessings but rather as a natural consequence of a society choosing to live in accordance with gospel principles. The increased wealth that accompanies societal repentance in the Book of Mormon is a good example.
    When we consider the huge overhead we pay for crime and lack of trust this principle becomes clear. Consider the cumulative costs of police, courts, jails, prisons, attorneys, insurance, vaults, locks, security services etc. I believe we spend about 1/3 of our GDP on these sad institutions. Suppose instead we could invest that money in education, health, infrastructure, and personal development. We would be immediately much richer as a society. So, yes I believe in the gospel of prosperity, but at a community level and as a natural result of living at a higher level.”

  41. I tend to think we don’t have a prosperity gospel; we have a security gospel. If you’re obedient, you won’t get rich; you’ll have enough. If you serve well, you’ll find you have the strength to do what’s needed. Of course, the definitions of “enough” and “what’s needed” vary, and this sets up people in adversity for judgment (“you should have budgeted better, worked longer hours or more jobs…”).

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