Last week, the New York Times published an article titled, "Believers Invest in the Gospel of Getting Rich." In her piece, Laurie Goodstein chronicled a Fort Worth crusade, headlined by the reigning patriarch and matriarch of prosperity theology, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland. Goodstein writes:
Even in an economic downturn, preachers in the "prosperity gospel" movement are drawing sizable, adoring audiences. Their message - that if you have sufficient faith in God and the Bible and donate generously, God will multiply your offerings a hundredfold - is reassuring to many in hard times.
Goodstein's summary, I would say, is a fair encapsulation of what prosperity theology believes and teaches. No less than Copeland himself has said, "Faith is a spiritual force....It is substance. Faith has the ability to effect natural substance." What is Copeland's premise? If a person has enough faith, he can, quite literally, bring things into being - things like money and luxury items and good times. All he needs to do is believe strongly and make a donation to Kenneth Copeland Ministries, of course.
Prosperity theology is a false theology, partly because it promises far too little. It promises only mere pittances of worldly provision whereas the true gospel promises nothing less than forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation - the things most sorely needed by any human. Moreover, prosperity theology's connection between faith and reward is disingenuous and dangerous. I know many people with incredibly strong faith who still struggle deeply, whether those struggles are financial, relational, or physical. A strong faith does not necessarily result in a lavish lifestyle. Indeed, this is precisely the case in our reading for today from Luke 8.
Jesus has just returned to his home base of Galilee following a brief stint in the Decapolis. The crowds stand elated at Jesus' return:
Now when Jesus returned, a crowd welcomed him, for they were all expecting him. Then a man named Jairus, a ruler of the synagogue, came and fell at Jesus' feet, pleading with him to come to his house because his only daughter, a girl of about twelve, was dying. (verses 40-42)
Jairus is a man of strong faith. He publicly and unashamedly falls at Jesus' feet and pleads with him to heal his daughter. According to prosperity theology, he should be a shoe-in for instant blessing. But Luke's narrative doesn't play out that way:
As Jesus was on his way, the crowds almost crushed him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years, but no one could heal her. She came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak, and immediately her bleeding stopped. "Who touched me?" Jesus asked. When they all denied it, Peter said, "Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you." But Jesus said, "Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me." Then the woman, seeing that she could not go unnoticed, came trembling and fell at his feet. In the presence of all the people, she told why she had touched him and how she had been instantly healed. Then he said to her, "Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace." (verses 42-48)
This doesn't make any sense! Here is this woman whose faith is so timid and so weak that she tries to "sneak a healing," as it were, out of Jesus. And she gets one! Not only that, but Jesus commends her faith! But then there's Jairus, a man with a strong and public faith, and he's still waiting. Indeed, things even take a turn for the worse: "While Jesus was still speaking, someone came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue ruler. 'Your daughter is dead,' he said. 'Don't bother the teacher anymore'" (verse 49). A timid faith results in healing. A bold faith leaves a man with a dead daughter. How much more backward can this be?
In the end, Jesus travels to Jairus' home and, gloriously, raises his daughter from the dead. This story does indeed have a happy ending. But not every story does. Some sicknesses end in deaths that are not immediately thwarted. Some depression tightens rather than loosens its grip. Some emotional wounds never get healed in this life. It doesn't matter how much faith you have.
Although it may not sound like it at first, the discontinuity between the strength of our faith and the severity of our suffering is actually good news. Because this discontinuity serves as a promise that we need not have superhero-like faith in order to receive God's blessings. For this anonymous woman's faith was anything was bold, but it received healing from Jesus nonetheless. That's because the blessings of our faith are not the results of our faith's intrinsic strength; rather, they are the results of the strength of the One to whom our faith clings: Jesus Christ. And Jesus is always strong, even when our faith is weak.
So whether your faith feels strong or weak right now, remember, Jesus still has good things for you. Maybe not things like lots of money and perfect health charts, but he does have things much better than those. He has things for you like forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation - his best blessings. And I'll take those any day.