Loving my Prosperity Gospel

The term “prosperity gospel” describes an execrable set of ideas in American Christianity, chiefly that wealth is a marker of righteousness, and that believers can ensure material wealth and prosperity through spiritual practices. But “prosperity gospel” is often applied to a much broader set of beliefs, including the beliefs that

  • God takes personal notice of us, including our material needs.
  • God intervenes in our personal lives.
  • God responds to prayer, including petitions about material wants and needs.
  • Our prayer, fasting, and righteousness make us more sensitive to inspiration and affect how our prayers are answered.
  • We should be grateful for our blessings, including blessings that others don’t have.
  • God wants us to be happy.

You’ve probably seen this kind of crying wolf before: “What? You think that fasting, praying, going to church and paying your tithing will make God more likely to help you get out of poverty? Prosperity gospel!”

As it turns out, I’m not particularly interested in how you define the prosperity gospel. I don’t recall that we’ve been commanded to avoid the sin of prosperity gospeling by any possible definition. Our scriptures and prophets have had a great deal to say about the pitfalls of wealth, however, so I’m more concerned about

  • Avoiding the love of money and not focusing excessively on material things;
  • Not judging people based on their financial condition;
  • Making myself as susceptible to inspiration and as prepared for other kinds of blessing as possible;
  • Acknowledging that blessings may take surprising forms;
  • Acknowledging the hand of God in all things.

If all of this sounds like the prosperity gospel to you…eh, whatever. Call it what you want. I’m more interested in following the teachings of the scriptures and the prophets than in splitting hairs over definitions. If being grateful for blessings or praying for answers to economic problems leads you into temptation, pluck out your own eye, but please leave mine alone. In the meantime, I will go on asking God for my daily bread and help with my flocks, and thanking him for whatever I end up with.

And beyond what the prophets and scriptures teach, my own experience suggests that this much is true:

  • God takes personal notice of me.
  • God has intervened in my personal life, including on crassly financial and material matters.
  • It is easier for me to receive revelation when I am fasting and praying earnestly and living according to church teachings.
  • My life is better when I am grateful for the things I have.

If that’s the prosperity gospel, then I’m loving my prosperity gospel.

34 comments for “Loving my Prosperity Gospel

  1. My guess is that President Nelson’s recent talk in Kenya in which he told followers that “that same poverty continues from one generation to another, until people pay their tithing” and the string of negative reactions to it from believers and non-believers alike is what is motivating this post. And the talk and the reactions appear to have broken your brain.

    For in the first paragraph you give the prosperity gospel a definition of promising wealth and prosperity through “spiritual practices” (and I imagine you would include paying tithing in these “spiritual practices”) and call this execrable. Then you accuse others of expanding the definition of prosperity gospel beyond that (maybe some do, and whether or not these would be valid definitions is a debate for another time, however, there is general agreement that preaching tithing as a means to get wealthy is accepted prosperity gospel).

    Then (and this really puzzles me) you accuse people of crying wolf for calling out people for promoting the prosperity gospel for saying that tithing will help you get out of poverty, which appears to fit your definition of prosperity gospel in the first paragraph, which you called “execrable.” Then you say that you are not interested in a definition of prosperity gospel and then proceed to redefine prosperity gospel so that it suits a whole set of seemingly noble aspects about religion that no one else really calls the prosperity gospel. Then you appeal to your persecution complex and tell critics to leave you alone and pluck out their own eye (you poor guy having to face people disagreeing with you).

    Wow. Nelson’s remarks really sent you off the edge into a cognitive dissonant spin. I have a remedy: just call a spade a spade. The LDS church preaches the execrable prosperity gospel as exemplified by Nelson’s address in Kenya. Stop trying to change the goalposts and redefine prosperity gospel and pretend that the LDS church isn’t like those other prosperity gospel preaching American Christian churches that you despise. Nelson’s words are indefensible. Your words don’t make any sense.

  2. It’s actually a post I’ve had in mind for a long time and started writing a few weeks ago. As for Pres. Nelson, “Prophet tells saints to pay tithing, promises blessings” is not exactly breaking news. I don’t recall any statutory limits on what prophets are allowed to say. So call it what you want; it’s not really a big deal to me. If I have to choose between avoiding the prosperity gospel and following the prophets, I’ll stick with Malachi and Pres. Nelson.

  3. When I read a news article on President Nelson’s comments, I thought there would be a backlash. But what else can he preach? Tithing is a fundamental part of our belief system.

  4. It sounds like some of you are redefining what Presdient Nelson said. He didn’t just say that people would be blessed for paying tithing. He said it would lift them out of the cycle of Poverty that they and their countrymen are in. That’s a pretty ginormous difference that you’re sweeping under the rug. I can excuse President Nelson – he’s old, he’s jet lagged. I have a harder time excusing you.

    What kind of God lets millions of his African children die of agonizing starvation, withholding food because they didn’t send money to a US based church? Really? Do you really think that paying tithing will solve Africa’s poverty? I’m incredulous.

    Would love to have your fellow T&S bloggers, economists Dave Evans and Frank M., discuss what they think of this economic growth model.

  5. J. Golden Kimball is said to have said, “”Anyone who pays tithing expecting monetary gain is crazy as hell.” Or something like that. This represents an alternative LDS view, but I’ve not yet found any reasonably reliable source. Anyone have one?

    Of course, he is also reputed to have said that when anyone thinks up anything outlandish it is always blamed on him or Mae West. That may once have been likely.

  6. Somehow, I have the impression that not a cent of African tithes ever comes to the U.S. church — rather, certainly U.S. tithes dollars support the African churches.

  7. Tithing brings material blessings. Africa needs material blessings, so President Nelson’s promise is a no brainer to me. God commanded us to pray over everything, so I guess that would include finances. If that is prosperity gospel, bring it on. But I still don’t think we meet the definition. I really like Pres. Nelson’s attack on dowries. Silly tradition which hits young men financially when they can’t afford it.

  8. I’m a little uncertain about the tone of this conversation. David Green, I grock what you’re saying because I actually read and understood the OP.

    So, you’re not communicating the straw man that has been claimed for you, and Pres. Nelson is not communicating the straw man that has been claimed for him.

    Rather, while Pres. Nelson’s talk didn’t directly inspire your OP, the principles expounded in his talk did inspire the OP.

    Pres. Nelson didn’t say anything much different than the Lord through Malachi in the OT, just as you responded.

    ji, your comment about tithes to and from Africa is unfortunately a bit imperialistic; we cannot speculate appropriately about tithing and the LDS church in Africa, or any other country.

    FGH and Aneem N, I would appreciate if both of you would also avoid the Imperialistic tendency to speak for groups of people you really don’t represent. Members of the LDS church can speak for themselves, as can non-LDS Africans.

    In other conversations, Clark Goble has pointed out that the causes of poverty are complex, which would mean the solutions are more complex. However, I personally believe paying tithing is a good start, at least on an individual and family level.

    Curious, J. Golden wasn’t as pretty as Mae West, and I’m pretty sure Mae’s voice is actually deeper than J. Golden’s, so I would never confuse the two. :)

    Peace, y’all. Good luck, Bro Green.

  9. Jonathan Green, I keep calling you David, even when your name is staring is staring me in face. And I can’t blame jet lag, damn.

  10. Jerry, I’m not understanding — there’s nothing imperialistic about using excess funds from the U.S. church to build up the church in Africa. Sure, it’s speculation on my part, but it is entirely reasonable speculation. The Church is entirely non-imperialistic — stakes in Africa have African stake presidents, high councilors, bishops, and so forth. I’m fine with some portion of tithes collected in the U.S. being used elsewhere — it’s a beautiful picture.

  11. I think you bring up a good point – people confuse prosperity gospel wherein people think how God blesses them is determinative of wealth and health with the reality where God often blesses us with trials or blessings other than money.

  12. Still waiting for help on this: What kind of God lets millions of his African children die of agonizing starvation (or live in agonizing poverty), withholding food because they didn’t send money to His US based church?

  13. FGH, no one except you has claimed anything like that. If you were at all sincere, you would probably be looking into the whole range of LDS humanitarian and educational efforts, rather than demanding that someone else defend a massive distortion of what Pres. Nelson actually said. The conversation you seem to want sounds tedious and uninteresting to me, so it’s probably best if you move on to something else.

  14. Thanks Jonathan. Here’s what President Nelson said..

    “We preach tithing to the poor people of the world because the poor people of the world have had cycles of poverty, generation after generation,” [Russell Nelson] said. “That same poverty continues from one generation to another, until people pay their tithing.”

  15. As President Nelson takes in the blowback, surely he waxes wistful, “Oh, that I could have had my days in the days when Lehi preached to the good folks of Jerusalem, or when Noah warned of the flood; then were the people easy to be entreated, firm to keep the commandments of God, and slow to be led to do iniquity; and they were quick to hearken unto the words of the Lord. . . “

  16. FGH,
    Get out your Visa, rent out that extra bedroom and sell your second car. God does intend to take care of the poor. See D&C 104:16.

  17. Just a question about what it means to acknowledge the hand of God in all things. Does that include when you pray diligently for a long time for God to help you get a decent job, and he shows no interest? And you’re not leaving it all up to him. You’re doing everything humanly possible, but you feel you need extra help. So can we acknowledge his hand in refusing to help? Seems it ought to go both ways.

  18. FGH, thanks for returning to the foundation of the real. I do in fact think that the prophet chooses his words carefully, and that when he speaks we should pay close attention. So if Pres. Nelson is telling us to pay tithing, we should do that. When it comes to alleviating poverty, I’m very much in favor of what the church does in developing countries (see its service mission program, and its efforts to make education available). And I’m also glad we have a living prophet whose counsel is sometimes counterintuitive (see also Naaman and Elisha, for example). Plus there’s the issue that Pres. Nelson is echoing Malachi and well-known incidents in church history; should he tell people that what worked anciently and for the pioneers is no longer operative?

    I think that the line between execrable prosperity gospel preaching, and prophetic counsel to pay tithing, is bright and clear. But maybe Aneem is right and I’m wrong. In which case, well, okay then. I guess the prosperity gospel is a better reflection of scripture and prophetic counsel and my lived experience than a religion devoid of any whiff of the prosperity gospel.

    Franklin, yes, that seems to be close to my experience. I am quite familiar with pleading daily for help with finding a decent job. The results have included times when the divine intervention has seemed so direct and tangible that I wondered if God hadn’t just given away the store in what I had thought was supposed to be a trial of faith. The results have not included a decent job as usually defined, however. So I acknowledge God’s hand in that, although I wouldn’t call it God’s refusing to help. I’d say instead that the forms God’s help has taken have been very interesting.

  19. “So call it what you want; it’s not really a big deal to me.”

    So much so that I wrote an emotional blog post about it! See how small of a deal it is to me!!

  20. Jonathan Green “If I have to choose between avoiding the prosperity gospel and following the prophets, I’ll stick with Malachi and Pres. Nelson.”
    You are misinterpreting Malachi. In proper context of what was happening at the time, the classic tithing verses in Malachi have nothing to do with members paying their tithes and offerings and the blessings that they receive for doing so. Malachi was speaking to the religious leaders, the ones who collected the tithes from the faithful Jews. See, they were skimming a little off the top for themselves and not bringing all of the Jews’ offerings into the tabernacle. The verse should not be seen as a call for the faithful to pay their tithing and a promise that they will be blessed for doing so. Those verses specifically are a call for religious leaders to stop cheating the Lord out of what is his by not using that money properly. Maybe a topic for another post, but I think this is still relevant today.

  21. President Nelson’s tithing comments were total nonsense, plain and simple. The poverty cycle hasn’t been broken in S. America or the Philippines and they have been paying tithing for years and years. It certainly won’t happen is Africa either.

  22. Jonathan Green and defenders of his views are missing the point. When people say prosperity gospel they typically mean that paying tithing to some church will make you wealthy. President Nelson and many other Mormon leaders before him have said just that. They preach the prosperity gospel and promise health and wealth to those pay tithing. In the first paragraph, the OP calls this idea “execrable” but then contradicts himself and changes the goalposts later on. I called him out in the first comment on this, and he has yet to respond.

  23. Aneem, this is actually the third time I’ve responded to your comment. Try to keep up. I think you are incorrect in treating what Mormon leaders have said as unconditional promises of wealth and health, and you’re arguing against a maximalist interpretation that no one I know actually believes, and no one I’ve read has actually argued for. That’s one of the problems I tried to illustrate in my post: the prophet promises real, concrete blessings, and suddenly people are up in arms about the prosperity gospel.

    I think it’s possible to distinguish between a simple donations-equals-wealth prosperity gospel, and believing that divine aid for material problems is more likely to be forthcoming if we’re living righteously. As I mentioned, though, I might be wrong about this, and maybe it’s actually impossible to separate the two. In which case, I’m more interested in what the prophets teach and what my experience confirms, than in avoiding all association with a prosperity gospel whose definition seems to be expanding.

    Maybe it would be more productive to join a discussion than to call people out?

  24. Jonathan, you never responded to the issue I brought up. Just watch this video that someone made which splices John Oliver’s scathing critique of the prosperity gospel with clips from LDS leaders. What the LDS leaders say in these clips cannot be distinguished, except in tone and presentation, from what the bombastic evangelical preachers are saying in regards to paying tithing. Pres. Nelson’s recent Kenya remarks are more of the same. It is one thing to encourage tithing payment, and even exclude people from privileges if they do not pay a full tithe, and tell them that they will be blessed in some abstract spiritual way. It is a whole ‘nother thing to tell people that tithing ends the cycle the poverty and actually results in material blessings. That is what people typical mean when they say prosperity gospel.

  25. Aneem, you probably won’t find this satisfying, but I think I’ve been directly addressing your issue the whole time, and I don’t know what else to say without repeating myself. Your last comment illustrates my point pretty well: “abstract spiritual blessings” are permissible, but talking about concrete material blessings brings out the prosperity gospel police. But here’s the thing: I need concrete material blessings. My daily bread, so to speak. If the prophet has some counsel for me on that, I’m ready to listen.

    Something else to consider is that tithing is not taught in isolation. The same church telling people to pay their tithing also maintains a large and well organized welfare program so that people’s needs are met. The same people who have counseled me to pay tithing faithfully have been very generous in helping me out when needed. When it comes to promising material blessings to those who pay tithing, the church has put its money where its mouth is, and you can’t ignore that context.

    The video is not the kind of thing I’m interested in watching or linking to in this discussion, unfortunately. I’m particular that way, and I’m sorry if that’s unexpected. I’ll remove the link from your comment; I’m sure anyone who’s curious can still look up the video on YouTube.

  26. Exactly. If people are having trouble paying tithing, chances are the ward will help out with the things that were causing problems.

  27. I personally believe that the Church leadership preaches the prosperity gospel. And to be associated with prosperity gospel proponents is NOT a good thing. During the Mormon moment, a national magazine alleged the Church was an example of the prosperity gospel on steroids.

    Some of the things I find objectionable, besides President Nelson’s recent talk in Kenya, are: (1) 60+ years ago the Church put out a short film titled: The Windows of Heaven. If I remember the plot correctly, Brigham Young promised that if members would pay their tithing the drought in the StG area would end; (2) in a conference talk, a GA instructed members to pay their tithing before they feed their family, (3) the majority of GAs are wealthy businessmen, and many members draw conclusions; (4) the Ensign is full of “faith promoting” stories of people who pay their tithing and are rewarded financially; (5) Elder Ballard in a 2012 conference talk got close to espousing pg without specifically mentioning tithing; etc.

    According to BYU professor Woodworth, “Mormons may not call it ‘pg,’ but many definitely believe that the more righteous they are, the more money God will give them because He wants them to be successful.” And the Church hasn’t done much to discourage this conclusion.

  28. Roger, saying the church hasn’t done much to discourage this misses the ad nauseum lessons on the Nephite pride cycle one is taught. Going by word of mouth around the Wasatch people who seek too much for riches seem looked down upon. That’s not to deny some don’t attempt to self-justify with a kind of ad hoc prosperity gospel. However that seems quite different and is consciously against regular teachings.

    Windows of Heaven was Lorenzo Snow. However it was a particular promise to those people in southern Utah at that time not an universal statement. For a more recent talk see Elder Bednar’s Windows of Heaven which of course undercuts many of the claims you make above. Quoting from it,

    Sometimes we may ask God for success, and He gives us physical and mental stamina. We might plead for prosperity, and we receive enlarged perspective and increased patience, or we petition for growth and are blessed with the gift of grace. He may bestow upon us conviction and confidence as we strive to achieve worthy goals. And when we plead for relief from physical, mental, and spiritual difficulties, He may increase our resolve and resilience.

    Doesn’t sound like prosperity gospel to me.

  29. Clark thx for reminded me that It was Snow not Young. But the purpose of the production remains that the Church 60 years ago was in financial trouble and the message was if you pay your tithing the rain or whatever you desire will come. This was to encourage tithing payments and help the Church out of its money problems. The connection between tithing and rewards wasn’t very subtle. Many in my Ward were discouraged by the prosperity connection.

    As for your quote, it is hardly proof that the Church leadership does get oftly close to the prosperity gospel. There are plenty of quotes from GAs and mags that connect tithing with material rewards. This connection makes me uncomfortable.

  30. “if you pay your tithing the rain or whatever you desire will come

    I’d agree with the rain. Disagree with the rest of your sentence. My objection is that this was a particular prophetic statement about a particular situation. While we can learn from it we can’t extrapolate from it that tithing will cure all our ills. I just think that an illegitimate reading. There may be material rewards to paying tithing but typically there are spiritual ones not material ones. I just don’t see what you’re claiming is there. Certainly it’s not in the references you provided.

  31. Clark, I don’t think the Nephite pride cycle actually corrects the pervasive belief that righteousness leads to economic success, which is why members believe church leaders are disproportionately wealthy. The two biggest homes in our stake are owned by our stake president, and a counselor in the previous stake presidency. The DC stake had as presidents both Marriotts and the CEO of Black & Decker. Etc. The Book of Mormon portrays being wealthy and being learned in exactly the same way: good as long as you hearken to God. The pride cycle doesn’t moderate the prosperity gospel, it simply warns that once you’ve received the wealth you’re seeking you must still pay tithing and recognize that it’s due to your righteousness.

    Jonathan, I’ve been at a place for several years now where I’m not even willing to use the term “blessings” to describe my undeserved good fortune of health, family and plenty, or any other suggestion that my bounty is due to God’s _will_. I refuse that logic because I refuse the ugly corollary that the reason other people do not have my fortunate health, family and plenty is because God doesn’t will it for them. Some concepts of grace might square this circle, long as we exclude God’s will, as though He’s picking the winners and losers. (I’ve been meaning forever to fully flesh out these thoughts in a post.)

  32. 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.

  33. Been around too many GAs to think they were wealthy. Remember Pres. Benson with holes in his suits looking like a missionary hoping the suit will make it until he gets home. Don’t get me wrong there are some who are. But I don’t see GAs as wealthy and I’m not sure most people do. So I’m not sure I buy the premise. Now I do think Stake Presidents sometimes get called a tad too frequently from the wealth group but that might also have something to do with free time. I don’t know.

    The Nephite pride cycle suggests that there are some practical effects at a community level leading to economic success. However the key thing every seminary student learned was that if there was wealth this was a bad thing and led the people astray. That is rather than seeing wealth as a sign of righteousness it seems a test those doing well have to deal with and usually deal with poorly. i.e. the common Mormon view seems to see it at best in very ambiguous terms with two sides. Most people I talk with along the Wasatch Front (outside of those trying to get as wealthy as fast as they can) tend to assume the wealthy have problems. i.e. it’s less a sign of righteousness than a sign of a problem. I’ve heard this enough that I’m kind of surprised at the prosperity gospel bit.

    That said, as I mentioned, there is a small group who clearly do want wealth. I’m not sure they buy into the prosperity gospel but they certainly self-justify and rationalize often unethical behavior. We’ve all met people like that and I think everyone looks so askance at them as a kind of illustrative moral failing that I’m shocked people think them representative of Mormon belief.

    Now all that said I agree that wealth doesn’t inherently corrupt. I think those who see wealth and automatically assume sin (which I think is far more common than prosperity gospel thinking) are also sinning. President Benson, as I recall, condemned that common tendency in Mormondom as well. I can’t speak of course to the rich areas of the eastern US or even California having not lived there. I’m just reflecting the common views I hear here in Utah.

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