The prosperity gospel has become a lightning rod in many evangelical circles in the last ten years. Biblical teaching on this heretical distortion of the gospel reveals its true nature: it’s a way to use God to worship ourselves and achieve our own aims.
Religion columnist Cathleen Falsani said the prosperity gospel, “an insipid heresy whose popularity among American Christians has boomed in recent years, teaches that God blesses those God favors most with material wealth.” She goes on to say, “The gospel of prosperity turns Christianity into a vapid bless-me club, with a doctrine that amounts to little more than spiritual magical thinking: If you pray the right way, God will make you rich.”
But truth be told, deep down, we all love something about the prosperity gospel, don’t we? Our broken and autonomous hearts war against God’s Spirit within, in futile attempts to be lord of our own lives. When we look past our stated beliefs to the heart, most Christians must admit that we struggle to surrender our deepest desires to Christ—especially regarding sexuality. In many ways, we want God to help us make life work on our terms.
The Prosperity Gospel of Sexuality
The prosperity gospel of sex goes something like this: If I obey God, he will give me the things I desire sexually. This could mean an attractive and available spouse. It could mean fulfilling, passionate sex in marriage, or the removal of unwanted desires or shame from our past. Some of these are good things! However, most Christians have bought into the lie that we can earn our version of “sexual prosperity” by obedience.
This reveals the deeper question: Is Christ our prize?
In Luke 14:25–33, Jesus tells us about the cost of discipleship. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” Jesus provides utter clarity on the terms of discipleship. But he does not harshly coerce or entrap his disciples into his sheepfold. Rather, he invites them into an honest discourse about their desires, suffering, and the ultimate cost of being a disciple of Jesus.
Counting the Cost
Jesus goes on to say, “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish’” (Luke 14:28–30, my emphasis).
If you regularly bypass the conviction of God’s Spirit to engage in unholy relationships, behaviors, or thought patterns, have you considered stopping to count the cost of your surrender to Christ? Can you honestly remember a time when you considered life in Christ, the glories of God, and the gift of salvation against your competing desires?
Is allowing your sexual desires to rule your life working for you? As Psalm 16 says, “the sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply.” Brother or sister, do you know the pain of having run after another god? Perhaps the god of a toxic and co-dependent friendship, an out-of-bounds sexual relationship, or the self-worship inherent in pornography and masturbation? We can’t build our life on the foundation of our own desires, with ourselves as the lord, and truly live.
Deliberating with the King
Jesus turns us to another example in verse 31: “Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace” (my emphasis). Brother or sister, hear the wise counsel of Jesus. Are you willing to sit down and deliberate with God regarding your deepest desires?
The very same God invites, “Come now let us reason together, says the Lord; though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Isa. 1:18). Will you reason with God regarding your desires that compete with allegiance to him? He invites you to do so! Our God knows our hearts. He sees how we’ve been broken, abused, or disappointed. He sees the cost many Christians will face for following Jesus in their sexuality. Our generous Lord will not ask of us something which he will not abundantly comfort in the riches of his kindness for all eternity (Eph 2:7).
Jesus, Our True Prize
The prosperity gospel gets something right. We do receive riches and benefits when we come to Christ. But the benefit and riches are found in Christ himself, as he offers himself to us as a faithful provider and the one who knows our deepest longings. In Christ, we will benefit from his love for all eternity.
However, in this earthly life, we will struggle to believe that our suffering has purpose or that God’s ways are truly better. God invites you today to honestly grapple with him, to bring your warring desires to him in surrender (even the good ones), knowing his ways lead to life and flourishing—even as we suffer and long for many things. As Helen Roseveare, who suffered deeply in her surrender and service to Jesus as a missionary, said at the Urbana Missions Conference in 1976,
“One word became unbelievably clear, and that word was privilege. He didn’t take away pain or cruelty or humiliation. No! It was all there, but now it was altogether different. It was with him, for him, in him. He was actually offering me the inestimable privilege of sharing in some little way the edge of the fellowship of his suffering. . . One has tried to ‘count the cost,’ but I find it all swallowed up in privilege. The cost suddenly seems very small and transient in the greatness and permanence of the privilege.”
A story from the second chapter of Mark gives a wonderful description of the challenge and glory of how women stuck in the mire of sexual sin can connect with Jesus for the help they need.
And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic—“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!” (Mark 2:1-12, ESV)
Many women are like this paralyzed man: desperate for help, but seemingly unable to draw near to Jesus. They are bound up in sin of a sexual nature and are “paralyzed,” unable to move or take action. Stuck in place and helpless. They are hurting, isolated, and terrified to consider talking to anyone in their churches about what is going on in their lives.
Chris came to Harvest USA for help, having recently left her partner of 23 years. She shared that, over the years when she would feel conviction over her homosexuality, she had sought help from pastors and other Christian leaders. Chris shared that most of the time, these leaders would respond to her confession with something like, “You do know, right, that this is a sin? That God is NOT pleased with this?” She said, “I would say back to them, ‘Yes, I do know it’s a sin. . . but do you have any words to help me? To lead me out?’” No one had been able to “pick her up and carry her to Jesus” for the discipleship she needed.
Sadly, overcoming sin of a sexual nature and understanding God’s good design for sexuality are not consistent topics of discussion, much less discipleship, in the church. Many women, like Chris, feel they are just outside the reach of Jesus and unable to draw near to him regarding their private struggles and sin. Some of these women may be ministry leaders themselves, but in terms of personal struggles with pornography, sexual fantasy, and sexual behavior with men and/or other women, they are clueless about how the gospel can help them move in the direction of sexual integrity and freedom.
How can women move from their patterns of sexual sin and the paralysis of faith that accompanies hidden struggles into the healing, forgiveness, and power of the love of Christ?
If you’re stuck on a mat . . .
Here are three initial steps of faith to take if you find yourself stuck and unable to connect the gospel to your sexual struggle.
First, acknowledge that you need help from outside of yourself. Proverbs 28:13 says, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” There is mercy for you, sister, as you turn to God in humility and ask him for help, which means reaching out to a person you can trust to share your struggle with.
Sharing your sexual sin struggle is key, as there is healing and freedom that comes in “naming” it before the Lord in the presence of someone else. The paralyzed man’s need was visible and obvious; yours is most likely secret, unknown to even your closest friends and coworkers. In confessing and asking for help, you are receiving the Lord’s help as you allow friends to carry you to Jesus.
Second, believe the words of God given to Christians: You are forgiven! Stand up! Hebrews 11:6 tells us that without faith, it is impossible to please God. Will you believe in his gracious, loving words to you regarding even these areas of sin in your life? He welcomes you, always, at the throne of grace!
Third, pick up your mat and go home! In other words, now walk forward in faith and repentance. Keep fighting! Don’t give up! This is a lifelong aspect of following Jesus: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts” (Romans 13:14).
My next blog post will unpack what that means. In the meantime, have you been paralyzed like Chris? Have any of these three steps of faith been helpful to you? Let me know.