This article originally appeared in the January-February issue of the 9Marks Journal, devoted to the prosperity gospel.
I’m in a bathtub. I can’t get up. I feel like I’m about to die. Mercury poisoning.
The water in the tub has grown cold. Maybe that’s why I feel so cold. I’ve been marinating in my own soup stock for the past two hours. I’m floating in and out of consciousness. Whenever I can concentrate I begin to pray.
Jesus, please, save me. Please, heal me. I repent, I put my whole heart into prayer right now, and I cast out any doubt or fear. I know you can heal me. Please heal me!
My mom’s keys are rattling in the doorknob now, and I hear the door thud shut in the distance. I hear her purse sliding across the counter and her keys landing next to it. I barely recognize her figure as she tries with all of her wiry might to pull me out of the tub. I spend the next two days in the hospital. My mom wants to know why I didn’t let her know, why I didn’t want to go to the hospital, why I didn’t do something.
“Mom, Jesus is my doctor. I’m blessed, and I know that he would have healed me.” This is me trying to live out what I think is true Christianity.
I just got saved two months earlier. I’m fresh out of jail, and I’m walking around the projects where I used to stomp like a tiny teenage giant. I’ve got a bare back, a few tattoos, and a Bible in my hand. I’m just praying for the opportunity to share the Christ with someone.
I meet a man named Roger who invites me into his home. He buys me lunch, and we spend all day talking about the Bible. This guy knows way more than I do. I’ve never heard anyone spout off so many Scriptures in such rapid-fire succession. “This guy is legit,” I say under my breath.
Over the course of the next six months, this man indoctrinates me with the prosperity gospel. Just a few months earlier, I’d never even opened a Bible. I have no idea I’m being given arsenic in my Kool-Aid. I take it all. I believe it all. I know it’s true. It has to be. It’s all right here in Scripture. Look, she touched the hem of his garment and was healed. Look, Jesus couldn’t heal them because they didn’t have enough faith. Look, all throughout the Old Testament you see curses for sins and blessings for righteousness. Prosperity for the good, pain for the bad. It’s so plain. So obvious.But stuff isn’t making sense. I’m still without a job. I can’t pay my rent. My mom isn’t getting saved, and I keep getting cold sores. None of these things should be happening. There must be sin hidden somewhere in my heart.
Now I have the flu, and I don’t have any money to buy groceries. I just need to claim it. I just need to rebuke Satan and his lies, and believe that what I’ve proclaimed in the name of Jesus will surely come to pass. Maybe I’m not tithing enough. Time to double up. I’ll get it back one hundredfold. Maybe more. I just need to sow in faith.
But it’s still not happening. “Roger, hey man, I don’t understand. It seems like this stuff isn’t working. What am I doing wrong?”
“Dude, I don’t know exactly what it is, but I know the problem ain’t with God or his Word. It’s got to be something in your heart or in your life.
Let’s pray about it.”
Fast forward a year. I’m 19 and married now. We’re struggling hard. I can’t pay the rent or the electricity bill, and I just lost another job. My wife wasn’t saved when we met. She gets saved during the course of our friendship, and somewhere in there, she starts listening to me and taking in all the “truth” I’m giving her. She does wonder, though, about the disconnect. When the ATM receipt says we’re $40 in the hole, I rebuke myself, the ATM, and the receipt. I claim my blessing even in the face of this lie from Satan. I know Jesus is looking down on me, proud of my strength amid such persecution and adversity. “In the name of Jesus!”—I keep claiming what he’s promised me.
The prosperity gospel and word-of-faith movement are basically the same thing, but I’ve never heard those labels before. All the good Bible-loving Baptists fear me because I probably robbed their sons, stole their cars, or vandalized their church. Yet because of my powerful testimony, scores of churches invite me to come and share. I preach a false gospel every time I go. Not once does anyone ever sit me down and talk with me about the danger to my soul. Not a word. Not a peep. Not to my face, anyway. Now I know they waited respectfully until I left, and then talked among themselves about how sad it is to see such passion so misdirected.
All I know, the only thing I know, is that I love Jesus. He saved me. I was destroying myself and anyone unfortunate enough to be caught in my gravitational pull. I was dying, and I was going to die twice. One night, on an empty road in the middle of nowhere, in a scene so strange it has to be true, Jesus saved me. He saved me from sin, death, and hell. I want to spend the rest of my life serving Jesus with all of me. I think this refuse called “gospel,” this message of prosperity and proclamation, is what I must do. So I obey. In my mind, this is what it means to be a Christian. This is all I’ve known. I think this is what God wants of me. So I continue in white-knuckled obedience. I keep pressing, keep pushing. And one random day I join Myspace.
I like to argue on Myspace. I’m 19 with a big mouth. The internet offers me a perfect avenue to express myself and condemn those who can’t see the truth I see, obey the law as well as I do, and lack the faith I radiate like a fiery sun. I’m perusing this wasteland one evening in Seattle, and an old man pops up on my QuickTime video player. He’s really bringing the thunder. He’s preaching on holiness like no one I’ve ever heard. I’m hooked. I go to the next video.
Amazing. I’ve never heard anyone preach this way. I go to the next one. It says “John Piper: Prosperity Gospel Sermon Jam.” I’m excited. He’s going to really give the jolt I need to keep going.
But after the clip I’m furious. I close my computer. Another wolf. Another preacher who just has it so wrong. The video was the worst attack on my faith I’ve ever seen or heard. I stop watching right after he says “this crap called gospel!” Unbelievable.
I carry on with my life, but I just can’t help it. I keep going back to YouTube, and eventually to this website that has all of his teachings. I tell myself I’m just going to read or listen to or watch his other stuff. I’ll avoid the stuff I don’t like—the stuff that’s wrong. The other stuff is just too good, though. It’s breathing life into my soul.
I don’t remember much about the night the truth took over. Sometimes our brains protect us from the trauma of reliving the pain over and over again. But this night, I’m crying. I’m devastated. I’ve been considering the possibility for months now, and it finally clicked about five minutes ago. Almost everything I think I know about God, the Bible, the cross, and the gospel is wrong. Dead wrong. I feel it now, down in my bones, and it burns with the pain only God can give.
Repentance begins. “Amber, baby, we need to talk. Everything I’ve ever taught you about Christ is wrong. Can you ever trust me again? Can we start over? Will you give me another chance?”
I feel like an adulterer. I begin undoing everything that needs to be undone. I failed as a husband, and by the grace of God I’m trying to fix it. I have no one and nothing. I don’t have any non-prosperity gospel friends, since I ditched them if they couldn’t get with the program. They were only holding me back and hurting my faith. That’s what I told myself. Now I’m alone. I do have the internet, though. . . .
So I’m watching Paul Washer videos and spending hours on DesiringGod.org. I’ve never even heard the word reformed, and I can’t find one single book about the prosperity gospel. Not one that’s attacking it, anyway. That’s what I really want.
I’m hurt—badly. I don’t trust anyone, and I’m angry at everyone—at Christians, anyway. Why didn’t anyone tell me? How could I have been so blind? I’m angry at myself. I’m broken, but the Spirit is carrying me.
God did heal my mercury poisoning, but it wasn’t because of my power to proclaim that healing into existence. And he accomplished a far greater rescue when he delivered me from the prosperity gospel. It’s been nearly six years since the Lord saved me from myself and the damnable heresy that had ensnared me.
I’m writing this account from Peru where my family and I are trying to reach a people group who don’t have the gospel. I’m still picking up the pieces. I still have a hard time praying for healing, or prosperity and blessing, both of which are thoroughly biblical. I still feel my diaphragm twitch whenever someone says “in the name of Jesus.” I know the truth now, and I try to walk in line with it every day. The white-knuckled discipline I once devoted to the prosperity gospel, I now devote to trusting fully in the finished work of Christ and the grace I breathe in to survive.
Here’s the bottom line: I was a heretic. But Christ had saved me from my sin, and he saved me from my heresy too. When it comes to embracing the prosperity gospel, I doubt you would’ve found anyone more dedicated or ruthless. I was the chosen one. But I was ensnared in a false gospel. And so is everyone else trusting in this “crap called gospel,” to borrow a phrase from that old man’s video.
Brothers and sisters, call it what it is. Pastors, call it what it is. Don’t let even a hint of this junk live in your church. Preach against it, and preach a gospel that shines so bright and burns so hot that any counterfeit that tries to approach it burns up upon entry. Don’t treat this disease like an asymptomatic sniffle in an otherwise healthy body; treat it like the cancer it is. Preach, teach, counsel, shepherd, and pray a clear and true gospel, and leave no room for anything less glorious or true.
If you meet someone lost in this false gospel, please, please, please love them and tell them the truth. Sit them down, buy them lunch, and open up your Bibles. Speak life. Be brave. Odds are, no one has ever loved them enough to tell them the truth about themselves. The truth is they cannot be saved by a false gospel, and the prosperity gospel is certainly that.
Jesus saved me from the prosperity gospel, and he can save more. He will save more. How could he not?