While ministering in the United Arab Emirates I’ve noticed a higher than usual concentration of “prosperity theology” among those who call themselves Christians. I have theorized about why. Perhaps it’s because most who come here for work arrive with the hope of prosperity; therefore, prosperity theology offers some kind of hope that with God’s favor their dreams will be realized. People sacrifice greatly, leaving children and spouses behind in places like Kenya and the Philippines with the hope of securing a financially prosperous future.
But so often life here fails to meet the expectations of those who come for wealth, as does the prosperity teaching in which so many put their hope. Life is hard, suffering is real, and riches are elusive. So pastorally speaking, what does prosperity theology have to offer when life doesn’t work out? How do “pastors” of prosperity churches shepherd their people when prosperity is nowhere to be found?
The answer I’m discovering is that they don’t.
Wounded Sheep Without Shepherds
Recently we’ve had a number of folks come to Immanuel Fujairah from churches that teach the prosperity gospel. I’ve found these people aren’t coming because their eyes have been opened to the theological error of prosperity teaching (at least not initially), but because prosperity teachers have hurt them as a result of their teaching.
In one case, someone came to us who had been battling illness, marital strife, and financial struggles. They went to their pastor for counsel; they received a reminder that they needed more faith for a “breakthrough.” The problem was with them, they were told. This led to months of agony and guilt as the person tried to microanalyze their life to find what was keeping them from receiving God’s favor.
Without seeing the error in their pastors’ teaching, this person did notice their favoritism (James 2:1–5). They gravitated toward the successful and gave them prominent places in the church. And when you started not to do so well or you lost your job, the pastors became increasingly distant.
These needy sheep were left hurting, lonely, and believing some sin or lack of faith was the reason for these circumstances. They were left alone and crushed, with no shepherd to heal their wounds or to lead them to the satisfying, life-giving food of God’s Word (Ezek. 34:2–10).
Wolves, Not Pastors
This much is clear: prosperity teaching damns and prosperity preachers wound. Rather than offering the healing salve of the gospel to hurting people, they rub salt in wounds. Rather than proclaiming the good news of favor with God on the basis of Christ’s perfect life and atoning death, they condemn.
Seeing firsthand the pastoral carnage of prosperity teachers has caused me to feel more than ever why they deserve to be called “wolves” (Acts 20:29). Wolves prey on weak and immature Christians, tearing with guilt and doubt the very hearts that need gospel comfort and hope.
In a world where Christ promised his followers hardship and persecution, prosperity preachers are incapable of being prosperity pastors (John 16:33). This is because they promise to lead sheep toward pastures that don’t exist, feed them with words that can never satisfy, and leave them exposed to lies and doubts in the same cycle of futility into which they were born (Isa. 55:2; Eccl. 1:2; Job 5:7; Rom. 8:20).
There are plenty of prosperity preachers, but there’s no such thing as a prosperity pastor, because pastors—real pastors—lead their sheep to Jesus as the all-satisfying fountain of life. They lead to the Giver and not the gifts, to the one who is eternal riches himself, not to things that lose value with time (Matt. 11:28; John 1:4; Eph. 3:8).
Many of the persons you encounter may be listening to prosperity teachers under pretenses of success and hope, but they are anxious, hurting, and wracked with doubt. Point them to the gospel that satisfies in all circumstances, good and bad (Phil. 4:12–13). And invite them to a place where they won’t just be promised and preached at, but a place where they will be pastored.