It is true that the prosperity gospel encourages people — especially its leaders — to revel in private jets and multimillion-dollar homes as evidence of God’s love. But among the less well-heeled believers, I sensed a different kind of yearning, one that wasn’t entirely materialistic. Believers wanted an escape: from poverty, failing health, and the feeling that their lives were leaky buckets.
Some people wanted Bentleys, but more wanted relief from the wounds of their past and the pain of their present. People wanted salvation from bleak medical diagnoses; they wanted to see God rescue their broken teenagers or their misfiring marriages. They wanted talismans to ward off the things that go bump in the night. They wanted an iota of power over the things that ripped their lives apart at the seams.
What they wanted was reassurance: that if they prayed, and believed, and lived righteously, they would be rewarded with some measure of comfort.
The prosperity gospel is a theodicy, an explanation for the problem of evil. It is an answer to the questions that take our lives apart: Why do some people get healed and some people don’t? Why do some people leap and land on their feet while others tumble all the way down? Why do some babies die in their cribs and some bitter souls live to see their great-grandchildren?
The prosperity gospel looks at the world as it is and promises a solution. It guarantees that faith will always make a way. If you believe, and you leap, you will land on your feet. If you believe, you will be healed.
I would love to report that what I found in the prosperity gospel was something so foreign and terrible to me that I was warned away. After all, the moral and logical flaws in this theology are all too evident; it explains away misfortune as something that can and ought to be held at bay through faith and prayer. But what I discovered was both familiar and painfully sweet.