Prayer and the Prosperity Gospel

Expecting More From God Than a Sympathetic Ear

Joey Goodall / 3.17.22

Like the hosts of the Mockingcast in their recent episode, I’ve been reexamining some of my beliefs about forms of prayer I would have previously dismissed as “prosperity gospel.” Though it can be damaging to believe that God will answer your prayers in just the way you want him to if you pray correctly, or if you have enough faith, it is important to believe that God can (and does) break into our lives through the act of prayer.

If we expect nothing from prayer that can’t also be achieved through secular mindfulness practices, we’re missing the larger point.

In a wonderful piece in Church Times, Angela Tilby writes that, “in times of crisis, prayer needs some active verbs, some genuine calling on God, as though he had some capacity to do something, some hope that God can weave his will through human pride.” Tilby’s piece is specifically in reaction to the war in Ukraine, and her dismay at prayers about it that rely too much “on the old semi-Pelagian belief that all we can really expect of God is that God will help us to help ourselves.”

I think Tilby is right that these kinds of prayers are important in times of capital “C” crisis, when we are confronted with senseless violence and needless destruction, and we recognize our powerlessness in the face of it all. However, I would argue that it’s important to believe that God can also work in our lower “c” crises, which we’re often equally helpless to do anything about. This is something that churches (fairly or unfairly) tagged with the prosperity gospel designation tend to understand better than the mainline. This isn’t to say that there aren’t things that the mainline doesn’t generally do better. Christianity is richer for all its various traditions and permutations.

As Easter approaches, Tilby reminds us that our faith is one with a “resurrection at its heart.” This God who raises the dead is the same God who knows the number of hairs on our heads. A God who cares deeply about the struggles and satisfactions of our lives. Nothing is too big for him to handle — and nothing is so small that it passes his notice.

With that in mind, “it seems wrong not to call on God as one who has the power and will to make a difference.” In fact, such prayers should be encouraged, no matter what is being asked for.

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