The American gospel has some problems. The gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t have any problems, but the American translation and application of that gospel certainly does. Here is how the American gospel is written and spoken by a few prominent popular preachers:
“Come to Jesus and all your problems, including your financial problems, will disappear. Give $100 for this prayer towel and God will bless you with wealth and all that you need (and want).”
Of course, most believers recognize the prosperity gospel, the name it and claim it gospel, for what it is. It is a poor example of selective reading of the Bible, ignoring the parts that might be unwelcome and focusing on the welcome parts. Unless they are telling you that giving them money will help you out of a trial, you don’t see many prosperity gospel preachers preaching on James 1:2-4:
2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds,
3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.
4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
Nor do they quote John 16:33.
33 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
I have never heard one prosperity gospel preacher speak on Hebrews 11:32-40 about many saints who suffered enormously, were commended for their faith, but did not have their promises fulfilled on earth. More often than not, the prosperity gospel preachers are telling anecdotal stories, some of which may have a few elements of truth to them, while either saying or at least implying that if you do the same – give heartily to his or her ministry – then you too will overcome your trials.
The prosperity gospel, what I sometimes call the American or the televangelist gospel, focuses on God’s generosity and man’s tendency toward self and greed. They don’t offer the true Jesus; they sell a partial gospel. Then comes the request for you to be generous to their ministry and for you to give until it hurts. Frankly, televangelists and preachers who act like that sound more like Gordon Gecko of the 1987 movie Wall Street when he said,
“The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms — greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge — has marked the upward surge of mankind …”
That, simply put, is a lie. It is a lie scientifically, because now even evolutionists are coming to realize that generosity is woven into the fabric of human nature. We were made generous; it is in our genes. See the secular article The Science of Generosity, written by scientists at UC Berkeley, indicating, “sure enough, a host of studies have uncovered evidence that humans are biologically wired for generosity.” What those scientists do not understand is that nothing has really changed; God has been where He always has been. Now, science is finally proving God has been right all along. For more on that topic, see Can Generosity Be Contagious?
Furthermore, and far more importantly, greed is sin in a pure form. Rather than make the “upward surge of mankind,” Gordon Gecko’s greed takes mankind to its lowest depths. Greed, and the love of money, are to be feared, not welcomed into your home and your life. 1 Timothy 6:10.
What are the causes of American greed? It is easy to blame marketing, and many accusers do just that. Modern American marketing is a marvel of psychological application as retailers seek to use every trick to catch and then hold your attention.
One of my favorite comments is to ask people to finish two sentences. One is “Hold the pickles …” and the other is “Two all-beef patties …”. It is amazing how many people can finish those two sentences. The McDonald’s ads were a part of an advertising campaign starting in 1975 and last aired in 2008. The Burger King ads started playing in 1974. The reason they are so memorable is that many Americans have heard those commercial songs thousands of times. In fact, the songs are probably playing in your head even as you read this!
“Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun”
“Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce. Special orders don’t upset us. All we ask is that you let us serve it your way!”
Those ads sold many millions of Big Macs™ and Whoppers.™
Pick up any magazine and, on the average over the past 50 years and you will find 50% or more advertising space as opposed to content. Many are well drafted to create an urge to eat, wear, or drive, meaning buy, their product. By well-drafted, I mean they use serious and scientific psychological tricks to create a buying urge. I recently read an article The Intersection of Psychology and Marketing. The dramatic increase of Internet shopping has only speeded up the pace of research into how to make you want to buy.
But it isn’t the fault of Burger King, McDonald’s, or any of the retailers’, it is ours. Greed is so human and so comfortable. Paradoxically, generosity is also deep in our human nature at the same time. Our choices determine which will win.
A good question to ask
There is a question everyone should ask himself or herself at an early age, “How much is enough?” We do have to buy food, clothing, housing, and transportation. But what and how much food, clothing, and housing is determined by the heart. Does the food have to be fine dining out many times a month? Does the clothing have to be personally tailored and fill a large closet? Does the house have to be in the finest, gated neighborhood, isolated from most of humanity, especially the poor?
None of those marketing tricks would work as well if Americans were spiritually aware of greed and its danger, disciplined in their handling of money, educated in the tricks of the advertisers, and oriented away from greed. The hard part is becoming and staying oriented away from greed.
God never tells us the answer to the question, “How much is enough?” He also never says that having wealth is a sin. Instead, God says:
10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
35 In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
13 Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
16 Do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
See also Deuteronomy 24:14, Psalm 9:18, Psalm 41:1-3, Proverbs 19:17, Isaiah 58:6-11, Matthew 5:42, and 1 Timothy 6:17-19.
We can hardly ignore the clear call of God for us to share what He has given us.
13 Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor
will also cry out and not be answered.
2 Corinthians 9:11
11 You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.
In light of God’s call for us to share, you really do need to ask yourself, “how much is enough?” That question requires a personal answer after a careful heart search and time alone with God. We have not been given wealth for our comfort or security; we have been given wealth to share and to bring glory to God.
So, we fight greed. How? We have to see our present wealth in terms not of today and our comfort, but in the light of eternity and God.
Be on your guard
First, we are told repeatedly to be on our guard.
23 Above all else, guard your heart,
for everything you do flows from it.
See also 1 Samuel 12:20-21, Proverbs 4:13, Luke 6:45, and Colossians 3:1-2. I especially love the passage “for everything you do flows from it [the heart]” How very true that is.
The Bible contains many stories telling people either directly or indirectly to guard their hearts. Guarding against greed is directly addressed many times, including the verses preceding the parable of the rich fool.
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?”
15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
In the parable that follows, Luke 12:16-21, Jesus focused on the fact that money and possessions without God are foolish.
15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
Greed is so deceptive and such a liar that no one is ever safe, not even people who have been faithful servants for years. In 2 Kings 5, the prophet Elisha healed Naaman of leprosy. Naaman offered a great gift after being cured. Elisha refused the offer. But Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, a man who had given faithful service, was gripped by the opportunity and received silver and clothing, lying that it was for others. The result was a confrontation with Elisha and a lifetime of leprosy for Gehazi.
There is another way you can tell how deceptive greed is – Jesus, Paul, and Peter warned against greed repeatedly. See Matthew 23:25, Mark 7:22, Romans 1:29, Ephesians 4:19, Colossians 3:5, and 2 Peter 2:3, among others. Jesus and Paul warned against greed more often than against other sins. Why? Because greed is one of those sins that can sneak into a person’s life slowly and quietly; greed requires constant vigilance, much caution, and many warnings.
Examine your heart
Second, examine your heart. Jesus and Paul warned against greed many times because greed can sneak into even a guarded heart. Had Gehazi examined his heart and his actions, he would have realized he was lying and gripped by greed. But the heart is deceitful and wicked, Jeremiah 17:9, and even the best can fall. That leads to the next thought.
This is where that question, “How much is enough?” can be helpful. If you answer that question early enough in your life, there will be a financial benchmark to catch your attention whenever you pass that mark.
Measure future purchases, giving, and actions against the benchmark standard you have set in saying how much is enough for you. But still we have a problem. Our hearts are deceitful and we can even fool ourselves. That is why an additional step is necessary.
Third, have someone with whom you share and have full accountability. Pastors need this as much as lay people. Satan loves to cause a Pastor to fall. The impact on God’s church is great and people fall away or stay away, thinking that such failures are proof of wide-spread hypocrisy. Every believer needs someone who will address weaknesses and failures by calling for repentance, just as Nathan called for David to repent after his sin with Bathsheba. 2 Samuel 12.
Sharing finances with an accountability partner is hard, but sharing the answer to the question, “How much is enough?” and where you are now can help keep you in line.
The best accountability partner is someone who knows you well (well enough to spot a lie or soft answer) and someone hard and bold enough to confront you and ask the hard questions.
The cost of failure is too great to risk
Fourth, recognize that failure is not an option because the consequences of failure are horrible. Ask the rich fool. Ask Gehazi. At the same time, weigh the option, treasures in heaven. Gehazi just accepted the pleasure of riches that would last only a short time, giving up his treasures in heaven as well as his health on earth.
When Elisha confronted his servant Gehazi, he asked him two questions, the second of which seems odd at first glance. After Gehazi lied about having gone to Naaman, Elisha asks rhetorically, “Was not my spirit with you when the man got down from his chariot to meet you? Is this the time to take money or to accept clothes—or olive groves and vineyards, or flocks and herds, or male and female slaves?” Elisha wasn’t looking for an answer, he was instead directing Gehazi’s attention to what really matters, to what Gehazi had lost sight of, to the kingdom of God. Elisha listed earthly wealth and pleasures to demonstrate Gehazi’s mistake. Even the loss of his earthly health paled in comparison to the loss of eternal treasures. That loss is so great, no one should ever consider risking it.
Submit to God
Finally, submit to God. It isn’t a change in your direction with great effort, it is a transformation of who you are. Romans 12:1-2. You are putting on a new life with new practices. Colossians 3:9-10. Allow God to work and bring you to maturity. Part of that submission is beautifully set out here by Paul in Colossians 2:
6 So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him,
7 rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.
We received Jesus as Lord through grace and faith, not through works. We are to continue to live in that grace “just as” we received Him when we were saved. We are saved by grace, through faith, Ephesians 2:8, and that same grace that saved us will continue to build us up and keep us strong in Him. Acts 20:32.
May that grace keep and sustain you against the challenges of the world, especially against the prison called greed.
About the Author
John Campbell has retired from a 40-year legal practice as a trial attorney in Tampa. He has served in multiple volunteer roles at Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Florida, where he met Jesus. He began serving as the Executive Director of the Idlewild Foundation in 2016. He has been married to the love of his life, Mona Puckett Campbell, since 1972.