The real devil in the details of the prosperity-type teaching permeating so much of evangelicalism is not really that it skips over the stuff about sin. Sure, it does that too, but the pernicious paradox of this stuff is that it champions “victorious Christian living” yet does not equip believers for sustainable discipleship. It emphasizes feelings and “outlook,” not the power of the Spirit, which is hard for some folks to notice since the latter is often conflated with the former (so that being optimistic or a go-getter is ipso facto being Spirit-empowered). The problem over time is that, going from victory to victory, expecting victory after victory, cultivates a contagious form of spiritual greed. (Is it any wonder that this sort of teaching often goes hand and hand with talk of financial riches and prosperity?) The real stuff of discipleship — what Eugene Peterson calls “a long obedience in the same direction” — involves hard stuff like discipline and the fruit of the Spirit. In pop discipleship discipline is replaced by steps, tips, and amazingsupercolossal breakthroughs.

When my children were tiny, we had a couple of Laws of Raising Children active in the house. The first law is that no item in the universe is more interesting than the one a sibling is currently holding. The second law is that no matter where you are (and it could be Disney World), there is some other place you’d rather be.

Getting what we don’t have, being somewhere we aren’t. That defines the childishness of the children in our house. But they are children, so they have an excuse.

Prosperity gospel, then, which promises an abundantly fulfilling life, ironically breeds discontentment. We are never abiding with God where we are, because we always consider what we have less than what’s available (or at least less than what our neighbor has). We always think of today as less than tomorrow. But you cannot get to resurrection day without going through the cross.

There’s a fine line between contentment and complacency, also, and I think this implicit confusion is why contentment is rarely spoken of these days. It implies stagnation or laziness. But complacency isn’t about not caring. Contentment is about caring for the needs of the moment. It is about obedience and faith. Paul was not complacent about his repeated imprisonment and torture. But, amazingly enough, he was content.

Contentment trusts God to be God. Discontent evidences our fear of everything but God — it fears for safety, for financial solvency, for what others might think of us, for even “spiritual maturity.” The content soul, however, fears God (Prov. 19:23).

So the great irony of prosperity gospelism — and more people teach and believe this stuff than the walking cartoons on TBN, trust me — is that it actually cultivates its own need for itself. It is built on discontentment and greed and desire and accumulating (whether stuff or “spirituality”), and therefore it turns in on itself, self perpetuating, continuing to create the needs it promises to fill. We all know what happens when you try to fill a God-shaped void with anything not God-shaped. We all know that money doesn’t buy happiness, etc etc.

But contentment! Being content with what we’ve got, with where God has us, whether it be on top of a mountain surrounded by beauty or down in a valley walking toward a pit we cannot see — now is true gain!

But there are no easy steps to contentment. The word “content” evokes feelings of peace and tranquility, of being carefree. And those things are true, in a sense. But the way to contentment is difficult, and the place of contentment itself may be in a harsh and barren land. That is, after all, how you know you’ve reached contentment anyway. Being content involves the tough stuff of trust and discipline and obedience and biblical love. As Chesterton said:

True contentment is a thing as active as agriculture. It is the power of getting out of any situation all that there is in it. It is arduous and it is rare.

Christians are to essentially believe that “God loves you and has a difficult plan for your life.”

So how do we get it? How do we reach contentment?

We start where we are, not looking ahead to what is next. We begin with a hope for deliverance, provided we are really in need of it, but also with a trust that God is refining us through the circumstances in which He’s presently placed us. It just that — being present. Show up, in this moment, for submission to God. Trust that the cross you are bearing is not the end of His story, but accept that cross as necessary and get everything out of it that is there to get.

There are no formulaic steps or aphoristic strategies. Just the Spirit and the power He gives by His good pleasure. You cannot achieve discontentment with your achievements all by yourself. You will need the convicting, chastening God of love.

I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
— Philippians 4.12-13

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31 thoughts on “Contentment, the Stealth Prosperity Gospel, and Spiritual Greed”

  1. WOW Jared! You hit the proverbial nail right smack dab on the head! Can’t be said much plainer. I am so tired of hearing this un-gospel stuff put out and accepted like it is candy. But the issue of contentment is so strongly missing when we are always clamoring for more-the best this or that. Oh, I love your “walking cartoons” reference to those on TBN.

  2. Betty Draper says:

    I am the white haired old lady in your blog audience waving my hankie, saying, preach it brother , preach it. After years serving over seas in two countries to be back in a stateside ministry is harder then any foreign field. It’s so comfortable here, spiritually and physically it’s easy to forget counting the cost to get the gospel out. Thanks brother for your words, they drove deep in my spirit and get an amen from the Spirit of God living in me.

  3. Jim says:

    Thanks Jared. I grew up around a prosperity type church environment and didn’t know any better of its dangerous flaws you so concisely described. Not until college and amazing discipleship under wise godly cousel did I learn for myself how easy it was to fall into the traps of the prosperity/word of faith movement. I have since seen dear friends with solid Christ following backgrounds fall into these prosperity teachings themselves. When I was under that “spell” so to speak it was well over 20 years go. Their message was more cartoony like TBN. Much easier to pick out in some cases. The stuff my friends are falling for is subtle, highly produced, many times no mention of names like Osteen, Copeland, Joyce Meyers, etc… but that’s who they are emulating. I hear the same keywords a mile way I heard when I was young, the red flags pop up. I pray this so called prosperity teaching can fall flat on its face one day. That we may gently, gracefully disciple others to the truth as I was.

  4. Wolf Paul says:

    I am confused by this sentence in the final paragraph:

    “You cannot achieve discontentment with your achievements all by yourself.”

    Surely that should be contentment? What would be the point of being discontent with our achievments as long as we are aware that we have only achieved them by God’s grace?

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      Wolf Paul, I am sure I could have worded that sentence better. All I meant was “You cannot become dissatisfied in your achievements and satisfied in Christ alone without the help of God.” Does that make more sense?

  5. Cory says:

    You lost me at “Eugene Peterson”. But seriously, nice article. Unfortunately, I’ve seen too much of this on the mission field.

  6. Adam says:

    Is contentment dangerous to growth?

    Can we be content but also strive for more depth, with God, more depth in our relationships with others, and better opportunities to use the talents and gifts God has given us. I hope so, and I believe your description of contentment leaves room for that. THoughts?

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      Adam, yes. Was trying to speak on that a bit with the part about contentment vs. complacency. Contentment does *not* preclude spiritual disciplines, spiritual hunger for Christ, and the pursuit of holiness.

  7. I like that “contentment trusts God to be God.”

    I think Prosperity Gospel is becoming more dominant in the Church but not as obvious (working on a blog post on it).

    Thanks,

    -Justin

  8. Amanda says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with the bulk of this article, the only problem I have is the title of the article making a jab at The Knowing God Personally Booklet, written by Bill Bright who founded Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru), which is one of the world’s largest missionary sending organizations. This booklet is used to share Christ all over the world and has led many to belief in Him. In the booklet, there is no prosperity gospel preached. The life we can have with God and will have if we obey Him, IS wonderful, even though at times painful. I am just wondering why the dig towards a clearly biblical, gospel-driven, and Spirit-led ministry like Cru in the title of this article?

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      Amanda, what is the title of the Bright article you’re referring to? I am familiar with Bright generally and Cru — our church supports a couple of Cru missionaries to UVM — and I have nothing against either. I did not knowingly take a jab at Bright or any of his books. The title of this blog post was just something I made up.

      1. Amanda says:

        Interesting. “God loves you and had a wonderful plan for your life” is the first point in a 4 point Gospel tract called the 4 Spiritual Laws or the Knowing God Personally booklet which is the most largely dispersed gospel tract in the world. It’s just interesting how similar the titles are. Anyone who has been through the tract or uses it regularly, including myself, a Cru missionary, would have a hard time not associating the title of this article with it. Just a thought. Thanks for your response.

        1. Jared C. Wilson says:

          Oh! Yes, I remember that. You are referring to the “difficult plan” line in the post itself. The title of this post is “Contentment, The Stealth Prosperity Gospel, and Spiritual Greed,” and since I couldn’t think of a book title that resembled that at all, I was sort of thrown off.

          I would simply say that I agree with how Bright means the phrase “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” and disagree with the way pop Christianity has misappropriated the idea to mean that God desires us to always enjoy comfort and success. Sorry for the confusion.

          1. Amanda says:

            Yes, sorry, I was misled to think it was the title since that was the header used on facebook and I followed the article from a direct link from there. And I understand the point of the article, just think the title might be used in bad taste because it is so closely associated with a ministry and is used daily by Cru missionaries.

  9. george canady says:

    And so Father we pray for those who teach a prosperity gospel because we have not written them off as unsalable.

  10. Pete says:

    Excellent, excellent post. The best description of contentment I’ve come accross: GOD DECIDES (so whatever our circumstances we are there because God has decided we be there – sovereignty) AND GOD PROVIDES (whatever we have at any given time is God’s provision for that given time – sovereignty).

  11. John Carroll says:

    Excellent post, Jared. When my wife and I retired to the family farm 3 years ago, we re-named it Thistle Dew Farm and adopted the motto: “Contentment Without Complacency.” We seek to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord daily while not being spiritually greedy.

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Jared C. Wilson


Jared C. Wilson is the pastor of Middletown Springs Community Church in Middletown Springs, Vermont. You can follow him on Twitter.

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