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