Prosperity theology is the belief that all financial prosperity is a blessing from God in response to righteousness, a reward, with no directive for what to do with that wealth. It has found a place in nearly every Christian denomination in the United States and many others around the world. It is founded in certain interpretations of specific scriptures, though specifically denounced by more scriptures than promote it because this “gospel of prosperity” has nearly always led the community which espouses it to ruin.
And this philosophy is also part of our Latter-Day Saint culture. The belief that wealth is a blessing from God is spoken of in Sunday School lessons around the country. And where there is some pushback against the pride that comes from this, we’ve spun it to also mean that we should be self-reliant and lay up stores against times of physical hardship.
Self-reliance and saving for rainy days, inherently underpinned by a scarcity mindset, is taught as divine instruction. While not relying on the arm of flesh, especially the flesh of others, is part of the gospel, this instruction is often taken far beyond the mark. And many have unwittingly used prosperity theology to back up their responses to the church having found themselves one of the wealthiest corporations in the world, through the investing of tithing money and reinvesting of dividends.
I have no idea what conversations have or haven’t been had among the brethren over the past few decades regarding the church’s finances. So, my analysis is more on the response of the Saints than on the actions of the church, except for the times the response of the church has led members to latch on to false philosophies and the church has done nothing to correct them.
Many Saints who have heard about the wealth of the church absolutely delight in it. They love hearing about the money and see it as a sign that the church is true. They boast of the wealth and it calms their fears about the last days. This makes me feel a bit uncomfortable regarding the state of the Saints.
One of the scriptures I’ve seen used to justify the wealth of the church, and make it seem completely natural for a church to build up such stores, is found in Jacob.
And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good. (Jacob 2:19)
Love it. Let’s read a little more of that.
Think of your brethren like unto yourselves, and be familiar with all and free with your substance, that they may be rich like unto you.
But before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God.
And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good—to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted. (Jacob 2:17–19)
Certainly makes the directive for wealth a little more clear. I didn’t read anything about laying up stores against a rainy day. In fact, Christ specifically taught otherwise.
Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and thieves break through and steal;
But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.
For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (3 Nephi 13:19–21)
And now it came to pass that when Jesus had spoken these words he looked upon the twelve whom he had chosen, and said unto them: Remember the words which I have spoken. For behold, ye are they whom I have chosen to minister unto this people. Therefore I say unto you, take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?
Behold the fowls of the air, for they sow not, neither do they reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?
Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?
And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin;
And yet I say unto you, that even Solomon, in all his glory, was not arrayed like one of these.
Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, even so will he clothe you, if ye are not of little faith.
Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?
For your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.
But seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.
Take therefore no thought for the morrow, for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient is the day unto the evil thereof. (3 Nephi 13:25–34)
So, let’s go back to the Nephites.
And in the commencement of the sixty and seventh year the people began to grow exceedingly wicked again.
For behold, the Lord had blessed them so long with the riches of the world that they had not been stirred up to anger, to wars, nor to bloodshed; therefore they began to set their hearts upon their riches; yea, they began to seek to get gain that they might be lifted up one above another; therefore they began to commit secret murders, and to rob and to plunder, that they might get gain. (Helaman 6:16–17)
We wouldn’t compare the Gadiantons to ourselves, yet their beginnings are eerily similar. You know what else feels eerily similar? The condition of the Nephites right before Christ comes.
But it came to pass in the twenty and ninth year there began to be some disputings among the people; and some were lifted up unto pride and boastings because of their exceedingly great riches, yea, even unto great persecutions;
For there were many merchants in the land, and also many lawyers, and many officers.
And the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning; yea, some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches.
Some were lifted up in pride, and others were exceedingly humble; some did return railing for railing, while others would receive railing and persecution and all manner of afflictions, and would not turn and revile again, but were humble and penitent before God.
And thus there became a great inequality in all the land, insomuch that the church began to be broken up; yea, insomuch that in the thirtieth year the church was broken up in all the land save it were among a few of the Lamanites who were converted unto the true faith; and they would not depart from it, for they were firm, and steadfast, and immovable, willing with all diligence to keep the commandments of the Lord.
Now the cause of this iniquity of the people was this—Satan had great power, unto the stirring up of the people to do all manner of iniquity, and to the puffing them up with pride, tempting them to seek for power, and authority, and riches, and the vain things of the world.
And thus Satan did lead away the hearts of the people to do all manner of iniquity; therefore they had enjoyed peace but a few years. (3 Nephi 6:10–16)
That was them, not us, you say? Let’s go to the Doctrine and Covenants.
And if ye seek the riches which it is the will of the Father to give unto you, ye shall be the richest of all people, for ye shall have the riches of eternity; and it must needs be that the riches of the earth are mine to give; but beware of pride, lest ye become as the Nephites of old. (Doctrine and Covenants 38:39)
Seek not for riches but for wisdom; and, behold, the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto you, and then shall you be made rich. Behold, he that hath eternal life is rich. (Doctrine and Covenants 6:7 and Doctrine and Covenants 11:7)
God is all about our eternal well-being. His prosperity is eternal life. Jesus’ parables were about spiritual things too, to help teach the people the nature of God, of his goodness, and the good news of the gospel. None of them were intended to be taken as literal earth-bound counsel. In fact, he often chastened his disciples for misunderstanding him in that way. The only directives he gave for earthly action are found in the Sermon on the Mount, where he consistently spoke of giving things away and taking no thought for tomorrow, but believing that God will always provide.
The rest of the scriptures are full of stories of people who leaned to their own abilities and stopped believing in the providence of God. For goodness’ sake, the Israelites lived 40 years in the desert living off of quail by night and manna in the morning, never storing anything except for the Sabbath, just so they could keep it holy, not because it might be a rainy day. Do we believe God can and will provide?
Speaking of the Israelites, their whole plight never needed to happen. Long before Moses was there to rescue them, they settled in Egypt themselves, to eat of the fat of the land, a land purchased by Joseph for Pharaoh through cunningly devaluing Egyptian money during the famine until they were willing to sell their land for bread (Genesis 47). We’ve come full circle now, because the “prosperity gospel” has its roots in the story of Joseph. And if it weren’t for that narrative, the Israelites would have never left Canaan to begin with, they never would have needed to be delivered by Moses, and Joshua never would have killed every man, woman, and child to move back.
Like I said, I’m uncomfortable with the philosophies and theologies which are prevailing among the Saints in light of the church’s wealth. I see nothing good coming from it. The results of this line of thinking does not produce good fruit, and we have story after story in the scriptures to show us that. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news, and he triumphantly declares that all is made right through his atonement. Not even death can have claim upon us, nor any rainy day.