The Right Kind of Prosperity Gospel

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J.D. Greear:

I recently took a trip with my family to Zion National Park (which is amazing, by the way). To get into the park, you pass through a long tunnel. The tour guide told my kids that if they held their breath the whole way, they would get a wish. That night, one of our kids—who was apparently feeling rather spiritual—said, “You know what I wished for? That God would use me in his global mission.” Not to be outdone, another kid piped up, “Well, I wished that God would let me be a NICU nurse helping kids in poor countries.” Finally, my youngest jumped in, saying, “I wished for a dog.” (That would have been me as a kid.)

So What’s the Right Answer?

Most of us have dreamed of what we would ask for if we ever got a free wish. Of course, we know the usual rules: You can’t make anyone fall in love with you; you can’t wish for more wishes. If you got one wish, what would it be?

That’s essentially what God offered to Solomon at the beginning of his reign. But rather than praying for riches or power (or a dog or a role as a NICU nurse), Solomon prayed for wisdom. I’ve heard wisdom described as knowing how to navigate the realities of life when the rules don’t help. It’s the divine insight we need in the 1,000 little decisions that aren’t laid out clearly in the Bible. Without wisdom, these situations drive us crazy.

What we often fail to see in Solomon’s request is the why behind the what. God was pleased with Solomon’s request for wisdom but only because he asked for the sake of his kingdom. Solomon pleaded with God to fill his heart with discernment, not because he wanted to know who to marry, where to live, or how to get rich, but rather because he wanted to lead God’s people in God’s way. He didn’t want prosperity; he wanted God’s will. That’s a prayer God will hear.

Solomon also grounded his request on God’s past faithfulness, saying, “You have shown great and faithful love to your servant, my father David … You have continued this great and faithful love for him by giving him a son to sit on his throne, as it is today” (1 Kings 3:6). Solomon knew that God’s past grace is a promise of his desire to bestow future grace. When making his appeal to God, he rested on the promises of God.

You Really Do Have a Wish

You may read Solomon’s story and think, “Well, that’s interesting, but not terribly relevant. If God ever appears to me and grants me one wish, now I know the answer. Otherwise …”

James, however, repeats the promise of Solomon’s story for us in the New Testament. “If any of you lacks wisdom,” he writes, “he should ask God—who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly—and it will be given to him” (James 1:5). You really do have a wish sitting on the table, and God stands ready to answer it. Ask for wisdom and he is eager to answer—not just for kings but for all who are in need.

I love the way James describes God’s posture in this, too. He gives wisdom “generously and ungrudgingly.” Some translations say “without reproach,” which means, essentially, “without a lecture.” Have you ever had the experience of asking a friend for help, knowing you’ll have to endure the requisite lecture about your stupidity before getting the help you need? I sometimes think of the Father that way. He’s in heaven shaking his head, turning to Jesus and saying, “Can you believe Greear? He’s gotten himself into another dust-up, being the idiot he always is. Why does he think I’d help him again? I’d rather give him a piece of my mind.” But that’s not how James describes it. God responds to our pleas for help passionately and compassionately, even if we made our own mess.

… and All These Things

To those who ask in faith, God promises to pour out his wisdom. But God won’t stop there. For Solomon, God honored his request for wisdom by giving him more than he asked for—riches and honor and unprecedented power (1 Kings 3:10-13). Because Solomon prioritized God and his kingdom, God threw in all these other things as a bonus.

Lest we think this was unique to Solomon, Jesus himself says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). Does that mean that God will always make true Christians rich and successful? No. That kind of conclusion runs contrary to good exegesis and obvious experience. But it does show us something of God’s character: If we honor him, God wants to give us more than we ask for.

The irony of the modern, godless life is that people are desperately running after “all these things” to satisfy them—great sex, lots of money, a good marriage, a stable career. Run after them all you want, but you’ll never catch them. What’s worse, you’ll miss God in the process. But run after God, and watch him surprise you with so much joy, abundance, and satisfaction that you won’t know how to contain it all.

Pastor J.D., I thought you didn’t believe in the Prosperity Gospel. In a sense, I do: I believe in the prosperity of God’s kingdom, not my own. God has made huge promises to us in Scripture, but those promises are always tied to his mission. God wants to do more in your life than you can imagine—yes, even Solomonic-level impact—but first you must put yourself in a position to receive it.

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I am currently serving churches and colleges as a bible teacher, overseas and in the UK.