Does God want us rich? Prosperous? Powerful? Some people say so. They claim that all you have to do is visualize it, will it, and riches and prosperity will come your way, because God wants to make us rich. But is that really true? As Christians, our best source of information about what God wants is Jesus. Was Jesus rich? Does Jesus’ life, do Jesus’ words say this?
One person who makes the claim is Joel Osteen. He runs America’s largest church, Lakewood church in Houston, Texas, where tens of thousands of people attend weekly. Osteen, in his 2004 book, Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential, writes:
To live your best life now, you must start looking at life through eyes of faith, seeing yourself rising to new levels. See your business taking off. See your marriage restored. See your family prospering. See your dreams coming to pass. You must conceive it and believe it is possible if you ever hope to experience it.
This is a lovely picture, a paean to the power of positive thinking. But is it consistent with Jesus?
In his second letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul speaks of Jesus as follows:
Yes, Jesus was poor. He described himself as having “nowhere to lay his head” [Luke 9:58]. Yet he did not long for wealth: instead, he warned against it. He described the lure of wealth as choking the word of God, like thorny weeds choke out good plants [Matthew 13:22]. He told his followers:
Jesus exclaimed, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” [Luke 18:24]. Instead, he explained to his followers that they could not follow him unless they “deny themselves and take up their cross.” [Matthew 16:24].
The shock of this message is perhaps easy to miss today, because the image and meaning of “cross” has shifted since Jesus’ time. For people in Palestine at the time of Jesus, a cross was not a little piece of gold or silver jewellery worn around the neck, or a shape on the top of a steeple, but a particularly painful and drawn-out form of public execution. A cross meant the exact opposite of prosperity: it was shame, torture, failure, and death. To take up your cross was to embrace your own execution: it was to put your noose around your neck, to strap yourself into your electric chair. Jesus did not just say it, he lived it: he himself accepted public execution on a cross, a long, excruciating and miserable death.
Yet this is not the end of the story: Jesus rose from the dead, and in so doing, his new life gave hope to all Christians, because he promised this new life to all who follow him. This is what St. Paul meant when he wrote that by Jesus’ poverty, we “might become rich”. But the path to this richness, this life, is not through positive thinking, it is not through “seeing yourself rising to new levels”. It is through the cross. It means embracing Jesus and loving like he loves. This means loving through loss. poverty. weakness. and failure. It means letting everything else go, holding on to Jesus alone. No doubt Joel Osteen means well when he speaks of positive thinking leading to prosperity, and as a self-motivation technique, positive thinking is not without merit, but it is not the road to true prosperity. The only road to the new life of Jesus’ resurrection is through Jesus’ cross. So do not waste your time trying to develop an image of victory and success. Focus instead on Jesus himself. Learn to be like him, love like him, embracing your cross and trusting in Jesus for resurrection.