(RNS) — I’ve recently been made aware of a disclaimer of sorts that occurs alongside President Russell M. Nelson’s October 2023 General Conference talk “Think Celestial.” The talk, and the footnote that accompanies it, speak to a tension I see within our preaching and teaching in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: namely, does God want us to be successful?
President Nelson, now 99, told a story of how, when he was a young intern in medicine making $15 a month, his first wife, Dantzel, asked him if he was paying tithing on that stipend. He does not give a year for this conversation, but I imagine this would have been in the late 1940s, as he married Dantzel in August of 1945 and received his M.D. two years later.
He was not paying tithing, he told her. He “quickly repented and began paying the additional $1.50 in monthly tithing.”
Reflecting on this many decades later, President Nelson said the decision to tithe to the Church had altered the course of his faith and his life.
Was the Church any different because we increased our tithing? Of course not. However, becoming a full-tithe payer changed me. That is when I learned that paying tithing is all about faith, not money. As I became a full-tithe payer, the windows of heaven began to open for me. I attribute several subsequent professional opportunities to our faithful payment of tithes.
That last line — that “several subsequent professional opportunities” had come his way because of faithful tithe-paying — is the one that gives me pause. And apparently I’m not the only one, because at some point in the next two weeks, the Church added a footnote to clarify (sort of) that President Nelson was not promising his listeners professional success just for paying tithing.
This is not to imply a cause-and-effect relationship. Some who never pay tithing attain professional opportunities, while some who pay tithing do not. The promise is that the windows of heaven will be opened to the tithe payer. The nature of the blessings will vary.
In other words, “we’re not saying you will be promoted or get a raise because you give the Church 10% of your income. We’re not exactly not saying that, because God has promised to open the windows of heaven for you, but … your mileage may vary.”
Here, in a nutshell, is the Church’s ongoing struggle with the prosperity gospel. I’ve rarely heard in LDS circles any talks or lessons I would characterize as the “hard” prosperity gospel, but the “soft” variety is all over. Let me explain what I mean by the difference.
The hard prosperity gospel is old-school Creflo Dollar teaching that God wants — even demands — Christians to be rich. That tithing will directly protect them from the threat of disease and poverty.
It’s viewing conspicuous consumption and lavish cars as evidence of holy favor. Those big-ticket luxury items are recast as evangelism tools and justified as inviting others to become Christians.
And the hard prosperity gospel tends to turn against its own followers when they (inevitably) deal with illness, financial setbacks or wayward children. Because God only desires for his true followers to be successful and filled with power, those obstacles have no place. They are instead attributed to the sufferer’s own sin or lack of faith.
They invited the illness because they didn’t pray hard enough; they deserved the job loss because they skimped on donating to the televangelist.
The soft prosperity gospel is more subtle. That makes it harder to spot, but no less theologically dangerous.
The soft prosperity gospel doesn’t emphasize punishment for perceived failures so much as it stresses the coming rewards after checking all the expected boxes. It’s less fear-based but every bit as self-centered. I call it ITTT — “if this, then that” theology. ITTT theology seems like an excellent term for it because the concept of automated, predetermined follow-up action is all the rage in some businesses right now. I use it to a limited extent in my own business. If I set up a Zoom meeting and invite people, then Google Calendar will automatically email the invitations and reminders to all the guests, and I don’t even have to think about it.
In the realm of faith, ITTT theology looks like this:
- If I work extra hard on my mission and obey all the rules, then God will reward me with a beautiful eternal companion when I get home.
- The Church should promote to leadership those men who have been visibly successful in their careers, and whose children appear happy and obedient.
- If I read my Scriptures for 20 minutes every morning before school, then God will take away my desire to look at porn websites.
- There is no limit to how much wealth the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can ethically amass.
- If I quit my job and stay home to be a full-time mother, then all of my children will stay in the Church when they grow up.
- When I feel discouraged, that is Satan talking. Satan does not want me to be happy, successful or free.
- Anyone born with a disability in this life will be resurrected with a perfect body.
- The restored gospel is a Plan of Happiness, and my ultimate goal is to obtain a place in the Celestial Kingdom with my family.
- If I fast perfectly and pray extra hard on the first Sunday of the month, then my dear friend will be healed of her cancer.
That last one was mine, by the way — something I did as recently as two weeks ago. I’m writing this column because I know that prosperity theology is dangerous and is not the way modeled by Jesus. And yet I slip into it, too, more often than I’d like, because life is just … hard. We want it to make sense. We want there to be some magical talisman where goodness is rewarded and wrongdoing punished.
I want that. I want to feel I have some control over life’s capricious, and sometimes cruel, twists and turns.
Yet that’s not the way of Christ. Remember the facts: We are called to hitch our wagons to the star of a man who probably never had a family of his own, never owned a house, never had a successful professional career. He suffered as part of a colonized people in thrall to a brutal government, and he died a painful and ignominious death he did not deserve.
You can see why those elements of “follow Jesus” tend to get sublimated on a Sunday.
But that’s the gospel we signed up for, the one started by the man who was spat upon and handed an early death.
That’s the gospel I find in the writings of Kate Bowler, a scholar who studied the prosperity gospel (see interview here) before she was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer at age 35. The experience, which she recounts in her gorgeous memoir, “Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved,” gave her a hard-won perspective on the beauty of the Christian gospel. I’ll close with her words and a hearty “amen”:
What would it mean for Christians to give up that little piece of the American dream that says, “You are limitless”? Everything is not possible. The mighty Kingdom of God is not yet here. What if rich did not have to mean wealthy, and whole did not have to mean healed? What if being people of “the gospel” meant that we are simply people with good news?
God is here. We are loved. It is enough.