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Throughout July we’re taking an in-depth look at Proverbs, the Bible’s one-of-a-kind book about our never-ending need for wisdom.

“God wants you to be rich.  God wants you to be healthy.  God wants you to prosper.” 

According to a highly popular strain of Christianity, you can have it all.  You can Name It and Claim It.  All you need to do is believe that with all of your heart. 

Need confirmation?  Just look at the lifestyles and bank accounts of some of America’s most famous Prosperity Gospel preachers. 

TV evangelist Kenneth Copeland cannot imagine doing ministry without his private jet.  In 2015 he declared that flying commercial (like ordinary people) is equivalent to getting “in a long tube with a bunch of demons.”  If he did that, “I’d have to stop 65% of what I’m doing.”

Not to be outdone or outflown, evangelist Creflo Dollar asked each of his followers to donate $300 to underwrite his Project G650 Campaign – G650 standing for the finest Gulfstream jet on the market, which costs a whopping $65 million.  When Dollar began to take flak for guilting his TV congregation into funding such extravagance, he declared in a sermon, “If I want to believe God for a $65 million plane, you cannot stop me.  You cannot stop me from dreaming.  I’m going to dream until Jesus comes.” 

Jim Bakker, the 80s-era televangelist who spent years in a federal prison for mail fraud and conspiracy, is rebuilding his kingdom in Branson, Missouri.  He’s now selling property in a development that he claims will be the safest place to live when the Apocalypse arrives.  “Where are you going to go when the world’s on fire?” he asks.  “This place is for God’s people!” 

Historically, followers of Jesus have always been threatened by three fierce idols: money, sex, and power.

American Christians have long been seduced by a fourth rival to God’s leadership in their lives: success.  

For many of us, this is jarring news.  Isn’t financial prosperity – as embodied by a great job, a burgeoning savings account, and lots of neat stuff – a sure sign of God’s blessing?  But any honest reading of the New Testament’s four biographies of Jesus – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – reveals that “prospering,” instead of being the proof of God’s favor, is actually our number one spiritual threat.  “You cannot serve both God and Making It,” according to Jesus. (Matthew 6:24)

So where do the prosperity preachers go digging for prooftexts that God wants you to have a happier, easier life? 

All too often they turn to Proverbs, which at first glance looks like required reading for a Tony Robbins self-help seminar.  It’s easy to cherry-pick happiness verses.  “[Wisdom says], with me are riches and honor, enduring wealth and prosperity.” (8:18)  “He who trusts in the Lord will prosper.” (28:25)  Obedience to wise teachings will deliver “length of days and years of life and peace.” (3:1-4)

Proverbs 16:3 is one of the most frequently quoted can-do verses in the entire Bible:  “Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established.”  All too often this is what we hear:  “If I tell God about the plans I have made for myself, and cover them with a few prayers, then bingo – God is on the hook for making my dreams come true.” 

But that’s not the real thrust of that text.  

“Committing our work to the Lord” means trusting in God’s power (not our own), and discerning God’s dreams for this broken world (not our private hopes that we can somehow get out of this place unscathed).  Then we humbly enroll ourselves as his servants. 

Every morning we place ourselves under the canopy of Proverbs 3:5,6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding [or as the Living Bible memorably paraphrases, ‘Don’t rely on what you think you know’].  In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”

It’s worth noting that the word translated “prosperity” in English-language Bibles is almost always the Hebrew word shalom.  Shalom represents so much more than just “peace.”  It evokes God’s deepest yearnings for humanity – a reality that includes justice, goodness, and joy for people everywhere. 

If we trust in the Lord with all our heart, will we experience prosperity? 

Yes, if we understand prosperity not as “succeeding at the American Dream” but personally experiencing the character of Christ. 

Jesus’ job is not to make us happy.  Or make us rich.  Or keep us free of cancer, suffering, pain, and disappointment. 

Jesus’ job is to make us wise.  And good.

And more than anything else, in this world and the next, to transform us into people who are just like him.