Reformed Protestants are generally dismissive (or worse) of prosperity gospels. They know, at least intuitively, that suffering is part of the Christian life and that calculating Godâ€™s favor on the basis of material well being is not good theology. Max Weber, the sociologist who interpreted capitalism as the republication of the covenant of works, never read the psalmist who wrote,
Be not afraid when one becomes rich,
when the glory of this house increases.
For when he dies he will carry nothing away;
his glory will not go down after him.
Though, while he lives, he counts himself happy,
and though a man gets praise when he does well for himself,
he will go to the generation of his fathers,
who will never more see the light.
Man cannot abide in his pomp,
he is like the beasts that perish. (Ps. 49: 16-20)
And yet, when Reformed Protestants pray, or at least when they make prayer requests, our desires generally run along the lines of Joel Osteen. Which sort of upends Benjamin Warfield’s remark that every Christian on his knees is a good Calvinist. His point that when praying every believer is acknowledging the sovereignty of God. But he didn’t ask what believers were praying for and whether it conformed to God’s revealed will. We pray for surgeries, broken ankles, test results, catastrophe survivors, and the unemployed. None of these concerns are of themselves illegitimate. Jesus does tell his disciples not to worry about their physical needs, not because they are unimportant but because if God provides for the lilies of the field then heâ€™s likely to care even more for his children. And yet, that passage in Matthew 6 concludes with the importance of seeking first the kingdom of God and then all these other things will be added.
Not to be missed is what the Lord’s Prayer says and teaches. Whether Reformed Protestants actually use it to the degree that Lutherans and Anglicans do, our catechisms do go into some depth in explaining the Lordâ€™s Prayer and usually begin the instruction with words to the effect that this prayer is a model or example for how to pray.
If that is the case, then by my count only one of the six petitions has to do with material needs â€“ â€œgive us this day our daily bread.â€ The others concern God (his glory, church, and will) and manâ€™s sin (forgiveness, and temptation). By my math that works out to roughly 17 percent of our prayers being devoted to physical needs.
And yet, when we listen or read the requests for prayer in most congregations, the percentage tilts almost in the exact opposite direction, with God and sin receiving about 17 percent of our requests. Now, some of the problem here is that requesting prayer for Aunt Bessieâ€™s gallbladder surgery is a lot less embarrassing than asking for prayer for my struggles with lust. Also, not to be missed is that some physical afflictions actually threaten life, and prayers for the living as they approach death is surely appropriate.
Even here, though, I wonder if our prayers are filled more with petitions for healing and prolonged life rather than Godâ€™s will. Indeed, most of our prayers for the physical well being of believers, at least publicly, are on the order of asking God for what we want â€“ lives without suffering, pain, and death. We would need to be locked up if we prayed for more suffering, pain, and death, or more hunger, poverty, and unemployment. But again the point is for what do we pray and what does it say about our understanding of the gospelâ€™s consequences for the lives of Christians. When we pray are we endanger of endorsing implicitly a prosperity gospel? Is prayer effective when it brings the results we want? Or is prayer accomplishing its purpose when through it our appetites conform to God’s will?