One of the fastest growing religious movements in India today is the prosperity gospel. This teaching basically says that everyone can be healthy, wealthy, and successful, if they just believe in Jesus enough.
Prosperity gospel teachers have gathered a massive number of followers across our country, even though their doctrine does not line up with the basic tenets of historic Christianity. What then explains India’s fascination with prosperity teachers?
Money and Religion
Prosperity gospel teachers essentially combine two of our most cherished subjects as Indians: money and religion.
On the one hand, we Indians are gripped by the desire for money. In general, all humans have a bent toward trying to find our security and significance in money. Most people and families in India have been (more or less) impoverished for as long as we can remember. We are desperate to rid ourselves of the pain and degradation of poverty. So we dream of being rich.
On the other hand, religion is at the core of Indian life. Most of us are keenly aware that we live in a universe of spiritual forces, working for our ill or for our good. We also know that the favour and blessing of God (or gods) is the only way we can get the things we want in life.
Prosperity gospel teachers combine two cherished Indian subjects: money and religion.
So it makes sense that many Indians see appeasing God or gods and channeling spiritual powers for their benefit as a central activity in their lives.
It is is not hard to see why money is at the heart of the religious pursuit of many Indians, whatever the religion. Prosperity preachers continue this tradition of fusing the financial and the spiritual, the monetary and the mystical. Only, now it is done in Jesus’s name.
A Familiar Message
Apart from combining money and religion, prosperity gospel teachers also tap into impulses that are familiar with how most of us already think.
Firstly, Indians are very practical people. We are interested in the concrete and the down-to-earth, rather than the abstract and the theoretical. We place the visible and tangible ahead of the invisible and the intangible. Our basic focus is on this life, not on the life to come.
Accordingly, prosperity teaching puts the emphasis on people’s immediate needs and desires, rather than deeper spiritual truths. Thus attaining success takes priority over Jesus’ death and resurrection. Being healthy replaces being right with God. Gaining wealth supersedes gaining eternal life. So we can see how prosperity theology accords with the natural tendencies of most Indians, even as it clearly distorts biblical doctrine and priorities.
Secondly, Indians tend to view relationships as transactional in nature. This is true of our relationships with people, as well as our relationship with God.
The core principle of all Eastern religions is karma, which is the notion that all of our actions have positive or negative consequences for our lives. If we fulfil our duty to God, then he is obligated to bless us. If we break his rules, then he must punish us with negative effects.
One of the most insidious aspects of prosperity teaching is that it rejects the gospel of God’s grace toward sinners. Instead, it replaces it with a new kind of ‘karma’. This new prosperity gospel karma has a simple message. It calls people to just work up enough faith, or give enough money, have enough positive thoughts, or pronounce enough positive affirmations. Then God will be ready to pour down the blessings of health and wealth on them.
In this way the functional message of prosperity preachers is not too different from the existing belief of most Indians—‘working to earn God’s (worldly) blessings.’
A Familiar Messenger
It is not just the message of prosperity theology that is familiar to most Indians. It is the messengers themselves. Like the babas and gurus who are so popular in India, prosperity gospel teachers often establish their own authority as charismatic speakers, miracle workers, and exclusive channels of God’s blessings. They often use their flamboyant lifestyles as examples of the kind of wealth and ‘blessing’ that they promise to their followers.
In a communal society like ours where people often find their identities in the leaders to whom they are attached, prosperity preachers are well-placed to attract followers in big numbers.
Finding True Prosperity
By using natural religious impulses to attract followers toward the goals of health and wealth in this life, prosperity teachers have captured the imagination of many Indians. The message of the prosperity gospel, however, clearly contradicts what God’s Word actually teaches.
We can be content with what we have, because God himself is our ultimate reward.
The Bible makes it clear that the goal of our faith is not money and worldly success, it is a personal relationship with the Father through his Son (John 17:3). Jesus tells us not to store up wealth on earth, where moth and rust destroy, but to store up treasure in heaven (Matt. 6:19-20).
Wanting to be rich is a trap that plunges men into destruction (1 Tim. 6:9). Instead of seeking to be rich monetarily, we should focus on being rich toward God and be generous toward others ((Luke 12:21), 1 Tim. 6:18).
God certainly has the power to heal, but he may choose not to heal (2 Cor. 12:9). What every follower of Christ should expect in this life is not worldly success, but rather suffering (Acts 14:22; 2 Tim. 3:12).
The way of the cross is foolishness in the eyes of the world (1 Cor. 1:18), but those who are willing to pass through the small gate and narrow road find life (Matt. 7:14). God will more than make up for whatever sacrifices we make for Christ (Luke 18:29-30).
We can be content with what we have, because God himself is our ultimate reward (Gen. 15:1; Heb. 13:5). And we can be joyful even in the midst of difficult times, because God is using even these for our good (Rom. 8:28; James 1:2-4).
To understand and to experience these biblical realities is to find true prosperity.