Yesterday I posted about how I fear many people may be mistaking success in various forms as a sign of God’s special favour. (If you haven’t read that post yet, you’ll probably want to do so before you read this one.) Today I’ve been thinking about the whole issue some more.
In yesterday’s post, I laid out the main reason why I think this approach to God’s favour is wrong-headed: because it assumes that the favour of God looks a lot like success as the world defines it (health, wealth, career advancement, etc.). I also pointed out that the New Testament writers warned the faithful to expect trials, suffering and persecution rather than success, and that many of those who were most faithful to Jesus’ commission to preach the gospel endured great hardship and ultimately paid for their faithfulness with their lives.
The question I’ve been pondering is this: where does this belief in God’s favour as a source of success come from? And why is it so pervasive? Here’s where I’ve got to in my thinking.
Most obviously, like its close relative the prosperity gospel, the allure of this view of God’s favour lies in its appeal to our fallen nature. Faced with a choice between financial, physical and material abundance on the one hand or hardship and suffering on the other, how many people would consciously choose the latter over the former? Our selfish nature is drawn to any teaching that promises comfort, convenience and success. To deny this is to fundamentally deny the reality of human nature. That being the case, the job of those who preach God’s-favour-as-your-ticket-to-health-happiness-and-success is all the easier: we all have a fallen, sinful nature that is just waiting to hear this kind of message. So this version of divine favour is a relatively easy sell.
But I think this message of God’s favour as the doorway to success may also have another appeal: it allows us to remain in the driving seat and keep control. If God’s favour comes in the form of special material blessings given to His children, and if those gifts are given as rewards for faithfulness and obedience, then there’s a simple equation at play: if you are faithful and obedient, you will get the gifts. Or, to put in another way, if these gifts are rewards for faithfulness and obedience, then we can earn them simply by being faithful and obedient. The point is that, under this view, we are in control. If we obtain these special favours from God, we must have earned them and can pat ourselves on the back and feel duly satisfied with what good Christians we are. And if we don’t… well, we only have ourselves to blame. All we have to do is pull our socks up, get our act together and be better Christians. (I described a somewhat similar approach to the Christian life in an earlier post, Transactional Christianity.)
So the real, most basic problem with this view is that it is at odds with the gospel itself. The gospel says that there’s nothing we can do to earn God’s favour, and that the salvation and life that is offered to us through Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection is a free gift of grace, entirely at God’s initiative. Thus, the way to gain entrance into this new life is precisely to renounce control – to recognise that all our efforts at self-improvement, however well intentioned, and all our worldly successes, however impressive, will never bring us the kind of eternal life our souls long for. Eternal life is offered to us on a plate; the only catch is that if we want it, we have to drop dead first. I believe giving up control – abandoning our determination to pull the strings, call the shots and determine the outcome – is what Jesus meant by denying ourselves, and what the Apostle Paul meant when he talked about “dying to self”.