I’ve never been tempted to believe the prosperity gospel. I suspect that if I did believe it (and to be clear: I don’t!), I would hold fast to Jesus’ promise in the Sermon on the Mount about God’s faithful provision in Matthew 6:31-33:
Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
Of course, the moment I write this, I’m reminded that Jesus has just said that we should not lay up for ourselves “treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (vv. 19-20).
But still… Matthew 6:31-33 is the word of our Lord Jesus. It’s true. At the same time, however, we have Jesus warning his disciples that they will face persecution and even death on account of their faithfulness to him (e.g., Matthew 5:11-12; Luke 6:22; Luke 21:16-18; John 16:33, among others). We see in the Book of Acts and throughout the apostles’ letters examples of great suffering and death among the saints. Paul himself writes, in Romans 8:35, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?”
Presumably, each of these troubles will come to Christians at least sometimes. Paul himself describes ways in which he experienced nearly every one of them in 2 Corinthians 12:16-33.
So how do we reconcile Jesus’ promises in Matthew 6 about the Father always providing for us with the expectation that disciples will experience trouble—even to the point of hunger, nakedness, and death?
John Piper explains this with eloquence in his book Don’t Waste Your Life.
What, then, does Jesus mean, “All these things—all your food and clothing—will be added to you when you seek the kingdom of God first”? He means the same thing he meant when he said, “Some of you they will put to death… But not a hair of your head will perish” (Luke 16:16-18). He meant that you will have everything you need to do his will and be eternally and supremely happy in him.
How much food and clothing are necessary? Necessary for what? we must ask. Necessary to be comfortable? No, Jesus did not promise comfort. Necessary to avoid shame? No, Jesus called us to bear shame for his name with joy. Necessary to stay alive? No, he did not promise to spare us death—of any kind. Persecution and plague consume the saints. Christians die on the scaffold, and Christians die of disease. That’s why Paul wrote, “We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23).
What Jesus meant was that our Father in heave would never let us be tested beyond what we are able (1 Corinthians 10:13). If there is one scrap of bread that you need, as God’s child, in order to keep your faith in the dungeon of starvation, you will have it. God does not promise enough food for comfort or life—he promises enough so that you can trust him and do his will.
When Paul promised, “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus,” he had just said, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12-13, 19).
“All things” means “I can suffer hunger through him who strengthens me. I can be destitute of food and clothing through him who strengthens me.” That is what Jesus promises. He will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). If we starve, he will be our everlasting, life-giving bread. If we are shamed with nakedness, he will be our perfect, all-righteous apparel. If we are tortured and made to scream in our dying pain, he will keep us from cursing his name and will restore our beaten body to everlasting beauty.
Do you see the radical God-centeredness of this perspective? I never encountered this in any seminary class or United Methodist-oriented Bible study. Why not? What’s wrong with us? Don’t we believe this is true?
Jesus’ great promise of the Father’s provision in Matthew 6:31-33 isn’t mostly about us; it’s about us in relation to our Father: our Father will give us whatever we need in order to continue to glorify him in whatever circumstance in which he places us. That’s all Jesus promises—yet that’s everything we need.
1. John Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 94-5.