Prosperity, piety and the humanity of Jesus
I was staying at a place called ‘Dadson’s Lodge’, which is on the coast in the south-west of Ghana, in an area called Busua, among the Ahanta-speaking people. I was one of a group visiting from the UK, on behalf of Wycliffe Translators, early in 2004. The Lodge itself was spectacularly located on the beach, with magnificent views out to sea. Each morning I would waken to the sound of the surf pounding on the sandy shore.
One evening, as I drifted into the lounge after a long but rewarding day spent with the Bible translation team, I noticed a television had been left blaring to the empty room. I quickly became interested in the content; a preacher was preaching to a large multitude in a packed sports stadium. Evidently, explained a passing member of staff, there was a mission taking place in Ghana. The preacher’s message was simple, if dangerously misleading: come to Jesus and you will be healed of all your sicknesses (perhaps for a fee, I wasn’t sure), come to Jesus and you will become wealthy, come to Jesus and you will be successful in all you do. It was a version of what is sometimes called the ‘prosperity gospel’. Bearing in mind that over 1 in 4 in that country struggle to live on less than $1.25 a day, unsurprisingly, the prosperity gospel has a particularly seductive appeal.
Recently, I came across a similar message in a book I found whilst browsing in a Christian bookshop which reminded me of my trip to Ghana. From what I gleaned as I skimmed the pages, the message was essentially that success and money and good health were the true measures of a gospel work. The prosperity gospel - or should I call it the prosperity heresy - is alive and well in our own country.
In fact, this kind of thing is pervasive in modern church circles, although it has a very ancient pedigree. There were two main distortions of the Christian gospel in the early church. One denied that Jesus was ever truly human (if you want to impress at parties, it was called Docetism) and the other denied that Jesus was ever truly divine (again, to impress your friends, it was called Ebionism or adoptionism). It is the first of these that interests me for the moment - Docetism
The prosperity gospel is a modern version of the denial of the humanity of Jesus. It is the old heresy of Docetism in modern dress. Let me explain. The Docetists found it impossible to believe that Jesus could really have suffered. For them, He only appeared to be thirsty, or to weep, or to hunger, or to sweat in agony or die. He only appeared to be human. In the early church the faithful saw through this nonsense and realised that this version of things was not only false, but emptied the Christian faith of its heart. Incidentally, this Docetic account lives on in many Islamic versions of the life of Christ.
The Christian faith, when properly understood, affirms that Jesus really was born in Bethlehem and had a real childhood and experienced real suffering in a real crucifixion before He experienced a real resurrection. The story of Jesus is the story of a real man, and not someone who only pretended to be human.
The danger and cruelty of Docetism is that it leaves a huge area of human experience untouched by the Gospel - that of suffering. The scriptures teach us that Christian lives can be transformed by suffering because we know we are not detached from the sufferings of Christ, as Docetists would have us believe. We know the power of His resurrection but we also participate in His sufferings (Philippians 3:10). The reality of the sufferings of Christ enable us to navigate our own sufferings. Paul writes, ‘Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.’ (Romans 8:17) Suffering becomes a route to developing patience and hope (Romans 5:3; Colossians 1:24; James 1:2-4)
The Docetic view of things denies the reality of suffering in Christ, and therefore presents a message that suggests it can be removed from our own lives, here and now. This then creates all manner of guilt and misery for those locked into poverty or illness.
The real danger of Docetism is its seductiveness. It panders to our desire to get away from any of the risks and vulnerability that belong inextricably with love. It can come to us in all manner of ways. For example, I hate committee work. I am not a ‘meetings’ kind of person. So I can feel the docetic lure that says to me, ‘You need to stop being involved in this kind of time wasting stuff and do more ‘spiritual’ things’. Do you see the error? Actually, working on committees can be good for us, because we have to learn to listen to other people; we have to learn to be patient and to be open to change. The truth is that the mundane tasks of life are no less spiritually substantial than the ‘religious’.
A good docetic line is, ‘I’m religious but I don’t believe in institutional Christianity.’ This is just another way of saying that someone doesn’t want to be committed because commitment would mean frustrations and ambiguities and responsibility. It is the temptation to audit life, without participating in it. It is the absurdity of disengagement to the side-lines in the name of a false piety.
There was a time in the 1990s when I attended monthly meetings in the Church offices in Edinburgh. I did so for twelve long years. To reach Edinburgh from Wigtown required an early rise, a 26 mile car journey to the nearest railway station in Barrhill and then three train journeys. Often the meetings were routine and mundane; on other occasions they were hugely frustrating and provocative (why can’t everyone agree with me?); always they seemed to sap my time and energy and enthusiasm (Why does no-one agree with me?). There was always the temptation to withdraw, not to be involved, let it pass me by, justify my escape by highlighting the superior spirituality of alternative activities. It was the temptation to surrender to a distorted version of the faith. Non-involvement is not an option if we take the Incarnation of Christ seriously.
The former bishop of South Carolina, C. FitzSimons Allison, in a wonderfully entitled book ‘The cruelty of heresy’ writes, ‘Docetism is like candy; it tastes good, but eventually rots the teeth… Docetism in all its forms is a religion of flight, of cowardice, of suicide. Docetic heresies grow in the soil of sentimental and antiseptic love where hopes are too small to be disappointing, commitments too shallow for risk, loyalties too slight to be betrayed, passions too weak to be hurt.’
Committee work still ‘does my head in’ but it has probably done me more good than any worthy ‘spiritual’ retreat.
Time to roll up my sleeves.…