I have been a father of the prosperity gospel

We did everything right. As Christian parents, we look at lists of steps for raising a child in the Lord. We teach them right from wrong. We talk to them about Jesus. We take them to Sunday School. We arrived at the church.

Of course, none of us are perfect parents. But watching a child go through deep spiritual struggles can be disorienting when we have done everything in our power to prevent it, often with a fervor fueled by our own humble spiritual history. We have learned painful lessons with God and we want to prevent our children from having to learn them too.

Except that’s not how it works. We cannot prevent our children from having difficulties, and if we try, we risk preventing them from the full truth and beauty of the gospel.

I grew up in what is often called a “broken home,” although I would also call it a happy one. My mom worked hard and my grandparents lived with us for some of those years. Still, with that background, when my husband and I started having children, we set out to do it perfectly, as many new parents do.

With confidence comparable to that of first-year seminary students, we review all the Bible verses about parenting, order, and discipline, and plug them into an equation for perfect parenting. Our kids were going to be amazing because we were going to be amazing parents. We were parents according to the Book.

There’s nothing like the arrogance of the young and inexperienced, although, in retrospect, our problem was more than youth and pride. We had adopted a prosperity gospel view of family life, incorporating “health and wealth” principles into the parenting process. More than money or physical well-being, family was where we most deeply desired success, and that is where the false “gospel of success” took root in our lives.

At that time, we would not have called this teaching legalistic or prosperity gospel. We would have called it “biblical.” We think that if we could do this Christian life well, we wouldn’t have to depend so much on God’s grace. Grace would simply be our backup on unusual days…for curveballs.

We didn’t realize then that when we take principles from the Bible and strip them away from Christ and his redemption and forgiveness, they become something completely different. We adopt the stance of Adam and Eve holding the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, thinking that if we could know what to do and what not to do, then we would not be so dependent on God’s grace.

This was especially evident in the way we approached the Book of Proverbs. “Start the children on the path they should follow, and even when they are old they will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). We treat verses like this as fortune cookie guarantees rather than descriptions of the good God intends for us. We seek salvation through our own hands, as humans often do.

And that made sense, because the Proverbs are good. But we were too prone to judge goodness based on whether something gave us the results we wanted in the time frame we preferred.

God judges what is good differently. Chad Bird, Old Testament scholar says That to use Proverbs as collateral is to act like Job’s friends, examining someone who is suffering and trying to figure out which proverb he didn’t follow quite correctly: If we do all the right things, we should be fine! Let’s solve your failures. Perhaps there is a grain of wisdom here that can solve your situation.

Job was a righteous man, and yet the Proverbs did not “work” for him. He did everything right, but God still allowed suffering, seemingly without explanation, and appeared in the final chapters of the book to tell Job and his friends how incorrectly they had judged the situation.

Many times we do not want to recognize that Jesus did not only say suffering could it happens to us but we promised would do (John 16:33). That’s what the prosperity gospel ignores, and understandably so: it seems much more positive and productive to focus on the parts of the Bible that give us a sense of control.

We do not want to trust that Christ has overcome the world. We want to be glad that, well, at least we did everything we could. We don’t so much want redemption as we want redemption on our own terms, with our own hands.

As our culture moves from helicopter parenting to lawnmower parenting (where parents go beyond sitting still and remove all obstacles for their children), the temptation of prosperity gospel parenting only gets stronger.

It feels like we’ve somehow failed if our kids are dealing with difficult things. It feels like a failure if you are struggling with your faith or with God. We begin to think that it is our job to end all that struggle, forgetting that it is actually our job to be with our children and pray for them in both struggle and joy.

And parents are not the only ones who feel this sense of failure. Not long ago I was talking to a young woman who said she felt pressured to be happy all the time. Her parents kept saying that they just wanted her children to be happy, so when she wasn’t happy, she felt like she was failing them.

“I just want it to be okay to have a day when I’m sad,” she told me. He wanted to have the freedom to feel the full range of human emotions without disappointing his parents, without making them feel like they hadn’t done everything right.

Of course, a central tenet of the gospel is that can not do everything right, and that is why we so deeply need God’s redemption. I remember once opening my heart to God when one of my children was struggling. I cried because I couldn’t fix that pain. But God showed me then that if he had the ability to eliminate all of my children’s struggles, they would never need him. They would never have reason to cry out to him on their own.

My limitations help my children seek and see God. His power is shown in my weakness (2 Cor. 12:9), not in mechanical promises of family prosperity, and this is a power my children must come to know for themselves. Learning to trust in Christ alone for salvation is often a daily battle. Our children must get over it and overcome all their versions of self-justification, just as we did.

The longer I am a parent, the more I realize that God is more willing than I am for my children to have difficulties. I always want to skip the fight, ignore it, move quickly past it. I am often impatient and unwilling to push through the pain.

But if we can let go of prosperity gospel parenting, we can embrace the true gospel of a God who is with us and for us.

We can present this God to our children, not a God who recounts our failures as parents or demands constant happiness, but a compassionate God who meets us in our struggle. Who allows us to fight with him? Who doesn’t ask us to pretend that things are fine when they are not? Who allows us, like Martin Luther? put itto “[call] the thing as it really is,” even if it is uncomfortable or unhappy.

As much as we hate the fact that in this world we will have difficulties (and our children will have difficulties), we can take comfort in God’s honesty, patience, and love. And we can show our children that this is God, much better than the petty and often inept idol of the prosperity gospel could ever be.

What if starting children on the path they should follow wasn’t simply about teaching them right from wrong and making sure they attend Sunday School? What if you taught them to trust in God’s grace, every day?

Gretchen Ronnevik is the author of Ragged: Spiritual Disciplines for the Spiritually Exhausted and co-host of freely given podcast.

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