J. I. Packer on the Destructive Triumphalism of the "health and wealth" Gospel1
No one has spoken with greater force and clarity concerning the destructive errors of the health and wealth gospel than has J. I. Packer.
In his classic work, Knowing God, he reminds us that some folk are given to a type of ministry that focuses so intently on the blessings and triumphs of the Christian life that it fails to do justice to “the rougher side of the Christian life” (244). It “gives the impression that normal Christian living is a perfect bed of roses, a state of affairs in which everything in the garden is lovely all the time, and problems no longer exist – or, if they come, they have only to be taken to the throne of grace, and they will melt away at once. This is to suggest that the world, the flesh and the devil will give us no serious trouble once we are Christians; nor will our circumstances and personal relationships ever be a problem to us; nor will we ever be a problem to ourselves. Such suggestions are mischievous, however, because they are false” (245).
God, explains Packer, is typically very gentle with new Christians. “Often the start of their Christian career is marked by great emotional joy, striking providences, remarkable answers to prayer and immediate fruitfulness in their first acts of witness; thus God encourages them and establishes them in ‘the life.’ But as they grow stronger, and are able to bear more, he exercises them in a tougher school. He exposes them to as much testing by the pressure of opposed and discouraging influences as they are able to bear – not more (see the promise, 1 Cor 10:13), but equally not less (see the admonition, Acts 14:22). Thus he builds our character, strengthens our faith, and prepares us to help others. Thus he crystallizes our sense of values. Thus he glorifies himself in our lives, making his strength perfect in our weakness. There is nothing unnatural, therefore, in an increase of temptations, conflicts and pressures as the Christian goes on with God – indeed, something would be wrong if it did not happen. But the Christian who has been told that the normal Christian life is unshadowed and trouble-free can only conclude, as experiences of inadequacy and imperfection pile in upon him, that he must have lapsed from normal” (246).
Sooner or later, says Packer, “the truth will be that God is now exercising his child – his consecrated child – in the ways of adult godliness, as he exercised Job, and some of the psalmists, and the addressees of the epistle to the Hebrews, by exposing them to strong attacks from the world, the flesh and the devil, so that their powers of resistance might grow greater and their character as people of God become stronger. As we said above, all the children of God undergo this treatment – it is part of the ‘chastening of the Lord’ (Heb 12:5 KJV, echoing Job 5:17; Prov 3:11), to which he subjects every one of his children whom he loves” (248).
And what becomes of that Christian who is not prepared for this, who is promised ease and comfort and consistent triumph? Packer answers: “It sentences devoted Christians to a treadmill life of hunting each day for nonexistent failures in consecration, in the belief that if only they could find some such failures to confess and forsake they could recover an experience of spiritual infancy which God means them now to leave behind. Thus it not only produces spiritual regression and unreality; it sets them at cross-purposes with their God, who has taken from them the carefree glow of spiritual babyhood, with its huge chuckles and contented passivity, precisely in order that he may lead them into an experience that is more adult and mature” (248).
“The least effect of accepting the proposed remedy [of this sort of unbiblical triumphalism] will be arrested spiritual development – the emergence of a childish, grinning, irresponsible, self-absorbed breed of evangelical adults. The worst effects, among sincere and honest believers, will be morbid instrospection, hysteria, mental breakdown and loss of faith, at any rate in its evangelical form” (248).
Thus we learn how God draw us closer to himself. It is not, explains Packer, “by shielding us from assault by the world, the flesh and the devil, nor by protecting us from burdensome and frustrating circumstances, nor yet by shielding us from troubles created by our own temperament and psychology; but rather by exposing us to all these things, so as to overwhelm us with a sense of our own inadequacy, and to drive us to cling to him more closely” (250).
If I’ve learned anything about J. I. Packer it is that he is an unrelenting realist when it comes to the Christian life. Indeed, “unreality in religion,” he writes, “is an accursed thing. . . . Unreality toward God is the wasting disease of much modern Christianity. We need God to make us realists about both ourselves and him” (251).