Whenever Jesus talked about the kingdom of God, He emphasized self-denial, pain and suffering, and even martyrdom. When someone voiced a voluntary desire to follow Him, Jesus’ response was amazingly dissuasive: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head,” (Luke 9:58). In other words, “I do not have the material things you are seeking.”
On another occasion when Jesus was being thronged by a jostling multitude clamoring for His attention, He gave a cogent lesson about the cost of discipleship: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brother and sisters-yes, even their own life-such a person cannot be my disciple,” (Luke 14:26). Hate in this case does not mean disdain for one’s family, but rather making Jesus preeminent over all else. After all He is the Source of all we have. How can the gift be greater than the Giver? Jesus must be Lord over who we are and what we have. Jesus emphasized the cost of making a commitment to follow Him by drawing object lessons from the construction and military professions: Before embarking on a building project or military campaign, the leader should ensure they have enough resources and manpower to complete the task at hand otherwise they can become the local laughingstock. Shoddy, unfinished work attests to the slothfulness of the worker.
Although salvation is free through Jesus Christ, discipleship is often costly. When we become Jesus’ disciples in enemy territory, inevitably we suffer backlash from enemy forces. Discipleship requires total commitment to our Lord in all facets of our lives. Only in Jesus do we find approval from God. The teaching that all material abundance and a life devoid of suffering are evidence of godly favor is false. In fact, Scripture is replete with accounts of spiritual giants who suffered persecution, torture, enslavement, exile and even martyrdom for their faith in God such as Job, the prophets Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah and many others. Then there is the epic example of the excruciating suffering of Jesus, our Lord, God’s only Son. God Himself audibly endorsed His Son: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17), and yet the Bible says of Him: “He learned obedience by things which He suffered,” (Hebrews 5:8).
The apostle Paul gives a chilling account of his own suffering for the faith (2 Corinthians 11: 24-27). When God did not take away his thorn in the flesh, but gave him grace to endure it, the apostle exultantly declared: “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me,” (2 Corinthians 12:9). This is the same apostle who reminds us that “If we suffer, we shall also reign with him…” (2 Timothy 2:12). God does not abandon His suffering children. He is right there beside them granting them grace to endure the trials, and the glory of Jesus is exemplified in their suffering and, sometimes, ultimate martyrdom for their commitment to their Lord and to the faith.
The prosperity Gospel places an unfair burden on numerous genuine disciples across the world who are contending with hardship, disease, political turmoil and trauma despite their fidelity to the Lord. Suffering is not always indicative of God’s displeasure. In February 2015, 21 Egyptian Christians were beheaded by Islamic State militants in Libya after they refused to recant their faith in Jesus Christ. These saints were faithful unto death. They sealed their witness with their blood. What does the prosperity message have to say about this? How about the fact that all of the Lord’s disciples are reported to have been martyred except for John, the Revelator who was boiled in a cauldron of oil? The prosperity message sounds like Job’s friends: If you are suffering, something is wrong with your faith or you have missed God’s favor, which puts the faith of the believer at risk. Job’s suffering demonstrated God’s glory and refined Job’s righteousness. The suffering of a true disciple is not a master’s whip cracking on the back of an errant disciple. Rather, it is often a scalpel in the hands of a skillful Master Surgeon carefully incising a spiritual tumor. If someone is suffering and we cannot comprehend why, the wisest step we can take is to pray for them and with them. In all this we need to keep in mind the sovereignty of God. God’s might is purposeful in all our lives. The prosperity Gospel ignores the fact that we become disciples on God’s terms not ours. It is self-centered and fosters greed and selfishness. This is not to say prosperity is bad for the disciple or that we must become masochistic. There are accounts in Scripture that tell us how God lavished unprecedented riches on certain people. Prosperity is not sinful. But prosperity should not always be regarded as God’s signature of approval. We must be careful lest, in our pursuit for feel-good theology, we evolve into egocentric gold-digging narcissists at the expense of seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.