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Prosperity, Tanzanian Christianity, and the wisdom tradition (part 1)

It’s a pretty well-worn story in some circles: the idea that ‘Africa’ is rife with the prosperity gospel. The American pastor John Piper, in his eagerness to promote good theology, gives the impression that this entire continent is flooded with bad teaching about health, wealth and prosperity.

In the previous month, Tamie and I have had more of an opportunity to begin listening in on what Tanzanians are teaching. Our Swahili has slowly made it to the point where we can understand bits and pieces — from time to time, at least — and we’ve begun to have more contact with the student fellowships on our campus.

We’ve seen a lot of focus on wealth, financial management and success, and it’s not hard for us to connect this with the prosperity gospel — especially when the speaker is wearing a shiny white suit!

But what’s the reality? What we’ve witnessed appears to be something more complex. In this post and the next, I want to sketch out — even with our limited insight — what seems to be going on. To begin with, here are two examples.

At TAFES Dodoma prayer conference…

The keynote speaker was Mwakatwila, an itinerant preacher. Rather than contradicting our impulse to desire wealth and seek it from God, he seemed to be moulding it, redirecting it, and setting it in its proper place. What we need is God’s wisdom for life. We need to learn it and live in line with it, although many Christians may be going against the grain of it — as he demonstrated with caricatured examples: ‘Bless me God! Bless me God!’ For example, Mwakatwila made the challenge: why would you ask God to heal you, but (citing Prov 3:12-15) not accept the wellbeing God offers through a good diet? One of his catchphrases could well have summarised the entire Book of Proverbs: ubongo pata akili leo, ‘my head, get wisdom today!’

Wealth is not for us but for others, said Mwakatwila, and ultimately for witness to God. We need to understand the importance of gathering an inheritance (Prov 13:22), because God’s way is for parents to raise their children in wealth (not just education). God’s people are known for being blessed (Isa 61:8-9), and are to become a generation of blessing known throughout the nations — the nations will see God as they see God’s blessing amongst God’s people.

It was fascinating to see Mwakatwila providing what sounded to me like a kingdom context. We must seek first the kingdom (Mt 6:33) which means praying to the King of the kingdom: 75% of all our praying should be for inviting God to rule the world. To say ‘let your kingdom come’ is to connect our prayers with the will of God.

And at a seminar for female uni students…

Tamie attended a seminar run by Lizzy, a student leader, who was teaching younger women about making good choices. Lizzy wrote an equation on the board:

the word of God + prayer + hard work = success

Like Mwakatwila, Lizzy showed how each of these things is essential: how can you know what God wants if you do not read God’s word?; why do you expect God to answer your prayers while you do nothing?; how can you say you have handed yourself over to God if you are not praying? In a culture where dependence is common, Lizzy’s  teaching was to pray and then work hard for what you want, rather than waiting for someone to give it to you.

The will of God was paramount in her teaching: ‘Look for the will of God because God knows more than you do.’ Where many young women in Tanzania are tempted to look to Sugar Daddies for security, Lizzy’s encouragement was to trust God’s ways. She urged the girls to marry a Christian, so that God sets the direction for their marriage.

We were listening in on a wisdom discussion.

In these cases and others, we’ve seen Tanzanians’ interest in wealth and success paralleled with a strong focus on the Bible’s wisdom literature, especially Proverbs. (That said, Tanzanian teaching often moves freely throughout the Bible, sometimes with dozens of Bible references in a single talk.) It appears that Tanzanian Christians are not only eagerly seeking life knowledge, but have a natural affinity with the wisdom literature. Teachers like Lizzy and Mwakatwila seem intuitively at home with the Proverbs as practical, everyday patterns of God’s design.

The Bible’s wisdom tradition is not what we might usually associate with the word ‘wisdom’. It’s about skill for living; it’s practical; it’s concerned with the earthy and the ordinary and the everyday. It doesn’t have much to do with head-knowledge or theory or book learning. The wisdom literature (especially Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes) draws heavily on life experience, where wisdom is something that emerges as we watch the world around us.

The wisdom tradition is closely connected with creation. The world has an order to it; this order is knowable if you’re open to wisdom; how you live in line with this order is connected with how well your life goes. And this order has a Creator, Yahweh, God of Israel. God is creating, revealing and ruling in daily life, here and now (not only in history, in covenant, or in the future). God is behind the world as its sustaining power; God’s oversight is seen in ‘natural’ patterns rather than ‘supernatural’ intervention. The ultimate wisdom question is not ‘How?’ but ‘Who?’

In Tanzania, this makes sense.

As we’ve explored here previously, Tanzanians typically do not share a Western view of the world. They have no history of dualism and no ‘excluded middle’, and they are interested in what we might call the everyday world. And in the two examples above (among others), the teaching we’ve witnessed seemed less about results and managerial rules (how can I get what I want out of God?) and more about living the good life, a life aligned wisely with God’s design.

It is therefore no surprise to find Tanzanians concerning themselves with everyday questions. And it is no surprise to find Christians connecting those questions with the parts of the Bible geared towards the everyday world. Tanzanian headspace is treading much of the same ground as the wisdom literature.

Categories: Tanzania Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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