“If you want a sermon to learn about riches,” said the preacher, “go elsewhere, because we are talking about the pathway to our permanent home.”
Then he spent the rest of the sermon talking about attaining success.
It was one of those moments when I realised again that what westerners mean by prosperity gospel and what Tanzanians mean by prosperity gospel are two completely different things, such that it’s easy to lump in with the prosperity preachers those who see themselves as quite distinct.
Actually, the topic of the sermon was holiness. (He was a guest preacher, a friend of the pastor, and apparently holiness is his thing and he preaches on it every time he comes. This was our first time hearing him.) He took as his text Hebrews 12:4 “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” He had two main points:
- The Bible gives us testimony of those who stood firm and conquered (in Hebrews 11)
- We must fight sin until the very end (how you finish is more important than how you start)
I gather he was making these to counteract some common myths in Tanzania, which are:
- You have to choose between success and holiness
- You are powerless against sin and other powers
A particularly powerful part of the sermon was his own testimony of when he was a student at university, and he and one other friend refused to buy the exam questions which the lecturer was selling. These exam questions weren’t just for that lecturer’s course, but for all the courses — the lecturer was notorious for stealing and selling his colleagues’ exam papers! The preacher came from a poor background and desperately needed to pass, but because of his Christian faith, he refused to buy the stolen exam papers, instead crying out to God and concentrating on studying.
As it turned out, several of the lecturers had cottoned on to what their colleague was doing and prepared two exam papers: one which was leaked and sold, and another which was actually given to the students. It was the preacher and his friend who succeeded in the exam. They had comprehensive knowledge because they had studied the whole curriculum rather than just what was on the leaked paper, and because, in his words, the Holy Spirit had led them to the right parts of the curriculum to study. Everyone in their class was amazed that resisting sin profited these young Christian men.
It is commonplace in Tanzania to use these kinds of stories to encourage people to persevere. The phrase in Swahili is ‘usikate tamaa’. It literally means, “do not despair.” A sign of despair would be going to a witchdoctor (instead of praying to God), or buying a stolen test (instead of resisting sin). Another sign of despair is canvassing the idea that perhaps God will not vindicate or rescue this time. To say so seems to carry almost perlocutionary power, as if by asking the question, you are willing it into reality. This means that the questions that immediately occur to me (for example, if they didn’t pass, was their resistance of sin worth it?) are not considered.
But the preacher’s goal is not to give you a formula for success. It’s to encourage you towards holiness. And what he’s doing here is telling you that it’s not true that you need to choose between holiness and success. He is a living breathing example that following God’s ways can bring prosperity. This teaching means that pursuing holiness becomes an option for those who want to improve their lives.
The preacher was very careful to avoid passivity on the part of the believer. In a fear-power worldview, your own agency is minimised. You are at the mercy of the powers and can’t necessarily be held responsible for your actions, because they have been caused by someone or something else. Therefore, to argue that you have the power to resist sin is a big deal, especially when you feel very small and insignificant in a world of powerful forces.
A theology of intercession encourages the believer that they are not alone in this fight, because they have God on their side. He said that prayer is a major weapon in the fight against sin, and the Holy Spirit cries out for us when we have no words. So is the knowledge that the same Son who died for your sin also intercedes at the Father’s right hand for you. But, be warned, he continued this does not negate your personal responsibility. Faith is dead without deeds, so you must play your part. Fasting, reading, singing, and other Christian disciplines starve and suffocate evil spirits. Being part of a Christian community is essential, so that you can assist one another and care for one another.
Notice here how sophisticated Tanzanian preaching can be. The preacher integrated ecclesiology and soteriology, provided theologies of sanctification and prayer, put the issues in Trinitarian context, had poignant illustrations, and responded powerfully to false assumptions in the religious worldview of his culture. All of this gets missed if we are preoccupied with his use of the word ‘success’. In this case, any suspicion is unwarranted, because as the preacher spoke of success and prosperity, he clearly pointed his listeners towards a life of discipleship.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.