The service leader at church joked that today’s preacher should be called ‘Engineer’ as well as ‘Professor’ and ‘Pastor’. It was the first time I’d heard this guy preach and I didn’t catch his name. It was definitely a different kind of sermon from normal, both in style (much more mellow) and content, which focused on explaining the mechanics of how blessings work.
He began by saying that when you look at Christians’ lives, they experience different levels of victory and prosperity. They are saved and have been given every spiritual blessing in Christ, so this is not a failure on the part of God. He has not given to some and not others. Instead, the issue is that those who do not experience victory have not embraced those blessings which they have been given.
First, they do not have their priorities straight. Paul’s prayer in Ephesians is focused on heavenly and eternal things. Daily needs are legitimate to bring to God in prayer. After all, it’s in the Lord’s Prayer, but it’s fourth in the Lord’s Prayer after praying for God’s glory, advancement of God’s kingdom and obedience to God.
Second, they do not understand what the spiritual blessings they have are. These blessings include: in Christ, an inheritance, an eternal home and glorification. Knowing these are yours and can never be taken away gives you hope which is essential for continuing to persevere and press on. Another blessing is a healthy sense of significance which comes from knowing that you are precious to God. Not only does he have an inheritance for us, but we his people are Christ’s inheritance or portion. This gives us great value and ought to influence how we see ourselves. Finally, we have the blessing of confidence that in Christ we have the power to meet every challenge because the same power lives in us as raised Christ from the dead. Of course you can do what Christ asks you to do: you have his power!
I want to make three comments about this sermon.
First, it would be wrong to suppose that this theology blames the un-victorious Christian for their lack of prosperity because they have not claimed the blessings that are theirs. The aim is not to tear down but to lift up. The vast majority of the sermon was about telling Christians all the wonderful things that are true about them in Christ. The assumption is that this truth is powerful and effective; this knowledge makes people sit up a little straighter and think a little differently about themselves. That has flow on effects. Tanzanians have a strong belief that the thing holding people back is that they do not believe in themselves so they do not try, or they stumble at the first obstacle instead of persevering. A lack of prosperity is therefore rooted in identity and attitude, which is why they often talk about it as a lack of faith or a lack of belief. This kind of preaching seeks to increase people’s confidence by reminding them of who they are in Christ.
Second, prosperity is inextricably linked to stewardship in this theology. If God has given you knowledge that you are precious and yet you are downcast and hopeless, you are like the Shunammite woman: you do not see what God has given you. Those gifts lie unused and un-stewarded and as a result they are unable to be put to work to bring you prosperity. This does not benefit you and it also dishonours the One who gave it to you; the appropriate thing to do with his gifts is to thank him and use them. Most of the songs before the sermon were focused on acknowledging God as provider and sustainer.
Third, notice how the space between the spiritual and the material worlds is collapsed here. Spiritual truth has a psychological effect which enables different action to be taken. Thus, it does not seem unnatural to talk about material things as blessings from God or to identify faith as a root cause of a lack of prosperity. Rarely do Tanzanians ‘show their working’ on this, (to borrow language from high school maths class), but this is what accounts for their use of language which can seem startling to western ears.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.