Prosperity Gospel or Harsh Reality?

Norbert Lieth

Paul is a great example for believers. Who wouldn’t want to be like him? But his life was characterized by suffering, not comfort. What that can mean for us.

Paul is something like a prototype of the Church, which he served with his God-given gospel of perfect grace (Acts 20:24). Concerning this, he explained: “Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting” (1 Tim 1:16).

His conversion, the mercy of God he experienced, would become a model for everyone who would come to faith in the future: through grace alone, without works. In his own body, however, Paul not only represented perfect grace, but also the suffering inherent to the Church experience. He repeatedly urged the believers: “Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me” (1 Cor 4:16).

That would be something, to have Paul’s status. Called to be like him: as famous, as effective, and as fruitful as he was. Wanting to represent something is in our blood. But what was he then? He said of himself and his fellow workers, “Let a man so account of us, as the ministers of Christ…” (1 Cor 4:1). Paul saw himself as a servant of his neighbor, and therefore also described himself as someone in a state of affliction, anxiety, and tears (2 Cor 2:4). He was ready to make any sacrifice, and to be sacrificed himself (2 Cor 12:15). He presented himself as someone who always bore the death of Jesus in his body (2 Cor 4:10). Not as the one who stands in the front row, but in the back, among the doomed, a spectacle for angels as well as men (1 Cor 4:9). Perhaps he was recalling the gladiators in the arenas, who were perpetually ordained for death and were a spectacle for the public. The suffering of Christians serves as a spectacle for the people around them, and even the angels; just think of Job’s suffering. 
Whoever overcomes it and holds fast to the faith, glorifies God—and it won’t go unrewarded.

Paul worked with his own two hands to sustain himself and his companions (Acts 20:33-34; 1 Cor 4:12). Things didn’t just fall into his lap like manna from heaven. Paul was shipwrecked four times, he was beaten with rods three times, and he was once stoned (2 Cor 11:25). He and his fellow laborers were constantly the objects of malicious talk. They suffered from hunger and thirst, were beaten with fists, and had no fixed home. They were the world’s refuse, and scum to everyone (1 Cor 4:11-13). At the end, he saw that his life was being poured out as a drink offering. Almost everyone had left him, and he would soon have to lay his head on the chopping block to be cut off (2 Tim 4:6). He could have asked himself, “So where is God now?” But no criticism ever passed his lips. Paul looked further, beyond the horizon of earthly life into the eternal reality.

From this background, he called the Church to be his imitators, just as he imitated Christ (1 Cor 11:1). As already mentioned, Paul’s life personified the Church in the grace he experienced, in faith and in suffering. As such, he didn’t hold out the prospect of a glorious era for the Church here on earth, but rather hardship and distress, suffering and shame, struggle and pain. He didn’t preach a prosperity gospel, but harsh reality. If we know this, bear it in mind and take it into account, then we will no longer experience doubt and be unsure when suffering befalls us. Suffering isn’t a punishment from God. It has nothing to do with unbelief, and we shouldn’t think, “How could God allow this when I’ve sacrificed everything for Him?” Suffering is just a part of the Christian life.

Paul always oriented the Church toward the future, toward heaven. He expected glory to outshine everything in the end. Paul also had a lot to say about it: “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom 8:18). And, “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor 4:17).

Midnight Call - 08/2022

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