One of the common objections I’ve heard from the many critics I’ve encountered concerning the so-called “prosperity gospel” is a theologically silly discussion of the dichotomy between “wants” and “needs.” Both sides of this discussion lay claim to the following verse, but interpret it in entirely different ways:
And my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:19
Those who believe that God indeed desires to prosper us financially see this as a promise of God’s generosity. On the other hand, nay-sayers claim this as a refutation. From this verse, they offer the pious-sounding phrase, “God only meets our needs, but not our wants.”
What is a “want?”
What is a “need?”
So what differentiates the two and is there a valid theological distinction?
As the old hermeneutical truism goes, “any text without its context is a pretext.” So before we delve into this discussion, let’s establish the context for this verse:
- Paul is writing a letter to the church he founded in Philippi, a Roman colony in Macedonia (now Northern Greece).
- It was sent from his prison cell in Rome.
- He addresses a number of important issues earlier in the letter, too many to recount here.
- In chapter 4, verses 10-19, he thanks them for their financial support and other unspecified gifts.
- He states he has learned in Christ the highly desirable character trait of contentment, the godly ability to cope with whatever circumstances in which he finds himself and still have joy.
- He reminds them how he taught them on the topic of giving and receiving when he was among them.
- He stresses that he was not doing so from selfish motives, but so they would experience the fruit of their generosity.
- He remarks that they have been the only church follow his teachings on offerings.
- Verse 19 quoted above concludes his discussion on the matter of offerings.
Many who oppose the concept of divine prosperity claim this verse is only referring to spiritual blessings. However, correct exegesis of this verse in its actual context, that of finances, precludes that limitation. In other words, spiritual and earthly blessings are available to those who are unselfishly generous.
Finally, let’s examine some of the words in the Greek:
- supply pleroo
- to make full, to fill up, i.e. to fill to the full
- to cause to abound, to furnish or supply liberally (I abound, I am liberally supplied)
- to render full, i.e. to complete; to fill to the top so that nothing shall be wanting; to full measure, fill to the brim
- to make complete in every particular, to render perfect
- need chreia
- necessity, need, duty, business
- riches ploutos
- riches, wealth; abundance of external possessions, fullness, abundance, plenitude, that with which one is enriched
In the KJV, chreia is translated as “need” (25x), “necessity” (3x), “use” (2x), “needful” (1x), “necessary” (1x), “business” (1x), “lack” (1x), and “wants” (1x).
“Wants” are so easily defined and quantified, we’ll address them first. Here’s how the dictionary defines the term:
- wants (noun)
- have a desire to possess or do (something); a list of things which are wanted or regarded as desirable
So basically, anything we desire can be honesty classified as a “want,” regardless of what motivates such desire. We can want something for the good of others regardless of the cost to ourselves — the most altruistic motive because it exhibits God’s agape love — on one end of the continuum and extending to the utterly selfish on the other, such as greed, avarice, hatred, envy, and the lust for sex or power.
The One True God has addressed throughout the Bible His viewpoint concerning our wants and desires — whether those desires be evil or honorable. He has thoroughly and clearly expressed both what He thinks about our various desires and what He has commanded His followers concerning them.
On top of that, God intimately knows the thoughts, motives, plans, and desires lurking in the minds and hearts of every man, woman, and child on this utterly corrupt planet, so He is uniquely qualified to evaluate and judge those desires. This is why we never have to worry about whether God will affirmatively answer our selfish prayers, as born out by the following verse in James:
You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures. James 4:3
Let’s take, for example, praying for a new-to-us car. Are we asking because:
- We don’t have a car at all?
- Our existing car is old and maintenance-intensive?
- Our existing car gets terrible fuel mileage?
- Our existing car is unsuitable for our current family circumstances?
- We would like something more suitable for the weather cycles where we live and commute?
- Our existing car is worn/shabby and we would like something nicer?
- We want a car we can customize to exhibit in car shows?
- We want a sportier car so we can compete on a drag strip, race course or in an autocross?
- We want a sportier car so we can compete in illegal street racing?
- We want a newer car so we can use it to transport illegal drugs or human trafficking victims?
- We want a fancy car so we can be ostentatious before our friends and neighbors?
Items 1-5 as good motives are no-brainers for either side of this discussion. Neither side would argue that Items 9-11 are terrible motives. The dispute between each side of this debate would be over Items 6-8.
Now back to God. As believers submitted to His lordship, He progressively reveals the deepest thoughts and intentions of our hearts to us via His Word (Hebrews 4:12). Please note He is talking about our own hearts in this verse, not the hearts of others!
Why does He do this? So we can — by the power of the Holy Spirit — tear down emotional/spiritual strongholds present in our lives, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:4). His ultimate goal is for us to think, act, and react to people and situations the same way He does. The $10 theological terms for that process are “mind renewal” (Romans 12:2) and “sanctification.”
On this issue, both sides totally agree, as well.
The divergence in opinion comes when prosperity opponents begin to toss around the term “needs” in a vain attempt to refute the idea God has redeemed us from poverty and wants to bless us financially. Let’s take a look at another dictionary definition:
- (verb) to require (something) because it is essential or very important
- circumstances in which something is necessary, or which require some course of action; a necessity
- (noun) the state of requiring help, or of lacking basic necessities such as food
So what defines a “necessity of life?” Most folks would immediately respond with three: food, water, and shelter.
Some may argue over the shelter part because you technically can live without it; the sticking point is you just cannot live without it for very long — your environment will sooner of later suck the life right out of you through disease and/or exposure if you cannot shield yourself from the elements.
Now we embark down that slippery slope of trying to answer the question “what is a need?” In other words, where do you draw that line between need and frivolous luxury? Let’s explore that a bit:
- Do you have any kitchen appliances, such as an electric mixer, blender, stoves/ovens, refrigerators, or a dishwasher? Truthfully, you don’t need any of them. You can cook over an open fire, buy your food daily so nothing spoils, and absolutely wash your dishes by hand (I grew up without ever having a dishwasher in the house other than yours truly, so I speak from experience!). You certainly can do without a blender, though making smoothies might be a tad challenging. You absolutely don’t require a mixer because you can always use a spoon.
- Speaking of spoons, do really need one? People have been stirring pots with sticks and eating food with their fingers for literally millennia up until this day (that’s terrible etiquette, by the way; fingers should be eaten separately!). Visit any African, Middle Eastern, or Asian country and see for yourself, if you don’t believe me!
- Do you live in a house or apartment, regardless of whether you rent or own? That’s not a necessity, either. You could live in a tent, using the same fire you cook with to keep you warm. But even a tent is not truly a necessity; truthfully, you could live in a cave!
- Do you have running water in your dwelling? Technically, you don’t actually need it, all you need is a way to purify water after collecting it from a nearby body of water. Boiling works nicely.
- Do you have flushing toilets inside your dwelling? Not a need, either! You can use an outhouse, but that actually isn’t a necessity either. You could just use a nearby bush and bury your waste with a shovel.
- Do own a car? Not a necessity! You could ride a bicycle or even a horse or mule. But even those are not necessities; you can always walk!
- Do you need a smart phone? Nope, not even close! You could use a flip-phone instead. Do you really need a flip-phone? Again, negative; you can use a landline. Do you have to have a landline phone? Not even that. You can always send a letter via postal service or messenger -OR- you can actually speak to someone in person.
- Do you need a large flat-screen TV? (I just heard a bunch of you groan!) Absolutely not! Let’s take that further: do you need a TV at all? My parents got along for the majority of their lives without one, so it can be done, though admittedly they had radios! My grandparents didn’t even have radios for over 4 decades and they survived just fine, thank you very much! When you don’t have a radio, you can read a book. Do you need a book other than the Bible? Not really; you can always talk to other folks (now there’s a radical concept for today’s texting world!).
- Do you need a computer and the Internet? Not even close — unless you earn your living with them as I do! Same with tablets or any other electronic device.
- And the list goes on and on and on, ad infinitum, ad nauseam
The exercise in logic we just explored is called reductio ad absurdum, a Latin term meaning “reduced to absurdity.” It is defined as “a method of proving the falsity of a premise by showing that its logical consequence is absurd or contradictory.”
Now immediately someone will chime in with the question, “Well what about those folks who live in third-world countries?”
Excellent question! Thank you for asking!
Someone living in the darkest of jungles somewhere still needs the 3 basic necessities and they spend a huge amount of their lives in grueling manual labor to meet those needs through hunting, gathering, and/or subsistence farming. What do they need? A grass hut, a spear to hunt with, a knife to skin and butcher with, something to plow with, and a clean, reliable source of water.
But what do they desperately want? Something, anything, to make their lives somewhat easier, whether that be a draft animal to pull their plow, a gun to hunt with, or a shelter more resilient to extreme weather.
What do those of us living in the first-world need? Things which allow us to meet those selfsame basic necessities PLUS those things required for us to function effectively within our modern environment.
- Do people living in Northern Arizona need a functioning motor vehicle? You bet, because where I live public transportation is virtually non-existent other than for the elderly or children. The distances and heat make walking a non-starter.
- Does someone living in the northern regions of the US need a snug dwelling with an excellent heater? Absolutely, because they would otherwise freeze to death.
- Do folks in Phoenix and El Paso need air conditioners? Yep, because without A/C both those metro areas are virtually uninhabitable and the populations of both areas only exploded with the invention of evaporative air conditioning, something I grew up with.
Finally, I find it fascinating that none of those who publicly decry the “prosperity gospel” are living ascetic existences in caves or monasteries after having taken vows of poverty, not one! Everyone of them are folks with sufficient wealth to own computers, tablets, and/or smart phones capable of expressing their opinions on the Internet, many of them successful ministers having nice houses in good neighborhoods, driving nice cars, wearing nice clothes, and eating in nice restaurants.
Am I the only person who sees the blatant hypocrisy here?
When Does “Need” Become “Want?”
Frankly, what I need vs. what I want is between me, my wife, and the Almighty — and no one else!
Same goes for you, too!
No one is permitted by the Almighty to sit in judgement over anyone else’s life and weigh in on what they really need and what they merely want. Why? Because God has clearly forbidden us from doing it! Assuming such a position of judgment is the modus operandi of Christian and non-Christian socialists who collectively commit the sin of envy with their very viewpoint.
- Do you feel God wants you to simplify your life? Obey God!
- If He calls you to sell all you have and give all the proceeds away, like Jesus demanded of the rich young ruler, what are you waiting for? Do what He instructs with a willing heart.
- Are you called to move to some third-world country to proclaim the Gospel? Go for it!
What we are not allowed to do, though, is elevate ourselves to some imaginary moral high ground and sit in judgement over those who are not called to any of these, decrying their financial prosperity as somehow spiritually “less-than.”
If you have problems with that statement, feel free to comment, but frankly, you will be talking to the wrong Person.
Thanks for reading!