"Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, even as your soul prospers…" (3 John v. 2)
I love the Apostle John’s pastoral heart for people. His three NT letters, which I read last week in the 1-Year-Bible, demonstrate a tenderness and affection for people that has been nurtured over the course of 5-plus decades of ministry since Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. The trajectory for most people seems to be to grow more curmudgeonly as they grow older, particularly when we’re into our 70’s as John is presumed to be when writing his epistles.
But he writes with a gentle, kind and gracious tone, to an audience he refers to as “little children” and the “beloved.” He also writes with an absolute fixation on God’s love for us. Love, he says, is the essence of who God is, in fact, and that love is manifest in Jesus, and poured out on us through the cross. That love is testified to by the Apostles, and experienced by those who believe together in Jesus and confess sin together in safe community. That love is naturally embodied through and expressed by those who have been born of God, who have received God’s love and who have made a habit of walking in the security of God’s love through repentance and faith.
And in his third letter - the shortest book in the Bible - addressed to Gaius, an individual person in a particular situation, John models for us how to minister to each other personally while also giving us a truthful spin on a contemporary false gospel.
Model of Personal Ministry
First, notice how he prays for his friend. John’s desire, for this person whom he loves and cares for, is rightly for them to thrive. His heart, and appeal to the Lord, is for their prosperity in every area of life. John wants Gaius’ career success, economic advancement, personal joy and happiness, marital and relational wholeness, family flourishing, physical health and for a sense of fulfillment and enjoyment in all of life. John wants Gaius to enjoy the best of everything. And we should want that for our friends too. We should want that for ourselves.
But John’s prayer was bigger than that. He prays for Gaius’ prosperity in all of life, “even as your soul prospers.” The idea here is that, “as your soul prospers, I pray that you’ll enjoy prosperity in every other arena of life.” The health and vitality of the soul is predominant and of first importance to John. And that’s because without the prosperity of the soul, all other forms of prosperity are poisonous to the soul.
So many of us wish for the prosperity of everything external in others’ lives, and we labor for the prosperity of everything external in our own lives, while tragically neglecting the prosperity of their souls and of our own souls. Personal ministry always subordinates prosperity in various areas of life to the prosperity of one’s soul. If we are to serve people well, love people well and be good friends, we have to be willing to see them struggle and suffer in any area of life, if that is the sovereign means by which God intends to develop the prosperity of their souls.
We must resist the urge to always relieve pain from personal failings or tensions from situational frustrations, because God is often using those things to reveal and restore our unhealthy souls. It is an unfortunate reality that well meaning Christians with a distaste for discomfort often disrupt God’s process aimed at rehabilitating a disabled or atrophied soul. Sometimes, earthly prosperity actually leads us to the spiritual deprivation that haunts us. To truly love and serve each other, we must sync our agenda with Jesus’ agenda and that means we prioritize, in prayer as in all respects, the prosperity of the soul.
A Reliable Prosperity Gospel
Secondly, there is a theological stream of teaching out there that dangles before us the promise of financial wealth in exchange for financial donations; a gospel that leverages positive statements and authoritative claims for personal success and social advancement; a gospel that secures health and long life if you will only believe seriously enough for it; and a gospel that uses the means of believing in Jesus to the ends of living in disproportionate material comfort and ease of life to the rest of the world. This is what’s come to be known as the "prosperity gospel."
And while the Christian gospel leads to personal prosperity to be sure, this cultural gospel that is broadly peddled deviates from that. John’s gospel, indeed, the apostolic and biblical gospel, is the only thing that makes real prosperity a real possibility.
You can draw a straight line from the prosperous soul John prays for in 3 John to the last sentence of 1 John 5, when the Apostle concludes his letter with this exhortation: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”
The soul can only prosper as God’s Spirit roots out the disease that causes us to seek satisfaction in things outside of Jesus. Our hearts are never neutral or stagnant. We are always actively seeking pleasure, willfully submitting to impulses, religiously worshipping the surpassing value of something or someone. The throne of our lives is never vacated. The scepter is always in someone or something’s hand. And the controlling forces in our lives typically relate to some form of earthly prosperity.
Our grave error is to pursue the prosperity in every area of life, for which John pastorally and lovingly prays, but to do so as the mechanism to prosper our souls. That’s the nature of idolatry. To seek pleasure, worth and satisfaction in the “all respects” - rather than in Christ - as the means of prospering our soul’s.
John’s prayer for Gaius, and the way forward for us, is for prosperity in all areas of life to flow from a soul satisfied and secure in Jesus. If prosperity in all other respects is the means by which we’re attempting to prosper our souls, we’re on a fool’s errand. That’s the temptation of the cultural prosperity gospel and there is no good news to be found in it.
The beauty of the biblical prosperity gospel is that a soul satisfied and secure in Jesus, grounded in grace, made whole through properly oriented worship, flourishes regardless of success in other arenas. That’s the the only prosperity guaranteed in gospel fidelity. The prosperity Jesus promises on this side of glory is that as our soul is steadfastly fixated on the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus, than we will not be threatened by external turmoil, physical hardship and earthly adversity. The cultural prosperity gospel seeks earthly comforts as a worthwhile reward for faith in Jesus. The biblical prosperity gospel seeks union with Christ as the only worthwhile reward for faith in Jesus.
Theological Clarity Reshapes Personal Ministry
If our sense of prosperity is tied to earthly treasure, physical comfort, material wealth and social standing our souls will wither. John’s heart for his audience, and my heart for us together, is the prosperity of our souls. He longs for their prosperity “in all respects,” but he knows that we either settle for outward prosperity as a surrogate for inward prosperity, or we lean into outward prosperity as a though it can lead us to inward prosperity. Both are false and foolish notions.
The truth is that prosperity “in all respects” compels the flailing soul toward substitute gods and that it threatens to spoil even the flourishing soul so that it settles for the diluting of real life in Jesus. I hear us so naturally and cavalierly pray for ourselves and one another to live comfortable, painless, easy lives of affluence and convenience. This reflects either a basic misunderstanding of our own hearts or a blatant misappropriation of our own hope.
We should be very cautious to ever pray for our own prosperity or the prosperity of others in “all respects,” if that prosperity is divorced from a deeper outcry for the the prosperity of our souls.
Only under the condition of souls flourishing in their worship of Jesus and delight in Jesus, should we ask for God to prosper us and others in “all other respects.” When our joy is in Him; when he is uppermost in our affections; when His glory is our highest aim and deepest treasure; only then will Jesus be the one who is glorified in our earthly affluence and by our earthly advancement. Only then will our prosperity draw attention to Jesus and not to us. Only then will we rejoice in our successes as from the goodness of God, and rightly steward our success for the glory of God.
I wonder today if you are holding out for prosperity in “all other respects” without chasing the prosperity of your own soul. I wonder if you are hoping to find earthly success as the secret to satisfying the longings of your soul. I wonder what would happen if we became laser focused, and doggedly determined to pursuing the kind of inner life - with a humble heart, a surrendered will, a worshipful disposition and the ability to spot grace everywhere that it’s at work - I wonder if we cultivated that kind of inner life, how much God might gladly prosper us, without our ever needing to ask Him.
The tragic reality is that earthly prosperity is mostly ruinous to the souls of those who achieve it. A prosperous soul is the necessary precondition for anyone who wants the possibility of surviving prosperity, much less for potential of thriving in prosperity. I pray that none of us are taken captive by the misleading promises of a false gospel, but that we are instead captured again and again by the massive promise of a soul that can prosper - even in the midst of a fallen world and in the struggle against indwelling sin - if only we’ll hurl ourselves continually at the mercy, grace and kindness of our great God and Savior.