I stood knee deep in a river beside a few Jews in what was for me a rather awkward moment—I was in a bathing suit, and these fellas were in their birthday suits. For them, the Jewish ritual of mikvah was nothing new, a ritual cleansing before a special occasion. In this case, I’d joined them for Shavuot, or as we call it, Pentecost. I’d never seen anything quite like this in Pentecostal churches, and I’ve seen a lot. In all of its oddity, this was actually quite sacred; they were preparing their bodies, minds, and souls to encounter the Lord on this holy day.
Down river, as we stood side-by-side in the frigid flow, our guide provided instruction: “Before we immerse ourselves, consider what you want to release, and what you need to receive.” I felt like I’d been teleported onto the set of A River Runs Through It and a televangelist was now selling me something spectacular from the Holy Land. It’s rare you’ll hear a phrase like release and receive, unless you’re watching some huckster on the tube promising you prosperity in exchange for a monthly gift of $7, $77, or if you really want to be blessed, a one-time faith pledge of $777.
Worry, I thought to myself. I release worry, and I receive trust. Together, we fell headlong into the river. I thought we were done after this inaugural immersion, trust now dripping from my shaking shoulders (did I mention the water was cold?). Apparently, we needed to release and receive more things, or get the last thing right, so we did it again, and again, three times in all. I released everything I could think of. I’m sure I received quite a lot.
I’m a skeptic of the prosperity gospel. I’d prefer to call it prosperity heresy because it both rhymes better and is a more accurate description of the theological fallacy whereby those with microphones promise onlookers financial blessing if they give to a ministry. The logic is simple: if you do this, God will do that. I’d label this theology as Deuteronomistic, though we’d need to unpack that later. It’s a dangerous theology, one that sells hope in exchange for money.
You received without paying; give without pay, said Jesus as he bestowed the Twelve with authority, sending them out penniless to do ministry. You see, the economy of grace, the economy in which we live as children of God, goes like this: you received from God, therefore give; not, give to God so you can get something in return. There is a cycle of trust, a divine exchange that involves releasing and receiving, but it’s not a formula, it’s a love affair. It’s the overflow of a heart that has experienced the grace of God and therefore billows out blessings, some of them financial, back to the Lord and others. The river of the economy of grace flows from receiving to releasing, not releasing so you can receive more money.
Perhaps we need to release the idea that we give in order to appease God, in order to get more, and receive the understanding that we’ve received freely; now we give freely—just because.