The concept of “limited good” denies that wealth can be created. It supposes that since there are not enough good things for everyone to enjoy, a person can only increase his or her wealth/blessings/good at the expense of others.
Notice this kind of limited good thinking in Pumla Gqola’s book Rape: A South African Nightmare:
“[The desire for wealth] seduces the poor into working harder, in search of the elusive ease, but no matter how hard they work, there are finite resources in the world. Therefore wealth requires the hoarding of resources, which means taking away resources that would allow the poor to live decently in an equitable world” (38).
“Limited Good” in Africa
Prof. Koos Van Rooy, an anthropologist and linguist for decades among the Vendas in rural South Africa, defines the African idea of limited good this way:
“There is only a limited amount of good (that is: life force, good luck, prestige, influence, children, possessions) in the cosmos. Each person is allotted a fixed quantity of this good. It can only be increased at the expense of someone else, by way of black magic, ritual murder or theft.”
Think of a pie. Limited good thinks that by cutting out a piece for oneself, the person is taking from others. Wealth, as the thinking goes, can only be transferred from one person to another. If I become rich, someone else must become poor.
There are two fallacies here. First, this is an error economically. The truth is that wealth can grow over time. The pie gets bigger because wealth can be created. For example, a clever man can take a handful of sand and transform it into computer chips and cables. Voila! Moreover, even the definition of “poverty” changes over time. Kings from hundreds of years ago would only dream of having many of the modern devices the poor have today.
Second, this is an error theologically. In fact, God is infinitely good and supplies his creatures with as much good as he pleases. But the traditional African belief in an impersonal God misunderstands this. Since God is far away, his goodness must be limited because love flows from a divine condescension to his creatures.
It is not surprising, then, that jealousy is such a significant vice in this setting. If Mr. Baloyi just purchased a new vehicle after a significant job promotion, Mr. Kubayi may assume his own chances of financial success have lessened. If Themba matriculated with honors, perhaps his classmate Tintswalo has less of a chance.
Infinite Good in Scripture
Scripture states that God is infinitely good, defined as good and the standard of good (Ps. 110:5). The Psalms are filled with arrows pointing to the Almighty’s ineffable and eternal kindness (Ps. 34:8; 100:5; 106:1; 107:1).
Not only is God defined as good but he is also the dispenser of good (Ps. 119:68). God’s furnishing of benevolence to his creatures is not a one time, lump-sum event. It is continuous (Jms. 1:17; Ac. 14:7). God is good not only towards his children (Ps. 84:11; Rm. 8:32) but also his enemies (Mt. 5:45).
Twisted Good in the Prosperity Gospel
The PG has capitalized on the idea of “limited good.” First, it fails to recognize that God’s goodness to his creatures often takes on the appearance of suffering. For example, in sending trials to his creatures, God (1) shows his love (Hb. 12:6), (2) teaches humility (2Co. 12:7), and (3) reminds us of a better world to come (Rm. 8:18).
Instead, the PG assumes goodness = prosperity. A favorite twisted passage these charlatans like to use is Jeremiah 29:11:
“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
This text was even on the bus I was following the other day. It insinuates that God always wants us to be healthy and wealthy, when in fact God may often want us to be sick and poor. In both of these circumstances, Paul learned to be content (Phil. 4:10-13).
Second, the PG uses limited good to bypass the idea that economic growth often comes through character (as in the book of Proverbs) and wealth creation. Instead it offers shortcuts to God’s goodness such as religious platitudes (“I declare in Jesus’ name”), twisted Scriptures (“the Lord is my banker, my credit is good”, Ps. 23:1), and seed theology (“Giving is not a debt you owe; it’s a seed you sow”).
Prosperity preachers have taken up the old lie of limited good and woven it into their modern day preaching. Christians beware.