Saturday, June 2, 2018

The stark emptiness of the prosperity gospel

I've had the pleasure of reading Everything Happens for a Reason: And Others Lies I've Loved largely because of Bill Gates's recommendation.1 The book is written by Dr. Kate Bowler, assistant professor of the History of Christianity in North America at Duke Divinity School. In 2013 she wrote  Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (Oxford University Press, 2013) where she explored the beginnings of the health-and-wealth teachings that remain entrenched in American religious life. These doctrines—mostly based on the premise that God's will for Christians is that they always hold financial blessing and physical well-being—have creeped in so many local churches, even in the Philippines. Prosperity gospel revolves around faith, prayer, positive thinking and speech, donations, and miracle crusades; by having these elements, people can persuade God to deliver them security and prosperity.

Dr. Bowler, in her deeply personal and affecting autobiography, reveals that these teachings are hollow when exposed to the scrutiny of suffering. This she realized when she was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. She would undergo chemotherapy and immunotherapy, would grapple with questions about her illness or whether she would live for her next cycle (on Wednesdays, in a hospital in Atlanta), and would question her faith in God.

The book attempts at being coherent; it is divided in nine chapters with a preface that begins with, "There's a branch of Christianity that promises a cure for tragedy. It is called by many names, but most often it is nicknamed 'prosperity gospel' for its bold central claim that God will give you your heart's desires: money in the bank, a healthy body, a thriving family, and boundless happiness." But cancer is hardly coherent. My patients tell me that suffering seems to go on forever; but it is a blur, a suspension of time, or, as Dr. Bowler wrote, "life interrupted." Amidst this mess,2 she takes us into her inner sanctum—her husband and son, her adorable friends, her colleagues at work (mostly pastors and would-be pastors)—and see that it is filled with a flurry of activity, laughter, sarcasm, and prayer. Central to her introspection is the belief that God was with her.

What would it mean for Christians to give up that little piece of the American Dream that says, "You are limitless"? Everything is not possible. The mighty kingdom of God is not yet here. What if 'rich' did not have to mean 'wealthy', and 'whole' did not have to mean 'healed'? What if being the people of "the gospel" meant that we are simply people with good news? God is here. We are loved. It is enough.

You don't read Everything Happens for a Reason for theology; if you do, you will be disappointed.3 I have a feeling that I will even disagree with the author on some points of Christian doctrine. However, you read it for its humanity. Dr. Bowler sounded like the charming, funny, self-deprecating, but strongly opinionated lady in church who made everyone feel welcome. Bill Gates wrote that she "has too much integrity as a writer to offer pat answers or magic solutions."

I have always found comfort in words. Books like these—along with friends and family—have been used by God to comfort me in my own suffering and in helping others in theirs. It goes without saying that the book resonates with me deeply in that as an oncologist I deal with cancer on a daily basis, both on professional and personal levels, the latter being more difficult. My father—a cheerful, kind, prayerful, and godly man—passed away two weeks ago. Gastroesophaeal junction cancer. I miss him every day.

The Bible, too, doesn't take suffering lightly. I agree with Tim Keller in his argument that Christianity offers the only unique, truthful, useful perspective on suffering:

... The Christian understanding of suffering is dominated by the idea of grace. In Christ we have received forgiveness, love, and adoption into the family of God. These goods are undeserved, and that frees us from the temptation to feel proud of our suffering. But also it is the present enjoyment of those inestimable goods that makes suffering bearable.

In another paragraph Pastor Keller writes that Christianity "empowers its people to sit in the mist of this world's sorrows, tasting the coming joy."

Like Dr. Bowler, I sigh and groan and anguish at the sight of suffering and pain. These lines moved me.

But I don’t want ice cream, I want a world where there is no need for pediatric oncology, UNICEF, military budgets, or suicide rails on the top floors of tall buildings. The world would drip with mercy. Thy kingdom come, I pray, and my heart aches. And my tongue trips over the rest. Thy will be done.

The God of the Bible promises another world free of sin and tears and conflict and cancer. Meanwhile, as we live in this fallen remnant of paradise, we sigh in hopeful helplessness and joyful sorrow: Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

1I'm subscribed to his blog: so smart and humane and kind!
2I can't find a better word.
3Timothy Keller's Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering (Penguin Books, 2013) is among the best, contemporary works on the subject of human suffering. You should read it.

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