I was raised in an Irish Catholic family in Brooklyn NY in the 1940’s. My parents had lived through two World Wars and the Great Depression. The theology we were raised on—though we would never have used that term for it—went something like this: life is hard, pain and struggle are part of it, God is with us in it. We take pleasures where we find them, but mostly we accept and endure, and look to heaven and the life to come. When things got good, we wondered if too much earthly delight would compromise our eternal reward.
Clearly this doctrine was in need of some correction.
There is another theology going around these days, the flip side of the one I was raised with. This theology tells us that we are entitled to prosperity here and now, and that if we pray hard enough, have enough faith, and do our part, God will give us what we want. Ask. Believe. Receive. (A non-religious version of this is now circulating in “The Secret,” a hugely successful book/DVD that speaks of the law of attraction as the key to happiness. Whatever we want–a BMW, thin thighs, a fat check in the mail—can be ours if we just change the way we think.) .
Now, while there is certainly truth in the notion that how we think effects the way our lives go (even scientists agree that a negative attitude is bad for our health), and while I also believe absolutely that faith in God transforms lives (as a spiritual director, I see grace at work every day in amazing ways), there is grave danger in overstating the case, reducing the chaos of life and the Mystery of God to a neat cause/effect formula: You do for God and God will do for you.
I have seen firsthand, over 15 years in practice, the damage done to people who have followed the prescription– Ask, Believe, and who Do Not Receive. Good people, faithful people, who have done all they can think of to “please” God (as if God needed coaxing), so He will give them a child or cure their husband’s cancer or heal an addicted relative or help them pay the mortgage. Despite their ardent prayers—and believe me these prayers are wrung from the linings of their hearts– the womb remains barren, the cancer spreads, the son overdoses, the money runs out.
They are left feeling betrayed and abandoned, with nowhere to go at a time when they need God most, and God most wants to be there for them. They are left thrashing around in a thicket of questions: Does God really exist? Is God on my side? Have I done something wrong? Is this God’s will for me? God-the-Great-Benefactor has given way to God-the-One-Who-Could-Have-Done-It-And-Didn’t, and they are faced with heart-wrenching choices—to blame God, to blame themselves, or to walk away.
Too often the middle option becomes the chosen one, because it is too hard to live without God. “I must have done something wrong,” is not an easy place to live, but it is better than the alternatives. For years I worked with a woman struggling to overcome deep shame around a healing gone awry. At the age of 10 she was diagnosed with cancer. She was prayed over and assured that God would come through for her. She went through extensive surgeries, and while the doctors were able to remove the cancer, she was left with a disfigurement. For years she lived with the belief that her disfigurement was a sign from God that her faith had not been strong enough to effect a full healing. (Oddly enough, throughout her ordeal she was aware—in the gentle hands of the nurses and the cool air that conditioned her room–of a tender presence with her at all times. Somehow she knew she was not alone, and that made all the difference.)
It is important for purveyors of the prosperity gospel, well intentioned as they may be, to remember that their theology only works in Drive. And when reversals occur, when ardent desires are “denied”, the damage can be mortal. It is one thing to pray to be open to God’s grace; quite another to make promises on God’s behalf that may or may not come true. God is not a commodity, to be marketed like a stock or sold like an insurance policy.
All we have to do to know that faith in God does not insure a pain-free life is to look to the life of Jesus, the most faithful and beloved of all. His life was scarred with constant struggle, disappointment, betrayal, agony, even abandonment by the One to whom he’d given his entire life.
Jesus did not come to earth to tell us how to get on God’s good side so we could live a prosperous life. He came to tell us God is already on our side, more than we’ll ever know. We live in a beautiful, dark and broken world. He came to be with us in the midst of it all, to offer his own body and blood to the grinding wheel of human life. No dispensations for being Divine.
Just as faithfulness does not save us from suffering, so suffering does not imply a lack of faithfulness. Again, we have only to look to the Scriptures, and the story of Jesus and the man born blind. The disciples, true to the religious beliefs of the day, ask Jesus, what did this man do to deserve this affliction? . Jesus replies, he has done nothing. That’s not the way life works.
Well then, how does it work? Why does one woman have many children and another remain barren? Why does one cancer heal and another spread? Why does one son recover and another die of an overdose? Why does one person get laid off while another keeps his job? Why? Why? We don’t know. We simply don’t know. That is no answer, but it is the truth.
What we do know is that God is with us in it always. There is a chilling scene in Elie Wiesel’s book Night, a scene in the camps. A young boy is being hanged and because he is so lightweight, it is taking a long time for him to die. The inmates are forced to watch. At one point the man behind Elie asks: “Where is your god now?” Elie replies, “He is there, hanging from the gallows.”
What faithful people who have been at the cross know is that death is real but it is not the last word. In our dying, resurrection is already underway. God is with us, offering every day and through the long nights fresh supplies of strength and courage and faith and hope—along with a compassion only those who know pain intimately can give.
Suffering is not a sign of God’s wrath or God’s indifference. It is a fact of human life. We don’t seek it; we certainly don’t sanctify it; we avoid it whenever we can. But when it is inescapable and we are driven to the depths, in the stillness if we listen we may hear the heartbeat of Love, present, longing with us, laboring to breathe new life into dry bones.
The great southern writer Flannery O’Connor who suffered all her life and died at 39 in the arms of God, has this to say: “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.”
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