Joel Osteen gets a bad rap.
The gospel of prosperity is the heresy that American Christians love to hate, for not only do we get a chance to indulge the heresy hunter in all of us (which is there whether we are willing to admit it or not!), but we also get the slightly sanctimonious thrill from shooting down such an easy target.
And as right as one might be to denounce such perversion, let’s be honest: as far as theological deviation goes, this is the lowest of the low-hanging fruit. It also takes precisely zero courage to call it out for what it is, since there is a direct proportion between the courage required and the number of people who will not cheer such a bold and prophetic declaration.
A prophet may not be welcome in his hometown, but in this case we will roll out the carpet and like the Facebook status without fail.
Now, this rumination actually has very little to do with Mr. Osteen, but rather with the essence of our critique. We have little difficulty locating the problem (well, actually problems) with the gospel of prosperity. Greed. Entitlement. Love of Money. Being more concerned with yourself than with the poor.
These are all valid critiques, but they are also extremely easy critiques. In other words, we risk absolutely nothing in making them. There are few who will not nod in agreement that greed is a vice, or that feeling entitled is not desirable, or that loving money makes for a poor human being. And when it comes to being concerned with the poor, we have done little else in the last 50 years than try to convince ourselves that we are and that we should be.
Nevermind that for the most part we rarely let our theology get in the way of our actual praxis. We critique both the overt and implicit materialism of the prosperity gospel, but I have often wondered if the ease of our critique is hiding something beneath, as if we are trying to convince ourselves that we really aren’t full-throated materialists at the end of the day.
Money, after all, is such an obvious externally materialistic thing, and since it surrounds so much of who we are and what we do it is relatively easy to conflate materialism with money. It also makes an extremely convenient scapegoat. After all, if materialism becomes synonymous with money or what money can buy, then I need only eliminate the love of money or at least mouth enough shibboleths to the same effect so as to avoid it.
And thus we begin to wrap up a neat little package that allows us the cognitive dissonance of deploring materialism while at the same time being steeped in it entirely.
It may seem that this is all about money, but really this is where the talk about money stops, for ultimately materialism is more about what St. John calls the love of the world. He repeatedly warns us not to love the world or anything in it, and it’s a nice-sounding phrase that we readily agree with, at least until it means that it will affect our lives, in which case we are usually willing to jettison the import and retain the words.
Deep down, we are dyed in the wool materialists through and through, and though we construct anti-icons of the likes of Mr. Osteen, the truth is that we routinely play at the same game, only with enough sophistication as to make an actual sophist blush.
For what really makes us materialists is not how much money we have or desire or how much stuff we buy or crave, but rather that we are almost never willing to let go of ourselves, rarely able to loose the reigns of lives. This is evidenced in innumerable ways, but is most drastically brought into relief whenever we have to suffer.
Now, for our fallen human nature suffering is an automatically BAD THING. Money (ha, it’s creeping in again!) is most desperately craved because of our desire to avoid suffering. We balk at the injustice of it, how the universe is rotten because something occurred which inconveniences us, or causes us pain, or brings about our death. And to be sure, suffering is a terrible thing. It tries to rob us of that precious control, that feeling of power which we desire above all else. We wish to bend the universe to our will, but suffering brings us face to face with the reality that we are the ones who will be bent, and eventually broken.
Thus, in the same manner as our first parents whenever we suffer we immediately raise a finger or a fist to accuse or to damn. I was wronged and have not been given my rights. I have been caused pain and someone or something is to blame. But very rarely do we manage to peek out from behind the veil of our materialistic bent to imagine that suffering can be for our good. In the throes of the trial we hardly ever believe that it could actually be from God.
It is here where the religious mind can begin to bristle. We are constantly challenged in the post-Christian world with how we can possibly believe in a God who created a universe in which suffering is a live option. How could God truly be loving if we have to suffer?
And thus we can begin to want to insulate God from suffering, making him at best a distant third party. Suffering in this aspect is not something God brings to us. At most suffering is the consequence of a fallen world, the dregs of sin that we must drink. Bad things happen because nature is imperfect and sometimes we get in its way. And when other people do terrible things to us, it’s because they have the free will to choose to do terrible things.
Suffering is at most something that God allows to happen, the accidents of a random world that we cannot avoid but that he can bring good out of.
The difficult part of this is that all of this is true. We do live in a broken world in which suffering is a result of our sin. Sometimes we are in the path of forces we cannot control or avoid and which care not a fig that we happen to be standing there. And people do do terrible things, and God allows them the free will to choose sin.
But in the midst of this we leave no room for God to bring suffering our way. No longer is God allowed to get his hands dirty in the universe; we sanitize divinity and construct legions of intermediary causes that begin to sound an awful lot like the ladder of aeons to the pleroma of ancient Gnostic fantasies. We are experts at leaving God out of it entirely, allowing every form of suffering to never touch the hand of God.
But then we imagine that somehow this same disconnected hand can touch us.
The problem with leaving God out of suffering is that we are back to a comforting materialism. Even though it causes us pain, there is a certain solace in thinking that the suffering we face is natural and disconnected from God’s will. In some ways we are even consoled by linking bad things happening to the results of our sin, even though we are loath to admit this.
But what we struggle the most to accept and to believe is that suffering is necessary; in fact, one might be prophetically bold enough to say that our suffering is ultimately an expression of God’s love. And it’s because we are materialists at heart that we don’t really believe this.
After all, how could God love us and bring suffering into our lives? Isn’t that simply a form of cruelty? Who loves someone and then causes them to suffer? What kind of sick game would that be?
But it’s our love of the world that makes us think this way, because it causes us to view suffering with a materialistic squint. Instead of letting go of the control of our lives and allowing the possibility that God could be the cause of our suffering, we presume to know the good ourselves and dictate the terms by which it can be manifest. Like Adam and Eve in the garden we will be the arbiters of whether suffering can be for our good or not, and from what source it can come.
In our piety we are even willing to let God off the hook, to absolve him of responsibility, but this is only another power grab, a way to contain the mystery of suffering within the confines of what we can understand and the universe in which it is exhibited. We divest suffering of any supernatural import and chain it tightly to earth where we can control it, if not in its effect then at least in its explanation.
Why else, after all, would we be so intent on asking why, even though we have already deemed suffering to be random at best and meaningless at worst?
What we don’t actually believe is that God has our best interests at heart, and we most especially do not believe that God loves us. Love for us is not a supernatural thing, after all; it is the stuff of earth, and thus love is only something that makes sense to us if it acts like we presume it to. And since we do not believe that love and suffering are compatible, we a priori exclude God from any meaningful interaction with our suffering, even though we’ll reluctantly let him in the back door.
The scriptures, however, present suffering as having a supernatural character, in that it is actually willed by God for us. This counter-intuitive proclamation gives the lie to our blasphemous materialism that cloaks itself in pious theodicy, and bridges the gulf between love and suffering:
“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.” (Hebrews 12:5-6 NIV)
What could be more offensive to our materialistic sensibilities than that? Probably this:
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. (Hebrews 12:7-8 NIV)
The essence of our suffering is discipline; in other words, suffering is a means of us being taught and molded into something else. And given that we are pathetic materialists at our core, that something else couldn’t help but be better. But even further, we are told that if we do not suffer, and if we are not disciplined, then we are not really sons or daughters at all.
The point, of course, is not that suffering is a good in and of itself, but rather that it is a means of us overcoming the sin within us. Even more to the point, it is God’s way of dealing with our sin and helping us to scale that wall of self which our pride and our desire for control erects in the face of every bit of suffering. St. Peter makes the link between suffering and overcoming sin even more plain:
Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin. As a result, they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God. (1 Peter 4:1-2 NIV)
And thus we can easily see why we cannot allow our theology to remove God from our suffering. We must allow that our suffering is willed by God precisely because it is his way of making sure we are “done with sin.” Suffering affords us a moment of clarity in which we can choose to acknowledge our weakness and our sinfulness, to express our utter dependency on God, or to draw the walls even tighter around our own little world, to hold out against the injustice we perceive either from the universe or from God himself.
The only way in which our suffering can be meaningful is if we are willing to acknowledge and accept it as a gift from God and as a means of his love to us. We might find some solace in the seemingly random nature of suffering, but there is nothing meaningful there, no virtue in bearing the weight of that which is meaningless. For even if God can bring good out of it, there is still no underlying reason to it, and thus the good that comes from it is arbitrary, something God could have just as easily brought about by less unpleasant means.
It is the mystery of suffering that gives us the opportunity to grow in holiness, for we must confess our ignorance as to why we are suffering, our helplessness in the face of it and trust that somehow God is intending this for our good. The difficulty of ours is that our idea of the good is often not the same as God’s, and thus we try to redefine good so that love and suffering cannot coexist. In our materialistic state we choose to perceive the good as to what we understand in this world that we hold so dear, not allowing that our good will ultimately entail the loss of that entirely. We are happy to quote the words, but very rarely are we willing to truly believe Jesus when he said:
For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. (Matthew 16:25)
When I was a child I had my first bout with cancer. It was a tumorous growth in my colon that- for lack of any more delicate way of expressing it- clogged up the works. For nearly a week I was in incredible pain, a never-ending barrage of pain that racked my body through and through.
Eventually the X-rays and scans revealed the truth, and while I would eventually have chemotherapy, the most pressing concern was surgery to remove the growth. I was only 9 years old at the time and had very little idea what was going on. All I understood was that I was in pain and that the doctors were going to put me to sleep and cut me open.
Little did I know or understand that the surgery would entail further pain later as the wound healed and I had to recover, or the life-draining experience of chemotherapy. I couldn’t have understood any of it, but in my simple childlike trust I knew that the doctors were nice and were trying to help me. I hated how the nurses sometimes had trouble putting the IVs in my arms, and I bristled against having a feeding tube and having my arms tied to the bed for a day when I tried to pull it out. But yet I grasped ever so incompletely that they were not trying to bring me pain because they were sadists but rather that sometimes you have to experience pain to get better.
It never got any easier to suffer as I grew older, and in the next bouts of cancer I experienced probably more pain then when I was young, if for no other reason than the sting is much nearer to my memory. There are actually still days when I think about certain procedures and have an almost bodily reaction to that thought.
But I realized that through all of that I always had implicit trust in the intent of the doctors and nurses. I knew that there would be suffering, but I also knew it wasn’t meaningless. Each moment of suffering was a consequence of this pill or that procedure or this chemical, but each was intentionally administered by a doctor for my benefit. Because of my trust I was willing to undergo pain because I knew it was intended for my good.
This has convicted me as I have been thinking more and more about suffering. Medicine is such a hit-or-miss field, and while we have made tremendous strides in the past century, it is still fraught with much uncertainty. But even though we know the surgery might go poorly, and even though we realize that it might not even work, we are still willing to submit ourselves to the knife, despite the uncertainty.
Yet even though we say we believe that God is good and wants what is good for us, and even though we say that we trust him, we are so often unwilling to submit to his knife, to allow the suffering in our lives to bring about the death of sin in our hearts. Unlike fallible doctors, God’s hand is never unsteady; his will is always to bring about our good. In this sense we have far more certainty in God’s intention and power than in the ability of any doctor, yet we are far less willing to trust God.
The truth is that we know deep down that if we are really going to submit to God, we have to be willing to accept the cure from his hands, whatever that entails. To suffer in the body is to be done with sin, St. Peter tells us, but if we really believe Jesus’ words then we have to know that sometimes that means we will be done with the body as well.
It is this that we cannot abide, for while we declare that we want God to bring good out of our suffering, we are far less willing to allow that good to be other than what we want. In my struggles with cancer the prayer of course is always that God will cure me and that my suffering will end or at least won’t kill me. But if I am really to trust God and accept the only cure from his hands, in my heart of hearts I must be willing to go under the knife and never come back.
In the end the good of my suffering may be that the prognosis is good and there are years and decades yet to come full of life. It may be that the scans are always clear and every checkup is routine.
Or it may be that the end is up sooner than I would want, and that the last breath falls from my lips like the tired and browned leaves in the waning of Autumn.
If I am really going to love God, and if I am really going to trust him, then suffering must be accepted on his terms, and not on my own. The materialism that is rooted deep in my heart must be cut out, and that can only ever be a painful process. The cup of suffering can be a cure or a poison, depending on whether I will submit my will to God’s, or whether I will assert it in full force once again, that primordial act of defiance that forms the foundation of hell.
In contrast to my heretical heart, the gospel of prosperity seems rather passé. God wants to make me holy, but am I willing to accept the holes he must cut in me?
My living blasphemy must be removed, and suffering is the only cure.