There are many things I could say about the spiritually dangerous view known as the prosperity gospel or the health and wealth gospel. Rather than spew my thoughts, I decided to share an excerpt from an opinion piece published in The New York Times this past Valentine’s Day Weekend. The author is Kate Bowler, who is a Biblical scholar at Duke University, who spent nearly a decade researching prosperity preachers, their teachings, and their churches for her book titled, “Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel,” which was published in 2013. Ms. Bowler’s words are honest, loving, and trenchant. Kudos to her and may the Lord continue to lead and embolden her to speak his truth.

“The prosperity gospel has taken a religion based on the contemplation of a dying man and stripped it of its call to surrender all. Perhaps worse, it has replaced Christian faith with the most painful forms of certainty. The movement has perfected a rarefied form of America’s addiction to self-rule, which denies much of our humanity: our fragile bodies, our finitude, our need to stare down our deaths (at least once in a while) and be filled with dread and wonder. At some point, we must say to ourselves, I’m going to need to let go.

“CANCER has kicked down the walls of my life. I cannot be certain I will walk my son to his elementary school someday or subject his love interests to cheerful scrutiny. I struggle to buy books for academic projects I fear I can’t finish for a perfect job I may be unable to keep. I have surrendered my favorite manifestoes about having it all, managing work-life balance and maximizing my potential. I cannot help but remind my best friend that if my husband remarries everyone will need to simmer down on talking about how special I was in front of her. (And then I go on and on about how this is an impossible task given my many delightful qualities. Let’s list them. …) Cancer requires that I stumble around in the debris of dreams I thought I was entitled to and plans I didn’t realize I had made.

“But cancer has also ushered in new ways of being alive. Even when I am this distant from Canadian family and friends, everything feels as if it is painted in bright colors. In my vulnerability, I am seeing my world without the Instagrammed filter of breezy certainties and perfectible moments. I can’t help noticing the brittleness of the walls that keep most people fed, sheltered and whole. I find myself returning to the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.”

(Kate Bowler, “Death, The Prosperity Gospel, and Me,” New York Times, 13 Feb 2016)

Kate Bowler on Mortality and The Prosperity Gospel

“It is good for us to have trials and troubles at times, for they often remind us that we are on probation and ought not to hope in any worldly thing.  It is good for us sometimes to suffer contradiction, to be misjudged by men even though we do well and mean well.  These things help us to be humble and shield us from vainglory.  When to all outward appearances men give us no credit, when they do not think well of us, then we are more inclined to seek God who sees our hearts.  Therefore, a man ought to root himself so firmly in God that he will not need the consolations of men.”

(Thomas a Kempis, “The Value of Adversity,” The Imitation of Christ, p9, original pub. 1418, Dover Ed. 2003)

 

Thomas a Kempis on the Value of Adversity

“Fire is, of course, a well-known image for torment and pain.  The Bible calls trials and troubles “walking through fire” (Isa 43:2) or a “fiery ordeal” (1 Pet 4:12).  But it also likens suffering to a fiery furnace (1 Pet 1:6-7).  The biblical understanding of a furnace is more what we would call a “forge.”  Anything with that degree of heat is, of course, a very dangerous and powerful thing.  However, if used properly, it does not destroy.  Things put into the furnace properly can be shaped, refined, purified, and even beautified.  This is a remarkable view of suffering, that if faced and endured with faith, it can in the end only make us better, stronger, and more filled with greatness and joy.  Suffering, then, actually can use evil against itself.  It can thwart the destructive purposes of evil and bring light and life out of darkness and death.”

(Timothy Keller, “Introduction,” Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, p8, 2013)

The Fiery Furnace of Suffering

For the Name

There are so many things that one finds on the internet.  When I logged into YouTube, I searched for Jars of Clay’s “The Valley Song.”  Near the end of this video is the poem pasted below, which I found to be moving and an excellent reminder of how great and merciful is my God.  Both the song and the poem complement one another to a tee.  I do not post this to act like an Eeyore.  Sometimes I think there is a tendency in the church to indirectly-directly avoid discussing the subject of suffering.  This theme runs throughout the entire Old and New Testaments.  When it comes to grief, do I see the Lord and his people as safe ones with my heart?  I state the question this way in order to distinguish between the suffering that comes from disobedience, and the suffering that results from obedience.

The Psalms and Job are wonderful Old Testament books filled with men and women pouring out their grieving hearts to God.  Some of the writings in the Psalms depict the penitent attitude of its author such as Psalm 32 and 51.  The entire book of Job overturns the naive notion that followers of Christ will not face suffering in this life for their obedience.  When it comes to the New Testament, one of the best books of the bible about suffering is First Peter.  The entire letter is essential reading, but especially chapters two through four, which deal with the subject of suffering for the sake of Christ.  It is so easy to overlook the fact that Jesus, his apostles, and the first Christians, experienced immense favor in the midst of great persecution.

Some early Christians wound up prison, others were executed, and some died in the Roman Coliseum while thousands looked on as lions tore them to pieces.  I am thankful and blessed for living in a nation where such extremes or similar ones do not take place. Unfortunately, this is not the case with other nations of the world.  Persecution for the name of Christ is a blessing according to the apostle Peter (1 Peter 2:19-20 & 3:14, ESV).  This goes against conventional wisdom, but it must be faced honestly.  When reading the poem, reflect on the safety within God’s presence.  He has our hearts in his hands.  They are big and strong hands, but also gentle, too.  Praise him for the goodness and blessing, but may I nudge my readers to reflect on those believers who face death for aligning with the Lord.

 

 

“When the pain of this world

Is just too much to bear

I run to your seat of mercy

I know I will find solace there

 

“I am safe and secure

Beneath your wings of love

With comfort that only

Can come from you above

 

 

“Yes grace and mercy

I can always find with you

My God and my Savior

You guard me in all I do

 

 

“My pain you seem to ease

My troubles you help me bear

I will never forget Lord

Just how much you care”

 

 

Where are you?

Behold, he passes by me,  and I see him not; he moves on, but I do not perceive him” (Job 9:11, ESV).

There are seasons in life, which scream for the manifest presence of God.  Something in my heart and soul long for an unveiling or a pulling back of the curtain in order to make sense of the present.  When the temperature rises, or the tension increases, I desire either relief or an explanation.  It seems like those are normal, human expectations.  When I read scripture passages like the one quoted above, I take a step back for a minute.   Maybe those expectations arise from the wrong heart attitude.

There is something elusive about God’s character and his ways.  Job says exactly that in plain language.  He cannot see his God passing by him or working near him.  The one thing Job needs, seeing his God at work, is hidden from view.  Is the suffering so great that Job lacks the ability to recognize and sense God working in him, through him, and for him?  Based on the overall context of Job chapter nine, he gives assent to God as the orchestrator of creation and its fluctuations.  Those do not escape Job’s attention, yet God’s very presence eludes him.

I find this rather mysterious.  Job knows that God is at work in him and in creation.  In fact, those truths are inescapable to him, but his desire to see God or to perceive him speaks of something greater.  It seems like Job longs for relational connection with the Lord.  All he wants is to be able to see him.  Where are you?  Why are you hiding?  Maybe those two questions capture a little more of Job.  I have many instances in my life where I have asked those same questions.  On some level, I knew what the Bible said about trusting and obeying in the midst of suffering.

There is a chorus to a hymn that goes trust and obey for there is no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.  It is a wonderful hymn and one of my personal favorites.  Sometimes singing that hymn is not enough.  Reading the above scripture text is not enough.  What I need in times of suffering is to perceive my Lord.  I want to know in my heart rather than my head that he is present with me.  I think this is Job’s longing, too, which he is unafraid from expressing.  This is a crucial point.  If I have deep longings and questions like Job, then it behooves me to voice them.  The Lord never rejects him because of the questions.

I think it is vital for believers in Jesus to come to a place where they can express their hearts with raw honesty like Job.  If God is omniscient, if he knows what is on our hearts before we pray, then why act as if everything is fine before him?  One thing that I am learning fast is that an unwillingness to share my heart is evidence of a lack of trust on my part.  Something in my heart needs healing and restoration for the trust to return.  It may mean that I lay aside my right to express the hurt to the Lord and simply acknowledge his holiness and greatness.  This is not easy, and it is not my desire to paint such a picture.  May the Lord grant me the courage and the faith to speak with raw honesty about my longings, fears, dreams, and hopes.

 

 

Tim Keller on suffering

Tim Keller on suffering

Matt Smethurst engaged in a back and forth with Tim Keller on the topic of suffering, which is the subject of Keller’s latest book, Walking with God through Suffering.  Pastor Keller shepherds Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.  This exchange between Smethurst and Keller is a fascinating and timely article about suffering from a biblical perspective.  Today’s church and churchgoer are in desperate need of a right view of suffering as taught in God’s word while illuminated by the Holy Spirit.