Sunday, February 24, 2019

Everything Happens For A Reason - The Prosperity Gospel

I received a text late Sunday morning, February 4, 2018, from our youngest daughter, Anna, that Philip, her friend of ten years, had died eight months after being diagnosed with stage four colon and liver cancer.

 Initially, she debated whether to come for the memorial service. (Anna lives in Oregon.) Mike and I left the decision to her; after much thought she decided to attend.

Anna Arrives Home and the Visitation

Picking her up at the airport Thursday evening, the day before the visitation, gave our family unexpected time to be together. Friday afternoon, Anna and I drove to the small farming community where Philip was raised, arriving at the church an hour after the visitation began.

Anna was anxious and the intensity of experiencing the loss of a long-time friend was palpable. I offered encouragement as we walked through the gravel parking lot to the church, reminding her that she possessed great courage to come and offer comfort to Philip's mother and father.

Although we had to wait over an hour, that time enabled me to observe how Philip's parents greeted each person with gracious hospitality, listening carefully to the condolences offered. Our time came to talk to the family. I finally met Philip's mother and father about whom I heard so much. Anna was embraced with love and warmth. She spoke kind and consoling words despite her sadness.

The Memorial Service

The memorial service was Saturday morning, where several persons - family, friends, work associates, and a former teacher - spoke about a man who loved adventure and enjoyed fullness of living during his 35 years.

The Luncheon and Kate Bowler

At the luncheon following the service, I sat next to Philip's high school art teacher. She was one of the speakers and shared samples of his art as well as the impact he had on her life. As we were talking, she said, "Well, you know everything happens for a reason. Sometimes it takes awhile to figure out why."

I looked at her and hoped she didn't share these thoughts with Philip's mother and father. I remembered a book I just read, Everything Happens for A Reason and Other Lies I've Loved, written by Kate Bowler, an assistant professor at the Duke University Divinity School.

Kate also completed extensive research on the prosperity gospel for her graduate studies, and published Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.  The essence of the prosperity gospel is the "quintessentially American belief that God rewards the right kind of faith and that if you are suffering you must have done something wrong." (Faith and Leadership, Duke University - "Kate Bowler - Not All Pain Has to Be Explained," February 6, 2018).

Kate Bowler continued, "When someone gets sick or unfortunate circumstances arrive like a job loss,  impaired relationships, and illness, etc., the reason is because the person has done something wrong. Misfortune is seen as a mark of God's disapproval while fortune is a blessing from God - the core beliefs of the prosperity gospel."

My Response

In those moments of fresh grief and remembrance, I was not going to express my opinion to this woman who a few minutes earlier explained she was spiritual, but not religious - words I've heard before and believe they mean something different to everyone who speaks them.

Thirty-five-year-old Kate Bowler wrote Everything Happens for A Reason and Other Lies I've Loved,"  after she was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. She says, "My body was failing me. Pain rippled through my limp arms. I was no longer proof of anything that testified to the glory of God, at least not in the eyes of the people around me. I was nothing like a sign or wonder." (page 19)

When asked in a TIME magazine interview (February 5, 2018) if she felt Christianity had failed her, she answered, "Sometimes it felt like that, in part because of the stuff people said using the Christian faith to be incredible trite. Christianity, also saved the day. You really want a brave faith, one that says, in the midst of crushing brokenness, there is the something else there, the undeniable, overwhelming love of God."

I do not believe everything happens for a reason. I feel people say these words because the thought offers "understanding," they don't know what else to say in tragic circumstances, and in a strange way it brings comfort to them and the suffering family.

I can't think of a reason for a previously, healthy, productive, joy-filled young man to get cancer or for a child to be raised in a home that is harmful or for a baby to be born with birth defects or for a child to have learning difficulties, for a shooter to kill students in Florida and Connecticut - or any other tragedies and challenges life brings. There is no reason. There may be causes for such happenings, but not reasons.

I can rest with the situations I described above for weeks and never come up with a reason why - as the teacher thought. Things just happen and there is no length of time to determine when an answer will come, because there is none. There are causes for tragedies, but not reasons - cancer cells start to grow in a healthy body; emotionally disturbed parents try to raise children; chromosomes aren't divided properly to produce healthy children; unstable persons use guns inappropriately.

God's Assurance

The prosperity gospel is inaccurate and leads people away from God, who promises over and over to be with us when our hearts are crushed and we are broken from varying circumstances.

For example, these three passages describe God's presence:

Deuteronomy 31:8 - "The Lord himself will lead you and be with you. He will not fail you or abandon you, so do not lose courage or be afraid."

Matthew 28:20 - "And I will be with you always, to the end of the age."

John 14:27 - "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid."

Individuals can grow through unfortunate events and find deeper meaning in life. Those who know God can find the value of intimacy with God's companionship, compassion and mercy.

Driving to the Airport

After the luncheon, Anna and I drove three hours to reach the airport so she could board an early evening flight to Oregon. She was so tired, she leaned back in the passenger seat and rested.

When we reached the airport, I pulled next to the curb so I could have a few minutes to offer last minute encouragement. I told her to be gentle with herself, to let her memories come through, write about them, cry and take good care. I reminded her of the great courage she demonstrated by traveling so far to be present to Philip's parents, bringing comfort, expressing compassion and showing care.

Releasing my hands from around her shoulders was so hard. I wanted to continue to walk beside her as she processed the experiences of the past few days as well as deal with her grief. However,  depended on God, who offers companionship and mercy in all circumstances to those who call upon him to care for Anna and Philip's family in the days ahead.

Questions for Reflection

1. When have you experienced the loss of a close friend or family member?
2. What were your emotions?
3. How did you respond to the circumstances surrounding the loss?
4. In what ways do you help others who are  dealing with a death or other trying circumstances?
5. What advice can you offer to those dealing with difficulties based on your own experience?

Prayer: Loving and caring God, so many times tragedy and trying circumstances come our way. You are the first to cry when these events happen and the first to be available to console and comfort. Thank  you for your care that settles in our soul when we are distressed or when we celebrate. We are thankful we can always depend on you and you are always there for us. Amen.

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