I keep seeing them. They must have a billboard on every major highway in our city. The bright, smiling faces of the pastor and his wife, at our local church that follows the way of the Prosperity Gospel. This particular church is closely affiliated with Joel Olsteen, the most popular proponent of the Prosperity Gospel.
If you are not familiar with this modern day heresy, the Prosperity Gospel teaches that suffering is avoidable, and can be cured with ample prayer and a positive attitude. The Prosperity Gospel claims that if you are suffering – health-wise, financially, spiritually, in your relationships – it is because you are not praying hard enough. This set of beliefs proposes that God “blesses” those he favors with prosperity, and prosperity is a sign that God is pleased with you. In order to have God unleash his fountain of blessings (especially financial, temporal blessings) you need only have sufficient faith.
The greatest damage that the Prosperity Gospel heresy does is disparage the value of suffering. This notion – the wastefulness and meaninglessness of suffering – permeates our entire culture, and this particular group of mega-churches only adds to the strength of this belief. It also takes for granted that we are the ones who have ultimate control of our lives, and that if we but ask nicely enough, we can bend God to our will (rather than be bended to his).
Our fallen human nature (especially in our current day Western culture, where material comfort is more attainable than it has ever been) seeks control. We don’t want to be vulnerable. We want to be in control. We don’t want to be humble. With pride, we cling to the belief that we can determine our own fates, and that we can achieve whatever we want…if we only want it badly enough.
But where does this leave those who are suffering?
Suffering is the ultimate reminder that we are not in control, and that we are desperately in need of the grace of God. If we are fortunate enough to not undergo much suffering in our lives, then the Prosperity Gospel is music to our ears. Do you want to be wealthy? Yes! Pray for it and it will be. Do you want a dream house or a dream job? Yes! Pray for it and you will have it.
But when you are suffering, the Prosperity Gospel rings hollow. As I have shared previously, I suffer from hyperemesis gravidarum during pregnancy, and last year our family lost our little son to miscarriage. I do not suffer from hyperemesis gravidarum because I’m not praying hard enough. We did not lose our Gabriel because we (and all our loved ones) weren’t praying hard enough. For those who have suffered from difficult health diagnoses, trouble in their marriage or family, or the loss of a loved one…it is of no comfort to tell them that if they but speak positive words or dream bigger dreams, their reality will improve.
Early in this pregnancy, on one of the days when I couldn’t sit up or speak without the threat of throwing up, I had a well-meaning person tell me to speak with gratitude every day to help me get through it. I already thanked God every day for the gift of the child in my womb, and thanked my husband – when I could talk without throwing up – for the many things he did to take care of me each day (since self-care was impossible). I knew that words of gratitude wouldn’t take away any of my suffering, and it hurt to be told that, in some way, things would improve if I only improved my outlook.
When you are suffering terribly, there is no hope in being told that your suffering will improve if you only “try harder.” There is no hope if you do try harder, and your suffering only worsens.
Thankfully, my husband is a professor at an amazing Catholic seminary, and I have been blessed by the friendship and prayers of the priests and seminarians there during this pregnancy. One of our dearest priest friends went out of his way to be present to our family in our suffering – coming to our home to hear my Confession, bringing me Communion, and saying Sunday Mass in our living room so that I could actually go to Mass with my family, since leaving the house was out of the question.
But the most powerful thing this priest friend did was to affirm our family’s suffering (as truly the entire family suffers when a mother is bedridden and in and out of the hospital) and to acknowledge the significance of our suffering. Rather than try to give us advice about how to better deal with our suffering, rather than telling us we should be grateful for our healthy child and not complain, he listened to our painful daily updates and promised us prayers. He reminded our family that what we were experiencing was “no less than the Cross.”
Suffering, in and of itself, is an evil. There was no suffering in Eden. Yet, the cross transforms suffering. Acknowledging that our own suffering is nothing more than a partaking in the Cross of Christ is hopeful. It is not due to a lack of faith, gratitude, or prayers. We do not suffer because God is displeased and is withholding his blessings from us. Unemployment, infertility, chronic health conditions, depression and anxiety…none of these things are a result of our lack of prayers, and praying more usually will not “fix it.” When we suffer, we are embraced by Christ on the Cross. Yes, the cross was a place of tremendous suffering, but it was also the moment in which we saw God’s love for his people in a greater way than ever before.
Perhaps the most powerful moment for me spiritually this pregnancy, was when I was too sick to leave the house, and one of our priest friends came over to hear my Confession while I laid on the couch (because I couldn’t sit up for longer than a minute or two). During that visit he reminded me that, in the midst of my suffering, Jesus was reminding me to trust in him…but also that he trusts in me. As I lay there – too sick to make my own food, struggling to eat or drink anything, unable to even sit up – I found tremendous comfort in this reminder. My suffering was not a sign that I was abandoned by God, or that he was displeased with me. It was a reminder that my suffering allowed me to partake in the great work of Christ’s cross. It reminded me that because of the Cross, I could say with Paul, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church…” (Col. 1:24).
It is a foundational belief of our Catholic faith that God chooses to work through those the world perceives as weak. In Catholic theology, our suffering is not a weakness, but a strength, as it leads us to humility and allows God to work through us. As St. Paul says elsewhere, “Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corin. 12:10)
This is the message of Lent.
During Lent, those of us who are suffering find comfort in the knowledge that God is not displeased with us, but is rather drawing us closer to his love on the cross. And those who are not currently suffering, can take on little sufferings and penances in order to humble themselves and encounter that same hope of the cross.
Because despite what the Prosperity Gospel would have us believe – the cross has forever changed suffering. Suffering is not a sign of failure or lack of faith, but rather an invitation to humility and love. In this season where our focus is on the death and resurrection of Christ, the Church reminds us to have hope in the midst of our suffering, and to look to the day when Christ will glorify our wounds like his own. For truly, our wounds and marks of suffering will not be erased in the final resurrection, but glorified as marks of love, in which the Father sees the image of his Son.