Can you still believe in the prosperity gospel when you’re diagnosed with Stage IV cancer?
That’s a question that author and Duke Divinity professor Kate Bowler has been thinking about ever since she received her diagnosis. And she writes in Vox that faith in God — and faith that God wants you to be rich — isn’t going to spare you from the tragedy of such an illness:
There’s a branch of Christianity that promises a direct path to the good life. It is called by many names, but most often it is nicknamed the “prosperity gospel” for its bold central claim that God will give you your heart’s desires: money in the bank, a healthy body, a thriving family, and boundless happiness.
By 25, I was traveling the country interviewing this movement’s celebrities for my doctoral research. Eventually, I wrote the first history of the prosperity gospel from its roots in the late 19th century to its modern mix of TV preachers and suburban megachurches.
During my years of research, I talked to televangelists who offered spiritual guarantees that viewers would receive money from God’s own hands, I held hands with people in wheelchairs praying at the altar to be cured. They, too, thought faith contained an implicit promise of earthly reward.
A surface-level reading of Bowler’s research suggests that the prosperity gospel, for some, is like a safety net. It’s a form of divine insurance, if you will. If you believe that you’ve earned God’s special protection, then you don’t need to worry about problems “out there” — whether they’re illnesses or accidents. You’re given godly immunity. This mindset dupes people into believing that any tragedy, then, is a form of divine punishment. When something goes wrong, they’re inclined to wonder why God is mad at them.
That’s what the prosperity gospel teaches. It’s not just about money. It’s about God rewarding you for being faithful — ad God punishing you if you’re not.
The prosperity gospel looks at the world as it is and promises a solution. It guarantees that faith will always make a way. If you believe, and you leap, you will land on your feet. If you believe, you will be healed.
I would love to report that what I found in the prosperity gospel was something so foreign and terrible to me that I was warned away. After all, the moral and logical flaws in this theology are all too evident; it explains away misfortune as something that can and ought to be held at bay through faith and prayer.. But what I discovered was both familiar and painfully sweet.
Much of Bowler’s research is predicated on a Bible verse, Romans 8:28, which says, “All things work together for the good of those who love God.”
The subjects of her study, however, either ignore or aren’t aware of the fact that the “founders” of Christianity suffered more than most people ever will in their lifetimes. Jesus, his disciples, and the apostle Paul were beaten, crucified, beheaded, or killed in a variety of other ways. If God didn’t spare those men — and presumably His own son — from the agonies of those fates, why would any of us deserve better?
More of Bowler’s thoughts on the subject can be found in her new book, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved, which I highly recommend.
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