Christian, There Is A Real Purpose For Your Suffering

I am incredibly blessed. I don’t mean that in a mere spiritual sense, either. My bills are paid, I have a roof over my head, I have fantastic friends, relationships in my family have begun to be restored, I have a great job, my health is in tact, my belly is full (too full most of the time), and so on. I am walking in innumerable physical, emotional, relational, and financial blessings in this particular season of my life.

Yet even in my temporary prosperity I still loathe the Prosperity Gospel with all of my heart. So, I think it’s time I finally write about it.

What is the Prosperity Gospel?

What exactly is the prosperity gospel (PG)? Well, to put it as simply as possible, the PG – proclaimed by people like Joel Osteen, Kenneth Copeland and Benny Hinn – says that as long as you have enough faith, you will continually experience physical, emotional, relational, and financial wholeness in this life because of Jesus’ substitutionary work on your behalf. As long as you truly believe, says the PG, you will experience relief from financial debt, physical healing for all of your bodily ailments, restoration in your relationships, freedom from certain temptations, and on and on. Basically, the PG says Jesus did what needed to be done to open the heavenly window of God’s abundant favor and now it’s your job to – by faith – draw all of the promised blessings of God out of that window and into your life.

On the flip side of things, the prosperity gospel says that any suffering of lack of blessing you’re experiencing in your life – cancer, poverty, same-sex attraction, etc. – is evidence that you aren’t truly walking in faith. To the person in chemotherapy, or to the mom skipping meals so that her kids can eat, or to the single man in his 30’s still fighting same-sex attraction, the PG would say, “All you have to do is believe and healing, wholeness, and freedom will be yours! Receive it by faith! Name it and claim it! Speak it into existence!”

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A Little Right, But Mostly Dead Wrong

Now, there are some biblical principals at the root level of the prosperity gospel. Osteen and the likes of him didn’t get to where they are in their theology without starting somewhere biblical. The problem is they’ve stuck a needle full of steroids into certain biblical teachings while totally neglecting other biblical teachings. Firstly, it’s inarguably biblical that when the fullness of Jesus’ redeeming work is applied across the board, we will unceasingly experience perfect health, abundant wealth (the whole world!), and uninterrupted prosperity. But the fullness of Jesus’ redemption hasn’t been applied yet. The first mistake PG teachers often make is adopting an over-realized eschatology, meaning that they believe the blessings of the age to come can be fully accessed in the here and now. This would be great, but it’s just not true. In this life we experience the first fruits of salvation, like being regenerated and sealed by the Spirit, but total redemption of our bodies and creation is reserved for the age to come.

Yet even so, in the here and now, God does bring about blessing through our faith. It’s absolutely biblical that God works through faith to miraculously bring about physical healing to the suffering (Mathew 9:22, Luke 17:9, James 5:15). It’s absolutely biblical that God works through faith and provides financial resources to those in need (Malachi 3:10-12). However, it’s absolutely biblical that God disciplines those that he loves (Hebrews 12:6-11) and that discipline could include physical ailment (1 Corinthians 11:27-32) or the withholding of certain provisions (James 4:1-10). But it’s not biblical that God always works this way all the time.

Blessings and sufferings in our lives aren’t solely brought about by faithfulness or faithlessness. Biblically, we can’t throw that kind of systematic formula over our current reality. It just doesn’t work. Sometimes physical, emotional, relational, and financial blessings come in seasons when we’re being faithful. But sometimes they come in seasons of great disobedience and faithlessness. Sometimes suffering comes into our lives in seasons when we’ve been indulging in sinful lusts and need to be disciplined. But sometimes suffering comes into our lives in seasons where we’ve been walking in the highest levels of obedience that we’ve ever walked in. The PG tends to leave certain parts of the Bible that teach this – like the entire book of Job – out of its theological thought processes.

Last week I happened to read through Job and was reminded and encouraged by the fact that not every struggle or suffering brought into our life is in response to some specific, personal sin we’ve committed. God didn’t allow Satan to afflict Job because Job deserved it. Was Job a sinner? Sure. But did Job commit any specific sins or exercise faithlessness to merit the loss of his children, lands, animals, health, and reputation? No, he didn’t. Job was a faithful, righteous man who even offered up cautionary sacrifices for his kids just in case they’d sinned (Job 1:5). Dare I say it – God was proud of Job. And this is why, in front of innumerable angels, the Lord asks Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” (Job 1:8)

The Purpose of Job’s Suffering

God allows Satan to afflict Job in order to magnify His Name and worth through Job’s faithfulness in the midst of great suffering. That is the purpose for Job’s suffering. It wasn’t discipline or revenge for sin. Unimaginable sufferings were ushered into the life of this man through the agency of Satan in order that it might be known that his faithfulness to God did not hinge upon the material blessings in his life. Job was faithful to God not because of what God gives, but because of who God is. Whether the Lord gave him much or took away all that he had, Job knew the Lord was good and righteous. “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21)

Did he struggle during the testing? Sure. Did God have to step in and adjust Job’s attitude a little bit? Certainly. But at the end, overall, Job was faithful to God in the midst of suffering. He didn’t understand the cause behind his suffering (and according to the Lord, he didn’t need to), but he didn’t waiver in his firm position that God is holy, righteous and good. He didn’t depart from God in faithlessness. He didn’t “curse God and die” as his wife advised. He stood firm – and the worth of God was radiantly magnified through his life.

The Purpose of Our Suffering

Could this biblical account relate to some of the personal sufferings in our own lives? I think – no, I know – it can. That’s the whole reason it’s even in the Bible, for our encouragement and instruction (Romans 15:4). Personally, even amidst the many blessings I am currently experiencing in my life, I still deal with an ongoing struggle with same sex attraction. And this struggle has had massive implications on my life. I am getting into my late 20’s and am still single. I’ve dated a little bit here and there over the last year, but I have yet to find myself overwhelmingly attracted to a woman. Will God relieve me of this particular suffering as he did Job? I don’t know. All that I do know is it’s a very real possibility that I could be single for the duration of my life in this world. And as much as I may pretend it isn’t, this is a hard reality to swallow. Did I do something specific to deserve this leeching burden that threw itself upon me as a child? No, I didn’t. Am I just not exercising enough faith now, as a follower of Jesus, to rid myself of it? I really don’t think that’s the issue.

I think that this mysterious suffering is present in my life for the purpose of magnifying God’s worth. I think that, like Job, I have been allowed to endure this struggle in order that the world might see that I don’t follow Jesus because it’s easy or because he makes my life smooth sailing, but I follow Jesus because Jesus is worthy. Knowing and seeing him – in all his goodness, his kindness, his gentleness, his love, his power, his comfort, his beauty, and his glory – is why I follow him. To put it concisely, Jesus is the reason I follow Jesus. I don’t follow him for health, wealth, or any other materialistic blessings. These things are awesome – don’t get me wrong! When they come, I am thankful for them and enjoy them! But they’re just gravy. Jesus himself is the main course.

The reason that I hate the prosperity gospel with such intense hatred is because the weight of its broken promises shatters already broken people. Sincere souls (often new converts to Christianity) are taught that if they just believe strongly enough, healing or prosperity will be theirs. And when that healing or prosperity doesn’t find its way into their lives, they immediately blame themselves and their lack of faith. As time goes on, and material blessing remains foreign, these poor souls begin to doubt God. “Is he really good? Does he really love me? Is he even real? Is Christianity even true?” The prosperity gospel promises “stuff” in the place of God, and that’s why I hate it. And when the “stuff” doesn’t coming rolling in after someone has  prayed “in faith”, their spiritual life starts to crumble.

The greatest gift that God can give us is not health or wealth, but himself — and according to the true gospel, that’s exactly what God gives in abundance to all who believe in Jesus. Himself.

To the Christian reading this who is physically sick, struggling with intense temptation, battling depression, barely making your rent each month, or enduring any other type of suffering: This burden isn’t present in your life because God is mad or displeased with you. Nor is it there because your faith is weak or you’re a “failure” as a Christ follower. The Lord your God loves you with an intensity that you may never be able to comprehend. The bloodied Cross that His Son hung on 2,000 years ago is proof of that. I can’t know the exact purpose for your suffering, but I can tell you that God isn’t punishing you or playing trivial games with your life. He is using your suffering and struggle not only for his glory but for your good and your joy.

Stand firm, believer! The Bible calls following Jesus a race for a reason. It’s long, and it’s hard. But a day is coming when the fullness of Jesus’ redeeming work is going to be wholly applied to us and our world. In that day, your suffering – in every sense – will come to an eternal end. And he who called us to this amazing glory to come is faithful to sustain us until we get there (1 Thessalonians 5:24, 1 Corinthians 1:8, Jude 1:24).

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