Thursday, June 21, 2012

Prosperity in the Atonement?: The Case for Suffering

 ** *This will be a long post***

What is kryptonite to the message that believes that Jesus died in order to make His followers wealthy and healthy? Christ-exalting suffering. The word suffering is pushed away by many in the church in our nation, but it is mainly frowned upon by those who teach that Jesus died to materially bless and physically heal all who trust in Him. Why? Well, as I have previously stated in the first few posts, health and wealth are two important pillars of our lives - especially in the United States. One's health is vital to enjoying the good life that is sought after so heavily in our day and one's financial status is the key to the door of enjoying the good life. Therefore when a word such as "suffering" makes its way into many church doors, it is immediately frowned upon and rejected, because nobody wants anything to do with lack as opposed to prosperity or sickness as opposed to health. The words "suffer", "broke", "poor", "sick", "affliction", "need", "weak", and "going thru" are words that no one wants to be characterized by and to the one who believes that prosperity is guaranteed in Jesus, these words are an anathema, contrary to what the Bible teaches about who a Christian is and how they are supposed to live. So, this post will focus on what the Bible says about suffering and what its place is in the life of a follower of Jesus. Do Christians suffer? Did Jesus die to end suffering? Does God allow suffering?

When I say “suffering”, I’m talking about something that everyone experiences on some level. God sends rain upon the just and the unjust according to Matthew 5:45, and suffering is common to both the Christian and the one who does not trust in the person and work of Christ. All experience suffering in one form or another: illness, loss of loved ones, natural disasters, calamity, job loss, hunger, pain, trying times, or violence. Suffering can be pictured as a fiery furnace that all kinds of elements are placed into, yet all are not refined. The difference between the Christian and the unbeliever is what their outcome is in the furnace of suffering. The Christian is said to be refined as pure gold is refined in the fiery furnace of suffering, while the unbeliever is left without true hope and will bear the weight of their sufferings themselves.The Bible mentions three kinds of suffering, the latter two of which I am dealing with in this post.

1) Consequential suffering: this has to do with the suffering that comes because of  civil disobedience, lawbreaking, or sin. This would be like going to jail for murder. Although murder can be forgiven in God's sight, there would still be civil consequences for the crime such as life in prison.(1 Peter 2:20)
2) Discipline from the Lord: this is the suffering that Hebrews 12:11 speaks of. God's discipline in our lives may seem more painful than pleasant, but in the end the Lord uses it to produce the fruit of righteousness in our lives.
3) Christ-exalting suffering: This kind of suffering may come through the trials and storms in our lives or through the persecution we face for the sake of Christ. In our trials, our faith is often tested to expose where our hope lies - and if it is in Christ, it will be to the praise of His glory (1 Peter 1:7). Persecution is suffering that has been seen throughout the church for hundreds of years. From the martyrs of the early church, to the missionaries in countries today all across the world, persecution for the sake of the gospel remains and millions have lost their lives, families, and freedom for the sake of the gospel. The words of Christ to His followers hold true in the midst of persecution, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Matt 5:10-11)

This post is going to focus on two responses to suffering.
1) The Prosperity Gospel’s response to suffering
2) The Bible’s response to suffering

The Prosperity Gospel’s Response
Just in my own personal experience, when it comes to the topic of suffering in "prosperity" circles, suffering is viewed as Sin’s next door neighbor. The two are intertwined in that they are both viewed as evil, from the devil, and both are not talked about when it comes to the prosperity teachings we often hear. Satan is the one who causes people to suffer and God is totally opposed to suffering and wants no one to experience it. According to the health and wealth teachings, Christians do not have to suffer. People suffer only because they do not have sufficient knowledge of who they are in Christ and what God's will is for them. People also suffer because they lack faith to conquer pain or affliction or lack. According to the gospel of health and wealth, the many believers who lack sufficient knowledge of who they are in Jesus are still in bondage to Satan in their finances, health, and relationships. Suffering, in this perspective, is connected to disobedience of God's laws. As I wrote previously in the "Curse of Poverty" post, Deuteronomy 28's curses are often said to come upon or remain upon those who do not obey God's Word. The logic behind the prosperity message is “You obey, you prosper; don’t obey, you suffer.”
Furthermore, suffering is seen as "religious". Teachers who preach that you will suffer are regarded by health and wealth advocates as old-fashioned, weak, and religious. God only allows suffering on His people because they allow it. When Christians do not take advantage of their rights to be healed and prosperous because of Jesus, then God's hands are tied and He will only allow what we allow. In the health and wealth gospel, Satan has sovereign power to steal from you, kill you, and destroy you before your time. All suffering is from Satan and it is up to the Christian to produce enough faith to break free from it. God's will is not for anyone to suffer.
A popular text that many use to prove that God is against suffering and would never want any believer to suffer, but watches as a compassionate bystander waiting to be asked to intervene, is James 1:13-15 which states:
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
 Without spending too much time unpacking this verse, first observe how the trials or temptations mentioned in this verse are temptations to sin. In the previous verses, "temptations" in the King James Version is the same as the word trial. During the time when James wrote this letter, the word temptation did not have such a negative connotation associated with it, but could also mean a good testing. The flow of thought in verse 13 is: temptation ----> desire ---->sin ----> death. The temptation according to this verse springs from our being lured by our own desires. God tempts no one to sin, but He does test our hearts through various trials. Scripture confirms this in passages such as Deut.8:2; 13:3; 1 Chron.29:17; 2 Chron.32:31; Ps.7:9; Jer.17:10; 1 Thess.2:4, that the Lord tests the hearts of men which tests are also tests of our faith (Jas. 1:3; 1 Pet. 1:7; Heb. 11:17). This verse is not saying that God's will is that we never suffer. It is saying that God has nothing to do with tempting anyone to sin. James follows this by stating that "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change." God is actively behind the trial which is used for the testing of faith to produce endurance: a good gift (James 1:3), but God is not behind the desire within us that takes a trial and uses it as a temptation to sin. What are the responses?

Suffering is neglected. 
The prosperity gospel responds to the issue of suffering by avoiding the issue altogether. If a Christian is suffering, then, according to the prosperity gospel, they are allowing Satan to have dominion in their life. The way to defeat any suffering is through the "power of your words". The Word of Faith movement believes that when you pray things over yourself or confess things over yourself, by either speaking to the devil and "taking authority over him" or positively confessing good things over yourself instead of saying how you actually feel, you can overcome any pain or affliction in life. Suffering is viewed as something that is evil, yet controllable and all one has to do is resist the devil, speak the right words over their life, and refuse to accept the present reality of their suffering. 
The prosperity gospel never provides any comfort to the afflicted in their suffering. It never provides any consolation that God is ultimately in control of every situation. Rather, this message of health and wealth convinces you that you are in control, and if you are suffering or have embraced suffering, then you have allowed it, not God, and that you have the ability to stop it. Beneath this kind of response to suffering is the attitude that “I don’t have to accept this! I am better than this!” What the prosperity gospel misses greatly is the fact that much of our suffering is beyond our control and it doesn’t simply end when we tell it to. 

The prosperity gospel also concludes that the believer is in a state of disobedience or under a curse when they encounter suffering and this couldn’t be more false. It concludes that suffering comes when the believer does not know enough about Jesus, whose voice they hear and follow, or that they don't have enough faith in order to get out of their circumstance. For this reason, the believer’s rights and privileges are often emphasized when it comes to this issue of suffering and the message of prosperity believes that the Christian ought not to suffer and has a right not to suffer. It is often said by health and wealth teachers that Jesus suffered so that you would not have to suffer, but the reality is that the Bible teaches that Jesus suffered, so you will suffer. This suffering that the Christian will go through is a gift (Phil 2:29). It is through suffering for the sake of Christ that we become heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17). Our sufferings are part of the "all things" that are working to conform us into the image of Jesus (Romans 8:28-29). Philippians 3:10 says that it is through sharing in the sufferings of Christ, that we will obtain the resurrection from the dead. This does not mean that we need to be physically crucified in order to be resurrected, but it means that in Christ we have a sympathetic and understanding Savior who feels with us in our sufferings. Our sufferings drive us to Christ. Yes, suffering is painful, its sad, its grieving, and it is hard; yet suffering is also character producing, endurance building, hope anticipating, and God-glorifying (Romans 5:3-5). Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22)

Suffering is rejected. 
To embrace suffering is to “make Satan’s job to kill, steal, and destroy, much easier.” (Gloria Copeland, “God’s Will is Prosperity”, 106). The notion that God could use suffering for His glory and the Christian’s joy is a completely foreign concept to Word of Faith teachers. Suffering is of the devil, and because God wants you prosperous, suffering is the devil’s way of trying to stop that from happening. To believe that God would allow or work through suffering is doubtful, weak, and “blasphemous”, as some health and wealth teachers say. As I stated previously, Word of Faith teachers believe that God will stand by and watch you suffer and be kicked around by the devil because you allowed it, and He only allows what you allow. When a Christian is suffering, the prosperity gospel tells them to refuse, fight, react, and resist because suffering is your enemy and it is against your success. 

The Bible’s Response
 Suffering is a product of the sinful world that we live in. When God created this earth, suffering was not a part of it. Suffering came into this world because of the decision Adam and Eve made to rebel against God by eating of the tree that God forbade. Because of Adam and Eve's rejection of God, all kinds of natural calamity, evil, pain, and suffering have come into the world affecting all who have ever lived. Struggle and disaster has touched every age, pain is something everyone has felt, and suffering has followed all men from the greatest to the least. Suffering is evil in that it is a fruit of man's evil decision, but it is good in that the Lord uses it to accomplish His holy and wise purposes. Behind every case of affliction and evil intention recorded in the scripture is a sinful man or the devil. But behind every evil intention of man or devil in causing suffering, there stands God with a holy, good, loving and wise purpose that never fails. This is why when a prosecuting Satan asks for the life of Job, he is given permission by God to inflict Job with boils, kill his family, take everything he owned, yet God was still glorified in the end even through the sufferings of Job (Job 1:6-2:10)
Or look at the life of Joseph. The intention of Joseph's brothers in his suffering was inherently wicked. Their hatred for Joseph was real, their intent was to kill him, and their throwing him into a pit and selling him into slavery was beyond sinful. Joseph, at the end of Genesis, is recorded as saying to his brothers "you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive..." (Genesis 50:20). This circumstance was one of suffering. Joseph's brothers' intentions were evil. God's intent, in the same circumstance, was good. God was not caught off guard in Joseph's case or in any case of suffering, but rather, He was at work the entire time actively working in and through the hatred of Joseph's brothers, the arrival of the Egyptian slave traders, and the selection of Joseph by Potiphar, and using it for His glorious purposes. Joseph's brothers didn't intend to make Joseph the Vice President of Egypt, but Psalm 105:17 says that God "sent a man ahead of them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave..." Based on these passages, to deny suffering or to wield it as a consequence of disobedience (only) is to limit the power and purpose of God in accomplishing what He intends to accomplish. Here are some words from Ecclesiastes that confirm the goodness of God in working through suffering. 
Consider the work of God:
     who can make straight what he has made crooked?
In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him. (Eccl. 7:13-14)

 What does the Christian do with suffering? 
We should embrace it. 
Christians will face sickness, death, loss of loved ones, loss of a job, trying times, strained and severed relationships, spiritual warfare, hurt and pain, and the long list of suffering given by Paul in Romans 8:35. The Christian can embrace suffering because as bad and as intense as some of these things are, the Christian realizes that they are not his greatest problem - sin is. The Word of Faith movement sees suffering and lack as the Christian's greatest problem, and therefore it sees health and wealth as the greatest treasure. The truth of the matter is that sin's effects are much worse than even the most terrible of earthly sufferings. Because of sin, we face God’s wrath and punishment. Sin is our greatest problem, and because of our sin, we deserve far worse than any sickness, pain, or even physical death. We deserve eternal separation from all that is good, pure, right, and lovely. We deserve a cancer that will eat at our souls forever, and ages upon ages of spiritual emptiness and bankruptcy. Once we realize that our greatest problem is sin, we will see that we are not entitled to anything, but God has been gracious in giving us so much more. If we are honest with ourselves and search our hearts and think of the ways that we have sinned against God in our thoughts, words and actions, hopefully we will see that we deserve far worse than any suffering we have or will ever face on this earth, and God has been gracious in not giving that to us. In the gospel Jesus eliminates our greatest problem. On the cross, He willingly and lovingly bears the penalty for our sins and gives us eternal fellowship with the Father. It is on this basis of the good news of the gospel that the Christian can face any kind of suffering that serves to work against them, because the God of the Universe is now for them in Jesus. It is with this confidence that Paul asks the rhetorical questions in Romans 8:31-35 " If God is for us, who can be against us?   He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies.   Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised— who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?"
If God gave His Son to bear the penalty for our mountains of sins, will He not much more take care of us in the midst of our temporary and earthly sufferings? If God did not let our heinous crimes of sin separate us from Him forever, will he not much more ensure that tribulation and distress will not separate us? If Jesus can endure suffering under God's wrath, can He not much more give us the strength to endure earthly sufferings? If Jesus can take something as evil as death and use death to defeat death, is it too hard for Him to use death to work for our good in making it a doorway for eternal life?  In the gospel, Jesus takes our greatest trials,sufferings, and afflictions and uses what would seek to destroy us to strengthen us and conform us into His image. This is how we can embrace suffering in a Christ-exalting way.

We should rejoice in it.  
Romans 5:3-5 gives Paul’s thoughts on the Christian’s response to the doctrine of justification. He begins in verse 1 by stating that because of our being justified and declared righteous before God, we have peace with God because of Jesus. In addition to peace with God, we also have access, through believing and trusting in the finished work of Christ, into grace. Paul continues by saying that because of our justification we can rejoice in hope and anticipation that God will glorify Himself by bringing us to Himself forever.  In addition to rejoicing because of our future hope, Paul states that more than that, we rejoice in our  sufferings. The day hasn’t come when suffering will cease. The rejoicing Paul is speaking of is in the present tense. There is still pain, persecution, and affliction now. While the prosperity gospel suggests that God will remove these things now, Paul suggests that we rejoice in these things now, mindful that the suffering that we face produces patience or endurance. The suffering that once produced despair and hopelessness is now producing patience and endurance. Notice that the list doesn’t end at endurance, but continues, stating that endurance produces character and character produces hope (remember that this all begins with suffering). In short, suffering produces hope in God; an unashamed and steadfast hope that we will one day be free from this fallen world and taken to spend forever with Him in a new one. What assures the Christian of this? An end to his present suffering? The good life? No, our assurance is God’s love poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. The love of God is what comforts, strengthens, and encourages the Christian in the face of suffering. This love isn't defined by  what He can do to eliminate my suffering, or what he can do to give me a prosperous, suffering-free, healthy life. This love is defined and demonstrated in the death of Christ. Romans 5:8 Paul states, "but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."

Unfortunately, this was not an exhaustive (exhausting, maybe) study on what the Bible says about suffering. I left many scriptures out and examples of those who experienced suffering in the Bible. This may even cause me to write a second post about this particular topic, but until then, we must conclude that suffering is a crooked bat used by God to hit grand slams for His glory and our joy. While the suffering that we face is very real and very anguishing, God chooses to use this tool with the purpose of conforming us into the image of Christ and working out His sovereign purposes in the world. To deny, ignore, or reject suffering  is to imply that we know better than God about His will for our lives and His purposes in creation and redemption. As Christians we do not have to run from suffering, but we are encouraged to embrace it and rejoice in it, realizing what a privilege it is to participate in glorifying God through showing the world that even the greatest trials against His people only serve to strengthen them and draw them closer to Christ.

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