When you discover that the only thing you have left is faith in God, you fervently wish that your faith doesn’t end up poisoning your soul.
Many people never dare to dream that they might one day reach the professional heights that Kate Bowler reached before the age of 35. With a master’s degree in religion from Yale, a doctorate from Duke, a volume published by Oxford University, and appreciated by professors at many prestigious academic institutions including Harvard, Kate is a successful example in a field where, for centuries, men have found it much easier to stand out: the academic world of religion.
Still, her CV does not stop here. The young woman teaches the history of Christianity in North America at Duke University. She is considered an expert in the history of the “gospel of prosperity”—a movement that promotes the belief that God guarantees believers any joy they desire here on this earth.
Kate immersed herself with fascination in the study of this subject, and, as a result, in 2013 she published the book “Blessed”. Her research has been so well received that the largest English-language publications have found it worthwhile to inform their readers about its release: The New York Times, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Economist, The Washington Post, BBC, NPR, Time and The New Republic.
They all wrote about the volume in which Kate has shared what she learned from the leaders and the followers of this movement—how they manage to give a spiritual meaning to anything good or bad in their lives. Two years later, Kate found herself answering the same question in the most disturbing way. She was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. This made her realize, as she would confess, that although she rejected the gospel of prosperity, she still longed for its promises.
“I don’t believe that God guarantees every happiness to believers here on earth, but it’s such a delicious thought,” Kate said in an interview with Religion News. “There are so many beautiful things to love and enjoy, and I began to feel like perhaps I was entitled to them.” That’s how she came to write a second book: “Everything happens for a reason: and other lies I’ve loved”.
In a much more personal style this time, Kate’s second book is an attempt to explore the way she reacted to her own drama, to find ways to endure the tragedy.
“My trust in God has had to grow sideways,” Kate said, alluding to the concept of “lateral thinking”, which refers to finding creative solutions to problems by taking the less obvious road. “Instead of ballooning more securely in the idea that everything was definitely going to work out for me, I’ve had to seek God in the darkness and the brokenness… Jesus’ witness requires that we learn to stare down the abyss and walk towards our own deaths. Take up your cross. He wasn’t really joking, though I like to think he had a wicked sense of humour.”
Kate confessed that she had long understood the words of the apostle James when he said “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds” as a moral imperative of Christians to force themselves to appear happy even in the harshest of circumstances. “That’s not right at all. The bizarre beauty of tragedy is that Christ promises to meet us there. It’s one of the only things I know to be absolutely true.”
So, when asked “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Kate’s answer is, “The Kingdom of God is not yet here. That’s why bad things happen. But when you are steeped in a culture that holds to boomerang theologies—that every good thing comes back to you—it can feel a lot like spiritual abandonment when everything comes apart.” Still, Kate said in an interview with RNS that when her health collapsed, she knew that “God was still there. I didn’t need an explanation for why it was happening…I simply needed to feel God’s love.”
Kate Bowler’s experience resonates strongly with the dilemmas of many people. The fact that the editorial she wrote for The New York Times after discovering her illness went viral on the Internet is just one argument. Although we have experienced it for centuries, the tension that tragedies generate in the souls of those who believe in a good and loving God has to do with something more than the pain that naturally arises in such a context. This tension comes, as Kate herself admitted, from cultivating philosophies about life and God that are pleasurable and comforting when everything works as expected, but which can crush faith when confronted directly with tragedy.
The hardship of prosperity
The gospel of prosperity is only one of these philosophies, but it comes with a whole series of implications related to its origin, not just its consequences. The “prosperity gospel” or “health and wealth gospel”, as it is better known, is a brand of faith that preaches success and defines salvation in similar terms to a religious contract. Its followers believe that God wants them to prosper financially and be healthy “in the here and the now.” They also believe that the extent of God’s blessing depends, in part, on the extent of the generosity with which they treat the various religious projects promoted by church leaders.
Believers, author Candy Gunther Brown explains, are also encouraged to express themselves positively about those aspects of their lives that they want to improve, believing that these “positive testimonies”, if uttered in faith, can miraculously transform lives. Religious leaders who are followers of this theology urge their own followers to give up what they call the “demonization of success”, which they seem to confuse with affluence, and inspire them to chase getting rich, claiming that wealth helps them have a positive impact on society.
It’s no coincidence, as author Clifton Shane has said, that this philosophy has a great hold on people in financial trouble, attracted by the promise of an escape from poverty with God’s special help, or on sick people attracted by the promise of miraculous physical healing. Professor Philip Jenkins also deplores the manipulation through which the prosperity gospel caught on, especially in very poor countries. Jenkins refers to Nigeria, which he offers as an example of the explosive success of the gospel of wealth and health, which is extremely popular throughout the West African region.
The gospel of prosperity is a chameleon-theology, because it adapts to the environment it infiltrates. In fact, to be able to describe it, we need to see it as a philosophical spectrum, at the intersection of three ideologies. It is based on Pentecostalism, but borrows massively from the New Thought movement and pragmatism, individualism, and the desire for upward mobility, typical of American culture.
We can also see it as a parasitic philosophy, which attaches itself to theology and, without necessarily manifesting its entire arsenal of ideas, still manages to divert the meaning of that theology, shaping it in its image and likeness.
You get what you give
Still, the idea that God immediately and materially rewards people’s deeds did not originate with the mega-churches and pastors that are half-preachers, half-fundraisers. Nor is it limited to a positive reward, a heavenly bonus for good deeds. Christianity’s entire history is familiar with the thinking that God blesses, in the here and now, those who do good, and immediately punishes those who do not conform to His will.
We also find this kind of reasoning among believers who think that the shootings in American schools are divine punishment for banning prayers in schools, or among those who believe that God allowed the tragedy of 9/11 to show His displeasure with gay American soldiers. Moreover, we will find these ideas even closer to home, among the believers who are convinced that the disease they suffer from is a sure sign that they have fallen into God’s disfavour, or it is a divine, sin-triggered invitation to refine one’s character.
Christians of all faiths may believe at some point, to a greater or lesser extent, that they will immediately recover, and with interest, any sacrifice they make against their natural inclinations. Some may differ, by distorting the image of God by projecting upon Him the prerogative to guarantee, not material wealth, but happiness, in any circumstance of life. This happens when the good news of Christianity is no longer understood as Christ reopening heaven to those who believe in Him, but is confused with an exemption from the pain and troubles of this life. Therefore, some people run away from pain all their lives without realizing that this is not a healthy principle of life.
According to the Logos
Perhaps all theologies that distort the image of God do so even as they turn to the Bible to justify their position. But what undermines their approach is the visible difficulty of harmonizing the verses they quote with the spirit of all Scripture. This failure translates into an inability to sustain a vision that is comprehensive enough to encompass suffering, as an inevitable part of life, within its boundaries.
On the one hand, this leads to the stigmatization of those who suffer, because suffering is seen as a consequence of spiritual immaturity, a poor relationship with God, or a lack of spiritual discipline. This type of ostracism includes, for example, Christians who face depression and find themselves forced to fight the criticism of those who accuse them of not having enough faith to get well, or not praying enough, in addition to their illness.
In fact, for many Christian churches around the world, mental disorders are taboo, which only contributes to their chronicity. However, the things we lack, our diseases and sufferings, must not become degrees of holiness and thus separate us, but, on the contrary, should bring us even closer to each other. One’s suffering gives another the privilege of being helpful, and gives them both the blessing of solidarity.
On the other hand, the inability to properly integrate suffering into their outlook on life exposes some Christians to real emotional trauma when confronted with evil in any of its many forms.
God Himself is His gift to the afflicted person, for the one who has lost the most precious thing, for the one crushed by pain. Anything else we could wish for would be infinitely less.
“So Christians in prosperity churches are often profoundly unprepared for what life under God’s providence is going to deal them—and that is tragic,” says American Pastor John Piper. He says that the Bible is steeped in the teaching that people are called to suffer. “And it is not just persecution suffering, but body-wasting-away, disease-type suffering.” It’s not that God doesn’t want His children to be healthy and prosperous. On the contrary, he says, God sent Jesus to make people “eternally happy—and to remove all tears from their eyes.”
Still, the pastor points out, it’s a matter of time. It is natural for us to want pain to bypass us and for suffering of any kind to be foreign to us. But “the Bible teaches that God saves us in stages or phases, and that this earthly walk between conversion and glorification [changing sinful nature for the sinless one, ready for heaven] is one of much suffering in the hope of glory,” the pastor concludes.
Like the saints we read about in Scripture, Christians who follow Christ today don’t have the assurance that they will be free from all evil, but that God will be with them in all their suffering, even when they may feel abandoned by the Heavens.
God Himself is His gift for the afflicted person, for the one who has lost the most precious thing, for the one crushed by pain. Anything else we could wish for would be infinitely less. This is the true essence of the gospel: all we will ever need will be found and fulfilled in Christ. And if we do not have fulfilment on this earth, faith—which Scripture teaches us God values—will help us to visualize what we will have in eternity.
The faith in our souls
Sigmund Freud seemed to understand this religious view of blessing, but he deeply despised it. The father of psychoanalysis called religion “a universal obsessional neurosis of humanity,” a collective product of the mind prone to compulsive behaviour, and therefore an “illusion.” He reduced religion entirely to a system designed to anaesthetize people’s ability to perceive that they live in a world where disaster could strike at any moment.
However, Freud spoke from an atheist’s position, which, as reproached by Paul E. Johnson in 1959, was to his disadvantage because it made him ignore the possibility that religion connects people to a transcendent force that builds, not anaesthetizes them. Harold Bloom, on the other hand, was convinced that Freud did not really understand the essence of religion, so he called Freud’s work, “The Future of an Illusion” (1927), “one of the great failures of religious criticism”. Bloom was not lenient on Christians either, appreciating that Freud’s volume on religion is as unconvincing as T.S. Eliot’s volume in which he criticized psychoanalysis.
The truth is that specialists in the affairs of the soul have even contradicted each other in terms of the role of religious faith and its influence on mental health.
Unlike Freud, who believed that religious faith transforms the individual into a passive being, Erich Fromm believed the opposite. He argued that the role of religious belief is to respond to people’s need to feel in control. Specifically, when confronted with events that push them beyond personal resources, faith gives them the feeling that they still have control over the situation. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz also believed that faith has a positive impact in times of crisis, by providing a framework for the interpretation of a problem. In other words, it is an answer to people’s attempt to give meaning to what happens to them.
Emile Durkheim considered religious beliefs to be primarily social; that is, they have advantages that stem from the fact that a shared faith facilitates and cultivates cohesion, solidarity, and identity. And solidarity is associated with a sense of power. But this vision also has its critics. Martin Buber, for example, believes that the effectiveness of religion is not necessarily given by the force that is cultivated by intimacy with other people who share our values, but it could actually be given by being closer to a superior force (God).
None of these approaches is so broad as to claim to be the ultimate explanation for the role of religion in difficult situations, but should rather be seen as complementary interpretations.
In addition, while all of these approaches to religion as a support structure give it a predominant role in preserving the individual’s various inner resources (identity, control, spirituality, meaning, comfort), the latest scientific approaches study how religion transforms the lives of believers—in other words, how religion influences the renunciation of values once cherished, and the attribution of meaning to new sources. However, having a religious belief, or rather, having just any religious belief, is not enough for this transformation to be positive.
Beliefs that drag us down and beliefs that lift us up
Faith can also destroy a soul when it tortures it with spiritual problems. These problems may take the form of destructive ideas about God or anger towards the Godhead, or are related to poor relationships with other believers, or the inability to manage personal torments such as guilt and doubt. They have been associated with a high degree of depression, with an increase in the frequency of suicide ideation, and an increase in the level of anxiety and alcohol consumption.
People who have a negative image of God, and those who see God predominantly through His punitive power, experience stronger symptoms of depression, anxiety, paranoia, obsession, and compulsive behaviour. So, these negative images of God can turn religion from a resource to deal with problems, to a cause of spiritual distress. Faith can bring us down, but it can also lift up a suffering individual. For an outside observer, such as a psychologist, the difference between the two seems to depend on the meaning that the religious person gives to the experience they are living.
The name Kenneth Pargament has been linked to decades of research into the relationship between religion and mental health. The professor emeritus of psychology at Bowling Green University in Ohio created one of the most well-known methods for measuring the effectiveness of religion in helping individuals mentally (the scale of religious coping). Pargament’s questionnaire is called RCOPE and has opened up a whole world of research possibilities.
The researcher concluded that religion can help people following a stressful or traumatic event. People often find themselves stronger and more adapted than they were before. Numerous scientific studies have found that mental health is more vigorous, and emotional disorders are less present in the case of people who rely on religion to cope with the difficult situations they go through. However, not all forms of a religious relationship with life bring benefits, Pargament says.
He identified three types of strategies by which believers use religion to deal with difficult situations. The first strategy, called deferring, delegates God with full responsibility for solving problems; the second strategy, self-directing, is strictly based on the responsibility of the individuals, who choose to use the power given to them by God to solve problems on their own; and the third strategy is collaborative, where the individuals relate to God as a partner in solving their problems.
According to studies, the greatest psychological benefits come with the adoption of the third reaction. It was correlated with an increased level of self-esteem and a low level of depression, probably since it positively engages religion, emphasizing the beneficent (not punitive) power of God, who forgives and helps.
Probably the most important thing to remember for those who are not interested in research or have no inclination towards psychology, is that our mental well-being depends, more than we might intuitively think, on the beliefs we nurture. Spiritual health is not a given, but a resource that must be maintained through exercise and careful attention to the building blocks of our souls.
What is more, beyond its purely subjective influence on the psyche, religiosity is also associated with better physical health; that is, it has quantifiable, objective effects.
Today, scientists generally agree that religion has a definite role, separated by other variables, in the individual’s response to challenges, and that its effects on health can be distinguished from the effects of other factors. Moreover, it is truly remarkable that researchers have come to this conclusion by analysing strictly mechanistically, unable to dissect the subjective side of the relationship between people and God.
In other words, science has drawn objective conclusions about the advantages of faith—conclusions that do not require the researcher to necessarily believe in God, but which suggest that doing so would be in their best interests.
Alina Kartman is a senior editor at Signs of the Times Romania and ST Network.