Life can be challenging. At times I am mistreated. I wrestle to make ends meet. I watch those I love struggle with pain and illness. I wonder at the discrepancies in the world as some have an easy life and others go hungry. How am I to respond? Where is God in this?
Last week I read an article spotlighting prosperity gospel. It is the idea that if we turn our lives over to God and have faith in God’s promises, we will be blessed with earthly riches. This assumption sounds nice; but scripture does not support it. Jesus certainly did not support this premise nor did he live an affluent lifestyle. His teaching was more apt to condemn the accumulation of wealth than portray it as a reward. We see statements such as “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” and “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter heaven” and to the rich young ruler “sell all you have and distribute to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven.” Jesus did not teach that wealth is a sign of God’s favor.
Most of us agree that the prosperity gospel is not the gospel we follow. We are suspicious of those who claim that God will pour worldly riches onto those who are faithful. It is not consistent with what we see in the believers in third-world countries who struggle alongside their fellow countrymen. Nor with those in our backyard who are believers, yet who have little in the way of material goods. We do not expect material wealth to be the reward we receive for our faithfulness. Yet even as we affirm that the riches offered by Christ are of an internal nature, our reaction to pain and struggle display a different perspective. We expect that God will give us what we want in response to our dedication. We ask God to heal us of cancer. We ask God to save the young person involved in an accident. We ask God to stop the fighting in the church. We ask God to end the war that is killing so many of our young men and women. These requests are honorable, yet as in prosperity gospel, our expectation is that God is our servant. We believe that as God’s children, we will receive what we ask. This may not be our conscious thought, but it is demonstrated as we become angry with God because our prayers are not answered in the way we deem we deserve. Why does God not love us enough to give us what we ask?
I have been a marriage and family therapist for twenty-five years and have specialized in working with ministers and their families. Many of these good-hearted servants wrestle with the reality of the difficult life of ministry. The noble pursuit of their life’s work has been working with the body of Christ—congregations who are more likely to abuse them than care for them. In fact, it is rare that I meet a minister who does not have a horror story of a church who has mistreated them. A number of years ago, I was teaching a course entitled “Counseling for Church Leaders.” It was comprised of various ministers who were in the process of working on a graduate degree after being in ministry for a time. The ministers shared their lives through the semester and all but one had been through a difficult situation with a church. They commiserated and supported each other and rejoiced with the minister who was in a healthy situation. Unfortunately, a year later he joined the crowd. I received a call from this minister and he shared the all-too-familiar story of being chastised, having his character questioned, and being asked to leave. He understood that God had not caused the situation, but wondered “why me?” He asked for my help in deciding how to respond as the elders asked him to tell the church he was resigning. They did not want to relay the information that they were firing him.
There are, of course, many issues that factor into situations such as this. Both sides err in the relationship. However, what I want to illustrate is the subtle ways in which we become the center of our universe when we struggle. The minister was hurt and disappointed—rightly so! He questioned why God let such a meaningful and healthy ministry go awry. In an indirect manner, his questioning was similar to the perspective of the prosperity gospel. The assumption behind his sense of betrayal was that he deserved to be treated well because he had been faithful to God. God owed him! We have all been here at one time or another. But of course, God does not owe us. God is God and we are not. It is obvious when we say it in this manner. God is the center. We may be in turmoil, yet God is holding us. God loves us without condition. It is an incorrect assumption to think that our experience of pain is equated with God not loving us.
Recently when on retreat, I was wrestling with an issue of justice. I, along with others, had been mistreated and I was crying out to God. You can imagine my surprise when I sensed God instructing me to let go of the issue. I could not believe it! Did God not care about what was right? How could I be asked to ignore the injustice we had experienced? After struggling for three days, I realized that God was not asking me to stop caring about the injustice, but wanted me to place him at the center of my focus. It was not until that moment that I realized that I had replaced God with my righteous indignation. God wanted to work alongside me on the issue, not allow it to become an idol. There is no issue, no pain, no struggle that should oust God from the center of who I am.
My heart’s desire is to be God’s instrument. I want to be fully available to God’s use—every aspect of my being. I look to Jesus and God’s servants in scripture to determine what is the manifestation of a life of service to God. I want to be treated with respect. I want to be loved and have the approval of those I am serving and also those around me. I want to have the support of my church and my friends. Is that too much to ask? When I look at the life of Jesus, I see that it is. No one on earth lived a life of deeper devotion to God. Of all people, Jesus deserved an easy life. Yet, this is not the lot Jesus was given. He lived a life of ministry with friends who did not understand who he was, who betrayed him and left him in his time of greatest need. He spent his life experiencing the criticism of those in power. He voiced his desire to God to be spared from his final torment; yet God allowed him to be tortured and killed.
I do not imply that we should not feel sad, hurt, angry, discouraged, or disappointed when we suffer. Jesus experienced these emotions. To feel these emotions is to be alive. As God’s children, we take our pain and our questions to God. God can handle them. The only way that God can help us through our struggles is to share them with us. We experience the pain and say with Jesus “Take this cup from me. Yet not mine, but your will be done.”
Despite the suffering he endured, we know the end of the story. God raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus triumphed over horrific circumstances and in so doing, demonstrated to us how to live in this broken world and triumph. That is the true riches. That is what we are offered when we give our lives in service to God. We are invited to be part of something bigger than ourselves. We are invited to enter into the work of God—to be God’s healing love in this hurting world and to invite others into God’s love.