The End of Christian Life, by Todd Billings
NOVEMBER 7, 2020
As strange as it seems, a version of Jim Bakker’s health-and-wealth gospel has become an underlying assumption for many Christians today.
It comes to the surface when they face illness or tragedy. But it was present all along, animating their vision as they pursued a life of flourishing.
I recall standing in front of an audience of about forty cancer patients and swaying back and forth nervously as I thought about how to respond to a question about my presentation on prayers of lament. “It’s hard. It’s hard to keep hoping in God’s promise, as you say,” the woman had said quietly, as others leaned in to hear. “But I keep hoping in God’s promise—that my oncologist is wrong, and that my cancer isn’t getting worse.” I had been speaking about the necessity of bringing our cries to God even when things don’t make sense, on the basis of God’s promise—that God is the God of life who won’t abandon us, even if things feel otherwise. Somehow my talk of “God’s promise” was interpreted by her to mean “God’s promise to take away this cancer.”
I paused, and the room was quiet. This is not the moment, this is not the moment to speak my mind, I thought to myself. I wanted to point out that God’s promise is to be a covenant Savior and Lord. The God of Scripture never promises to heal our every disease now. God has not promised life extension. But the questioner had already filtered my words through a mental screen of how she thought God acts in the world. After some long moments of silent thought, I encouraged her to continue bringing her concerns to God. I wasn’t sure how to respond to her hope that her oncologist was wrong.
This patient was not alone in her view of God. Indeed, in a recent Pew Foundation study, among those in the United States who believe in God, 56 percent think that “God will grant good health and relief from sickness to believers who have enough faith.” And this expectation of physical prosperity often goes hand in hand with the idea that God secures financial prosperity, with nearly half of religious Americans (46 percent) affirming that “God will grant material prosperity to all believers who have enough faith.”
These beliefs have become mainstream, spreading around the world in a variety of Christian traditions—Pentecostal and non-Pentecostal, Protestant, nondenominational, and Catholic alike. In fact, on these same questions, many other countries had much higher percentages than the United States. For example, in Kenya, 83 percent affirmed that God will grant financial prosperity, and 90 percent that God will provide health and healing. I should not have been surprised that when I speak of God’s “promise” to us in the midst of serious illness, many hearers assume that God promises us health and healing—either now or after a season of petitioning and waiting.
Of course, not even the best sociological study is a transparent window into the soul. Shades of meaning differ according to the culture and the season of a person’s life. Perhaps, seeing on the survey the phrase “God will grant good health and prosperity,” some thought of how their own lives of addiction and deprivation had been turned around after they became Christians. Perhaps, in this process of change, they discovered the health and financial security that had seemed foreign to them before. Or perhaps some respondents’ answers didn’t really reflect how they would’ve framed the issue themselves. Theological convictions are often more nuanced than a sociological survey can fully assess.
And yet the Pew Foundation study identifies something central that lines up with the studies of highly religious cancer patients I referenced earlier: What do many patients think God is interested in? Apparently, health, healing, miracles, and life extension. These answers top the list, while other responses are crowded out. In cancer communities I repeatedly encounter the earnest conviction that God wants us to prosper according to our definitions of “prosperity,” definitions that don’t include stumbling or weakness.
Although common today, these assumptions about a prosperous life are quite bizarre for Christians, of all people, to hold. On the one hand, it is true that our bodies are created good—worthy of honor—and that our bodies are “intricately woven” by the Lord himself (Ps. 139:15). But if God’s primary concern were to prosper our health and finances, one would have expected the Messiah to come in earthly glory. The contrast with Jesus as the Messiah is startling. Jesus, the son of a carpenter, was mocked, beaten, and crucified in disgrace, never reaching the “golden years” of old age. It is strange, then, that the followers of this crucified Lord should expect worldly comfort and ease.