In November 2015 my mother, who had no history of smoking, was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. We were told there was no cure. She had six months to live at most.
After her initial diagnosis, people from all walks of her life came to comfort her; and most of the time, they were really sweet. But like Job’s friends, there were a few who also tried to explain why she got sick. Are there unrepentant sins Connie can think of? Did she do something terrible in the past? Perhaps that’s why she’s getting punished. Twice, a woman told my mom she was demon-possessed.
Thankfully, my mother knew her Bible and trusted her God, and these comments weren’t as unsettling as they could have been. But for the 16 months my mother battled cancer, I had a crisis of faith based on similar ideas.
Often in Scripture, and especially in the book of Job, we aren’t told why God allows suffering and tragedy. We are invited to read about people’s doubts and prayers, their journey and the results of their deepening faith, but we aren’t told the reason for their troubles.
Though I knew this, when my mom got sick, I couldn’t help but ask why.
My functional understanding of the Christian faith was actually the prosperity gospel’s reverse image.
As I thought about why I kept asking why, I uncovered a basic presupposition that lay deep in my heart beneath my accumulated theological knowledge. My “why” question assumed a direct relationship between sin and suffering: the person in pain did something bad; therefore, she’s suffering now.
Much to my surprise, I realized this line of thinking is just the flip side of the prosperity gospel, which teaches that if you have big enough faith, think positively, and donate money, then you can expect God to make you healthy and wealthy. I knew from 10 years in ministry, plus my theological training, that prosperity promises of “health and wealth” aren’t the Christian gospel.
Yet as I reflected on my presuppositions about my mom’s cancer, I realized my beliefs about suffering were much closer to the prosperity gospel than I would’ve liked to admit. My functional understanding of the Christian faith was actually the prosperity gospel’s reverse image.
My wrestling with God about why he’d take my mother exposed a subconscious belief: If I were a strong Christian (whatever that means), God wouldn’t grant me health and wealth, but he would, at least, prevent tragedy or suffering. But trying to be a faithful Christian in order to prevent suffering, I’d fallen into the prosperity gospel. When this became clear, I understood why I had a crisis of faith.
Through my mother’s sickness and eventual death, my true feelings, thoughts, and beliefs about God were unearthed. Suffering does that—it brings out what you really think in the deep recesses of your heart.
With a seminary degree and ministry experience, I had allowed myself to believe I was a strong Christian even though, secretly, I knew my theological knowledge outpaced my personal relationship with Christ. Prior to my mother’s death, I never would’ve admitted this. Thankfully, though, suffering entered my world, revealing how “strong” my faith really was. I learned I was relying on good behavior to spare me from suffering, instead of trusting in Christ in all circumstances.
Grateful for Growth
Like Job and many saints before and around me, I still don’t know why God allowed my mother to suffer and die. But in my mourning, God revealed the warped gospel operating in my heart.
Rather than feeling shame, I felt gratitude. I felt grateful that God helped me to see my false view of him and how he deals with us. I felt grateful that I could repent. I felt grateful that I realized this now, rather than later. I felt grateful that he still let me serve the church and prevented me from causing detriment to others with my false belief. I felt grateful that he still loves me, and has loved me all these years, despite misunderstanding him.