Where Was God? Part 2: Positivity and Purpose

I am going to go out on a limb and speculate that anyone who has said “everything happens for a reason” has never brought their baby girl home in an urn.

I am also going to hedge a guess that anyone who advises the bereaved to “focus on the positive” has never watched their firstborn child seize and convulse before dying in their arms.

There is no purpose in a newborn baby being afflicted with desultory and unpreventable suffering. There are no positives to be gleaned from an unlived life.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

As mentioned previously, my faith in God throughout my childhood and young adult years was shaped by evangelical prosperity theology which, in a nutshell, stipulates that God has a divine plan for my life that is full of blessings. For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of this “gospel” is that many people who denounce its principles in theory actually subscribe to them in practice. It’s easy to express our disdain for the spectacle-laden sermons delivered by charismatic televangelists as they assure viewers that massive financial donations to their ministries will result in abundant wealth and endless rewards. However, it takes a more nuanced and enquiring Christian mind to critically reflect on the subtle ways that prosperity theology seeps into our daily prayers, beliefs, and words. I should know, because I’ve lived it. I also wrote an entire doctoral dissertation exploring how this theology informs evangelical purity culture.

job

Image credit via tumblr

While doing my research, I read books like this one and this one to analyze how evangelical authors conceptualize and propagate premarital “sexual purity.” Unlike other writers who have critiqued this purity culture from a secular standpoint, I was interested in examining the theological perspectives that inform “purity” discourses from a Christian perspective. I argued that prosperity theology is intricately woven throughout each page of these texts, but it can essentially be broken down into the following formula:

  1. God has a special life plan for every individual Christian man and woman, and this plan only includes blessings that will benefit them and bring them closer to Him (So in the case of these texts, God wants every Christian woman to marry a Christian man and remain sexually pure until He brings a husband into her life).
  2. In order for these good things to happen, Christians must allow God to bless them by obeying His commandments, praying fervently, being patient, and believing without a shadow of a doubt that their blessings will come in accordance with God’s timing (So in the case of these texts, a Christian woman must be completely pure, dedicated to God, and trust that He will fulfill His promises, at which point He can bring a Christian husband into her life).

So therefore:

  1. If you have received the blessings you seek, you have obeyed, prayed, and believed enough.
  2. If you have not received the blessings you seek, you are not allowing God to fulfill the plan He has for you because you have unresolved sin, inadequate faith, or lack of belief.

One can see how the following formula may be easily applied to any number of “blessings” we seek in our day to day lives. Yet we also know from our lived realities that there are flaws in this formula. Reality reveals that “pure” Christian women do not always find husbands, faithful believers do not always receive miraculous healing, and committed Christians struggle with poverty and unemployment. But when these things happen, there is always this convenient theological detour waiting in the wings:

“This simply wasn’t part of God’s plan for you. God has something better in mind. God has closed a door, but He will open a window. He is presenting you with this trial so you will learn and grow in Him.”

In this way, prosperity theology reflects the innately human desire to believe that there is always order in the chaos. It is the religious equivalent of what social scientists call the just world hypothesis, the belief that the world is a predictable place where people are somehow deserving of the good things, as well as the terrible things, that happen to them. For Christians, this desire manifests in the belief that God is in control of everything: If good things happen, they are blessings from God. If bad things happen, they are trials that God is allowing to occur. We may not understand why God chooses to bless some Christians with full, comfortable lives and healthy, happy families while others are plagued by poverty, illness, and violence, but rest assured that it is always part of God’s plan.

Yet, as Kate Bowler notes in her book, Blessed, non-religious people and those from other religious traditions also cling hard and fast to this belief. Outside of Christianity, it manifests in the law of attraction, also called the New Thought movement, wherein it is argued that positive thoughts will yield positive outcomes, and vise versa. Just as prosperity theology stipulates that Christians can reap their desired life outcomes by believing, obeying, and proclaiming our victories in Jesus, so too does The Secret promise that we can obtain the possessions, opportunities, and relationships of our dreams if we believe that they are already ours and welcome them into our lives with positive thoughts. Whether we are allowing God or the universe to bring these good things into our lives, ultimately the onus is on us to do, think, believe, and say the right things to make it happen. Within this framework, those of us who are prospering must be doing something right to deserve our blessings, and those who have not reaped positive outcomes need to alter their thought, belief, and behavioural patterns in order to change their destinies.

And why wouldn’t we cling to such beliefs? Without them, we live in a world where each one of us is equally vulnerable to senseless tragedy, no matter how faithful or positive we are. Without them, those of us who get our desired “blessings” cannot justify why we are able to enjoy healthy, comfortable, and happy lives while our neighbours are suffering. Without them, it means that we could lose every good thing in our lives in the twinkling of an eye, and there would be no rhyme or reason for it. And this possibility is downright terrifying.

Case in point: As much as I have vocally denounced prosperity theology and the law of attraction throughout the years, my conceptions of God and life have never escaped their tenets. This all became exceedingly clear during my pregnancy with Leah. The fact that her presence in my life was unexpected made me ripe for new age philosophizing and prosperity theologizing. In an effort to find peace during my recurring bouts of anxiety, I would often turn to my latent beliefs in God’s divine plan for my life, supplemented with a healthy dose of positive mental mapping. My daily inner dialogue often looked something like this:

Anxiety: At any given moment, your baby could die from unpreventable circumstances that you have no control over.

Me: “God won’t let that happen! God loves me and He loves my baby. God gave me this baby; I didn’t ask for her. The pregnancy was unplanned, but He set up the perfect circumstances for it: It is the final year of my PhD and I will graduate before my due date; I even got an extra teaching appointment this year so I can put money aside to stay home and take care of her after she’s born. God anticipated my needs even before I asked for His provisions! Why would God allow all of this to happen if He didn’t have a plan in place for Leah’s life?”

Anxiety: Hundreds of thousands of babies die every year from miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant loss. Are you saying that God loves Leah more than those other babies?

Me: “No…but maybe those babies died from things their mothers did. Maybe their mothers smoke, drink alcohol, and do drugs. Maybe their mothers are older. Maybe their mothers live in war-torn, impoverished countries and are affected by violence, poverty, and malnutrition. Maybe their mothers don’t pray every day for their babies’ protection like I do.”

Anxiety: You’re kidding yourself. You have absolutely no control over this.

Me: “I have no control over this, but God does! I know He wants me to have this baby. I know He won’t let my baby suffer needlessly. Why would God give me this gift and knit Leah together in my womb if He didn’t want her to live? I am going to have this baby. My baby is going to live!”

I clung to these beliefs in God’s divine plan right until the very end. Even as I lay in a hospital bed, looking at Leah’s still image on the ultrasound screen while nurses prepped me for an emergency cesarean section, I managed to find positivity and purpose in what was happening:

Anxiety: Your baby is dying.

Me: “No! My baby is going to be fine. God made me aware of her reduced movements so that I would go to the hospital. My midwife said that if I had waited until the morning to come in, Leah would have been stillborn. Obviously I came in at the right time! Thank you God! Thank you so much! My baby is going to live!”

This happened again nearly 24 hours later, after Leah’s life supports were removed and a team of specialists had given me their grim prognosis. In the wee hours of the morning I sat in my dark hospital room, holding Leah while her body seized continuously in my arms:

Anxiety: Your baby is dying.

Me: “Maybe God still has a plan in all of this! Maybe God will perform a miracle and keep her alive. She has already lived for much longer than any of the doctors thought she would. Maybe God knows that I have the strength and love to be a good mother to her in any condition, and He will keep her alive. I have given it over to God and asked for a miracle. Why would He bring her this far only to let her die?”

My experiences reveal that, in the face of tragedy and uncertainty, many Christians like myself find peace in seeking purpose. We tell the bereaved and ourselves that God is somehow behind everything, closing doors and opening windows, making a way when there seems to be no way, and creating beauty out of desolation. Others may not seek purpose in tragedy, but instead advise the bereaved to look for the positive: Pick up your boot straps and look on the bright side! Change your frame of mind to see how the glass is half-full, and everything will get better!

Unfortunately, there is no purpose or positivity in Leah’s death, just as there are no supernatural “windows” that God is waiting to open up because He has something “better” in store. Can I grow and change as a person from this? Of course. Can I honour Leah’s life by striving to become a more empathetic, compassionate, and gracious person? Absolutely. Can I hope to be an extra-loving, extra-patient, and extra-thankful parent to any children I have in the future? Certainly. But that is not why Leah died. Leah’s death is not about me.

There is no purpose in a newborn baby being afflicted with desultory and unpreventable suffering. There are no positives to be gleaned from an unlived life.

The world we inhabit is filled to the brim with injustice, tragedy, oppression, suffering, and death. And this is precisely why I cling to my belief in a loving God who wanted nothing more than for my daughter to live an endlessly love-filled life with me. That was the plan He desired for both of us from the very beginning.

Unfortunately, that perfect plan is not compatible with the imperfect world I live in.   

Save

Where Was God? Part 1: Prosperity and Privilege

I feel compelled to begin this post series with a caveat. Religion can be a contentious issue at the best of times, and it can become something of a landmine when death and bereavement rear their ugly heads in our lives. For those of us who find personal meaning in a particular religious tradition or spiritual worldview, it makes sense that we will draw from these beliefs when navigating the burning questions, pains, and uncertainties that loss leaves in its wake. However, it is a different story for those who do not subscribe to such beliefs. In these cases, religious platitudes such as “They are in a better place” or “You’ll see them again someday” will only exacerbate the pain and isolation already felt by a bereaved person who believes that life ends once our final breaths escape our bodies.

As such, this post series is not meant to persuade readers that they are correct or incorrect in their beliefs about life, death, God, and spirituality. Rather, it is an outlet for me to explore the deeply agonizing thoughts and meta questions that I have wrestled with since Leah’s death. I do not have any more definitive answers about the existence or nature of a divine Creator than anyone else who has walked this path of love and loss before me. All I have is the spiritual and religious paradigms that I use to navigate the world each day, which are available to me in this particular temporal and spatial moment.

All right. Here we go.

For me, one of the occupational hazards of growing up evangelical Christian was believing that God is in control of every event that unfolds in this world, and that everything that happens in my own life is consequently part of His divine plan for me. Years of church sermons, Sunday School classes, and devotional readings had taught me that God created me with a wonderful purpose in mind, and that He wants to bless me with a healthy, safe, abundant life. In the meantime, all I had to do was believe sincerely, pray fervently, and obey God’s word as I waited for these promises to manifest each day.

And let’s be honest, it is easy for people who lead relatively privileged lives, myself among them, to cling to this prosperity theology. Those who live in wealthy minority world nations have access to unprecedented knowledge, technology, and resources that allow many people to sail through life unscathed by dehumanizing poverty, debilitating illness, or the death of a loved one who did not get the opportunity to live a full life. When this privilege is combined with the unwavering belief that God operates as an omnipotent micro-manager who is eager to bless us if we believe, pray, and obey, it’s easy to see how the logic that informs prosperity theology becomes circular and self-perpetuating.

My experience indicates that this theology is problematic for several reasons. First, it implies that people are responsible for their own suffering. If God’s power to heal, protect, provide, and restore is available to everyone who believes, prays, and speaks with adequate authority and commitment, then those who do not receive the blessings they seek must be doing something wrong. The flip side of this paradigm implies that those who do receive the blessings they ask for must be doing something right, namely by being more committed, more faithful, and trusting in God’s promises without a shadow of a doubt.

Second, this theology leaves many people feeling dejected and betrayed by God when they have a first-hand experience with suffering. Suddenly they find themselves questioning God’s existence and may even turn away from their faith because He did not intervene in the face of senseless tragedy. But this also reveals the more insidious underbelly of prosperity theology: When death and injustice are happening all around us every single day, it shouldn’t take a first-hand experience with tragedy for us to question the idea that God is a perpetually proactive healer, protector, and provider. In this way, this paradigm invites us to put on blinders to the pain and suffering that occurs daily in the world, and to praise God for His miraculous interventions as long as everything is going okay in our own lives.

Here is the most poignant example I can think of to drive this point home: Some time ago I stumbled across a blog post written by an atheist. Long story short, the post shares a fellow atheist’s experience when a baby in their town received a life-saving heart transplant. People who knew the baby’s family began flooding social media with posts praising God for this miracle and thanking Him for answering their prayers. Struck by the irony of the situation, the poster pointed out these brutal truths: Did any of these people stop to think that the baby received this life-saving surgery because the heart was taken from another baby who died? While this family is incredibly fortunate that their baby received a new heart, how could anyone conceptualize this as divine miracle when another baby had to die in order for this baby to survive? How would the family of the deceased baby feel knowing that people were essentially calling their baby’s death a blessing and an answer to prayer?

While this blogger probably had less than gracious intentions in pointing this out, I have to say that their logic is spot-on. And yes, for those of you who may be wondering, I am a Christian. Just not the same Christian that I was twenty, ten, or even five years ago. Many people might say that my fluid and critical approach to faith means I am not a “true” Christian, and frankly that’s okay with me. During the past five or so years I have been confronted with more questions and doubts about my spiritual beliefs than ever before, but I have also never pursued God more adamantly at any point in my life. My journey has led me to find God in the wisdom offered by liberation theology, metaphorical theology, and especially Quaker testimonies as I attempt to sift through taken-for-granted doctrines and precepts that do not reflect the realities that unfold before my eyes each day.

You see, I know first-hand the epistemological hoops that Christians are willing to jump through so that we can cling to the comforting idea that, despite all the suffering and injustice happening in the world each day, God will “bless” us and perform miraculous interventions on our behalf if we believe, pray, and obey. It took me a good 25 years before I started to question how many of the “blessings” I enjoyed in my life were really divine gifts from God, or if they were actually privileges that I benefited from because I was born in a particular time and place. Simply put, the more I learned about the injustice and oppression that so many people experience across the globe, the more difficult it was for me to believe that my personal comfort bubble was being preserved by God’s divine love and protection.

This knowledge has long caused me to critically reflect on how I pray and how I speak, particularly when it comes to identifying the “blessings” in my life. Simply put, a blessing is a gift given directly to us from God out of His benevolent love. When we say we are “blessed” with certain things, such as able bodies, loving spouses, healthy families, fulfilling careers, beautiful homes, and miraculous healing in the face of illness or injury, we are essentially proclaiming that God has shown us divine favour in these areas of our lives. While such statements may reflect genuine faith and gratitude, they also reveal the myopic logic behind prosperity theology. For instance, does God really “bless” particular people with good health and miraculous healing while others are left to suffer, or is it more likely that certain people are the beneficiaries of the grand genetic lottery and superior resources that are available to those in particular geographic locations and economic classes? Similarly, does God really “bless” some of us with comfortable homes and financial security while others barely have enough to survive, or is it more likely that certain people benefit from a fundamentally inequitable global economy that severely disadvantages the majority of the world’s population?

You keep using that word, I don't think it means what you think it means - #blessed ... You keep using that hashtag But I do not think it means what you think it means

Image credit via MemeGenerator.net

Naturally all of these questions had been rattling around in my brain since the very beginning of my pregnancy with Leah. I wanted to believe that God would protect my baby girl and bring her safely into the world. Yet this was difficult for me to completely accept when I also knew that thousands upon thousands of babies die from miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant loss each year. What made me so special as to presume that God would personally keep both of us healthy when so many women, including Christian women, experience these tragic losses every day? Likewise, if my baby did make it into the world healthy and safe, who was I to proclaim that I was “blessed” with God’s divine favour when so many other families were torn asunder each day from the loss of a much-loved and much-wanted child?

Don’t get me wrong, I still prayed. I prayed multiple times a day, every single day that my pregnancy with Leah would be nourished, protected, and sustained. It is safe to say that I have never prayed so earnestly and fervently for anything in my life. What else could I do but offer my petitions to God and hope that He wanted Leah to live a long, love-filled life with me just as much as I did?

The fact that my prayers for Leah were not answered may incite speculation from Christians who subscribe to particular theologies. They may reason that I did not pray enough, did not pray correctly, did not believe enough, or did not have adequate faith to ensure my daughter’s safe arrival into the world. But such speculations overlook one very important point: This is not really about me. I am still here, still breathing, and still navigating the world in my healthy, functional body. I am not the one whose brief existence was plagued by physical pain and suffering. I am not the one who was robbed of an entire lifetime.

In the wake of Leah’s death, it is difficult to pinpoint what I believe God’s role was in all of this. But I am confident in what I don’t believe:

I don’t believe that God went through the trouble of shaping my beautiful girl in the womb, only to sit back and allow her to suffer because her flawed human of a mother did not say and do the right things to unleash supernatural healing upon her.

I don’t believe that other people, children and adults alike, who seemingly benefit from divine protection and miraculous healing are more loved and cherished by God than Leah is.

I don’t believe that God willingly allowed Leah’s death to happen, just as I don’t believe that He chose not to prevent it in order to inflict punishment or teach me or anyone else a particular lesson.

Maybe this all means that I am currently creating God in my own image to suit my purposes and rectify the things that I would rather not believe or accept. Regardless, there are two things that I have been and remain steadfastly confident in:

First, God is big enough to handle my questions and my doubts.

Second, when Leah breathed her last breath in my arms, God was there, crying right along with me.