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?
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.