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.


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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.