Prosperity unpacked 2: Suffering

Biblical principlesTheology

What does ‘Faith’ theology say about suffering?

This is the second of a five-part series by Hannah Swithinbank on how we can engage with prosperity theology.

As I mentioned at the end of my last post, many Christians are uncomfortable with Faith theology. I want to highlight some of the reasons for this discomfort and talk about some other ways of understanding what it means to be blessed by God.

There are two big things that are uncomfortable. Firstly, many Christians think that Faith teaching does not help people to deal with difficulties and suffering in their lives. This is because it suggests – and sometimes actually says – that people who are suffering lack faith.

Bishop David Oyedepo, the leader of Living Faith Church Worldwide, based in Nigeria, is quoted as saying, ‘Friend, you are saved to display his wealth on the earth! To clothe the naked, feed the hungry and attend to the sick! That’s what you are sent to do! (Matt.25:34–40)… Prosperity is our identity. If you don’t demonstrate it, then you are a misfit in the kingdom.’

And yet we all know people of faith who have seen pain and suffering. Do we really think that this is because they lack faith or have sinned?

Femi Adeleye once asked, ‘How does the prosperity gospel deal with a widow who has lost her only child?… What has it got to say to a ten-year-old whose parents are killed in a conflict he or she doesn’t understand? And what has it to say to the refugees and destitute of Southern Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Rwanda, Burundi or the Congo?’

This pain is surely not because the people who experience it lack faith. It exists because we live in a fallen world, in which injustice happens and pain and suffering follow.

What does it do to a person and their faith to think that their pain is their own fault because they didn’t have enough faith? I imagine it must do huge damage to their relationship with God, and with their church community who might also think that they lacked faith.

The Bible includes passages of lament and sorrow, showing us that God’s people have always questioned God about their suffering. These verses tell us that this response can be a part of our relationship with God without implying a lack of faith on our part. They can help us deal with our own grief and pain by acknowledging it as real, helping us to cry out to God about it and sometimes providing some consolation.

Yes, we believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection has given us freedom from death and brought the kingdom of God into being. But we also know that the kingdom is not yet fully revealed. Until then, there will still be pain and suffering in the world.

Yes, there is great joy and blessing in our relationship with God, but this does not – yet – remove pain and suffering from our lives or from the world. Rather, the promise of the the new creation enables us meet these experiences with the hope and expectation of better things to come.

While we do pray for God’s blessing and protection on our own lives in hope and expectation – and often experience it – I don’t think you can say that God will always respond positively to our prayers if we pray and live in particular ways. Our worship and prayer are given in acknowledgement of who God is, not primarily because of what God can or might do.

This brings me to the second thing that makes many people uncomfortable about Faith teaching, which I will write about next time: the understanding of what it means to be blessed.

Some recommended reading: Femi Adeleye, Preachers of a different gospel (Hippo Books, 2011). This book really engages with the biblical interpretations of some of the passages used a lot in Faith teaching.

Hannah Swithinbank
Hannah Swithinbank is Tearfund’s Theology & Network Engagement Manager.