In some ways, it’s as if God is bigger because they see him in everyday life. But at the same time, it makes God smaller because the theology gives you so much agency in our own life.
When we overly-instrumentalize prayer, we become convinced we’ve connected all the dots between us and God. To be totally honest, I cannot say things like “It would be better for my son not to have a mom, because surely God is working in all things for the good of those who love him.” That sounds like a lie to me, because I’m working from my desires forward toward God’s.
What I can say honestly is things that work backwards from God’s desires to mine ontologically: God is good, God is faithful, God’s desires for me are good. When I work from God to me I can say true and beautiful things. When I work from me to God, I end up lying.
How has your prayer life changed in the past couple of months?
I’m desperate. I pray for the day because I can’t get through it without God. As it turns out, desperation is better for me, because I just can’t assume that I’m able to cobble this thing together. Prayer has become radical dependence on the assumption that God will be there no matter what. It’s just been a radical revelation of God’s presence.
How have you learned how to talk about death?
It’s still really new for me. I’m only a couple of months in to the drama.
I don’t know about if I’m more comfortable talking about death, but I’m certainly more comfortable talking about pain. I certainly have many more opinions about how beautiful, loving children of God should shut their pie holes when it comes to marching into people’s hospital rooms.
What did studying the prosperity gospel teach you about the way that American culture understands death?
Prosperity gospel is a reflection of American avoidance of our finitude. Their denial of the inevitability of death taught me something about American confidence. Americans want to be in control. Self-determination is a theological good. It’s really hard when it comes to the fragility of the end.
In almost all circumstances, I can understand why someone would go to a prosperity church. It has so many obvious appeals pragmatically, theologically, and emotionally. But when it comes to sickness, it offers so few resources to its folks.
The saddest stories that I heard in my research were when it was obvious that people would lose to whatever sickness they were facing. But the church was not able to surround them with comfort and tell them that they weren’t to blame or that there were questions and uncertainties beyond our knowledge. They couldn’t tell them that God was present in the suffering of his people, not just in the triumph of them.
Your essay made me think that many Americans define suffering as when they lose agency over a situation.
That’s right. It’s such an intense theological reaction to helplessness. The only problem is that helplessness is a prerequisite to the human condition.
So the prosperity gospel movement’s understanding of faith is the most distinctive element of their theology. It’s a faith that’s meant to be used. It’s wonderfully pragmatic. They expect to be able to extract an answer from God and that prayer will guarantee results. And the language of guarantee and formulas is really hard for Christians that want to put some wiggle room in that sort of space between human desire and God’s response.