To kick off the "You have heard it said..." series for this year, we'll start with some big-picture ideas that come out of understanding a doctrine or theology of suffering.
Eight years ago, John Piper was interviewed about the Prosperity Gospel (see the transcript here: https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/six-keys-to-detecting-the-prosperity-gospel) and his first key to detecting it was the hallmark sign of "no robust theology of suffering." I'll go through additional keys he lists in future posts, because they're very insightful. A blog isn't the place to go deep, deep into doctrine, but we (myself included) could probably all stand to have a more developed understanding of ourselves, the world, and our place in it. This includes the "problem of pain" and one's view of suffering. Piper's phrasing is a perfect question to ask ourselves: "Is there a serious doctrine of the necessity and normalcy of suffering?" If we're going through something and we are railing against its possible necessity and disagreeing with its normalcy, we're probably a little off on this one.
What are some other signs that we are in denial regarding the necessity and normalcy of suffering? The pastor of First Presbyterian in Honeoye Falls, NY (what a great name for a town, right?!), elaborates on this on his blog (http://www.firstpresbyterianhoneoyefalls.org/multimedia-archive/suffering-servants/):
How are you? How are you, really? It’s good to ask twice – because when someone asks “how are you?” what response do we assume they want to hear? “I’m fine.”... But pastors don’t want you to answer “fine” if you’re not fine! We really want to know how you are. For many people, there are too few places where we can say, “I’m afraid” or “I’m depressed.”...
Oh, wait, I shouldn’t tell you this! Right? I should be a happy, smiling Christian! If I’m going to draw people to Christ, must I not be happy? I should speak of the joy of discipleship, show how once you love Jesus, you will never, EVER be sad! I should do this [hold up happy face] Hi, everybody! Isn’t Christian faith wonderful?!! I am sooo happy!
[Remove smile, frown] What if I worry that people think this smiley face has more hair than I do? What if I am sad, inside? Are we really supposed to be happy all the time? I do not believe fake positivity pleases God – but I have attended churches where people said so. The “Health and Wealth” preachers often say you should just change your perspective; Joel Osteen wrote that if you smile on the outside, you will eventually smile on the inside! It’s a popular message, he’s a megachurch pastor. I know an older gentleman who read Joel Osteen every day, so blamed himself for his sadness. At age 81 he finally consulted a psychiatrist, who identified lifelong bipolar disorder. So much for fake joy.
Turns out, “just smile and pretend to be happy” may be a popular message, but it’s not a Biblical message – the Bible repeatedly shows persons of faith crying out – Moses asking the Lord for leadership support, childless Hannah weeping in the temple, David mourning his son’s death, “Absolom, O Absolom, my son!” Jesus on the cross, abandoned, tortured, and rejected, cried out with the very words of this Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Generations have wondered, how could the Messiah believe God abandoned Him? But we see in this ancient psalm that those who cry out to God do not make theological statements; they express pain. We dare not criticize these expressions of hurt, because when we read Psalms, we find a powerful truth: God wants us to cry out to our Maker when we suffer.
Pastor Kirk Baker in this blog references Joel Osteen's teachings on smiling. So, I watched Pastor Osteen's sermon, "Display Your Joy." Like Kate Bowler, author of Blessed: A History of the Prosperity Gospel, I don't think that everything in these teachings is all bad. Pastor Osteen's sermon (where he says to "smile first" and to "fake it 'til you make it") accurately draws upon psychological research that shows how emotions can follow our behavior, including our smiling behaviors. Also, one of my heroes, C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, "Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.” Bottom line, we don't have to wait for the feeling to act like we already have it.
But, the dark side of overemphasizing this, as those outside of the Christian church swiftly acknowledge, is a fakeness, a lack of authenticity. And possibly, long term, death of our own faith if the brain and heart never catch up with the plastered-on smiles.
How much did I encounter this during the past year of struggles? Some. Happily, I was surrounded by kind and caring people with decent doctrinal views. No one told me to plaster on a smile. However, we were very much rewarded for doing so. My daughter received praise for her joy and lack of anxiety, as did myself. This was just simple kindness, finding positive things to say in the midst of a negative situation. And the comments did encourage us, except when the expectations put on added pressures. Much of these pressures were likely self-imposed. For us, it was an interesting conundrum because we are naturally inclined toward joy. Temperamentally, culturally (I'm Slavic-American!), and spiritually, I generally have and choose joy. It's my normal default. My daughter and I have both been nicknamed "Smiley" by teachers past and present. And, I want to be joyful. I don't want to go around long-faced, even when encountering difficulty.
However, I could sense others' nervousness and hesitancy to push deeper into a conversation where I start, "We're doing well, but..." or "Alexa's been amazing thought all this, and..." For some, there wasn't much interest in the "but" or "and," only happiness in the confirmation that we were more or less OK and weren't falling apart.
I've been there as well, regarding other people--not knowing what to say or how to say it. Probably the biggest issue with all of this isn't spiritual, so much as cultural. As a professor, I taught about grief for many years (in the very popular class--seriously, it was a very popular class!--Death and Dying). In the United States, our cultural mores, or go-to standards of behavior, have been eroding for many decades, accelerated during the countercultural 1960s. There's no standard phrase, no standard behavior, no standard response. In our melting pot of a country, there's even no standard practice surrounding loss and grief. We're left on our own to figure it out. And sometimes, Christians seem to fall into a mistaken assumption that we need to always act like we have it all together or someone will doubt the truth of the Christian faith.
If the Prosperity Gospel pressures us to put on joy whether or not it's real, and has some good psychological and Biblical precedent (numerous verses in Paul's letters about joy) for this, where can we learn some corrections regarding this over-emphasis? If "you have heard it said" to "smile first," what does Jesus say?
I did a word search for "joy" in the four Gospels. In the 24 verses where joy is mentioned, they all have to do with joy in the kingdom of God or connection with God. This is not a worldly joy. And, here's my fear with about the Prosperity Gospel, as I caught tendrils of it this year. Not all of us fall into the trap of seeking joy through hedonism--through money or pleasures. That's hard-core prosperity stuff. But the "soft-core" version has an underlying assumption that the purpose of life is for us to be happy. If we're Christians, then the purpose is for us to be Christians and to be happy. Truly, deep down, that is the honest belief of a ton of people.
I used to talk about this frequently when I taught Adolescent Development to education majors. Researchers Christian Smith and Melinda Denton have done such excellent work in this area. Here's a good summary: https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/controversy/common-misconceptions/on-moralistic-therapeutic-deism-as-u-s-teenagers-actual-tacit-de-facto-religious-faith.html Their main finding: Regardless of religious affiliation, most teenagers and adults in the United States, when it comes down to it, are philosophically Deists. There's a sliding scale of how full-throttle we adhere to this, but it's in the air we breathe and it's a particularly American version of Deism (they call it Moral Therapeutic Deism) where one of the core beliefs is not only our right to the "pursuit of happiness" but our deserving of it, with an expectation that things will, in fact, turn out as we want them to. Anger and sadness, then, is the natural response to our desires being thwarted.
Perhaps this is why so many people are so angry now. What happens when one's life and one's country isn't turning out the way you want or will it to be?
In contrast to this, what does Jesus say about joy?
We show joy when we receive the gospel. Examples: The parable of the sower (receiving the seed/word with joy), the parable of finding treasure in the field (treasure is received with joy), the teaching on the bridegroom and bride (being full of joy at hearing the bridegroom's voice).
True joy comes from union with God. In John 15-17, Jesus says that His joy will be complete, and ours as well, if we remain in the Father's love. During the vine and branches metaphor, He explains that he's telling His disciples about this so that "they may have the full measure of joy within them."
There's one more way that Jesus talks about joy, and it appears in Luke 6. This is a passage that many modern Christians write off as a total impossibility to try to live out (but in our everyday lives, we may actually be living out the exact reverse of what Jesus is teaching here!):
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.
The Luke version of the Beatitudes follows this section with verse 23:
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
So, where do we see joy? We have joy because our reward in heaven is great...because we are persecuted, weeping, hungry, and poor.
So, the exact antithesis of what the Prosperity Gospel teaches, where we are encouraged to avoid these things like a plague (hmmmm....) and even command the universe itself to bend reality so that we don't experience these negative things.
In these blog posts, I want to connect the Prosperity Gospel where I can to Christian Nationalism, as I'm studying how intimately connected they might be. For this particular topic on smiling, aside from what I mention above (there's a philosophical connection: people are angry and are demanding their due, since they "deserve" to be happy, safe, and protected), the connection doesn't seem tight. And, actually, it would probably be a good thing for more Christian Nationalists to listen to Joel Osteen's message on joy because there sure are a ton of unhappy, angry people out there! Trying to be a good example with joyfulness would be a definite improvement! Pastor Osteen says, "We're supposed to be the most joyful people around." I totally agree!
Let's just be more intentional about the Source of our joy. Is it circumstances? We can tell this by how irritated, angry, or "off" we feel by undesirable circumstances. Is it our internal feelings? In that case, we can listen to Prosperity preachers and others alike in saying that focusing on our emotions is just a trap. If it's not these things, how securely are we placing our hope and joy in Christ and what does it even look like to do that?
I'm going to need to take some time on this one. Part II will focus on the antidote. How do we find joy in and through suffering and in how can we find our joy in Christ rather than circumstances?