Peter had to learn these lessons about suffering, and so do we. For the believer, suffering is not a curse, not an indication of weak faith or a lack of blessing, but rather an integral part of the Christian life. God may discipline us to awaken and refine us, but his discipline is a loving mercy. He uses suffering to shape us into the image of Christ, which the prosperity gospel, in its obsession with physical health and earthly wealth, overlooks.
I’ve been told that suffering cannot be God’s will for me. I’ve been advised not even to speak about suffering. I’ve been promised unconditional healing and wholeness if I have enough faith.
These statements came from proponents of the prosperity gospel, people who were convinced I could avoid suffering. I remember telling a fellow believer about my post-polio diagnosis twenty years ago, explaining how eventually I could become a quadriplegic. As I related the various implications, the man interrupted me, saying, “You need to stop talking about this right now. Just speaking of this diagnosis is agreeing with Satan, which might bring it into being. Suffering is never part of God’s will. I know God just wants healing and wholeness for you.”
His words took me aback. While I’d heard the claims before, this conversation triggered a flood of painful memories: being told by a faith healer in a crowded auditorium that I didn’t have enough faith to be healed. Being prayed over by strangers, in places ranging from grocery stores to sporting events, who were convinced they could heal me. Telling a friend about my unborn son’s serious heart condition and being told simply to claim our baby’s healing.
All these people asserted that if we “agreed in prayer” and “bound Satan,” I would be healed, my baby would be healed, the pain would end. They said I needed to believe in faith, warning me never to speak of suffering, fear, or loss.
Even Apostles Misunderstand Suffering
The apostle Peter didn’t want Jesus to speak of his coming crucifixion either. When Jesus told the disciples about his future suffering, death, and resurrection on the third day, Peter rebuked him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). To Peter, it was inconceivable that Jesus would suffer and be killed. That couldn’t be part of God’s plan.
Perhaps Peter instinctively rebuked Jesus because Jesus’s words about his suffering and death went against Peter’s understanding of the kingdom of God. Just before, Jesus had told Peter that whatever Peter bound on earth would be bound in heaven, and whatever he loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven (Matthew 16:19). Maybe Peter thought he could override the predictions by speaking against them.
Whatever the reason for Peter’s outburst, Jesus responded with a stinging rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:23).
Jesus’s reaction applies to the false teaching of the prosperity gospel, a doctrine that asserts suffering has no place in the life of a Christian. Proponents of the prosperity gospel often claim that we need to bind suffering on earth and not even speak of it, because affliction can never be God’s will for those who know Christ. They choose isolated verses to undergird their position, stressing a right to perfect health, ignoring the Scriptures that highlight God’s goodness and sovereignty in and through our suffering.
Based on Jesus’s exchange with Peter, I see three ways the prosperity gospel gets suffering wrong.
1. ‘Suffering Hinders Faith.’
While Peter’s words may seem like a loving reaction, born out of care for Jesus, Jesus saw them as the work of Satan, distracting Jesus from his purpose. Jesus came to suffer and die, and Peter tried to dissuade him from what was God’s will. At the time, Peter didn’t know that Christ’s suffering would save not only Peter, but all who trust in Jesus.