Comforting Lies About Suffering: How the Prosperity Gospel Hurts People

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.

Jesus’s suffering was filled with divine purpose, as is all our suffering. Later, Peter himself would recognize that God calls some people to suffer just as he called Christ (1 Peter 2:21), and that suffering can refine our faith and glorify God (1 Peter 1:6–7).

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pray for healing and relief when trouble comes. God tells us to bring him our requests (Philippians 4:6), to pray big prayers and expect big answers (James 5:16), to ask for whatever we want (John 15:7). We know God can bring healing simply by saying the word — he created the universe, calmed the sea, and raised the dead with just his voice. But his answer isn’t always “yes.” If God says “no” or “wait,” as he did to Job, Jesus, and Paul, we shouldn’t conclude that our faith is weak or that we’ve done something wrong.

We can take comfort in the fact that if God denies our earnest requests, he has his reasons — maybe ten thousand reasons — and one day we will rejoice in them. Some of God’s purposes in suffering are to produce endurance, character, and hope in us (Romans 5:3–5). Trials make us steadfast (James 1:3), deepen our reliance on God (2 Corinthians 1:8–9), and help us genuinely comfort others as God has comforted us (2 Corinthians 1:3–4). While we cannot know all that God is doing in our suffering, we can be sure that he works always for our good (Romans 8:28).

2. ‘God always wants comfort for us.’

Jesus’s prediction of his death didn’t make sense to Peter. Jesus had just praised him for recognizing that he was the Messiah (Matthew 16:16–17). Did Peter think that the Messiah would establish an earthly kingdom, a kingdom that Peter would be a vital part of?

“If God denies our requests, he has his reasons — maybe ten thousand reasons — and one day we will rejoice in them.”

Often our view of God’s kingdom is centered on what we want. We are consumed with our plans and our glory, which are grounded in this life. But the things of God center on God’s will and God’s glory, which are grounded in eternity. Like Peter, prosperity-gospel advocates often begin with a fervent faith and revelation from God, but their minds are so focused on worldly blessings that they end up working against God’s purposes. People who cannot accept that suffering and even death can be part of God’s plan have their minds set on the things of man.

How do we set our minds on the things of God? We start by recognizing that his ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8), and only the Spirit knows the deep things of God (1 Corinthians 2:11). We cannot guarantee people’s healing or offer assurances that we know God wills to end their suffering, if only they believe, but we can pray to the Lord on their behalf and trust him with the outcome.

3. ‘This life is all there is.’

Peter’s rebuke of Jesus disregarded the final part of his statement in Matthew 16:21: Jesus would not only die but rise again on the third day. It’s a stunning conclusion, one that outweighs the horror of Jesus’s initial words. Suffering would not have the last word, and death would not hold him. Jesus’s resurrection means a glorious ending to all our earthly pain.

Prosperity-gospel proponents often overlook the weight of glory that is coming in heaven, preferring to concentrate on this life alone. Suffering prepares us for that future glory, perhaps even magnifying our experience of it, and makes us long for heaven (2 Corinthians 4:17).

Eternity is so central to our faith that if heaven does not await us, if this life is all there is, if our hope in Christ is for this life alone, Paul says that “we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19). But if the prosperity-gospel claims are true — that following Jesus always means earthly prosperity — then even if Christ wasn’t raised from the dead, Christians shouldn’t be pitied at all. Heaven would be a bonus, but the material blessings of this life would be reward enough.

Lesson for Us All

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.

Jesus suffered on our behalf, and if we follow in his footsteps, we shouldn’t be surprised by our own suffering. In fact, Jesus promised we would suffer, saying, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

So, if you are suffering, call out to God. Pray and read the Bible, even when it feels like he’s not listening. If you know others who are suffering, be there for them. Encourage them, pray with them, point them to God’s eternal purposes.

The true gospel doesn’t promise a life free from suffering, but a God who is with us in our suffering, a God who redeems and transforms our griefs and prepares us for eternity. So, set your mind on the things of God, remembering that your ultimate reward is not here on earth, but stored up in heaven, where there will be no more suffering, no more tears, and no more pain.

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