In November 2015, my mother, who had no history of smoking, drinking alcohol or even coffee, was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. We were told there was no cure. She had six months to live at best. After her initial diagnosis people from all walks of her life came to comfort her and most of the time, they were really sweet. But, like Job’s friends, there were a few who also tried to explain why she got sick. “Are there unrepentant sins that Connie can think of? Can she think of something she did in the past and perhaps, that is why she is getting punished?” Twice a woman told my mom she was demon-possessed. Thankfully, these comments did not affect my mother, due to her knowledge of the Bible and faith in God.
For the sixteen months my mother was battling cancer, I had a crisis of faith. From my studies of scripture, especially the Book of Job, the reader is never told why God allowed suffering and tragedy to happen to the people who were in pain. We are invited to read about their doubts, prayers, their journey and the results of their deepening faith, but we are not told the “why.” However, I could not help but ask why. It was not until about three months after my mother’s death when God settled the “why” question for me.
As I thought about why I kept asking why, I uncovered a basic presupposition that lay deep within my heart beneath the accumulated theological knowledge. The “why” question presupposes either:
A one-to-one (1:1) relationship:
You did something bad = that’s why suffering is happening to you now.
Sum total of bad life = suffering(s) relationship:
You have committed several/or a lot of sins, that is why you are suffering now or why you have had multiple tragedies.
Much to my surprise, I realized that this line of thinking is the just flip side of the prosperity gospel that orthodox Christians regard as unbiblical. My ten years in ministry plus my theological training would have completely agreed that the promises of the “prosperity gospel” (health and wealth) are not the Christian gospel. If you have a big enough faith, positive thinking, and you donate money, then you can expect that God will make you healthy and wealthy, they say.
Of course, as an orthodox Christian it is easy to dismiss this false gospel. But, as I reflected on my presupposition above, I realized that what I believed in was actually much closer to the prosperity gospel than I would have liked to admit. What I realized was that my functional understanding of the Christian faith was actually the negative aspect of the prosperity gospel.
Health and wealth? It was easy to dismiss. I did not expect the positive aspects of the prosperity gospel (or at least I knew I wasn’t supposed to.) However, my wrestling with God about why he would take my mother revealed that I subconsciously believed that if I was a strong Christian (whatever that means) it would, at least, prevent tragedy/or suffering. In other words, trying to be a faithful Christian in order to prevent suffering is actually a belief in the prosperity gospel. When this dawned on me, I understood why I had a crisis of faith.
With my mother getting sick and her eventual death, my true feelings, thoughts, and beliefs about God were unearthed. Suffering does that — it brings out what you truly think in the deep recesses of your heart. With my seminary degree plus my time in ministry, I think I allowed myself to believe that I was a “strong” Christian even though secretly, I have always known that my theological knowledge outpaced my personal relationship with Christ. Prior to my mother’s death, I would never have admitted that this was true; but, thankfully, suffering entered my millennial world and I was able to see just how “strong” my faith was. Or better yet, what it was made of, instead of who it was placed on.
Earlier, I wrote that God settled the “why” question for me. Like Job and many saints before and around me, I still don’t know why God allowed what he did. But in my mourning, God revealed to me the warped gospel operating in my heart. Rather than feeling shame, I felt gratitude. I felt grateful that God helped me to see my false view of him and how he deals with us. I felt grateful that I could repent. I felt grateful that I realized this now rather than later in life. I felt grateful that he still let me serve the church and not cause great detriment to others with my functional belief. I felt grateful that he still loves me and has loved me all these years despite misunderstanding him.
It was through repentance and gratitude that my heart was quieted and the “why” question settled for me.
Jessica Hong was on the East side CG team from 2012-2017. She held the position of CG director from 2014-17. She is currently working on her MBA at University of Southern California and hopes to return to ministry when that is completed.