Regarding an ecumenical trip to an evangelical/pentecostal church
(My vow cross. As Jesuits, we promise to serve under the banner of the cross. We don’t run from the cross; rather, we seek it.)
“So you are sick. You’ve just been diagnosed with cancer. You’ve suffered for years with a chronic illness…with headaches, back aches, stomach cramps. You’re in pain. Did God give you these illnesses? Did God give you this pain? Does God want you to suffer? I don’t think so. God is good. God is good all the time.
“There is only one explanation: YOU are the cause of your illness. YOU have sinned. YOU have let the devil in. Look at your conscience. Where have you gone wrong? Ask the Lord for forgiveness, and he will set you free from your suffering. Visit a Christian healer with faith, and you will be clean. God gives health to his children.
“So you are poor. You can’t find a job, or you work two or three jobs but don’t earn enough to support your family. The ends don’t meet. You can’t balance the budget. You cry of starvation in the night. You cry so much that you get dehydrated. You go to the river to get a drink, but the water poisons you. You suffer some more. Did God make you unemployed? Does God want you to starve or to thirst? I don’t think so. God is good. God is good all the time.
“There is only one explanation: YOU are the cause of your poverty. YOU haven’t trusted that God will lift you up from the dung heap. YOU haven’t been paying your dues at church, so the Lord is refusing to bless you. Pray more. Fast more. Give more money to the church, and things will start to change. Job offers will come. You’ll see raises. You’ll be able to buy a new house. You’ll see…”
So preached the pastor at an evangelical/pentecostal church in poor Honduras. The message shook me to the core. It was so vile that it made me want to throw up.
At church during this sermon, a little boy with cerebral palsy sat next to me and was holding my hand. He walked with a heavy limp, and other kids would often make fun of him and push him to the ground. During my visit I tried to show him some special attention because I saw that his peers often neglected or abused him. As I was listening to the pastor, I thought to myself, “And this little boy? What about him? What has he done wrong? Even if he has done wrong–and that is a very strong “even if”–what sort of God would punish him with cerebral palsy? What about congenital problems? What about…?” On and on I thought. It made no sense. I looked at the boy’s face, and I communicated to him with my eyes, “Don’t listen to this nonsense. God loves you. He loves you so much that he came down from heaven to be with you and all who suffer.”
There is no theology of suffering in large sections of the evangelical and pentecostal movements. For them, Christ paid the price. He suffered for us. He died for us. Because of his Passion, we don’t have to suffer anymore. We believe, and God imputes to us an immunity from any sort of poverty or illness. Christ’s death and resurrection unleashed for us the graces of prosperity. Wealth is right in front of our eyes, and we just have to reach out and claim it in the name of Jesus. It is that simple… …for them.
I rarely use strong language, but I’ll go for it here: I denounce this anti-Christian, anti-Catholic, anti-reality, anti-God, anti-all-things-good b***s***. This horrid teaching comes from false preachers, from venomous serpents who view mammon as a sign of God and who view God as a a sign of mammon. It comes from wolves who prey on the simple minds of lost sheep. It comes from pastors who have deceived themselves or who seek to deceive others. It is evil.
What does a Catholic do in the midst of this insanity, especially as it sucks in Catholics by the millions throughout the world? First, we have to denounce. Second, we have to promote the Catholic understanding of the origin, meaning, and end of suffering.
I’ve already denounced, so let’s move on to the Catholic take on suffering. Let me propose two important points to start. (It is impossible to outline the entirety of Catholic thought on suffering in one post.):
Suffering makes us one with Christ: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me,” says the Lord (Luke 9:23). If we are disciples of Jesus, we will experience more suffering than the average person in this life. The Christian is a follower of Christ, and the Christian follows Christ even to the cross. The cross is a symbol of innocent suffering, of senseless pain. In uniting himself to the cross, Jesus shows us that he is in solidarity with the afflicted, with the poor and the sick. There is a “swap” that takes place in Christ (see the beatitudes). Whereas before, the wealthy and healthy had the last word; now, the poor and the sick have the last word. Just as Jesus rose from the dead, showing suffering its ultimate powerlessness, the suffering of this world will be raised up in glory on the Last Day. It is for this reason that Catholics “rejoice” in suffering: we become more like Christ. If we can rejoice in our suffering, it means that we are not attached to the things that pass away: our flesh, our possessions, our pride. If we love God and others in the midst of our suffering, we love with a God-like love.
(Sidepoint–We agree with the pastor above regarding one point: God is not the primary cause of our suffering. The devil, original sin, and human injustice are the active causes of our suffering. God allows suffering, and this reality is a mystery. Some have proposed reasons that help penetrate this mystery, i.e. allowing suffering allows for more human freedom or allowing suffering allows for greater expressions of love, among others.)
Alleviating suffering through justice, charity, and, in some cases, faith: The poor are not poor because they are wicked (as some eastern religions and some evangelicals/pentecostals propose). Rather, the poor are poor because the rich oppress them. The sick are sick because they have no access to healthy food and medical care. The solution, then, is not blind faith but rather a radical rearrangement of our political life that restores equality, justice, and peace for all. In the meantime, Christians and all people of good will are called to serve the poor and the sick through acts of charity. Finally, yes, some people are healed or helped through miraculous means.