Fair Warning: This essay is non-conclusive and will probably annoy the (charles) dickens out of some people, even though neither is my intent. Just realistic. It also has way too many “quotation” marks, sometimes used for definitional purposes, other times used for ironic or cynical effect. Your mileage may vary. So, onwards with the essay…
PTSD, both its traumatic causes and its subsequent symptoms, challenges our lives and our faith. PTSD even challenges the faith of others who observe us or maybe even say they care about us.
Why does our suffering challenge others? Partly because they cannot cope with the mystery of theodicy and sometimes they suffer from compassion avoidance issues. This often results in the development of a theology where suffering is blamed on the person who suffers because they did not do X, Y, or Z properly (yeah, that really sucks).
Let’s, then, first take a look at theodicy.
Theodicy, Job, and Others
We are all challenged by “Theodicy.” The study and exploration of theodicy is a career field within theology.
In terms of academic theology theodicy has two definitions. One is secular and without reference to God. The other is explicitly theological.
- Secular: Why do bad things happen to people?
- Theological: If God is Good, then why is there Evil in the world?
Dissertations continue to be written about the Book of Job and theodicy is still explored in terms of philosophy and systematic theology, with or without reference to the Bible.
Theodicy concerns are not uniquely Jewish or Christian concerns. The “problem of evil” and why it exists still comes up up within diverse religions and philosophies.
From a biblical perspective we know theodicy from the Book of Job in the Old Testament.
Job is an innocent and a righteous individual and God allows misfortune, illness, and disaster to strike him. In the midst of his suffering, Job is told by his wife to just curse God and die. This amounts to his being told to just kill himself and save everyone the hassle of his being around. Job is then visited by several false friends who tell him his suffering is somehow all his own fault. Job is eventually visited by God, who through the use of creation imagery, demonstrates to Job that the mystery of suffering is more than he can comprehend.
[Probably the most accessible exploration of the Book of Job is Harold Kushner’s, When BAD Things Happen to GOOD People. This valuable book was one of the required readings when I took my graduate course, The Ethics of Death and Dying. Later, as a professor, I have required my bunnies to read it from time to time.]
Let’s pause a further moment on why others are so committed to blaming Job for his suffering:
Job’s continued suffering bothers others because it is a blip in the otherwise smooth problem-free horizon they have tried to erect. By blaming Job for his problems they can make-believe the blip is not there and all is well in their two-dimensional world. By embracing blame, by transforming the mystery of suffering into guilt and then blame, they feel they are freed of any call to be compassionate. They also manage to create a truncated, two-dimensional version of God that they can keep in a box and not really have to have a relationship with.
Many of the PTSD-survivors I have met mention how frequently people go out of their way to essentially blame them for their own suffering. The presence of suffering bothers them and they often treat the PTSD-survivor as if they had leprosy. It’s not up to me as a Christian to determine if someone “deserves” their suffering, rather I am called to be compassionate in the face of suffering, regardless of cause…sort of like that Jesus guy did.
Many PTSD-survivors share Job’s journey, trying to understand their suffering, and trying to survive the people who would just as soon see them dead or at least conveniently categorized as not worth caring about.
Early Christians were also concerned about theodicy. They wondered why, if they had just signed up with the one true God, were they then being tortured and killed? These kind of questions are part of the early Christian literature.
The Gospels would have not embraced an idea that you deserved your suffering and that you did not deserve any compassion for your pain and misfortune. Similarly, the Gospel of Luke would have made short shrift of any sort of prosperity theology and its supporters. The Gospel writers had a sharp eye out for those who thought money equated with righteousness and blessing.
Theodicy vs. Prosperity Theology
Theodicy is at odds with some forms of the popular American [c]hristianity known as “prosperity theology.” In prosperity theology, if one just gives enough money and other resources to the church – usually a particular “pastor” or organization – then they are promised to receive material prosperity, money, new cars, their teeth will be straightened, they will accumulate more followers on Facebook, and all the other important things they think life has to offer. A deeper relationship with God does not seem to be offered as one of the benefits.
Prosperity theology is a sort of “gumball theology” where you plug in a quarter, turn the crank, and get a gumball from the machine. You plug in some money and God “owes” you a blessing, usually described as wealth. It treats God as a machine that can be oiled, cranked, and forced to dispense whatever we want. We just have to have the “faith” that paying off some “pastor” or organization motivates, compels, God to bless us with material gain. Nice to know, I guess, that the thought of buying God’s grace also comes with a convenient tax deduction.
Prosperity theology is piss-poor theology (and be mindful I used the word “poor” in a sentence) that blames your suffering on you. If you give all your money to Pastor X and still don’t get health and wealth, then it’s your own fault. You must have faulty faith. This is an attitude is similar to Job’s false friends. And, no refunds!
It reminds me of the saying:
Personal computers and religion are the only two industries in which product failure is blamed on the consumer.
Why the rant, er, I mean exploration of prosperity theology?
Because, like Job’s false friends, these “solutions” only drive a wedge between you and God. Whatever you are suffering will hurt even worse when a bucket of this kind of piss-poor theology is dumped on you. Not only will you be all wet and sticky-smelly (eww!), you will also be out quite a bit of money. Just when we need God the most, here comes a theology designed to alienate us away from God.
Some of the Damage Inflicted by Prosperity Theology
– Mis-characterization of God. It reduces God to a gumball machine, an idol, or a disinterested clerk who makes change for your dollar bill.
– Suckers you out of money, other resources, and corrodes our faith.
– Damages your relationship with God. When you have a serious theodicy issue, this emaciated depiction of God is not big enough to help carry you through your suffering. Many people reject spirituality altogether when they discover this emaciated version of God is only a caricature of the divine and it is unable to help them find peace.
– There is no adventure in the emaciated prosperity idol. The followers of this god pray through its idol (Pastor X and his “non-profit” organization), send it offerings (money), and expect to be rewarded as they have kept their part of the contract (so much for “free grace”!). This prosperity version of a god is not only theologically deficient, but it’s just plain boring.
Many will be fooled into thinking the gumball machine is the only god going. They may think one must either accept that useless version of God or deny God completely. Many, after intense experiences and trauma, quite rightly reject this fabrication of the divine. We reject the idol, and depending on our background, we might have been fooled into thinking that the idol of the divine gumball machine actually was God.
The people who peddle prosperity theology, and give the arguments like those of Job’s false friends, make it even easier to reject God. They do not want to help us get through our suffering, they want to blame our initial and continued suffering on us. Why? So they will not have to be burdened with authentic, ongoing, compassion. So that their tidy little world can continue to spin and if you are hurting it is still your fault. These people suffer from Compassion Deficit Disorder. Our suffering is a blip on their horizon, easy to get rid of with a dose of blame.
God and Authenticity
An authentic belief in God is a relationship where we grow in love and understanding as we experience more and more of the infinite that is God.
An authentic understanding of God will not make your pain disappear. It does not regrow limbs lost in combat or car wreck. An authentic, spiritual journey with God, does not make the pain vanish. Yet, it does make the pain easier to bear. It does make life easier to resume. An authentic journey with God, a deity who does not need to be endlessly flattered and bought off with trinkets, makes life worth living, makes compassion tangible; it respects the infinite divine mystery and revels within its never-ending waves.
Advantage and Cost of Prosperity Theology?
The mechanical gumball machine and idolatry of prosperity theology has one appeal: it’s easier and requires little thought. It only requires my money and material resources.
But the cost of this ease is severe: Prosperity-Idolatry relieves me of any responsibility (opportunity) to grow to the fullest expression God would have for me.
Living the Divine Image
God created us (you & I) in the “Image and Likeness” of God. We are designed by the divine blueprint to share an ever-deepening relationship with God. God does not want to be bought off; rather, I’d put forward, God desires a relationship established in love and grace. In a healthy relationship, we learn – and are sometimes flabbergasted – by the depth and mystery of a spouse we have known for years, perhaps decades. We find new depths in them that we were not aware of; they have grown, and so have we.
In our trauma, in grappling with the symptoms and subsequent behaviors produced by PTSD, we can continue to explore the depths of God. Even when I am crushed by my PTSD and my other ailments, I know that God loves me. God hears my prayer, understands my experiences, joys and sorrows, and does not require me to “plug the meter” first so that some idol will dispense a gumball to me.
This journey is harder, it is not merely mechanical, it allows us the opportunity to stretch and grow as we learn to swim in the mystery that is God.
We all have value. The answers are not simple. Those who try to smarm us off with easy, pat answers cause us further pain. In our journey we learn much about prayer, the depths of the divine, and the need to even pray for people who want the easy gumball options.
Don’t allow the equivalent of Job’s false friends to douse you with the bucket. Don’t let people suggest that God can be bought off if you flatter or pay enough. Your experiences, the good ones and the traumatic crazy horrible ones, have a value. You have value, you’re made in the Image and Likeness of the God who wants you to swim in the depth of an unending grace. Your relationship with God is an eternal one, ever-deepening, ever-meaningful, and never bought cheap.
The journey is onward, it remains an adventure.
Semper Pax, Dr. Z
P.S., I continue to work on essays for isolation, rape, and infidelity. My health is better than it was. Couple of reasonable hours most days. Hooray for our side!