Breaking Up with Bumper -Sticker Theology
Updated: Mar 24
How To Break Up With Your Anxious Life
Bad Advice from Christian Women, Part 3
One of my favorite books of all time is Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved). Kate is the ultimate warrior against over-simplified Christian sayings. When I write about bad advice from Christian women, I’m often just riffing on Kate.
Kate wrote her dissertation on the “Prosperity Gospel,” a uniquely American explanation for the problem of evil. This creed holds that being faithful to God means God will be faithful to you by rescuing you from harm, filling your bank account, and ensuring that your earthly journey will be an upward trajectory. She breaks down how we cherry-pick verses to make us feel better about ourselves and our lives, and then shows how this bumper-sticker theology fails us.
I love scripture because it is unflinchingly honest about how hard life is. Few things will make us ultimately more anxious than believing that following Christ will make our paths smooth, or that knowledge of God’s sovereignty will keep us from suffering. When we adopt a version of the Prosperity Gospel, we may come to doubt that God loves us when we experience trials, or shame ourselves for trouble, believing it stems from lack of faith.
Certain verses are prone to Prosperity Gospel interpretation. These are some of my favorite verses in the Bible, but I grew up in a culture that often them in the wrong places or at the wrong time. Let’s unpack a few.
Philippians 4:13 I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength. This was the most quoted Bible verse in my high school yearbook, typically under the senior photos of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Of “all things” Christ helped Paul do, winning a CIF swimming championship wasn’t one of them. I got the giggles recently when I noticed that my husband had this verse on his high school letterman’s jacket.
The “all things” we can claim through this verse doesn’t actually refer to all the successes we are guaranteed: a college scholarship, a thriving business, winning on American Idol. Paul wrote this passage from prison, and it means that he can endure all things, not triumph in every undertaking. Here’s the context: “I have learned to be content regardless of my circumstances. I know how to live humbly, and I know how to abound. I am accustomed to any and every situation—to being filled and being hungry, to having plenty and having need. I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.”
Romans 8:28 God works all things for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose for them. I’ve heard this verse quoted to people with chronic pain, pregnancy loss, cancer, unemployment, divorce, and experiencing abuse. A sweet lady in my church used to say, “If you don’t get the thing you want now, it’s because God has something better.” She applied this to dating, job hunting and the housing market; and it’s often true, but it’s not always true, or what the verse in Romans probably means. Christians need to be careful about (at least) two things in this verse’s application.
1. This does not mean that all things are good. They will be worked out for ultimate good – and the how is mysterious. We may never be able to see a one-for-one return on our suffering, and we shouldn’t attempt to for ourselves, and certainly not for others. Trying to find good in all things can drive you insane, and it’s not necessary. You can know God will bring about good, and not always be able to name or explain exactly how. You might find you didn't get the house you wanted, but the one you did get allowed you to witness to your neighbor; that seems like a "God works it together for good" moment! But we don't ever know for sure God's specific intentions.
2. Quoting this verse to suffering people is almost never a good idea. It shuts down empathy toward them, and discourages them from having self-empathy. When my friend Brittany died in December, there was no way I would quote this verse to her widower. What helps people in times of great grief, mental illness or loss is typically mourning with them. Praying for them. Sitting with them. Letting them name suffering. Gratitude and perspective can come later.
Romans 8:37 says "In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us." But what things? Let’s look at the context, shall we? Paul is writing about the apostle’s experiences:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”[j]
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[k] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Paul faced all these hardships. He eventually died for the sake of Christ, as did ten of the eleven original disciples. But somehow, we think we’re going to have less pain than those who don’t believe in Christ?
When we believe that lesser theology, we will face the worst of spiritual hardships: believing that a lack of worldly blessing means a loss of God’s love. Followers of Jesus are conquerors in a spiritual sense: ultimately they are not crushed because of the great love of God that is ever-present and eternal.
This How to Break Up with Your Anxious Life series has been about finding peace through accepting the messiness and difficulties of life; to regularly be comforted and refreshed by God in a world that will regularly kick your butt; and to make decisions that will lessen unnecessary stress and pain (see “Breaking Enslaving Traditions”).
But I want to close with a deep theological truth that turns the Prosperity Gospel on its head: God doesn’t just bless the faithful. He blesses the beloved, which is all people, all the world. Many Christians believe – albeit subconsciously – that their lives should be tragedy-free because they love God, and should be better than those who don’t; God makes us no such promise. We must remember we serve a God who is so crazy-strangely good and merciful that he blesses even those who will never bless him back.
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. For he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:43-45)
May we find peace today – not from bumper-sticker theology – but in the knowledge that we serve a huge, mysterious powerful God who loves and never leaves us, and is working in ways that we will someday understand.