The Unintended Double-Edged Sword

Proclaiming God’s favor can be a double-edged sword.

I’ve heard the creeping theology of prosperity in the averted tragedies of others. They spill wonder-filled, mystical stories, recounting God’s graciousness in piecing together the impossible jig-saw puzzles of life.

It’s a familiar story. We’ve all heard it.

My son was sick and hopelessly so. A miracle of providence brought us to a particular doctor who knew just the right answer. God orchestrated every move, ordained the whole thing to bring healing, and ultimately greater glory. God will bring you an answer in good time.

If you listen carefully, if you follow the logic, you will see it. God’s favor associated with the outcome. Perhaps that’s comfort to the healed and their families. Perhaps it’s a good story for the Sunday morning meeting. But one man’s salve is another man’s sore.

What if God fails to orchestrate the proper cure at the proper time? What if he stands to the side, seemingly idle, while the innocent go to the grave? What if the proper providential miracle is conspicuously absent? Does that mean that God was absent, that his hand was too short to save?

A word of caution to the would be story tellers: prosperity does not necessarily implicate providence, nor does it always bring comfort. Sometimes, the providence is in the pain.

How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorry in my heart all the day? …
But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord, because he has
dealt bountifully with me.
~Psalm 13:2, 5-6

*Photo by FaceMePLS; used under Creative Commons license.

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43 Responses to The Unintended Double-Edged Sword

  1. HopeUnbroken says:

    amen. and amen.
    the circumstances in which we find ourselves are never a good measure–of either our own performance, or the favor/love of God.
    “He has dealt bountifully with me.” in both the pain and the beauty.
    but God. . .

  2. Yes. Yes. Yes. I wrote once on my blog about that holy and hushed word, Dayenu and my brother’s death: “This comforts me because sometimes I hear an answered prayer and my heart jumps inside of me, words on my lips: God is good! But I stop here, because even in the lack of what we pray for, He is still good. He has brought us thus far and He has done enough. He has not left stones unturned or promises unanswered. He is not waiting for you to get your act together or for me to learn one final lesson.” And I maintain the truth in that good word, and good theology. God is good, regardless. And still good, even in the face of all that is bad. Thanks for writing Seth. Always thanks.

    • sethhaines says:

      I actually read that piece a while back. I don’t reckon this is the place to admit it, but I lurk from time to time on your blog. Thanks for stopping by here.

  3. Jessica Y says:

    Yes. He is God and He is good. Either way. Hard.

  4. Jessica Y says:

    Me again. I always think, the victory is already won. This healing, this ________ (fill in the blank)….this isnt it. The “it” is done and “it is finished”….despite what happens here and now…or later.

  5. Ray Fulmer says:

    The prosperity gospel is flat out dangerous to me. A distortion of the first magnitude. I don’t see how a faith built on emptying of the self and accepting persecution (or even martyrdom) can be bent to such self-serving inanity.

    Your entry is far more lenient towards it than I would be.

    Thanking God is one thing. Once God is the magic 8 ball, authentic Christianity is toast.

    • sethhaines says:

      You should write a poem called “God the Magic 8 ball.”

      I totally agree with you. You’d be shocked how many stories I’ve heard in the last 4 weeks where prosperity theology is the under-girding philosophy. People mean well, and I still love them. But it conjures more questions that it quenches.

  6. Oh, yeah. Yeah. It is a double-edged sword, isn’t it? Somehow we have to hold it ALL together – the providential work that ends in healing and the providential work that does not. My preaching prof was a tiny Scotsman who told the story of his 11-year-old son’s sudden severe illness when they were traveling in Australia. They feared for his life and at just the moment that his home congregation in Glasgow was gathered in worship, praying for them all, his son took a turn for the better. He rejoiced and thanked God. However, he never, ever preached about it without also telling the story of his son’s roommate, who was far less well initially, who also had a congregation praying for his recovery and who died two days later. They must both stand, they must both speak. Yes, God is good. And sometimes that goodness shows in ways we understand. And sometimes it does not. Praying with you for endurance, Seth. For healing, too, of course. But for faithfulness over and above all else. That you would know the goodness of our God in the land of the living…no matter what. Much love to you and to Amber.

  7. Make that ‘far less sick initially…’

  8. Courtney says:

    Seth, you sure have a way with words—and in the midst of living it all. Encouraged by this. “Sometimes, the providence is in the pain.” And clinging to this!!! Keep writing! Praying for you guys and precious Titus.

  9. Lacey says:

    Thank you for these words. He is our hope.

  10. Heather says:

    I often think the same thoughts as a single person (10 years after divorce, and counting) listening to others testify about how God brought someone into their lives (after, like, a whole year of waiting, it was so hard!!). When we start comparing our path to others’ we bring on ourselves a whole lot of unnecessary suffering. Ultimately, my walk is mine only, and do I believe God is giving ME His VERY BEST, no matter what that looks like? It has taken me a long time to trust Him that way. And I still waver when things get hard.

    I am reading Hinds’ Feet in High Places for the first time. Last night I read this, and it struck such a chord about disappointments and tribulations:

    Then, after a time, He said very quietely, “Much-Afraid, supposing I really did deceive you? What then?”

    Suddenly she burst into a passion of weeping, then after a little while looked straight up into His face and said, “My Lord-if You can deceive me, You may. It can make no difference. I must love You as long as I continue to exist. I cannot live without loving You.”

    I have had desperate, urgent, “do this now” prayers that felt like they were God-inspired and right, that were not answered like I believed them to be…and I have realized in a way, it doesn’t matter. Only my obedience to pray them matters, and that I stay close to Him. To whom else shall I go? He has the words of eternal life. And I have come to believe that He is the Christ.

  11. Georgi says:

    Thank you, Seth.

  12. Robin Dance says:

    Well, you wrote this much more poetically, but in essence it’s what I’ve drafted for my August incourage post.

    My two college-age nieces spent a week w/us in Germany, then returned home (my sister and BIL stayed in Europe an additional week). The flight went fine but on their drive home from the Atlanta airport, 30 minutes from their house, a tire blew out on the interstate, they spun out of control across all lanes of traffic and ended up on the other side of the road.

    Their car was totalled (hit front and back), the windshield shattered…and they walked away.

    Praise God for their protection from DEATH…but could I praise God had their lives not been spared?

    You and Amber are walking such a hard road with Titus; and the tiny bit I’ve seen of your countenance is beautiful. Christ in you, great Hope of Glory, is shining and speaking the Gospel.

    Continuing to pray…waiting for the next update….

    • sethhaines says:

      You are a good friend to us Robin. And I’m glad you wrote that. Please make sure to tell me when it’s qued up. I’ll want to read that post for certain.

  13. oh goodness. this. I’ve been teasing this out in my heart recently, as some long-awaited good news came recently. amid the chorus of “congratulations,” and the “praise the Lord”s, I have quietly wondered about another outcome. about others’ outcomes.

    “maybe the providence is in the pain.” yes.

    continued prayer for your family.

    • sethhaines says:

      Thank you. And the harder part for me…

      Let’s assume T comes out a-okay. Everything reverses itself and he’s a “normal” kid. These are definitely possibilities, especially with the grand doctors working his case. If that’s the result, do I tell people “God’s hand was in it because we caught it early?” And then, what about the parent who didn’t catch it? What would my story say to that parent about God?

      I think sometimes we unintentionally bludgeon each other. I know I’ve been guilty of this very thing.

      • maybe you begin by telling the whole, unabridged story, like you’re doing now, like you’ve been doing. You give thanks and praise to Whom it’s due, for the surprising graces, for whatever kind of healing that comes. You share the heartache. After that, I’m not sure. We bludgeon each other all the time.

      • I hear this, Seth. When my son was 14, he fell off a platform while videotaping a school event. No cell phones then and I didn’t hear about it until he was at the hospital. Very scary. Neurology visit and one of the first MRIs in the country, which he endured so well…that he fell asleep in the machine. (I’ve since had one and have NO IDEA how he could do that.) Initial diagnosis? Tumor at the base of the brain requiring 14 hour surgery at UCLA. At that time I was the fund raiser for a research institute in town that specialized in brain tumors. I called and talked with the doctor in charge of that program and he very carefully told me to order one more test – which turned out to be completely clear. No tumor, no surgery. Many in my Christian-friend-circles wanted to name this a healing, a miracle. I could not go there exactly. I COULD praise God that I was doing the work I was doing, that I knew the people that I knew (whom I would never have known otherwise) and for the willingness of this doctor to go out on a limb and override another physician’s diagnosis. And I have to say this, too… my ‘secular’ friends were among the most compassionate, helpful, kind and ‘present’ people in my life during this 4 months of turmoil. What you’re working through just now is such important stuff, Seth. Learning to praise God … no matter what … oh, it’s hard sometimes. During the hardest days of this, I could not even find the words for prayer, only groans. Groaning for you these days.

  14. alece says:

    I have found myself in the wrestling ground of this very issue for the past few years. I haven’t even been able to find words for what I’m grappling with, and I certainly haven’t come to any answers or conclusions.

    But having walked through infidelity and then divorce, while surrounded by countless others whose infidelity journey (thankfully) ended in restoration/reconciliation, I am left with a pit-in-my-stomach feeling over my former position on the favor and goodness of God. Because as much as I’ve heard the seemingly careless remarks, I know I’ve made them in my lifetime as well.

    “But God is so good, and our marriage is better today than it ever was before.” “By God’s grace, we caught it in time and they got all the cancer.” “God is so faithful, and provision was there right when we needed it.”

    Sometimes the provision doesn’t show up—sometimes the bills don’t get paid and the ministry God had clearly started is forced to close its doors. Sometimes the healing doesn’t come—like my beautiful, faith-filled friend who passed away last year or the chronic pain I live with daily. Sometimes the marriage doesn’t get restored—sometimes he really leaves to begin a new “happily ever after” with the other woman.

    So do those outcomes mean that God isn’t good or faithful? Do they negate His grace or His love or His kindness? I know that they don’t. Because I know I can’t trust the God who gives without also trusting the God who takes away. He is one and the same, and His goodness is in anything His hand extends (and even in what it withholds). I know that He is both good and sovereign. The challenge lies in believing He is both of those at the same time.

    I know that my gut-level cringing reaction to those seemingly flippant remarks about God being good when His favor is evident says more about me than the one who says them. Because I know they don’t mean them flippantly and I know they are right that God’s goodness is evident there.

    The gritty sandpaper grating I feel inside is because I’m left wondering if I could say the same thing had the outcome been opposite. Or really, it’s because I’m left fully aware that I haven’t always done so. Even now, can I honestly and truly say I believe God’s grace, goodness, and faithfulness is evident in the way things turned out in my marriage? Maybe evident isn’t the right word. If “faith is the evidence of things not seen”, then I need to believe His goodness is there even it isn’t evident.

    And so I wrestle.

    He is good. And He is sovereign. And both are displayed when the protection, provision, healing, and restoration shows up. And both are displayed when it doesn’t.

    Lord, I believe. Help me overcome my unbelief.

    • Amazing and thoughtful response, Alece. But then, I would expect nothing other than that from you. Thank you.

    • Steve says:

      To both Seth’s comments and especially Alece’s response I can only say, “Wow.”

      Just a few days ago I caught myself enthusiastically agreeing with someone when something went well that, “It was a God thing!” But even as I said that, I couldn’t help wondering if I would have said the same thing had the situation turned out not to be in my favor. Would an outcome different from my desire have made it any less “a God thing?”

      Thanks to both of you for the reminder of what goodness really means.

    • Adrienne says:

      To look straight in the face of sorrow with both eyes wide open and say, “My God is good,” and “God loves me,” that is faith. True deep faith often has tears streaming down his face and bared teeth; clinging to far deeper truths about the love of God than those who have only walked the fizzy fluffy path will ever be honored to experience.
      I would not say that I hold my pain as a comfort, not yet, but I do know that the One who loves me knows me completely and is with me. He has proven to be with me.

    • sethhaines says:

      These are good words, Alece – “So do those outcomes mean that God isn’t good or faithful? Do they negate His grace or His love or His kindness? I know that they don’t. Because I know I can’t trust the God who gives without also trusting the God who takes away.” It’s about where we put our trust… no? Do we really trust that God works ALL things together for good? Or do we only trust when things work together for good as we see it?

      I also concur… I’ve been a violator in this space. People share these stories to give hope and celebrate God. There has to be grace for that.

  15. to lay down our swords and sit on ‘the frighteningly invisible palm of God’…

  16. Kathy says:

    Oh my. Your words Seth and all the comments . . . I am so there. My beloved and I, we wail and scream inside our hearts. Why, why, why? It isn’t fair! And I don’t know what to do. The pain of rejection, the ache of not good enough. It is hard to let it go. It is hard to not bow to the temple of anger and to not lean on the wall of I deserve better.

    Yet I am reminded again and again – be joyful, pray continually, and give thanks in all circumstance – not just when things are well and even when things are soiled and smell. Maybe I’m not meant to understand. Maybe I’m just meant to trust. Maybe the providence is in the pain.

    A dear cousin of my mother had these words to say, when her beloved was taken home – “The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” I cry still when I think of these words and pray I might be found as faithful.

    So much to ponder over tonight. Thank you all for your words.

  17. Your words find me where we sit, in crisping farmfields with corn that shows no hope of recovery. My farmer-husband says this every day: “God’s Got it.” It’s not just a cute little catch phrase, but an actual three-word theology. No matter what, God has practically and miraculous “got it.” Even if God doesn’t send rain, so be it: He already sent a Savior.

    I saw this one quote this morning on FB. It says what I’m trying to say here much more succinctly: “A sign you’re growing in grace: When you think about “blessings” from God, suffering makes your list. ~ Scotty Smith”

    Praying for you and Amber and your family, Seth.

    • sethhaines says:

      I love that quote. I told my small group last night that I’m tired, worn thin, and all of that. Even still, there’s peace (even if it might not be demonstratively evident).

      Hardship (especially the kind that entails unknowing) does produce this sort of teeter-totter, though. Maybe it’s okay to be precariously positioned on the verge of losing faith? Every time I find myself there and confess it, the church comes along side and reminds me that “God’s got it.” Those are the moments I remember that my life is bountiful, indeed.

  18. The Scripture passage in Streams in the Desert this morning underscores everything you said, Seth, and all that the comments were groping for. From Habakkuk 3:

    Although the fig tree shall not blossom,
    nor fruit be on the vines;
    though the labor of the olive fail,
    and the fields yield no food;
    though the flock be cut off from the fold
    and there be no herd in the stalls,
    yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will take joy in the God of my salvation.

    Hard words. Hard to read. Harder to live. Faith is not a feeling, but an act of volition: “I will rejoice. I will trust.” You are making that hard choice to say God is good. This, too, is grace, yes?

    Praying for you and Amber and Titus each day, for rest and strength and hope and, yes, healing.

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  22. adrianelynee says:

    This is so good

    About a year ago, a good friend of mine gave birth to a stillborn. He was her third child and the first pregnancy that had not been high risk. She has gone through so much already in her life and it just didn’t seem fair. I remember going to be with her in the hospital one day and she just cried and talked and cried and then just asked me what I had for her….with tears streaming down my face I remember looking at her and telling “All I know is that God is still good.”

    That goodness didn’t decrease or diminish the pain but it carried it. His peace and His grace and His goodness carried all of us through that pain. I have experience plenty of my own pain and heart-wrenching situations but in learning to find His goodness through my story, I was able to point someone else towards it in theirs.

    This side of heaven we are promised pain and trial and tragedy…but we serve a God who is bigger than all of that. And so all I’ve learned to do is press in and dig deeper because all of our explanations and cute phrases will never be enough outside of the conviction that He is

  23. Jessica Y says:

    I was readi g in Hebrews this morning and this passage jumped out and made me recall this post. So good.

    And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, (Hebrews 11:32-39 NIV)

    Glorying in the imprisonment, flogging, death by sword etc as much as the conquering etc

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