What God Doesn’t Promise–Calming the Storms

We’re continuing our series on the creeping prosperity gospel. This week, we’re exploring “what God doesn’t promise,” and today, Joy Bennett has graciously agreed to share. Consider her words and join us in the comments as we work this out.

“Jesus calms storms,” the man proclaimed from the center of the circle, campfire glowing orange behind him. He waved his Bible as he paced in front of the kids as they perched awkwardly on the concrete ring encircling the gathering place. “Jesus spoke and the storm stopped raging. Jesus spoke and the demons left the man in the cemetery. Jesus calms storms inside you too.”

I scanned the backs of the boys in front of me, watching them listen to this mandatory devotional plunked smack in the middle of a fall party. The kids, some bussed in from poor neighborhoods, ranged in age from 5 to 18. They had competed in sack races and apple-eating contests, ridden the hay wagon, and played basketball in the dust. Now, before roasting wieners and marshmallows, they had been instructed to sit perfectly still and quiet for ten minutes.

“Why do you think we do this for you?” the pastor had asked.

One of the kids volunteered, “Because you care about us.”

“Yes, we do. We love you. But we have an even more important reason. Our one goal is to bring you from where you are to where God wants you to be. Salvation is the first step, but there’s much more.”

“Some of you don’t know Jesus. We want you to know him. He can calm the storm in your heart and give you peace.”
He launched into the traditional Baptist version of salvation: what sin is, what the wages of sin are, what hell is like, what Jesus did, how to be saved from hell.

During the “every head bowed every eye closed no looking around” part, I kept my head up and my eyes open. I watched my three kids for signs of hands going up or standing to “talk with someone about God” because so help me, no one else is going to pray a sinner’s prayer with my kids. That’s my job. And because if you are going to follow Jesus, you ought to be willing to do it in front of others. And because I’m a secret rebel. But I’m off on a tangent.

The most disturbing thing about the entire “gospel” presentation was the little phrase, “Jesus calms storms.” Nothing in either of those stories, of Jesus calming the storm on the sea and of Jesus casting out the demons, indicates that these actions are for anyone or any time outside those specific situations. Jesus never promises to calm every storm. Jesus doesn’t cast out all the demons out of everyone.

But we present it this way to children and adults alike. When we talk about God like this we reduce him to a cosmic vending machine. We teach and believe that all we have to do is find the right combination of currency (prayer, good deeds, our own promises, penance, sacrifice, whatever), punch in the code for the treat we want, and God will dispense it.

As C.S. Lewis wrote in the allegory “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe,” Aslan is not a tame lion. God is not our pet, who we can train to do tricks and bribe with treats. God is not subservient to us. Yes, God loves us. Yes, God helps us. But God never promises to make our lives easy, comfortable, fun, or opulent. In fact, if you read the Scriptures, you will find exactly the opposite.

In this life, God doesn’t give everything to us; God asks everything of us.
God sends us to the most uncomfortable, difficult, unpleasant, stark places to be Jesus’ hands and feet to the most desperate and unlovable. Sometimes the desperate and unlovable are rich, powerful, or self-sufficient; sometimes they are poor, oppressed, addicted, or proud. Sometimes, they are our own family – a child with a disability or a mental illness, a selfish spouse, a brutal or negligent parent.

God promises to help us in the storms, but God never promises to change the circumstances either inside or outside.

Post by Joy Bennett; original photo by midorisyu, used under Creative Commons license.

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21 Responses to What God Doesn’t Promise–Calming the Storms

  1. J.R. Goudeau says:

    It’s interesting how sneaky this theology can be. My pet peeve is the phrase “it’s a God thing.” It didn’t rain on my wedding day–it was a God thing. We got a phone call that we came into money–it’s a God thing. We just prayed and we knew it would work out–it’s a God thing. The problem for me is that the good things are praised as if they are from God with no sense of the reverse–that if everything isn’t going your way, if you’re not getting the job or you’re not being healed or the storm isn’t letting up, that it’s not because you don’t have faith or God isn’t present. I believe he storm and the pain and the suffering are also “God things.”

    And there’s also the other side, the way it makes us talk about poverty. If we are blessed financially because of our faith, what does that say about the poor? I go off on this subject frequently; the worldview we’ve fallen into as Christians who pray the prayer of Jabez or ask God for parking spaces really impacts the way we see the poor. Thanks for this post and this series–we need to hit this head on.

  2. How many ways can I love this besides being a big fan of Joy continuing to tell her story with passion? I got a little twitchy with the bring the poor kids in to give them the gospel. Reeked of hierarchy more than love. I’ve always rested in the peace that passes understanding b/c it’s just that….incomprehensible. The circumstances can be a raging storm and still God meets us there. And, sometimes that storm has incredible beauty at the same time. As a mom of a child with a disability, that’s how I see it.

    Thanks for sharing this. Must go wonder through the rest of the prosperity posts now.

  3. I’ve always disliked that “every head bowed every eye closed” thing too. The church I went to that did it, I only attended for a couple of years, but I would sometimes sneak a peak. This says it perfectly: “And because if you are going to follow Jesus, you ought to be willing to do it in front of others.”

    I have really never understood the whole follow Jesus and life is perfect thing, because that is clearly not in the Bible. Maybe they have a different version than mine.

    One thing that this made me think of was a novel I read this summer after meeting the author. It’s about a woman with mental illness, and there was a scene in which she said she’d prayed for God to take it away, and, she explained, “he said no”. I think the title is “The Moment Between”.

  4. sethhaines says:

    I have a confession here…

    This knocked the wind out of me a bit because, honestly, I’ve never really thought twice about that particular phrase. On reflection, though… right on.

    That’s the thing about the prosperity gospel. It creeps up on you, sneaks into your vocabulary. And it makes me wonder (tremble, really) more about Jesus calling the road narrow and saying that few will find it.

    • I wrestle and wrestle, because Jesus told his followers to do good in secret. But we aren’t to hide our allegiance to him. But the close-your-eyes thing is flat out manipulative. I hate it.

      • Donna says:

        I asked my pastor once why he said the ‘heads bowed, eyes closed’ thing, and he said he wasn’t really sure! I think it might be maybe about making sure people are giving their full attention… I told him that I mostly don’t do that, partly because when I pray my head goes up, rather than down, also because I want to see who’s hands go up so I can pray for them, and also because I LOVE watching people pray the salvation prayer. There’s something about that moment, like watching people say their vows when they get married. It’s just words, but those words change everything about your future.
        He didn’t seem too peturbed with my statement – I think he knew I’m a bit of a rebel too. Lol!

  5. Katie says:

    Not to mention, wasn’t the whole point of Jesus calming the storm that the disciples *lacked* faith? That they didn’t trust God to take care of them despite the raging waves? That they didn’t trust Him to be with them in the storm but only saw His presence in the calm? I always read Jesus as a little frustrated in that story: “Ugh, you *whiners,* have you not listened to *anything* I’ve ever said to you? I was sleeping, guys, c’mon.”

    But maybe that’s just me. What a crock the prosperity gospel is. Other denominations don’t get into it as strongly as it seems Baptists and the like do, but it creeps in (especially in those good ol’ stewardship sermons) and it’s annoying at best and dangerous at worst. >:-(

    • sethhaines says:

      I wonder about this, too. What was the point? Was it a masterful allegory meant to be used in sermons to bring comfort to parishioners 2,000 years later? Or was it simply to demonstrate the absolute power, control, and sovereignty of Christ? To link him to the creator of all things?

      • Katie says:

        Or are we overthinking things? Sometimes, did He just do stuff because He did, because He was living life and that’s what you do? Maybe He was just tired and it was stormy and so He hushed everything up so He could go back to sleep, and the disciples were all, “That was AWESOME” and wrote it down and now everyone’s still talking about it 2,000 years later.

        I think most of the exigesis on the story that I’ve heard uses it to link Him to the creator-ness of God (I and the Father are one–allow me to demonstrate by telling this storm to hush up). But I mean. Just because He *can* control everything doesn’t mean He *will*. He could have avoided the cross, but He didn’t. He could do all sorts of things, and He doesn’t, and sometimes the why becomes clear in hindsight (you have to die to rise again), and sometimes it doesn’t and that’s what faith is, trusting in the endgame when you can’t even always figure out the rules.

    • Lori says:

      GREAT point Katie. Awesome. 🙂

    • I don’t know the answer to this question, either. I just know that it isn’t a promise for us today. Plenty of storms go uncalmed. All of them, in fact.

  6. This is balm to the soul, Joy. Grateful for voices like yours, that infuse this issue with hard-won hard truth, and point us back to the actual promises of God. Thank you.

  7. I’ve seen the lies of the prosperity gospel wreck so many lives. People just give up and walk away because they obviously can’t be good enough or have enough faith to earn God’s blessings. I was raised under this doctrine and it is crazy how it became so ingrained into my personality. I couldn’t say I was sick, couldn’t admit I was afraid, and the reason that certain things didn’t go right was because I had obviously sinned. I wore that mask so much that I forgot the hell I was living in. It makes me so sad to see my friends and family, people I love, to live in constant fear of not having enough faith or speaking to negatively. Thank you for your voice, Joy. This is good stuff.

  8. Tanya Marlow says:

    Preach it, lady. I’m adding a giant amen.

  9. Pingback: What God Doesn’t Promise–The Cloud | Seth Haines

  10. Pingback: What God Promises–Presence | Seth Haines

  11. Jonathan Wheeler says:

    I love this site. God’s people humble you so deeply when you see them going about his business. Speaking the truth is loving people. And the ones who pray for the ones who hurt are so homely and down to earth as they work at joining hearts with heaven.
    Maybe faith tells our hearts when we can and when we can’t do something. There’s a time for everything – to ask for a miracle and see it come, or to refrain from asking. How poor we would be if we never saw our father do some really amazing stuff for us after we lay our requests before him. And how spoilt we would be if we never had to work through some tough experiences with only Christ for our comfort. Both things teach us He is absolutely wonderful!

    God bless you all, and thank you,
    Jonathan

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