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Comforting Lies About Suffering


How the Prosperity Gospel Hurts People

I’ve been told that suffering cannot be God’s will for me. I’ve been advised not even to speak about suffering. I’ve been promised unconditional healing and wholeness if I have enough faith.

These statements came from proponents of the prosperity gospel, people who were convinced I could avoid suffering. I remember telling a fellow believer about my post-polio diagnosis twenty years ago, explaining how eventually I could become a quadriplegic. As I related the various implications, the man interrupted me, saying, “You need to stop talking about this right now. Just speaking of this diagnosis is agreeing with Satan, which might bring it into being. Suffering is never part of God’s will. I know God just wants healing and wholeness for you.”

His words took me aback. While I’d heard the claims before, this conversation triggered a flood of painful memories: being told by a faith healer in a crowded auditorium that I didn’t have enough faith to be healed. Being prayed over by strangers, in places ranging from grocery stores to sporting events, who were convinced they could heal me. Telling a friend about my unborn son’s serious heart condition and being told simply to claim our baby’s healing.

All these people asserted that if we “agreed in prayer” and “bound Satan,” I would be healed, my baby would be healed, the pain would end. They said I needed to believe in faith, warning me never to speak of suffering, fear, or loss.

Even Apostles Misunderstand Suffering

The apostle Peter didn’t want Jesus to speak of his coming crucifixion either. When Jesus told the disciples about his future suffering, death, and resurrection on the third day, Peter rebuked him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). To Peter, it was inconceivable that Jesus would suffer and be killed. That couldn’t be part of God’s plan.

Perhaps Peter instinctively rebuked Jesus because Jesus’s words about his suffering and death went against Peter’s understanding of the kingdom of God. Just before, Jesus had told Peter that whatever Peter bound on earth would be bound in heaven, and whatever he loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven (Matthew 16:19). Maybe Peter thought he could override the predictions by speaking against them.

Whatever the reason for Peter’s outburst, Jesus responded with a stinging rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:23).

Jesus’s reaction applies to the false teaching of the prosperity gospel, a doctrine that asserts suffering has no place in the life of a Christian. Proponents of the prosperity gospel often claim that we need to bind suffering on earth and not even speak of it, because affliction can never be God’s will for those who know Christ. They choose isolated verses to undergird their position, stressing a right to perfect health, ignoring the Scriptures that highlight God’s goodness and sovereignty in and through our suffering.

Based on Jesus’s exchange with Peter, I see three ways the prosperity gospel gets suffering wrong.

1. ‘Suffering hinders faith.’

While Peter’s words may seem like a loving reaction, born out of care for Jesus, Jesus saw them as the work of Satan, distracting Jesus from his purpose. Jesus came to suffer and die, and Peter tried to dissuade him from what was God’s will. At the time, Peter didn’t know that Christ’s suffering would save not only Peter, but all who trust in Jesus.

Jesus’s suffering was filled with divine purpose, as is all our suffering. Later, Peter himself would recognize that God calls some people to suffer just as he called Christ (1 Peter 2:21), and that suffering can refine our faith and glorify God (1 Peter 1:6–7).

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pray for healing and relief when trouble comes. God tells us to bring him our requests (Philippians 4:6), to pray big prayers and expect big answers (James 5:16), to ask for whatever we want (John 15:7). We know God can bring healing simply by saying the word — he created the universe, calmed the sea, and raised the dead with just his voice. But his answer isn’t always “yes.” If God says “no” or “wait,” as he did to Job, Jesus, and Paul, we shouldn’t conclude that our faith is weak or that we’ve done something wrong.

We can take comfort in the fact that if God denies our earnest requests, he has his reasons — maybe ten thousand reasons — and one day we will rejoice in them. Some of God’s purposes in suffering are to produce endurance, character, and hope in us (Romans 5:3–5). Trials make us steadfast (James 1:3), deepen our reliance on God (2 Corinthians 1:8–9), and help us genuinely comfort others as God has comforted us (2 Corinthians 1:3–4). While we cannot know all that God is doing in our suffering, we can be sure that he works always for our good (Romans 8:28).

2. ‘God always wants comfort for us.’

Jesus’s prediction of his death didn’t make sense to Peter. Jesus had just praised him for recognizing that he was the Messiah (Matthew 16:16–17). Did Peter think that the Messiah would establish an earthly kingdom, a kingdom that Peter would be a vital part of?

Often our view of God’s kingdom is centered on what we want. We are consumed with our plans and our glory, which are grounded in this life. But the things of God center on God’s will and God’s glory, which are grounded in eternity. Like Peter, prosperity-gospel advocates often begin with a fervent faith and revelation from God, but their minds are so focused on worldly blessings that they end up working against God’s purposes. People who cannot accept that suffering and even death can be part of God’s plan have their minds set on the things of man.

How do we set our minds on the things of God? We start by recognizing that his ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8), and only the Spirit knows the deep things of God (1 Corinthians 2:11). We cannot guarantee people’s healing or offer assurances that we know God wills to end their suffering, if only they believe, but we can pray to the Lord on their behalf and trust him with the outcome.

3. ‘This life is all there is.’

Peter’s rebuke of Jesus disregarded the final part of his statement in Matthew 16:21: Jesus would not only die but rise again on the third day. It’s a stunning conclusion, one that outweighs the horror of Jesus’s initial words. Suffering would not have the last word, and death would not hold him. Jesus’s resurrection means a glorious ending to all our earthly pain.

Prosperity-gospel proponents often overlook the weight of glory that is coming in heaven, preferring to concentrate on this life alone. Suffering prepares us for that future glory, perhaps even magnifying our experience of it, and makes us long for heaven (2 Corinthians 4:17).

Eternity is so central to our faith that if heaven does not await us, if this life is all there is, if our hope in Christ is for this life alone, Paul says that “we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19). But if the prosperity-gospel claims are true — that following Jesus always means earthly prosperity — then even if Christ wasn’t raised from the dead, Christians shouldn’t be pitied at all. Heaven would be a bonus, but the material blessings of this life would be reward enough.

Lesson for Us All

Peter had to learn these lessons about suffering, and so do we. For the believer, suffering is not a curse, not an indication of weak faith or a lack of blessing, but rather an integral part of the Christian life. God may discipline us to awaken and refine us, but his discipline is a loving mercy. He uses suffering to shape us into the image of Christ, which the prosperity gospel, in its obsession with physical health and earthly wealth, overlooks.

Jesus suffered on our behalf, and if we follow in his footsteps, we shouldn’t be surprised by our own suffering. In fact, Jesus promised we would suffer, saying, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

So, if you are suffering, call out to God. Pray and read the Bible, even when it feels like he’s not listening. If you know others who are suffering, be there for them. Encourage them, pray with them, point them to God’s eternal purposes.

The true gospel doesn’t promise a life free from suffering, but a God who is with us in our suffering, a God who redeems and transforms our griefs and prepares us for eternity. So, set your mind on the things of God, remembering that your ultimate reward is not here on earth, but stored up in heaven, where there will be no more suffering, no more tears, and no more pain.


 is the author of Desperate for Hope, a 7-week study on suffering. Vaneetha and her husband Joel live in Raleigh, NC, where she writes at her website, encouraging readers to turn to Christ in their pain.


When Sharp Disagreements Separate:


Lessons for Churches in Conflict

Luke describes the rift that opened between Paul and Barnabas over John Mark in his typical understated way: “There arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other” (Acts 15:39). No elaboration, no circling back later in Acts to tell us how this story ended. We just watch Barnabas sail off to Cyprus with John Mark while Paul and Silas head to Syria and Cilicia.

Really? Paul and Barnabas? Friends whose names go together like David and Jonathan, or like Peter and John? These brothers who had spent a year together teaching the new Gentile converts in Antioch, and then risked life and limb together for the gospel on that first missionary journey? These colleagues who became the first missionary team at the special direction of the Holy Spirit himself (Acts 13:2)? And they couldn’t reconcile a disagreement over John Mark?

We can be left wondering, If Paul and Barnabas couldn’t stay together, what hope do we have when difficult and painful disagreements arise in our churches and between leaders we love and trust? These are times that try Christians’ souls. What are we left to think?

In a careful look at the story, we can see that the God of hope wants to fill us with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit we may abound in hope, even when sharp disagreements separate godly people (Romans 15:13).

Who Was Right?

Here we have two of the most trusted apostolic leaders in the early church, at an impasse over whether John Mark should join them on their second missionary tour, considering how he’d left them during their first (Acts 15:37–38). We’re not told why Mark left, only that Paul was convinced Mark wasn’t ready to give it another go, and that Barnabas was equally convinced he was.

Which apostle was right? Based on Luke’s sparse description, we aren’t sure. But since Scripture gives us a good sense for the quality of men that Barnabas and Paul were, we can consider how each man might have viewed the disagreement.

Barnabas: Gracious, Discerning Mentor

Barnabas’s name speaks volumes about him. His actual name was Joseph, but the apostles had dubbed him “Barnabas” (son of encouragement) because he was so gracious and encouraging (Acts 4:36). He seems to have had an extraordinary ability to discern the true spiritual quality in a person that others might not perceive. Arguably, the best example of this manifested in his discernment of Paul’s true spiritual quality.

Soon after Paul’s conversion, when most Christians were still terrified of him, who was willing to take the risk and advocate for Paul with the apostles? Barnabas (Acts 9:27). And when Gentiles started coming to Christ in Antioch, who did the apostles trust enough to go and assess the genuineness of their conversions? Barnabas (Acts 11:22). And when Barnabas discerned the Antioch revival was the Holy Spirit’s doing, who did he discern would be best at helping these new Gentile Christians understand the gospel? Paul, the former zealous, gospel-hating Pharisee (Acts 11:25–26). Given his track record, one would think Barnabas had earned the right to be trusted regarding his assessment of John Mark.

Paul: Experienced, Discerning Frontier Missionary

We all know that Paul, the great “Apostle to the Gentiles,” became the most trusted theologian, ecclesiologist, and missiologist in the early church. The Holy Spirit chose to preserve more of his epistles regarding those fields than any other single writer’s in the New Testament. That’s some serious credibility capital. And the content of his instruction and counsel wasn’t the result of quiet academic research and reflection, but of incredibly rigorous firsthand experiences of doing frontier evangelism and church planting in violently hostile environments.

According to Luke’s account, John Mark had left the first missionary team before things really heated up in Pisidia, Iconium, and Lystra — where Paul seems to have suffered the most violent persecution of the team (Acts 13:13–14). So, when assembling a team for a second tour, knowing from experience the kinds of adversity and danger they were likely to face, Paul’s refusal to further jeopardize the team’s effectiveness, safety, and morale (by including a member who’d already shown himself unreliable) seems eminently wise. Given his track record, one would think Paul had earned the right to be trusted regarding his assessment of John Mark.

What Are We Supposed to Learn?

To me, both these men seem to deserve the benefit of the doubt. It’s easy to simply assume Paul, not Barnabas, must have been right, since the historical narrative of Acts follows Paul, not Barnabas. But that’s an assumption from silence. It does appear that Silas was a very good choice for Paul. But later in Paul’s life, we hear him describe Mark as a “very useful” ministry colleague (2 Timothy 4:11), which tells us something happened to change Paul’s assessment of him. From what we know about Barnabas, it’s altogether possible that Mark’s regaining of Paul’s confidence was, at least in part, the result of the time he spent under Barnabas’s influence.

So, what are we supposed to learn from this “sharp disagreement” if Scripture is silent on whether one or both were at fault or whether they ever reconciled? Did Paul and Barnabas sinfully fail to “[bear] with one another in love” and “eager[ly] maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2–3)? Or did they reach the righteous, God-glorifying conclusion that, given their situation, the wisest, most loving, unifying option for them was, paradoxically, to separate?

There is no definitive answer to these questions. In each case, we’d have to say, “It depends.” But Acts 15:36–41 will yield gold to those willing to dig for it. Here are five nuggets I’ve found.

1. When God seems silent, listen up.

The fact that God does not reveal to us if either or both apostles were right or wrong is one of the many biblical examples of God manifesting his wisdom through silence. I like to call God’s silence the “dark matter” of divine revelation. It’s never vacuous, but substantial. When he withholds details from us, he’s usually communicating something else. Think of the next four nuggets as examples.

2. The godliest of people can fail.

If this sharp disagreement involved some personal or leadership failure on the part of one or both men, which is possible, we shouldn’t be shocked. Neither was infallible and, like the rest of us, they “[stumbled] in many ways” (James 3:2). Just that possibility reminds us that the Bible doesn’t hide the weakness and failures of its godliest saints and that we and our leaders are weak and fail too.

3. Not all apparent failures are actual failures.

We need to have a category in our minds that it’s possible neither man was wrong. Perhaps Paul rightly discerned that John Mark wasn’t yet ready to participate in the trip Paul was about to take — and Barnabas rightly discerned that God wanted Mark to accompany him.

Perhaps Silas was ready to endure the dangers and rigors of Pauline ministry (Acts 9:16), while Mark was ready to train under Barnabas’s patient, encouraging leadership, contributing to his becoming “very useful” in Paul’s later ministry. That possibility can help guard us from jumping to conclusions when decisions look like failures to us. It may not be the case. Which is why Paul admonished Christians in 1 Corinthians 4:5 to “not pronounce judgment before the time.”

4. The foolishness of God is wiser than men.

If that was the case with Paul and Barnabas, couldn’t the Holy Spirit simply have made the truth clear to them in a way that prevented their sharp disagreement? The answer is yes. But how do we know if that would have yielded the most God-glorifying outcome? Isn’t it possible that God had ten thousand gospel-spreading and saint-sanctifying purposes in this event? We’re not privy to the millions of present and future, visible and invisible factors that go into God’s providential orchestrations of such things. Which is why Paul also admonished Christians in 1 Corinthians 1:25 that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

5. Get used to ‘unsearchable’ and ‘inscrutable.’

It’s good for us to remember that we’re all in our fallen conditions because of the tragic belief that we could, like God, manage the knowledge of good and evil ourselves. Therefore, when we encounter a providence that causes us pain and grief for reasons we don’t understand, we can, without sin, cry, “Why, O Lord?” (Psalm 10:1). But it is a sin to assume, in our grief, that “the Judge of all the earth” (Genesis 18:25) failed to do right just because his unfathomable knowledge and wisdom led him to make judgments we find unsearchable (Romans 11:33).

Pursue Faithful Disagreement

As a principle, the more distant we are from other Christians’ sharp disagreements, the less we know of the circumstances or details, the wiser we are to refrain from passing judgment on them.

But when it comes to sharp disagreements between Christian friends we know or within our own churches, let us take very seriously the counsel given us from one of the parties involved in the dispute over John Mark: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). No doubt, this counsel came from much hard-won experience.

Note the words “if possible.” These words carry the implication that, for all sorts of reasons, it’s not always possible for brothers and sisters to remain yoked together in ministry. But it is always possible to trust God’s sometimes mysterious, inscrutable purposes; to not pass judgment prematurely; to be quick to forgive others, “as God in Christ forgave [us]” (Ephesians 4:32); and to let love cover a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). For “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). Ministry partnerships sometimes must end, but “love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:8).

It’s inevitable that disagreements will arise between Christians. Our call is to pursue faithfulness in disagreement, with love always being our aim. Given that the separation between Paul and Barnabas is an anomaly in what the Holy Spirit preserved in Scripture for our instruction, I think it’s safe to assume that most disagreements ought to be reconciled without separation. But when separation occurs, we can glean a lot from the little we know of Paul and Barnabas’s parting.


 (@Bloom_Jon) serves as teacher and cofounder of Desiring God. He is the author of four books, including Not by Sight and most recently True to His Word. He and his wife have five children and make their home in the Twin Cities.

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