Prosperity, Health, Suffering, and Sickness: Some Contemporary Charismatic Lessons from the Fourth Century

I am a firm believer in teaching from classical theological texts. We have an amazing array of contemporary texts at our disposal, and some wonderful textbooks, but if we limit ourselves to those, we miss out on so much. Today, I’ve been working through one of Gregory of Nazianzus’ orations with my students at the university, and it’s thrilling to see what they pick up on from a fourth century text.

Oration 14 (On Love of the Poor) is a text I’d love to work through with Pentecostal/Charismatic pastors (or future pastors). It’s an incredibly easy to read and follow piece, even though it was written over 1600 years ago. But not only is it a comparatively “easy” ancient text, it’s also one that’s full of contemporary relevance, and particularly so in the charismatic world.

While there is so much to learn from Gregory’s knowledge and use of Scripture, his connection of worship, evangelism, and social action, his understanding of the Christian life, and the implications he draws from human beings being created in the nature of God (as well as how to speak in a godly way about giving!), I think the portion of Oration 14 that would perhaps be of most significance in the Pentecostal/Charismatic world is where Gregory starts to deal with objections to his argument in 14.29-34.

The chief objection basically boils down to people who think that wealth, health, or material comfort are signs of God’s blessing, and that sickness, suffering, and poverty are signs of Gods’ judgment. ‘They dare to say, “the suffering of these people is God’s work, just as prosperity is God’s work in us. Who am I, then, to countermand the judgment of God?”’ (14.29).

The thing is, this objection to Gregory’s argument is essentially the prosperity “gospel” that has taken such a strong hold on many sections of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements today. Prosperity teachers argue that health, material prosperity, and comfort are signs of God’s blessing, whilst sickness, suffering, and poverty are not supposed to be the portion of the people of God. Nonsense!, says Gregory. As long as we live in this post-Fall world of disorder, we simply cannot tell:

‘Who can tell if one person is being punished for his vices while another is being exalted as a gesture of praise? Could it not be just the opposite: the one is exalted because of wickedness, the other put to the test because of virtue? The one is being raised higher, in order to fall more grievously, allowing all his own viciousness to break out, that he might be all the more justly punished. The other, contrary to our expectations, is oppressed, so that, being tried like gold in a furnace, he might allow to melt away even whatever little vice remains.’ (Or. 14.30)

Gregory isn’t saying suffering is necessarily a sign of blessedness. He’s saying we simply can’t use these things as ways to tell in this fallen world. God is using everything in our lives, whether things that seem good or things that we don’t expect to be sources of blessing, ‘to achieve the purpose of his creation’ (14.31). We cannot find God’s wisdom in turning to easy answers (14.32).

Once we understand this, then we realise that we should ‘not admire every form of health or reject all illness,’ nor should we let ‘our hearts become attached to the wealth that passes away’ (14.34). Health and prosperity can easily lead to sin. Yet, it is possible for sickness and suffering to be holy. So, we should ‘admire those who are victorious through their suffering’ (14.34).

In God’s economy, health, wealth, and material prosperity do not necessarily equate to godliness or blessing. They can just as easily be forms of testing or judgment, or can be things which lead us into sin. On the other hand, sickness, poverty, and suffering do not necessarily equate to a lack of faith, or to God’s judgment. They can just as easily be occasions for blessing and growth in grace. We must not make easy (and simplistic) assumptions.

All of us, even if we are rich, should recognise that we are poor and needy (14.1; 14.37). All of us, even if we are in the best of health, must recognise that we are incurable (14.37). And in that way we must all come to Jesus, the Healer who has compassion on the poor and needy. In that way, we can never think that we are better or more blessed because of our health or material prosperity, but rather we will always see that we are in just the same condition as those who are materially or physically less fortunate than ourselves. And so, rather than supposing others are under God’s judgment or lacking in sufficient faith, we will have godly compassion and share with them in their need.

Anyway, Gregory explains all this much better than me, so, if you get a chance, read what he has to say!

NB Working through classical theological texts isn’t only for theological students or formal training. I’ve worked through Athanasius’ On the Incarnation and the Heidelberg Catechism many times very profitably in discipleship settings with young people. Some of Luther’s texts work really well in that way too (like A Simple Way to Pray, What to Look for in the Gospels, or On the Freedom of a Christian).