There is a brand of evangelical Christianity that preaches a gospel of worldly success. It is sometimes referred to as the “health and wealth” gospel, promoting a “name it and claim it” theology. It seemed to reach a fever pitch a few years ago when the Prayer of Jabez suddenly rose to prominence from obscurity in Chapter 4 of 1 Chronicles.
The danger in emphasizing such a message is that is implies that poor health or poverty is the result of a lack of faith, and that true believers will be rewarded by God in this life. Jesus, however, never promised riches; he promised the cross and persecution. Paul did not boast of his stock portfolio, he boasted of his trials. Even when we consider the great modern witnesses of Christ – Mother Teresa of Calcutta or Pope John Paul the Great – we see examples not of reward in this life, but of loving union with the sufferings endured by Our Lord.
And yet, the name it and claim it crowd just might be on to something.
In the gospels, it seems as though those with the greatest faith are healed by Jesus with the least effort. Most of the miracles performed by Jesus include a physical sign that foreshadows the sacraments – the rubbing of mud onto the eyes of a blind man, for example. The Centurion’s servant, however, was cured without Jesus even needing to go to the house, based on the faith of the Centurion. The woman with the hemorrhage was healed because she believed that she would be, if only she touched the hem of Jesus’ robe.
In contrast, when Jesus returned to his home territory, the people did not believe, and there were no miracles.
In addition, Jesus tells parables that suggest that, if we ask persistently, God will answer are prayers – “Ask and you will receive. Knock and the door will be opened.”
That leaves us where we started. What about the poor and the afflicted? Are they poor and afflicted because they lack faith? My thought on the matter is breaking down along two parallel questions. First, is it appropriate to pray for relief? Second, if a prayer is unanswered, does it indicated a lack of faith in the pray-er?
Why wouldn’t somebody pray to be relieved from poverty or illness? We’ve come to see suffering in all its forms as bad, something to be avoided. Yet, we are told in the letter to the Hebrews that Christ himself learned obedience through what he suffered. We certainly are not greater than our master, so if suffering was good for him, why would it not be good for us? Our suffering can be redemptive, when it is joined to those of our Savior. And so the saints not only do not avoid suffering, they embrace it, because it strengthens their identification with Christ. Their example seems to indicate that true faith will not seek material prosperity.
And yet, such prayers can be offered selflessly. Building a hospital or an orphanage requires funding. It would be silly to think that a saint would not pray to God to provide the funds for such an endeavor. A young mother dying of cancer, should pray for healing not for her sake, but for that of her children. A business owner should pray for the success of his company, not so that his wealth will increase, but so that he will increase the greater good of the community by boosting the local economy.
So material blessings from God can and should be prayed for, but only for unselfish reasons. As St. John of the Cross taught, even prayer, if offered for selfish intentions, can be a source of sin.
What then, are we to conclude from prayers that seem to go unanswered? The short answer is: nothing. I know a man who has hemophilia. At one point, he was told by somebody whom I’m sure had good intentions that if he prayed with sufficient faith to be healed, then he would be. He prayed. As far as I know, he still has hemophilia. Does that mean that his faith is somehow defective? By no means! This man’s faith exceeds my own (perhaps my faith is more defective than his). Although he has hemophilia, he continues to live, to contribute to the greater good of the community, and to share the gospel. No less a person than St. Paul complained of a thorn in the flesh, which he prayed to God to remove. The thorn remained. Are we really to conclude that St. Paul lacked faith?
We know that God answers prayers. We cannot know, however, why he answers some and not others. He has his reasons; that should be enough for us.