Prior to Jesus’ coming, the Jewish people expected an earthly king who would bring them freedom and prosperity. "When the people saw the sign which he had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!’ Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself" (Jn 6:14-15).
The Catechism explains, "Jesus accepted his rightful title of Messiah, though with some reserve because it was understood by some of his contemporaries in too human a sense, as essentially political" (CCC 439).
Jesus did offer redemption to his followers—but not in the way they expected. Those who hold the Jewish faith today still fail to recognize their promised messiah, holding out for someone more focused on this world. Unfortunately, many Christians today also fail to understand Jesus
Assurances of Abundance?
Recently, a caller to Catholic Answers Live asked me whether Jesus promised a comfortable, prosperous life to every faithful follower when he said, "Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?" (Mt 6:26). Properly understood, this verse metaphorically concerns God’s provision in things eternal, not temporal. But the caller embraced a more literal interpretation, wondering how poverty could exist among Christ’s followers.
If this thinking exists among some Catholics today, it is even more prevalent among non-Catholic Christians.
Popular Houston pastor Joel Osteen, who preaches to millions on television each week, states on his Web site (joelosteen.com), "as children of God, we are overcomers and more than conquerors and God intends for each of us to experience the abundant life he has in store for us." Osteen believes this abundance is promised to us in this life. Similarly, televangelist Benny Hinn’s Web site (bennyhinn.org) promises that "Deliverance from sickness is provided for in the atonement and is the privilege of all believers." Many other televangelists preach comparable messages. But it doesn’t stop there.
Bruce Wilkinson’s best-selling book The Prayer of Jabez begins with this statement: "The little book you’re holding is about what happens when ordinary Christians decide to reach for an extraordinary life—which, as it turns out, is exactly the kind God promises" (9). Wilkinson develops his argument for prosperous life on earth based on this single verse from the Old Testament: "Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, ‘Oh that thou wouldst bless me and enlarge my border, and that thy hand might be with me, and that thou wouldst keep me from harm so that it might not hurt me!’ And God granted what he asked" (1 Chr 4:10).
Countless of these so-called "health and wealth Gospel" preachers assure their followers that God will pamper them if they will simply ask and trust in God to do it. Scripture verses commonly offered as proof-texts for such promises include:
- [W]ith his stripes we are healed. (Is 53:5)
- He took our infirmities and bore our diseases. (Mt 8:17)
- I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (Jn 10:10)
- You do not have, because you do not ask. (Jas 4:2)
- Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in health. (3 Jn 2)
These passages are isolated from their context and then taught as promises of earthly health and wealth for Christians. But is this what Jesus promised? Should his disciples really expect carefree lives of leisure?
Not in This Lifetime
A good way to start answering these questions is to take a look at Jesus’ own life as well as the lives of his earliest followers. When we do, it becomes clear that they did not live such pampered lives themselves.
- Jesus said, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head" (Mt 8:20).
- Peter said, "I have no silver and gold" (Acts 3:6).
- Paul wrote, "To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are ill-clad and buffeted and homeless" (1 Cor 4:11).And "if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content" (1 Tm 6:8).
These hardly sound like wealthy individuals! And consider that Paul wrote to the Galatians, "it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first" (Gal 4:13), and to Timothy, "use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments" (1 Tm 5:23). Do these sound like men who enjoyed perfect health?
In fact, Scripture paints a very different picture about what Christians should expect. Rather than prosperous earthly lives such as that which the first-century Jews were expecting from the Messiah, Jesus’ promises are for the eternal lives that "no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, [which] God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Cor 2:9).
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven . . . do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? (Mt 6:19-20; 25)
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides for ever. (1 Jn 2:15-17)
And Paul taught similarly,
There is great gain in godliness with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world . . . those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils. . . (1 Tm 6:6-10)
Clearly, Christians should not expect the treasures of unfailing health and fabulous wealth in this life. That is not to say that a faithful Christian cannot be graced with such blessings—indeed, some are. But we should not expect it. Jesus did not promise such blessings in this life, and we are not owed them.
Glory in Suffering
When faced with difficulties, we may ask God to remove them from our lives, but we should never presume that he will. In fact, it is quite possible that he will allow us to continue to suffer so that good may come from it. St. Paul recognized this when he wrote of a difficulty he faced in his own life:
[A] thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor 12:7-10)
Paul saw opportunity in dealing with difficulties—opportunity to find strength in Christ and, therefore, to glorify him, leading to his own ultimate glory in the salvation Christ offers.
Other Bible passages convey this same idea:
- [H]e who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it. (Mt 10:38-39)
- [We are] fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Rom 8:17-18)
- For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake. (Phil 1:29)
- [F]or a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy. As the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls. (1 Pt 1:6-9)
This is true love of God, to suffer willingly for his sake. The most good ever accomplished in this world was accomplished through suffering—the suffering of God himself on the cross. Jesus said, "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (Jn 15:13)—and he did just that for us.
Treasure in Heaven
Through our own suffering we can show Jesus our love for him. We can fulfill the greatest commandment—"love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind" (Mt 22:37). Suffering provides us the opportunity to love God.
But the value of suffering can go even further; it can be an opportunity to love others as well—an opportunity to fulfill the second greatest commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Mt 22:39).
Paul wrote, "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church" (Col 1:24). Paul recognized that, through his own suffering, he was loving others—the body of Christ, the Church.
The Catechism explains it this way:
The cross is the unique sacrifice of Christ, the one mediator between God and men. But because in his incarnate divine person he has in some way united himself to every man, the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery is offered to all men. He calls his disciples to take up their cross and follow him, for Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example so that we should follow in his steps. In fact Jesus desires to associate with his redeeming sacrifice those who were to be its first beneficiaries. (CCC 618)
So, ultimately, suffering—whether it be in sickness, poverty, or other worldly trials—can be of much more value in this earthly life than perfect health, great wealth, or any other treasures this temporal world may offer. When viewed from this perspective, we see opportunities in the sufferings we face—opportunities to be more fully united with God.