By Caryn Rivadeneira, in Christianity Today, October 2014, pages 56-58 (edited). She is the author Broke: What Financial Desperation Revealed About God’s Abundance (InterVarsity Press). Visit her at:
It had been more than a year since I had seen her. We’d had our share of good conversations when our kids had attended Christian school together, but her frown moving toward me through the crowd left me looking for escape routes.
She arrived with hands held out to hold my shoulders as she looked me over, shaking that frown at me.
“We’ve missed you,” she said. “How horrible that you had to leave.”
I breathed. “It’s not horrible. Far from it.”
She grabbed my hand.
“No, really,” I said. “Public school is where God wanted us. It was hard to leave, but the school has been a blessing.”
She winked. “It’s good you can say that.”
“I’m not just saying that. I mean it.”
“I’m sure you do.”
And I did. We had left the school because we couldn’t pay the tuition. Years of facing under-employment, then unemployment, compounded by mounting medical debt, will do that. But I had sensed God calling us to our local public school for a long time.
Frowny Face obviously couldn’t believe that. Neither did the people who pitied us during our “terrible” season of being broke. Not with a quiet belief system that’s grown rather insidious among the faithful.
It’s a belief system implied every time a Christian told me to have faith, to keep our kids enrolled in the Christian school because God will provide. It’s a belief system that many Christians don’t name and claim outright but still subtly embrace. It’s the belief that God confirms our faithfulness by adding zeroes to pay stubs, by keeping us healthy, by giving us spouses and babies. That while God may allow the occasional step back or stumble, really he is all about upward and onward, bigger and better.
It’s a belief system that won’t entertain a God who doesn’t consider our comfort, that can’t imagine a heavenly Father who gave Solomon wisdom and wealth, but gave us patience and a brush with poverty. It’s a belief system that leaves little room for a God who might take away to enrich in ways that have nothing to do with health or wealth.
Most of us would say we do not agree with the prosperity gospel. Still, I believe it has wormed its way through time and place, from its Pentecostal roots to smiley megachurch preachers, even to the most conservative wings of evangelical faith. It crosses racial and socioeconomic boundaries and wraps snug around our hearts, holding us in a grip we don’t even want to shake off.
I certainly didn’t want to—not when Jehovah was providing gobs and gobs above our needs. Or, back in the days when I believed the solid stream of income was God blessing us, rewarding us for our faith and our giving. Certainly not the day my husband walked into our kitchen and put an envelope on the counter.
“Open it,” he said. Inside was a check from his business’s first quarter, for far more than we had made the entire year prior. I hugged him, and I expected nothing less. My husband is brilliant and hardworking, and we had dedicated the company to a God who blessed that kind of ingenuity. And so he did.
For a time. But after surviving harrowing financial desperation—when a nasty economy beat down that once-thriving business, followed by uninsured births and other medical expenses—I’m having a hard time believing that our years of prosperity, of having more money than we knew what to do with, of lavish vacations, of never thinking about grocery or heating costs, of sending kids off to schools with hefty price tags, were really blessings at all.
That is, if my new understanding of blessing is accurate.
Looking back at those “feast” years, I have to squint to see God in my life. He was there, of course, but I barely noticed him while dancing around the kitchen with the check in my hand.
Contrast that to the “famine” years—the ones when we never knew how we’d meet expenses, when we worried we’d lose our house. Or the most desperate day, when my husband told me we were done, broke, out of money, out of credit, the day I questioned the truth of Jesus’ words. What daily bread? What about asking and ye shall receive?… When I think about that day—those days—when I’d landed hard at the rock bottom of faith, when I’d landed in that pit of despair, it’s there: the memory of how those times glistened with God’s presence and goodness.
Before those days, I didn’t understand how Jesus could say the poor—in spirit and otherwise—were blessed. Or why it would be so hard for the rich to enter the kingdom. Not when I grew up and lived in a leafy suburb and attended a church where the poor were pitied and the rich were God-fearing. When I heard talk of being “blessed,” it was usually about good health or promotions. Fair enough, I suppose. It’s a very Old Testament understanding of a God who blessed people materially (see Abraham, Solomon, Job), as a friend reminded me.
“We were blessed to get upgraded to first-class,” one might say in my circles without fear of reproach. “Hawaii is such a long flight.”
Though the unexpected or just-in-time financial boons can speak to God’s provision of daily bread, the uninterrupted prosperity of summer homes and promotions and perfect health, of never having to ask or rely on God for anything, doesn’t often lead us closer to him. The easy and comfortable seasons don’t push us to our knees, seeking respite in his might and mercy. They don’t lift our hands in praise of his provision and wonder. Not like being in need, like being broke—in its various definitions—does or can.
Despair tries to crush us. But for those who follow Jesus, even the most spirit-draining moments can be blessed if we lean back into the hands of Hope. This is the stuff of the Psalms (see 142 and 143 for starters) and the assurances of Paul. After his time in prison, he wrote, “We despaired of life itself… But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God” (2 Cor. 1:8–9)…
Indeed. Because despair done right (laid out, cried out, given over to God) ushers us into God’s presence like nothing else. Having to depend on God, learning to keep our eyes peeled for him, and experiencing his presence, his sustenance—finding him good amid the bad—is a blessing.
But to experience this, we need to confess the chokehold that the prosperity gospel has on us. We need to replace it with a different gospel, a “despairity” gospel, if you will. It’s the same gospel David discovered in the miry pits, the one Paul unearthed in prison, the one I discovered those nights I thought I’d collapse from the weight of unpaid bills and creditors calling. It’s the one others have found while burying loved ones too soon, mourning dreams or opportunities, suffering through any dark night of the soul—only to make it through one night and be met in the morning with fresh mercies and the mysterious presence and sustenance of a good God.
While my family and I are not out of any financial woods, I’m grateful the worst seems to have passed, that we can now work to pay off debt and pay bills on time. But as we step farther away from the deepest, darkest moments of our desperation, I’m afraid I’ll lose touch with God.
So far, though, God has shown me I have nothing to fear. Even as we’ve “prospered” a bit financially, God hasn’t removed this thorn of desperation or the need to cry out for rescue… In the past few weeks alone, friends have prayed me through a financial freak-out when all I could do was shake a fist to the skies. God didn’t put out the financial fires, but he walked with us through them…
The blessing I have found is one that the gospel of upward and onward, carefree and comfortable, will never offer. It is a peace that prosperity cannot proclaim. And it is very good news for the desperate and broke.
Psalm 119:71 — It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.
Psalm 143:11 — For your name’s sake, Lord, preserve my life; in your righteousness, bring me out of trouble.
Luke 6:20 — Looking at his disciples, Jesus said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
2 Corinthians 1:8-9a — We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God…
Two things I ask of you, Lord;
do not refuse me before I die:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
Or, I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God.