I sat in my husband’s recliner reading a popular book for Christian women I had heard a lot about. Its message was one of grace and not expecting perfection from ourselves or others. But one of her illustrations caused me to put it down and not read another page.
She was pregnant and had gotten news that her baby would have complications. She wept and prayed and begged God for healing. When the baby was born, he didn’t have any issues. In fact, she wrote, “[He] has been a perfectly healthy...little boy his entire life.” (Of course, at the time of writing the book, he hadn’t yet started school, so his entire life hadn’t been that long.) She asked herself why her son didn’t have any issues and concluded that she had learned the lessons God had for her to learn during her pregnancy, so she had a healthy son.
What message did I read in her words that caused me to stop? As the younger sister of someone with Down syndrome and the mom of an autistic son, I must not have learned the lessons God wanted me to learn as quickly as she did, and therefore I didn’t get the reward she received.
This idea of rewards and punishments isn’t the gospel—it’s the prosperity gospel. And as a special-needs parent, I have found myself especially vulnerable to its influence in my life.
When my son James was diagnosed in 2010, I wondered what I had done wrong. I had tried to be faithful to God my entire life. I was a leader in my youth group, had led Bible studies in college, went to seminary, and married a pastor. My vision for my life was to sit on the front row each Sunday with my perfectly-behaved boys sitting next to me, listening to their daddy and thanking God for all his gifts in our life. But God’s greatest gifts turned out to be a life that exposed the prosperity gospel beliefs I had unintentionally held on to and the ability to see his purpose for me more clearly.
In their book, Health, Wealth, and Happiness: How the Prosperity Gospel Overshadows the Gospel of Christ, David W. Jones and Russell S. Woodbridge point out, “It is clear that the Prosperity Gospel places great emphasis on the avoidance of personal suffering, whether physical or mental” (pg. 70). The American dream also places great emphasis on avoiding personal suffering. The wealthiest, prettiest, and most successful people are seen as the most blessed by most of us. But Scripture shows us a different way.
Those listed in Hebrews 11 who lived by faith lived lives of suffering. Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, David, and the prophets all suffered. Their lives point us to Christ—a man of sorrow (see Isa 53). He was tempted with an easier life: with health, wealth, and happiness (Matt 4:1-11). But with each temptation from Satan, he remained steadfast, willing to accept the suffering then and to come. He is our example.
Jesus also taught us that disabilities aren’t punishments. In John 9 we read how the disciples reacted when coming face to face with what they perceived as suffering: “’Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.’” There was no sin in his birth or life that caused his condition. It was the will of God for the purposes of God. And when seen rightly, it was a gift from God, not a punishment. The real tragedy in this man’s life was not that he couldn’t see, but that others (including the disciples) couldn’t see his value.
My sister and son are not punishments from God. Your typical, healthy children are not rewards from God.
James 1:17 teaches, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights...” When I see autism, Down syndrome, and even my own chronic pain and dyslexia as good and perfect gifts instead of punishments, I am free from the dangerous prosperity gospel message and can walk in God’s grace and purpose for me and my family.
Sandra Peoples is the author of Unexpected Blessings: The Joys and Possibilities of Life in a Special-Needs Family. You can connect with her at sandrapeoples.com