I came across a tweet by @pillsandpebbles tweet last week that hit me in a weird spot.

It’s the second one that got me. Because I couldn’t figure out how to cut the first one out, it’s a two-fer-one.

There is this unspoken belief that flutters around the South. From what I gather, it’s present around the United States, but it’s rampant in the South. It doesn’t flutter, exactly; it’s no butterfly. Instead, more like a root, it twists and turns and digs deeply into the soil of society. Not visible as itself, but rather feeding actions that rise and bloom above the surface.

That belief is that bad things happen to bad people. 

I don’t think it’s ever posed quite like that; that would be too simple.

But it’s there, ever-present. I think it’s the other side of the coin of what I call New Christianity, a twisting of Christ’s principles, intertwined with the ideology of the Prosperity Gospel.

The Gospel Coalition quotes Stephen Hunt in describing Prosperity Theology as this:

In the forefront is the doctrine of the assurance of “divine” physical health and prosperity through faith. In short, this means that “health and wealth” are the automatic divine right of all Bible-believing Christians and may be procreated by faith as part of the package of salvation, since the Atonement of Christ includes not just the removal of sin, but also the removal of sickness and poverty.

This concept that poverty and poor health are neighbors of sin comes from Prosperity teachings and treats God as a magic genie in the clouds, prepared to grant wishes if you’re just faithful enough. I think this idea is a poison that has inundated our political system, punishing the poor and the disabled, but that’s a rant for another day.

Matthew 7:7-8 say this:

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.

There are many examples of Jesus telling others some version of “Thy faith has made thee whole.” So there’s this thought system that explicitly states that if you ask for it (whatever it is) as one of the faithful, it will be given to you. I get that, as a tenet of faith.

But I also know that not all prayers are answered according to our wishes. My beloved uncle passed away, and I assure you, it wasn’t due to lack of faith OR prayers.  People pass away: children, spouses, friends. Pets. Horrible things in the world continue to happen despite our prayers.

Even Garth Brooks had a song about it, “Unanswered Prayers”:

Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers
Remember when you’re talkin’ to the man upstairs
That just because he doesn’t answer doesn’t mean he don’t care
Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers

But that’s not Prosperity thinking.  If you ask, it is given. It’s that magic genie thing again.

But then there’s the other side of the coin. As Dr. Yamaguchi in Tom Robbins’s Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas says, “A big front has a big back.”

If you ask as one of faith you receive, then the assumption is that the converse is also true. If you have bad health or are among the impoverished, then one of the following must be true:

1)You didn’t ask, and so therefore do not deserve better conditions.

2)Your faith isn’t strong enough, and therefore do not deserve better conditions.

Either way, you deserve what you get.

And that’s something I’m just not down with.  

Rather than an issue of deserving, perhaps it’s an issue of perception.  After all, while I am the center of my universe, I am not the center of God’s. If there is a God, I imagine him to be a big picture sort of guy, one who sees the entirety of humanity and beyond, and while my healing may just fit into his bigger plan, it’s just as likely that it may not. If God is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent, I, being a mortal human, lack the faculties to understand–even if I did know–what that big plan is.

But there are some folks who feel that your lack of “health and wealth” stem from your lack of faith, your lack of righteousness, and therefore, you deserve what you get.

Bad things happen to bad people. 

And it’s sneaky, the way the self-labeled faithful present this idea.

  • In the “bootstrap” mentality: “If people would just pull themselves up by their bootstraps, they wouldn’t be such a drain on the system.”
  • “God helps them who helps themselves.”
  • “If you would just eat better, you’d be healthy. I eat only salad, do yoga, and use this supplement that you can buy for me for $79, you’d be healthy. I never have migraines, never have pain, never have delusions of grandeur.”
  • “If you would just focus on the positive, you’d feel better.”

The implication is that, if you don’t do whatever they’re suggesting, you’re just not trying hard enough, you’re lazy or abusive of your body. Your faith just isn’t strong enough.

In short, it’s your fault.

Now, I do know that living a healthy lifestyle leads to better overall health, that focusing on the positive does shift perception. I also know that no amount of kale is going to cure Rheumatoid Disease or any of the other myriad of chronic illnesses. I know, too, that focusing only on the positive is denying the reality of our condition.  Yes, I can spin my six-on-the-pain scale by saying it’s much better than my ten-and-then-some when I was screaming my head off, but my reality is that I’m still at a six. 

Those who say comments like “If you would just…” seem to forget that not everyone is in the same place. Whether it’s genetic, otherwise biological, or whatever, everyone is not in the same starting point.

If health were a race, there are those of us who start far, far behind the “starting line” of those who seem to think that yoga or this brand new Dr. Oz product or stronger faith would cure of us of whatever condition we may have.

And this I take issue with. A lot of issue with. 

American society tends to blame the victim, regardless the circumstances. Rape. Robbery. Even disasters. She should have dressed differently, he should have had a gun, they should have been better prepared.

In my experience, chronic conditions are treated no differently by those who have never experienced our lives.  As if we should have dressed differently, protected ourselves differently, prepared ourselves differently.

As if it’s our fault.

I’ve found that people that feel that way tend not to question their beliefs. They never question that perhaps their concept of God’s omniscience is a little off. They never admit that that they aren’t–just maybe–privy to God’s grand plan. Because they’re so awesome that they know the mind of God or something.

If you examine your belief system, really, really examine your belief system, break it open and study it piece by piece, down to its very marrow, you may just realize that, yes, you may believe a little too strongly little too strongly that those who do not share your health and wealth is getting what they “deserve” in terms of health and wealth.

It takes courage to examine your belief system, and not just the “stiff upper lip” kind of courage.

But the awesome thing is that you can see how those beliefs affect your life, see their sources, and, if they no longer ring true after dissection, you can change those beliefs. It’s just like changing a shirt that’s no longer fashionable.

Or it might be. I don’t know shit about fashion.

But you can lessen your judgment, increase your compassion. You may even feel led to kindness.

You may find that you didn’t really believe that people deserved what they were getting, but you did think that they weren’t trying hard enough. You may find that you were truly, truly trying to be helpful.

Just know that you’re not being helpful. If you wish to be helpful, suggest less and listen more. It’s that simple.

But this belief that people “deserve” their conditions because they aren’t trying hard enough, they aren’t measuring up to some arbitrary standard is absolutely harmful. It’s not compassionate.  It’s not kind. It’s not science-based.

It’s not even particularly Christian.

Patients with chronic diseases already have a struggle that is deeper than you, someone without such conditions, could ever imagine. Those struggles affect every aspect of their lives. Every. Single. Aspect. 

Including–sometimes–questions and doubts regarding identity, limitations, and blame.

We don’t need other people adding to those doubts.  We don’t need people who preach through their actions or snide little comments that we’re not trying hard enough; we’re not conquering the obstacle, living the struggle enough, that we’re not practicing a faith enough, their faith enough.

That we–and our best–isn’t enough. 

We need friends and allies, not preachers and judges. We need those who don’t worry about understanding the reasons or specifics of our struggle, but rather recognize that we are in fact struggling. We need those who are willing to step up and to see us, to really see us, to offer assistance when they can—even if we don’t accept their offer—and support when they cannot. We need those who don’t take our conditions or the side-effects of our conditions personally,  as if we personally created the condition to make their lives more inconvenient.  From our no-shows and our isolation to our dependence and our neediness, we need support. 

To be a friend in time of trouble, to make the world a better place, one must step down from a pedestal and step up in their lives.

[Image Credit: Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash

Lyrics credit: “Unanswered Prayers,” originally appearing on the album No Fences by Garth Brooks, 1990. Written by Garth Brooks, Pat Alger, and Larry Bastian.]

The Myth of Mitigating Suffering by Assigning Blame

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