Everything Happens for a Reason:
And Other Lies I’ve Loved
by kate bowler
random house, 208 pages, $26
If the prosperity gospel is good at one thing, it is the magnification—not the mitigation—of pain and suffering. Promising to dispel tragedy and bring order to chaos, it reliably does the opposite.
The prosperity gospel—which declares that God’s grace is manifest in gold faucets, mink coats, private jets, or multimillion-dollar homes—has no answer for stage-four cancer, or the countless other agonies of earthly life. This is what author, historian, and self-described “incurable optimist” Kate Bowler discovered when, shortly after writing the first comprehensive history of the prosperity gospel, she was diagnosed with cancer.
Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved recounts Bowler’s journey in asking, “Is God good? Is God fair?,” and finding the answer in the soft eyes and tender touches of loved ones. She writes: “What if rich did not have to mean wealthy, and whole did not have to mean healed? What if being people of ‘the gospel’ meant that we are simply people with good news? God is here. We are loved. It is enough.”
This gospel—Jesus Christ’s gospel—is antithetical to the gospel Bowler chronicled in her first book, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. A curiosity-turned-dissertation, Blessed traces the roots of this movement through its origins in Pentecostal healing and New Thought mind-power to its modern manifestations, often termed “Health and Wealth” or “Name It and Claim It.”
Unlike prosperity theology, Everything Happens for a Reason doesn’t offer a theodicy. Rather, it tells the story of one woman—a scholar, mother, wife, and friend—in her quest “to be made shiny again” in a world where brokenness and sickness are so often equated with worthlessness.
Bowler’s poignant work, currently near the top of the New York Times Bestseller List, grew out of her 2016 New York Times article “Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me.” In both article and book, she describes growing up in Mennonite country, a community where “my” suffering becomes “our suffering.” She testifies again and again to how members of this society bear one another’s burdens—not in despair, but with abundant joy.
In a death-denying culture, communities in which people bring heaven to earth, giving hope in the present without losing hope for the future, are crucial. As Bowler shows, just as we were created to be dependent at the beginning and end of our lives, so we are created to be dependent—on others—throughout life, in both sickness and health.
Bowler herself brings a glimpse of heaven to earth. Her stirring meditation contains a joy that leaps off the page. Her words make the reader weep and laugh, empathize with her in her pain, and rejoice in her love of life. As she summarizes, “Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.”
But in the trials of life, some responses are better than others. Bowler describes three types of people—minimizers, teachers, and “solutions people”—with good intentions in a time where good intentions fall short. “Well, everything happens for a reason” is rarely a helpful response to human suffering. Unspeakable sorrow is better met with words such as, “You are a beautiful person,” or “Oh, my friend, that sounds so hard.” Or, even better: a hug and sympathetic silence.
A touching and feeling faith—not a gold-plated one—is what a suffering people needs. More than Bentleys and flashy jewelry, humans long for a hope to cling to. Where the prosperity gospel fails to touch and hold, the gospel of Jesus Christ gives a crucified savior whose pierced hands are offered to us through his body, the Church.
This side of glory, the Church is called to suffer with joy. Christians long for the day when tears, faulty limbs, cancer, and loss are no more. When Jesus comes again in all his radiance, the road to the throne of grace will be paved with gold. Yet this gold will glorify a Savior who fulfills every promise that prosperity cannot—to save his people from suffering, making whole bodies that once were decrepit and broken. In Everything Happens for a Reason, Bowler offers a vision of this coming glory. The hope and joy she has found amid pain testify to the goodness of this long-awaited promise.
Lauren Rae Konkol is on staff with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and is pursuing a masters degree from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.