Toxic positivity

“When God closes a door, he opens a window.”


At least that’s one of the things that people would say to Kate Bowler, the national expert on the history of the prosperity gospel.

But would you say that to someone with Stage IV colon cancer?

In her book, No Cure for Being Human and Other Truths I Need to Hear, Kate tells of recovering in the hospital from surgery to remove as much cancer as possible from her insides. After several days, she got up the strength to wheel her IV into the hospital gift shop.

She began pulling books off the shelf and dumping them on the floor. Dozens of them. 

The manager asked, “May I help you, ma’am?”

“Yes,” Kate said. “I need you to know that these books are not suitable to be sold in a hospital,” pointing to the pile of Christian best-sellers she’d made on the floor.

Every book was one that Kate had poured over during her ten-year study of the prosperity gospel. She’d interviewed their celebrity authors.

Kate pointed to Your Best Life Now.

“He’s writing about the prosperity gospel,” Kate said. “He’s saying that God will reward you with money and health if you have the right kind of faith.”

“You can’t sell this in a hospital. You can’t sell this to me,” she said, pointing to her hospital gown and IV.

Kate pointed to one book after another. “This book tells me to claim my healing using Bible verses. This one tells me that if I can unleash my positive thoughts, I can get rid of negativity in my life.”

In an interview for CNN, Kate said, “Our minds are powerful, but forcing our minds to conjure up optimism is not always healthy. American culture got hooked on the idea that everything is possible for those who believe. But the casualty is honesty. We overemphasize our own abilities and end up saddling ourselves with unnecessary shame and frustration. Life is hard enough without imagining that we are not simply suffering, but failing.”

The Apostle Paul, the first great Christian missionary and author of the letters that make up much of the New Testament, constantly faced closed doors as he travelled the Mediterranean world. His faith led him to be beaten, stoned, and more. Paul never claimed he was living his best life.

But he knew Jesus was with him in his journeys.

He knew Jesus would be waiting when his journeys were through.

Everything happens for a reason…right?

At age 35, Kate Bowler was living her best life.

She’d just gotten her dream job as a professor at her alma mater, Duke Divinity School. She had a new baby and a loving husband who happened to be her childhood sweetheart.

That’s when she was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer.  

What made Kate different from every other person who receives a devastating diagnosis is that Kate had spent years researching the history of the Prosperity Gospel for her PhD dissertation. The Prosperity Gospel is a way of understanding the Christian faith that says God wants to shower you with blessings—health, wealth, happiness—all you have to do is claim them. The Prosperity Gospel appeals to our need to make sense of the hurts and failures of life. It also fits perfectly with the American dream that says anything is possible.

In her book, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, Kate tells of her struggle to live despite a terminal diagnosis. I’m reading parts for the third time now, and I’m still crying one minute and laughing out loud the next.

If you ever struggled to know what to say to a sick or dying person, you need to read this.

If you’re struggling to come to grips with your own diagnosis, you need to read this.

But even better, we all need to read this.

The whole country should take a day off and read it together.

It just might lead to a Great National Reset, where we collectively reflect on why we are so angry with each other when the truth is every one of us has a terminal diagnosis. It’s just that some of us haven’t got the word yet. We need a person of faith like Kate who is humble, irreverent, and funny to remind us that…

Faith is still possible.

Love is real.

And life is still worth living.

No cure for being human

That’s the title of the short book I just read by Kate Bowler, PhD, a Canadian author and Professor of Christian History at Duke Divinity School. Bowler’s area of study is the “prosperity gospel,” the American idea that God rewards you with health and wealth if you have the right kind of faith.

Bowler was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer at age 35.

The irony of a believer, seminary professor, and national expert on the prosperity gospel getting a terminal diagnosis was not lost on her.

If you struggle with a serious diagnosis, for yourself or a loved one; if you think “everything happens for a reason;” or if you wonder what to say to someone who’s hurting, you should read this book.

Bowler doesn’t give a list of answers.

Rather, she chronicles the things that friends, acquaintances, doctors, technicians, and even strangers said to her while she was trying to come to grips with her own finitude. But Bowler is a person of faith. She doesn’t struggle as a person who’s devoid of hope.

A long time ago, Jesus was faced with his own finitude. It was hours until his arrest. In less than a day he’d be dead. Jesus knows how hard life can be. In dark moments, it’s helpful if we can remember that he didn’t give us platitudes.

In giving his life he gave us a future.

Kate Bowler told of going to an Easter sunrise service led by her pastor friend Richard who had his own terminal diagnosis. Seeing Kate sitting on a folding chair on the lawn, he looked at her and grinned. Kate said, “I broke all decorum and waved.”

As Richard opened his mouth to preach, he paused for a breath, and glanced back toward the sun coming up through the trees. “His mouth twisted in a look of wry astonishment, as if surprised to see the sunrise once again.”