My mom has a very useful phrase that, because she’s our mom, my siblings and I use to mock her mercilessly: “Gently but firmly.”

“Gently but firmly” works for closing the microwave door, breaking up with a bad boyfriend, and asking for a raise. It doesn’t work for everything — sometimes a person has to be more firm than gentle, or vice versa, but it works for a surprising number of situations. It works so well in Kate Bowler‘s new memoir, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. Bowler is an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School, a graduate of Yale Divinity School and Duke University, and the author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. She is also a wife, the mother of a young son, and a patient living with Stage IV colon cancer. In her memoir, she gently but firmly calls out the heresy of the prosperity gospel, especially as it relates to her life with cancer.

Bowler describes the prosperity gospel in this way:

The prosperity gospel has a very simple way of explaining why life as it is must be inherently just. As it is told, God established a set of principles that keep the world in order. Just as there are natural laws of gravity and thermodynamics, there are spiritual laws that steer the courses of lives and ensure that good things really do happen to good people.

She goes on to describe the “laws” that adherents of the prosperity gospel use to describe the world: the Law of Confession, the Law of Agreement, the Law of the Tithe, the Law of First Fruits, the Law of Seed Faith, and “an entire Laws of Life book series by the televangelist Mike Murdock.” She continues:

Spiritual laws offer an elegant solution to the problem of unfairness. They create a Newtonian universe in which the chaos of the world seems redouble to simple cause and effect. The stories of people’s lives can be plotted by whether or not they follow the rules. In this world there is no such thing as undeserved pain. There is no word for tragedy.

As Bowler recounts her own encounters with tragedy, she describes the limitations of the prosperity gospel when it is applied to human life. She gently but firmly counters the harmful narrative that her pain was somehow deserved, or that it happened to her because of some spiritual deficiency on her part. She had, by all accounts, “done everything right” to deserve a long, rich life, and she still has a terrible, terminal disease.

I’m not going to mince words: this book was terribly difficult to read, but also so compelling that I woke up in the middle of the night to read more of it. I didn’t want it to be over because Bowler’s writing drew me in, but I also knew that there wasn’t going to be a happy ending. It’s hard to read about death in someone who is about my age, in my stage of life. Mothers aren’t supposed to die when they’ve just started this wonderful trip of motherhood. Young wives aren’t supposed to die before they grow old and have their husbands cart them around in a giant Buick. We’re too young for this crap, and Bowler grieves this reality in stark, and surprisingly funny, ways. She is honest without being macabre; truthful without being gruesome. I like to think of myself as fairly comfortable about the concept of death, but I couldn’t get through Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, not because it told me I was going to die, but because it went into a detailed description of how my teeth are going to loosen in my skull first. (My pleasure reading list is really quite something.) Bowler’s writing takes a more contemplative approach, without being too ethereal.

I suppose that’s one reason that the prosperity gospel is so attractive to so many people. Facing our own mortality or even our own lack of control over the circumstances of our lives is terrifying. We will do anything to distance ourselves from the unfortunate circumstances of others, even if it means finding a reason to blame them for their lot. “Everything happens for a reason,” can really mean, “I don’t have that reason in my life, so I’m safe from your messy tragedy.” We tell ourselves that other people should have had flood insurance, maybe shouldn’t drink so much, definitely shouldn’t have smoked, and have they tried this herbal supplement? By distancing ourselves from their decisions, we’re distancing ourselves from their tragedy. This isn’t good for the suffering person, and it isn’t good for the person creating that distance. Bowler gently but firmly takes this heresy by its horns, wrestles it to the ground, and counters it with a lot of unknowns. That is not only enormously refreshing, but also closer to the Gospel of redemption and grace.


The “power of positive thinking” of the prosperity gospel is not limited to the encounters that Bowler has with her acquaintances who are trying to make her feel better, or even to cure her with their good thoughts. The “tyranny of prescriptive joy,” as she so aptly names it, extends to the cancer clinics where she receives treatments:

Cancer clinics try to be places of encouragement, and for that we can offer them a slow hand clap. But mostly they are encounters with death set to the tune of a young volunteer on the lobby’s baby grand piano and the muffled sounds of someone yelling “Mr. Smith! It’s your turn for blood work!

Pale and puffy, the patients lean their heads on the hard edges of the seats beside them or sink onto the bony shoulders of their companions. Everyone looks up when a name is called, momentarily revived. There are wheelchairs everywhere and bald, wrinkled women in bright kerchiefs and someone coughing blood beside a mural that reads: LAUGHTER IS THE BEST MEDICINE! Lord, I hope not.

Bowler describes the loneliness that comes with the kind of distance created by the prosperity gospel. If everyone is full of prescriptive joy, or “at least you got to have a baby before your diagnosis” minimizing, or herbal supplement advice, they aren’t able to fully sit with her in her tremendous grief. Reading this book during Lent, I was particularly drawn in to Bowler’s description of prosperity gospel followers’ observance (as it were) of Lent, speeding through the crucifixion and fast forwarding to the resurrection, as if sitting in sadness weren’t a part of the whole story, and really the reason for the whole story.

When contemplating her own death, Bowler has this conversation with her husband:

“It’s like we’re all floating on the ocean, holding on to our own inner tubes. We’re all floating around, but people don’t seem to know that we’re all sinking. Some are sinking faster than others, but we’re all sinking!”

It is nothing short of tragic that Bowler is facing her own mortality at such a young age. Period. Full Stop. I am grateful for her courage and her voice in telling her story, and her gentle firmness in dismantling the heresy of the prosperity gospel.

Bowler ends her book with two appendices: one is a list of things that you should not say to someone facing death or other difficult circumstances, and the second is a list of “try this instead” things to say. These are not conclusive lists, of course, but they’re helpful.

There’s no good way to end a review of a book about someone else’s terminal illness. In her book and in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Bowler associates her own faith now to the Mennonites in her husband’s family, and the Methodist faith of her colleagues at Duke University. This hymn spans both the Mennonite and Methodist world, and it also appears in Steel Magnolias, so it clearly rings with Gospel truth. My wish for Kate Bowler, and my wish for all of us, is that when other helpers fail and comforts flee, God abides with all of us.

Abide with me, fast falls the eventide
The darkness deepens Lord, with me abide
When other helpers fail and comforts flee
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.