By Jessica Mesman Griffith
My best friend died suddenly almost two years ago. She’d lived across the country from me for almost ten years by then, and since our relationship mostly happened over the phone and email, it’s easy to sink into the feeling that we just haven’t spoken in a while. The phone will ring and I’ll catch myself hoping it’s her.
Then I have to face it: never again.
I’ve thought of her often in these last weeks of pregnancy. Maybe it’s the sleeplessness. I lie in the dark, feeling the twists and stretches of my growing child, struggling to recall the last conversations we had. We had a fight before she died—not unusual for us—and we weren’t speaking.
We’d bonded as teenagers over the deaths of our parents; our relationship was rooted in loss. But when I got married and had a baby, I lost the desire to nurse the old wound that had brought us together, and she felt more alone than ever. I wish I’d been stronger, less wounded, more able to carry her pain. But I wanted to be happy. And I confess, I thought, after everything I’d been through, I deserved to be happy.
I remember in particular one of our last conversations: I was heatedly complaining to her about whatever small anxiety was plaguing my day, when she said, “I don’t know why you worry so much; everything always works out for you.” I was stung by the resentment in her voice. But I had no counterargument. I could see how it might appear to her as if everything had worked out the way I’d always wanted. I was writing for a living; I had the family I’d longed for since I was 13.
Then she said—with heartbreaking earnestness—“Do you think it’s because you’re religious?”
I fumbled for an answer. I was shocked that she might genuinely entertain the possibility that God would bless me, and not her, because I went to church. But maybe she was insinuating that it was easy for me to believe, because my life was good. Or maybe she genuinely wondered if I’d hit upon some secret formula, if I was living proof that God was a savvy investment that might yield good returns.
I’ve been wondering about it ever since. If there is any connection between the improved state of my life and the practicing of a religion, maybe it’s that practicing the religion made me less likely to make decisions (or not) based on fear; or less likely to avoid a commitment, like marriage. Maybe it gave me some much-needed discipline, or confidence. Or maybe the good things would have come either way, but they wouldn’t have seemed so good, or made me so happy. Maybe it gave me a new way to see, and enjoy, goodness. It certainly didn’t bring an end to pain or loss.
But why did it make me so uncomfortable, the idea that God might give me good things? My dad’s the type to praise the Lord when he gets a good parking spot. “That’s God,” he’ll say, with complete confidence.
In one memorable sermon, Osteen described taking a toddler out for ice cream. She drops her cone in the street as soon as they leave the shop. Some other children taunt her for having lost her treat, and she starts to cry. What does her father do? He takes her back into the shop, and buys her a new ice cream cone—this one a triple scoop.
That’s what God wants to do for you, Osteen told his audience of thousands, his soothing voice a balm, his face glowing with health and vitality, reassurance, happiness: God wants to give you a triple scoop.
Dave and I joke about our triple scoops whenever something good happens, but I know we’re not really taking it all so lightly. At least I’m not. I believe in a providential God, though I’m not sure how providence works. The Prosperity Gospel says that when we live right, think good thoughts, and pay our tithes, God gives us that good return, that triple scoop.
“Everything always works out for you,” my best friend said, her voice full of pain I knew so well. Osteen immediately came to mind, and I quickly escorted him out. I wish I believed him, but I find more truth in the O’Connor quote stuck on my fridge: “Don’t expect faith to clear things up for you; it’s trust, not certainty.” My friend felt her trust had been broken, betrayed, too many times. She needed certainty, a sure thing. But I didn’t have an answer.
Originally published in Good Letters on April 9, 2010.
Jessica Mesman Griffith is a widely published essayist and the author of the memoir Love & Salt: A Spiritual Friendship in Letters, winner of the Christopher Award. She lives in Northern Michigan with her husband, writer David Griffith, and their two children.
Photo above credited to Chiot’s Run and used under a Creative Commons license.