The Wickedness of Word of Faith

We have written about evil, darkness, and sin at Rekindle, but last week I encountered first hand an evil that both broke my heart and enraged me. A friend in our church who is facing a far from optimistic cancer prognosis was urged to pray using Jesus’ name and his own authority as a believer (see previous post). This increasingly popular teaching says that God does not want us to ask for things according to his will, rather we must use the power of Jesus’ name to rid our lives of sickness and whatever else ails us. In other words, “You’re sick because you do not have enough faith or because you haven’t prayed using a specific formula.” Quite frankly, to say that to a Christian – with faith and the fruits that evince it – is not merely unloving; it is wicked. It is evil. In this post I will highlight a small selection of the innumerable biblical responses to this false teaching.

Jesus’ faith

Jesus at Mount of OlivesI touched on this in my previous post. But it is too important to skip over. When you state, “Don’t pray: your will be done,” because it is too submissive and weak, remember that that is exactly how Jesus prayed (Matthew 26:39). So you must either rebuke the Son of God or desist from your folly. When Peter calls on Christians to follow Christ’s example in his first epistle we should note that he remembers Jesus’ suffering, death, and that he trusted the Father without wavering (1 Peter 2:13-25). Jesus’ faith is not shown in him demanding a better reality from his Father but in submitting to the Father despite unanswered prayers.

Jesus’ teaching

Following on from the previous point, we turn to the manner in which Jesus taught his disciples to pray: “Your will be done” (Matthew 6:10). Correct: the very phrase scorned by those in the word of faith movement is one Jesus encouraged his disciples to use. I am astounded that Jesus got it so wrong. I guess if he had taught his disciples to pray properly they might have avoided persecution and martyrdom. Silly Jesus. If only the apostle John had access to the teaching of Andrew Wommack or Benny Hinn he could have avoided being exiled to Patmos (Revelation 1:9). Choose today whom you will follow.

Paul’s suffering

Since we are on the topic of Jesus’ apostles, I shudder to think about how paltry Paul’s prayer life must have been: imprisoned (Ephesians 3:1); abandoned by his friends, left alone and cold (2 Timothy 4:9-18); shipwrecked (Acts 27:39-44); and unable to pray away the thorn in his side (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). In fact, just read 2 Corinthians 11:16-12:10. For in the first century the Lord certainly chose weak vessels, akin to jars of clay, which showed the power of the gospel and gave all glory to God. Luckily for us today we have super-apostles who boast much greater ministries than the embarrassment that was Paul’s. If only a copy of Joel Osteen’s I Declare was mixed in with the parchments he requested from Troas.

Prayer is made into a mantra

CandlesReturning to the my introduction, telling someone that God has not answered their prayer because they failed to append “I claim this in the name of Jesus,” is highly problematic. Firstly, notwithstanding what I have written above, it reduces God to a parent withholding something from their child because they have not said the magic word. Imagine God saying to his child, “I would have healed your cancer, if only you had asked me properly.” Secondly, it also reduces God to a vending machine: put in the right amount and click the right buttons and you will be blessed. The power of prayer is reduced to how we ask and not who we are asking: our heavenly Father. I do believe that God invites us to boldly approach him in prayer, but to claim that our wording or specific invocations will force God’s hand is witchcraft, blasphemous, and self-deifying. God hates these things.

The inevitability of death

Lastly, though much more could and must be said against this alarmingly popular heresy, we turn to the matter of death. Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief opens with, “You are going to die,” and he is right. For we read of only a few names in the Bible who did not, and they are marked exceptions. Two years ago Jan Crouch, the co-founder of TBN, died during TBN’s healing month. To add satire to irony, The Babylon Bee wrote, “Baffled prosperity gospel preachers have begun offering theories Tuesday on how Crouch could possibly have passed away, given her overabundance of faith, her supernatural ability to name and claim health and wealth at will, and her decades of collecting donations while promising that God’s will is for everybody to be wealthy and healthy.” Why, if we have inherited all of this power, and need only claim wellness or chide sickness, do we succumb to it in death? Because the word of faith movement is a lie; an evil lie that robs people of faith.

Admittedly I wrote this post while emotional and incensed, though I do not think the heat is without light. The word of faith movement is wicked not because it promises things that God does not. It is wicked because when the things it promises do not materialise faith itself is brought into question. Telling someone that God wants them well when they are dying could be the difference between them persevering in the faith and falling away because their mantras have failed them. So I want to address any readers who have said the sorts of things critiqued in this post. If you speak these wicked words you need to repent. You need to humble yourself before the God of mercies and turn from this evil. And you need to pray for those people you have deceived.

The Folly of Word of Faith

At the end of 2015 I went to our local hospital to visit Richard, an older man in our church who had fallen deathly ill while on holiday.  After we had prayed, he told me someone else from a church in our area had also come and prayed with him. But before I could rejoice in this news, Richard added that this person had corrected him for concluding his prayer with: “Your will be done.” Astonishing: he was told that he should not pray like that. Instead he should use his authority as a believer and the powerful name of Christ to claim wellness and healing. Apparently we are not meant to ask but demand.

AWMII spent time explaining that that simply is not what God teaches in the Bible. But recently another man in our church was diagnosed with metastatic cancer. Meeting him he asked me what I thought about Andrew Wommack’s healing ministry. Once he had told me more about the videos, testimonies, and promises of AWMI I answered him. Though the points below formed my response to the question about Andrew Wommack in particular, they serve generally as a critique of all healing ministries, or the ‘word of faith movement’, including those fronted by Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, and Paula White.

We do not have greater faith than Christ

To claim that we must have more faith in order to be healed (or prosper in general) has some troubling implications. The biggest is that it is hard not to conclude that healthy and wealthy Christians have a greater faith than Christ. For his prayers were not able to deliver him from suffering and death. But, as I have argued in an older post, Christ’s faith was strong as he prayed in Gethsemane, “Not what I will, but what you will.” Jesus’ faith is not questioned by his unanswered prayers, but evident in them. Suffering does not result from a lack of faith, nor does healing depend on great faith. That is unbiblical nonsense. Christ demonstrated unmoving faith in both his life and death, when he was well and as he suffered.

We do not know better than God

Don't waste your cancerThe refusal to submit our prayers to God’s will is actually an arrogant refusal to submit to God, which the Bible also calls sin. As John Piper writes in the provocatively titled Don’t Waste Your Cancer, “Healing is not God’s plan for everyone.” How Christians can say things like “God wants you to be well,” and “I know God plans to heal you,” is incredible. For God actually says, ‘You don’t even know what tomorrow will bring…You boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil’ (James 4:14-16). Hear what God said to Job, ‘Who is this that darkens my counsel without knowledge?’ (Job 38:2); and a little later, ‘Shall a faultfinder content with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it’ (40:2). To put it a little bluntly, Job 38-40 essentially shows God telling both Job and his friends to shut up, because they do not know plans he has for Job.

We should not love this world more than the next

I recently developed some of John Calvin’s theology on suffering, and few writers have helped my thinking as much as he has. In his Institutes (3.9.1-3.10.6) he contrasts our present life with the future life. I encourage you to read the whole section but will highlight just one incisive point he makes, which is relevant here: we must desire heaven and hate this life. It sounds wrong, but Calvin uses hyperbole, much in the same way Christ said we must hate our family, even our own lives (Luke 14:26; also see John 12:25). Because Calvin shared Paul’s hope (Philippians 1:20-26) he could ask, “If we should think that through death we are recalled from exile to dwell in the…the heavenly fatherland, would we get no comfort from this fact?” (3.9.5). Calvin presses this to the point of discomfort, showing that all of us cling to tightly to this life and view. “If it befits us to live and die to the Lord, let us leave to his decision the hour of our death and life, but in such a way that we may both burn with the zeal for death and be constant in meditation” (3.9.4).

John Calvin on Suffering

Institutes volume 1One of my goals for 2017 has been to work through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion in its entirety, with the hope of engaging with it in 2018 by way of blogging. I have drawn on his work in the past: challenging comfortable Christianity and in thinking about God’s sovereignty. But the reason I am writing this post now – as one untimely born – is because over the past few weeks I have found myself drawing on the Institutes for both pastoral counseling and preaching. While this post will focus on some gleanings from Calvin and suffering, I hope that it will be an encouragement to the reader that studying theology has practical value. Theological study is far more than a rite of passage to pastoral ministry; it is a vital aspect of any pastoral ministry.

Distinguish between punishment and discipline

I am sure you have heard, ‘I don’t think God sends suffering, because he loves us.’ But when you read the Bible we learn that it is precicely because God loves us that he sends suffering. Calvin captures this well, “Children are beaten with rods, not to pay the penalty for their sins to God, but in order thereby to lead to repentance” (3.4.33). So he says that suffering in the Christian life is future and not past orientated, “While we as children of God are afflicted by the hand of the Heavenly Father, this is not a penalty to confound us, but only a chastisement to instruct us” (3.4.33). The point Calvin drives home is that when we face trials and afflictions God is growing us through the experience, he is strengthening our faith. When we suffer we generally think it is the result of three things: (a) the work of Satan, (b) the result of our sin, or (c) the absence of God’s love. Calvin deals with the first of those under the next heading and he encourages us to consider the possibility of the second along with the absurdity of the third. “He who in the end profits by God’s scourges is the man who considers God angry at his vices, but merciful and kindly toward himself” (3.4.34). Grasping this biblical truth is a comfort and balm for Christians who suffer: our Father loves us and in his sovereignty sends both happiness and hardship, to turn us away from sin and back to himself.

Learning from the suffering of Job

William BlakeDiscussing the sovereign will of God, Calvin (2.4.2) looks at Job 1, where Job suffers at the hands of the Chaldeans. Though it is the Chaldeans who kill his shepherds and ravage his flocks (Job 1:17), if we look back a few verses we learn that this stems from Satan (Job 1:12). However, Calvin writes, “Job recognizes the Lord’s work in it” (Job 1:21). Considering these three verses, Calvin asks, “How may we attribute this same work to God, to Satan, and to man as author, without either excusing Satan as associated with God, or making God the author of evil?” That is an important question to which Calvin offers an excellent answer: Satan sought to drive Job to desperation; the Chaldeans are motivated by greed or envy, or both; and God’s purpose is to exercise the patience of his servant. It is that last point that we battle with, even if it is undeniable as we read the text (Job 1:11; 2:6). Even if we emphasise that God allows this suffering to come upon Job, we cannot evade the fact that God is sovereign in Job’s suffering. Calvin argues that we must observe the distinction between purpose (or end) and manner. For while the deed (or manner) is simultaneously attributed to God, Satan, and men, the outcome is that God’s righteousness and the faithfulness of Job is made apparent and contrast with the wickedness of Satan and the Chaldeans. The point for us to take away is that God is sovereign in suffering, but his purpose is that he is glorified through our genuine and persevering faith (1 Peter 1:6-7).

True biblical hope

In a lengthy section on the continuity between Old and New Testaments, Calvin shows how the promises made to Israel were for future blessedness, eternal life in the presence of God. Calvin is astounded that some think God promised the Jews “nothing but a full belly, delights of the flesh, flourishing wealth, outward power, fruitfulness of offspring, and whatever the natural man prizes” (2.10.23), the same things many false teachers promise God’s people today. So in 2.10.7-22 he outlines a few conclusions we can draw from Israel’s faith that are analogous to our own: happiness is elusive and ephemeral, many of us experience it only in snatches; death still stalks our world and therefore we must hope for immortality; and the abundant blessings promised to God’s people are surely not known in this groaning creation. The hope for them, as it is for us, is to know God and enjoy him forever. Thus Calvin writes, “Souls, unless they be joined to God through righteousness, remain estranged from him in death. On the other hand, such a union when present will bring everlasting salvation with it” (2.10.8); “They whom he, who is judge of death and life, had received into his tutelage, care, and protection are not snuffed out even by death” (2.10.9). That is biblical hope: the certainty of an imperishable and unfading future kept for us by God as we are kept by his strength (1 Peter 1:3-5).

In conclusion, Calvin does not deny the joy of knowing God in the present life. But we should not deny its troubles. Taking Calvin’s three points together we can have confidence in our afflictions, which come from God and are designed for our good and his glory. Suffering comes in order to train our faith and fix our eyes on the hope that will not fail. For we know a God who is sovereign and in control. He will use all things for his glory and the good of those who love him.

Samuel Rutherford on Divine Providence

Rutherford Tomb Stone“When the Lord’s blessed will bloweth across your desires, it is best, in humility, to strike sail to him, and to be willing to be led any way our Lord pleaseth” (p78).

If you were hoping for a precise systematic exposition of the often confusing, sometimes unnerving and always difficult doctrine of God’s providence then you are in the wrong place. For my devotional reading I have been working through Samuel Rutherford’s Letters (Banner of Truth, 1973) and as I have made my way through them it has become apparent that Rutherford was more than qualified to speak about God’s providence and wrestling with it. At the age of 27, recently armed with an MA in divinity, Rutherford settled in Anwoth, a small rural town in the south of Scotland, and for the next 9 years he served as a devoted pastor in that dispersed community. Rutherford was, before anything else, a wonderfully gifted and genuinely committed pastor who loved God’s people, or kirk. The energy he poured into the people of Anwoth did not go unnoticed; there stands to this day a massive obelisk which was erected in his honour in the 19th century. However Rutherford’s road was not a smooth one as he was forcibly relocated to Aberdeen in 1636 as a result of his Calvinistic theology and non-conformity with the Arminian theology, which was becoming increasingly prevalent. Despite Charles I claiming Protestant allegiance, his interest was lacking at local level; religious turmoil, which frequently stung the Puritans, reigned alongside the monarch. The long and short of it is that Rutherford was torn from his sheep in Anwoth. The agony of being away from those with whom he had shared rich Christian fellowship is evident in the letters he wrote from Aberdeen, almost all of which were penned to provide pastoral guidance and Christian counsel. But another thing that is hard to ignore is Rutherford’s grappling with God’s providence. Why had he been sent to Aberdeen? Why did God allow the Arminians to drive him from his local parish in Anwoth, abandoning his congregation to the proverbial wolves?

Rutherford’s grief at having his ministry in Anwoth derailed came as a probing challenge to his faith in Christ. His struggles drove him back to Christ and were most probably the cause for one of his favourite expressions, ‘the sweet cross of Christ’. Suffering did not cause him to question God’s love but rather to query God’s plan. And so in a letter, addressed to Marion M’Naught (p16), who was Rutherford’s most contacted correspondent, he challenged her, “employ all of your endeavours for establishing an honest ministry in your town, now when you have so few to speak a good word for you.” Marion had written to Rutherford out of desperation at her situation, being one of very few Christians in the town she called home. Rutherford’s response was simply that she was to make use of her trying circumstances and difficulties in witnessing to Christ, glorifying him in her life and trusting him that she was there because God intended her to be. This view undergirds much of Rutherford’s correspondence. So providence for Rutherford was not the cold, calculated doctrine that says God is in control and moving us around like chess pieces but the warm, faith-enriching truth that God is at work guiding us back to him and forcing us to look around at where we find ourselves and ask how we might glorify God in the situation he has placed us.

Samuel RutherfordThe above understanding that Rutherford presents is nowhere as clearly evinced, in my own reading so far, as in his letter to John Stuart (p76). John Stuart had run into serious difficulties with business and was delayed from getting to New England. Rutherford assured him that the events were not some strange “dumb Providence” (p77). Stuart’s business had suffered significantly and he was despondent but Rutherford pointed him to God’s loving kindness and its immense depth. Rutherford goes on, “I hope that you have been asking what the Lord meaneth, and what further may be his will, in reference to your return”. Rutherford encouraged Stuart that despite the dark side of providence God had a better side which he will show to those who are courageous. When Rutherford utilises Romans 8:28, too often quoted without much sensitivity to those in turmoil, we can agree that God does work for the good of those who love him. “Hence, I infer that losses, disappointments, ill-tongues, loss of friends, houses or country, are God’s workmen” set to work for the believer’s good (p78). Despite the hardships that befall us, Rutherford reminds us that in what seems like unfatherly hardship God is not being unpleasant towards us. God brings us to the place where we must deny ourselves, to be as if we had no will at all, and sell ourselves over to God’s sovereign work in the world, his providence, in free disposition of our wants and longings. Rutherford concluded this point in his letter to John Stuart exhorting the reader to makes use of God’s will, which Rutherford believed was “true holiness, and your ease and peace”.

Why does any of this matter; where does it intersect with us and our own lives? The point to emphasise is this: we are not called to trust glibly in God’s providence, affirming his control over all matters blindly; from Rutherford’s experienced pen we learn that God’s providence invites us to put aside our desires and hopes, and allow ourselves to be swept along with God, dedicating ourselves in faith to his desires for this world.

Book Reflection: Drops Like Stars

Drops Like Stars Book CoverLet’s be honest, Rob Bell knows how to communicate. Whether or not we agree with anything he says, Bell knows how to make what he says sexy. Drops Like Stars is dressed up in designer attire; the book’s barcode is exiled and even the publishing information gets relegated to the back of the book. The book is filled with striking contrasts, “death by wallpaper and flooring” over against starvation or being shot. Opening the book, after an empty spread and an initial title page, we are presented with a double page spread which has the words, “I know a man who” “has two sons” which springs into another of these contrasts; the joy of life, and the sorrow of death that hospital hallways see, “We live in the hallways, don’t we?” From this point, Bell offers his readers “a few thoughts on creativity and suffering” (an apt tagline on the back cover).

Creativity and suffering are an interesting pair to coordinate. Bell draws from sculptors, novelists and lyricists, deftly painting the picture of a world in which some things don’t make sense. Suffering, he argues, is a powerful uniting force because it goes beneath the veneer and forces us to be honest with ourselves and each other.

Bell demonstrates a remarkable ability to draw from his sources. Every other page involves quotation or explanation of some or other artist or artistic endeavour whether that be Pope John Paul II, Johnny Cash, bumper stickers or soap sculpture. His ability to draw such breadth of life into so brief a book is notable and contributes to his literature’s ability to draw the reader in.

Ultimately though, Bell is offering an answer to what is perhaps one of the most profoundly human questions posed to Christianity: what about evil and suffering? Of course, more questions are asked than answers given but, Bell would argue, that’s the point. He ardently avoids downplaying suffering and giving pat answers to real pain. That may be unsatisfactory to many but the notion will resonate with many in our age.

Probably the best answer that Bell provides is near the end of the book where he quotes a sculptor,

So in the end every major disaster, every tiny error, every wrong turning, every fragment of discarded clay, all the blood, sweat and tears – everything has meaning. I give it meaning. I reuse, reshape, recast all that goes wrong so that in the end nothing is wasted and nothing is without significance and nothing ceases to be precious to me.

In the mouth of God, such words are indeed a comfort, “I give it meaning … nothing is wasted”.

CrossThis was not the answer with which, I think, the book as a whole leaves its reader though. The mounting of story upon story, striking cord upon cord with anyone who has suffered, does not culminate in a real answer. “Nothing is wasted” is certainly an answer but it’s not the direction of the book. Providing an answer would undermine Bell’s need not to provide an answer because any answer must generalise pain and he sees the danger of divorcing the concept of pain from the person suffering it. The cross is mentioned to illustrate a God “suffering like us” and “screaming alongside us”.

The cross, it turns out, is about the mysterious work of God which begins not with big plans and carefully laid out timetables
but in pain
and anguish
and death

Plans and timetables don’t sit with creativity. Unfortunately this is where I find the fundamental flaw in Bell’s response to suffering. Certinaly, “pain, anguish and death” are central to the cross but it was, nevertheless, in “the fullness of time” that “God sent forth his Son”, it was planned from the “foundations of the world”. This, I think, is a far more powerful response to suffering: God sees evil and he says, “No” – and in saying “No” he resolves to overthrow it at extraordinary cost to himself and that, not on a whim, planned from eternity; an immeasurable cost that God would pay and that he knew he would pay and that he orchestrated all of history to pay.

Suffering is not meaningless then, but it’s also not good and so we don’t have to try to find answers because God’s plan for the universe is to bring suffering to an end. God sees pain and his response is not simply to come to our side and share in our pain, though he does this too, his response is to declare war upon it and bring it to an end. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame by triumphing over them.