Whose voice are you listening to, Victoria? (An open letter to Victoria Osteen)

Dear Victoria,

Please accept this in the spirit of love and concern it was written, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

There are reports that you are unrepentant over your original comments: “I just want to encourage every one of us to realize when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God—I mean, that’s one way to look at it—we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy…”

The statement that you and your husband were standing by what you said came about two months ago, but I only just came across the news myself. The original comments had left me pondering just how to respond; I can know something is so wrong, but I feel that I am up against a mindset that is convinced it is hearing the voice of God telling them to pursue their own happiness and feel good about all that they do to achieve that. An easy response is to say “atheists often say that our desire to be charitable Christians and help others is not truly altruistic since it makes us feel happy and therefore it is inherently just us finding pleasure in giving, and you’ve just played into their hands” but we as a church should not be concerned with criticism from cynics like that.

No, I’ve come to realise that you actually may well be hearing a voice, and it speaks softly into your life that all you’re doing is just so right, but the question is: whose voice is it?

I shall presume you know of the account of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness by Satan. Satan tried in three ways to tempt Jesus. Tempt him to do what? Obviously, he was attempting to get him to disobey the will of God and so sin against God. What were these sins he tempted him to do? Knowing Jesus was hungry, he said that Jesus should make the stones into bread, then that he should test God by trying to harm himself in order to avail of God’s protection, then he offered him power and dominion over other peoples on the Earth. Jesus rebuked him by simply answering from his knowledge of the scriptures each time.

Let me offer a paraphrase of what Satan said to him (since I believe the actual discourse was longer than we have recorded in Matthew): “God wouldn’t want you to suffer like other humans who have no faith in him! He won’t wish to see you go hungry, so he gave you the power to command stones into bread to feed yourself. Go ahead! It’s what he would want you to do. He’d also allow you to enter into many dangers but with a surety that he will protect you at all times. You’ll come to no harm. He’s almost wanting to be tested by you, just ask him for your heart’s desire while you pursue your dreams and he’ll do it, no quibble. And hey, what if you could have untold wealth and power? Wouldn’t that be a good thing? You could have so much influence in the world, do so much good for others, if only you’d take advantage of that power you have within you and inherit all he intends for you, right here and now.”

Now my knowledge of Jesus’ own words throughout his ministry were that he wished for us to take up our cross, deny ourselves, count our family and our lives as nothing in comparison to our devotion to him, love others for no other reason than he commanded us and for us to show him within us, that others would know we were his disciples. Satan’s words to Jesus sounded fine and dandy, but Jesus had a higher calling, a path to follow where he would be a servant and not think of his own happiness and comfort, and that he would beckon us all to follow his example.

So again, Victoria, in all honesty and by the love of Jesus, ask yourself whose voice you are hearing when you hear that you should pursue your own ends in this life and just be happy? Better still, read through the gospels and highlight all of Jesus’ commands. ALL of them, not just the tiny snippets that fit your worldview, since this is a travesty that all of us are unfortunately capable of doing. Weigh up all that he said to his disciples and then decide which way he would have us live. My genuine concern is that in saying you follow him, you actually may be blindly following a different path, while leading others who listen to you. Is it your way, my way, or someone else’s way? No, it should just be his way!

Lean not on your own understanding.

Grace be with you.

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Pride

Image

A friend shared this photo on Facebook recently from a Christian page. It happens to be one of those things that sounds great but turns out to be a bit disingenuous once you analyse it. Why? One very simple word that appears, which shouldn’t: PROUD. I’ve said this before; Surely ‘Christian pride’ is an oxymoron!? see- https://thealternativeulsterman.com/2013/07/23/a-quick-thought/

This is just one of the by-products of the prevalent ‘prosperity’ preaching we hear so often now. The idea that you, as ‘a child of God’, have all this privilege and right and entitlement, then you are entitled to ‘be proud’. We could just as easily re-word that to ‘feel smug’ or even ‘claim self-righteousness’. Couldn’t we?

The main problem here is that, as can be seen from the above, it can fit nice and easily into positive messages that make us feel good; the rest of the ‘quote’, after ‘be proud’ is quite acceptable. Of course I should rise above the ordinary and never be satisfied with doing less than my best, etc. but should I be proud?

Pride is a sin, it is condemned throughout scripture:

To fear the Lord is to hate evil; I hate pride and arrogance, evil behaviour and perverse speech. (Prov. 8:13)

When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom. (Prov. 11:2)

Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall. (Prov. 16:18)

It is something which can be taken in what you do, your actions (Gal. 6:4), a ministry you have (Rom. 11:13), in others who serve you (2Cor. 5:12) or in those who are the fruits of your service (2Cor. 7:4; 8:24). However, taking pride in yourself flies in the face of all the warnings and commands to humble yourself (2Chron. 7:14; Psalm 18:27; 147:6; Isa. 2:6-22; 13:11; Zeph. 2:3; Eph. 4:2; James 4:10; 1Pet. 5:6).

Being proud and arrogant may invoke God to humble you as Jesus pointed out on at least two occasions:

For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Luke 14:11; 18:14)

You may ask; is this an important point? If we are to highlight the message of the gospel of God’s grace, surely we recognise that to receive such grace, we must humble ourselves: Surely He scorns the scornful, but gives grace to the humble. (Prov. 3:34 NKJV) This verse is important enough to be quoted by both James and Peter in their epistles. Why would I risk turning my back on the very humility that ushered me to that beautiful place of the bestowment of his grace?

There are many things that we can discount as ‘false gospels’ but the worst are the ones that sound good!

 

An unmentioned sin

There are a fair few things we count as sinful. Some are scriptural, but some are borne just from the religiosity of a strict moral background and can be manifold. For instance, when I was a child my best friend came from a strict Baptist family. I got some playing cards to have a game of trump or ‘jacks change it’ and he expressed horror (with an intake of breath): “those are devil cards!!” He even assured me that they should be thrown on the fire, where they would ‘burn and go down to the devil’!

This may be an extreme example (and I can hear many Baptists protest that is is not standard doctrine), but when I became a Christian, one of the things I sought from God’s word was instruction on what exactly it might be that would offend my Lord in my life; how could I know if I was or wasn’t being obedient to his will? I think that’s only right and spiritually healthy. I read his word and if I find something that challenges me to ponder on my actions or attitudes, I prayerfully seek for wisdom and strength to change, and learn about how to maintain that change in my spirit. Should not all Christians do the same? As a new convert, I believed this would be the case for all believers. However, there is a lot of belief that comes from upbringing and tradition in lieu of biblical teaching. We even coin a term for it: ‘churchianity’, though this is usually reserved for other churches, not our own! The basis for the Great Reformation of the 16th century was an address to ‘the church’ that many practices and doctrines were not scriptural.

Unfortunately, as time has marched on, many more things have crept into Christianity from unscriptural sources; but of course, modern evangelicals say this refers to the older ‘denominations’, not the true evangelical churches! Are we exempt, those of us who can cast aspersions on the traditions of those ‘established’ churches that are now long in the tooth? Is it not possible for us to create our own patterns of thought and doctrine and be unaware of where they originated? We may be unable to view such things from the outside.

The new doctrine of prosperity is an ideal candidate for investigation. Why does it not seem to be something written about or taught in the past? Its very newness suggests it has not come from our 2000+ year old scriptures. For me, the answer is fairly simple: the pursuit of wealth is a sin! We can go right back to the 10 commandments to find the tenth one; “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.” (Ex.20:17) Now right away, those who preach the prosperity doctrine will point out that it is a prohibition on desiring the possessions of others, and maintain there is no sin in desiring those things that are duly and rightfully our own. The Hebrew word for covet is hamad. It means ‘to desire’ or ‘to take delight in’ and can be used both positively and negatively e.g. in Song of Songs, the woman takes ‘delight’ in sitting with her beloved; a very different meaning from the sense of ‘covet’. Therefore there has to be a degree of positivity/negativity in any such ‘desire’, and we must ask the question of ourselves which desire is good or bad, beneficial or sinful, or how much desire we may be allowed to have for things i.e. at what point does a desire go from good to bad? We could proffer a scale like from a simple wish for something better, like enough money to take your family on a nice holiday (which very few could decry), to a desire to own a private yacht and sail around the Mediterranean. Again, those who preach that God wishes for us all to prosper and abound in wealth would scratch their heads, wondering how any such desiring (or coveting) could be bad, and say that anything on this scale is fine if God has deemed that you should have it. Therefore they are making the claim that money is good, and loving money or seeking it is a noble pursuit. Unfortunately, I read the opposite throughout scripture – here are just some examples, where I have added my own emphasis since they are parts that are often overlooked in favour of other parts:

Whoever loves money never has enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. (Eccles. 5:10)

———–

The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. (Luke 16:14)

———–

Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. (1Tim. 3:2-3)

———–

Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have… (Hebrews 13:5)

———–

These are the things you are to teach and insist on. If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, they are conceited and understand nothing. They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between people of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. (1Tim. 6:2-11)

———–

And even the words of our own Lord Jesus: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also…. No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” (Matt. 6:19-21, 24)

———–

He also went on to state that many who followed him only did so because of the feed that he gave them when he performed the ‘feeding of the five thousand’: Jesus answered, ‘”Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” (John 6:26)

———–

But mark this: there will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God – having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people. (2Tim. 3:1-5) And Paul then goes on to describe ‘such people” –

They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women… (2Tim. 3:6)

So this ‘kind’? Who fits that bill? We all know of the preachers in the Western world, and now developing countries too, who seem to do nothing but seek donations to their ministry, and are so often accused of charlatanry, so much that almost any pastor who makes an appeal for finances for any reason can be tarred with the same brush. It IS prevalent, isn’t it? Only this week, I happened to see a program late at night on the BBC, just as I was about to go to bed. It was Reggie Yates in South Africa, and this episode was him following one of these multi-millionaire preachers, who had come from the townships, but had created and developed his ministry to mega proportions.

(I am not going to name this man as I am not prepared to make direct accusations at any individual, just as I saw an article listing the fortunes of many of these preachers, mainly in the US – I am addressing the doctrine, the attitude, the belief that I think is unbiblical.)

Reggie Yates came from a black pentecostal background, though not a believer, and he said that he just found it wrong that a ‘man of the cloth’ should be so wealthy. This preacher (or Prophet as he called himself) had a fleet of 30 luxury cars and admitted to spending as much as £100,000 on one shopping spree for clothing, with some suits costing £7000! Truly a man of the people, and very much loved for how he went into shops and met people and posed for photos with his ‘fans’, yet he did not like Reggie’s apparent ‘lack of respect’ for him and his ministry, with his probing questions (no mention of humility there!). A young woman who followed him was questioned by Reggie about why as a poor working class woman, she would want to listen to this man; she replied “I wouldn’t want to listen to someone who had not gotten anywhere!”

Right away, there’s the problem: she viewed him as someone successful, therefore, somehow ‘blessed’ by God and someone to look up to and follow. I follow my own pastor, even though I disagree with him on many things, not because he’s ‘successful’ but because he has the qualities I seek in a church leader: compassion, care, a listening ear, a tireless worker for his congregation! THOSE are the ways in which we, as biblical believers, should value people, NOT by how much money they make! Don’t we all do it? While I never wish for my children to be in debt or in financial worry, should I praise them for making plenty of money in their vocation, or for being better, rounded, faithful followers of Christ? Is money a blessing? Well, here’s an excellent article on that from the huffington post:

http://tinyurl.com/m8hb2yv

The writer does say he is playing with semantics (meanings of words), and that is what it comes down to. I received a good rejoinder on this after sharing it on Facebook: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (James 1:17)

BUT: Here’s the distinction: All these things we receive are gifts, as James says, but are they blessings? In verse 25 of the same chapter, he says “But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues in it – not forgetting what they have heard but doing it – they will be blessed in what they do.”

The word for gift is dosis from the verb didomi (give). It is used when describing the gifts of grace God bestows on us, and in Jesus’ command “Freely you have received, freely give.” (Matt. 10:8) It always contains the very qualities we expect of a gift, which is given in love with no counting of the cost, nor is a reward nor recompense for anything. The word for blessed is makarios which is used in the Beatitudes mentioned in the quoted article. These beatitudes were a poetic form well known to the people of Jesus’ time, much like Japanese haiku are a recognised poetic form. In Greek literature, the word is used to denote qualities belonging to certain people: ‘blessed is/are…’ and very often used for the rich, those above the cares and worries of the ordinary people (hoi polloi). However, Jesus, by using this form, turns the conceptions of the time on their head and utters blessings upon the meek, the poor in spirit, the persecuted, etc. The hearers would have been stunned at him not pronouncing blessings to be monetary or pecuniary! Or to do with birth or providence:

As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, ‘Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.’ He replied, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.’ (Luke 11:27,28)

In fact, these blessings are present from Abraham right through to seven beatitudes found in Revelation e.g.

The righteous lead blameless lives;

blessed are their children after them. (Prov.20:7)

Blessed are those
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
whose sin the Lord will never count against them. (Psalm 32:1,2)

I looked up the 46 occurrences of makarios and not one of them relates to anything to do with money or such ‘blessings’. Money is a gift bestowed on us according to what the Lord wills, not a blessing for the faithful, or a reward for making him our Lord, or an entitlement for those of us who have signed up to God’s Country Club with incumbent benefits! As a gift then, it is bestowed in the same way as any other gift; one person may have the ability to speak fluently to a gathered assembly, another the gift of writing ability, able to put their thoughts succinctly to the pen. If someone is bestowed with wealth as a gift, that is God’s will. Note that I am not saying that some are destined to be poor while others have it all (‘the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly, and ordered their estate’ as the hymn says). No, that is another, more complex matter that involves politics and social policy.

As with any gift, though, God expects such to be used wisely. A preacher must not use their ‘gift of the gab’ to distract or beguile a congregation into false teaching, for instance. Many of Jesus’ parables involved servants and their given ‘talents’ or their service and how they should be used properly. Anyone given wealth must be prepared to see it used, and thus while not making individual judgements on rich people (it is a matter of conscience left to each individual to follow, as in Romans 14), I would exhort anyone with such ‘gifting’ to consider how much is really theirs to keep (or hoard, for want of a more apt word!). Hoarding more wealth for yourself than you really need has a word: greed!

My knowledge of scripture, as outlined here, will never allow me to fall into the trap of prosperity doctrine; it is false and evil, and a distraction from the true pursuit of his kingdom, which, in itself, will guarantee your needs: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matt. 6:33)

In the same way that I would be wary of listening to a pastor who displays a sinful life, like being given to infidelity to their marriage, or to drunkenness, or fits of wrath, so I also have grave reservations about the counsel of such a pastor who is greedy and has hoarded much and vast wealth for themselves, well beyond the needs of their families. It doesn’t take a calculator to work out that having various millions stored in a bank vault is beyond that.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. (Matt. 23:25)

Then he said to them, ‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.’ (Luke 12:15)

There is even significant warning for such: nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1Cor. 6:10)

Grace be with you.

P.S. Another blogger has addressed a very similar issue linked to this in the 21st century western church:

http://walterbright.org/2014/03/27/the-culture-of-pastoral-notoriety/