The Church and “Pandemic Love”

Pandemic Love, by Charles E. Moore, is one of my favorite articles. I had found it a few years ago on http://www.plough.com. It is the website

Image result for antonine plague
Antonine Plague

for the journal “Plough Quarterly.” But I can’t find the article there anymore. Then it was on http://www.barclaypress.com. But I can’t find it there either. FORTUNATELY, around 5 or 6 years ago I had asked permission to reprint the article from Plough.com, and was given permission as long as I referenced them. Since it is no longer on their website, I can only reference their site as a whole. Although it was written a few years ago, and references historical events from almost 2 millenia ago, it seems especially relevant during this time in March 2020.

The avian flu, and the possibility of a world pandemic, is not only in the news, it is unnerving. One has only to recall history to realize that global killers have plagued human civilization. Gruesome details abound. But, surprisingly, so do acts of love.

Greek historian Thucydides describes the pandemic of 430 B.C., the world’s first recorded pandemic, as being characterized by sudden attack; inflammation of eyes; burning in the stomach and throat; bloody coughing; diarrhea; violent vomiting; livid, ulcerated skin; and then death. Those who survived were often left without toes, fingers, genitals, eyesight, and even with an entire loss of memory. One-third of Athens was killed.


Other plagues mar history. Under Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, disease-ridden fleas killed 40% of Constantinople’s population and a quarter of the whole region’s population. Another outbreak occurred in France in A.D. 588, where an estimated 25 million lost their lives. Under a new name, the disease returned in the middle of the 14th century. Known as the Black Death because of a blackening of the skin due to hemorrhaging, people fled its path and in so doing aided its spread across the continent. A quarter of Europe’s population was decimated, and Asia and the Middle East were also hit. By the 18th century, an estimated 140 million people had died from the bubonic plague. Then in the 20th century, the Spanish flu came and went like a flash, killing an estimated 40 million people—more than were lost in the Great War.


Pandemics are real, and we are not exempt. Our natural instinct is either to worry about what might happen and become obsessed with protecting ourselves, or to ignore the doomsday prophets all together by burying ourselves deeper into a life of distraction and diversion. Neither response prepares us.


The history books are full of horror. As it is today, death and the horrid get the headlines. But throughout history, there exist stories of hope, not just horror. I can’t help but think of the early church in this regard.

In the Roman Empire…

In A.D. 165, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, a devastating epidemic swept through the Roman Empire. The mortality rate was so high in many cities that Marcus Aurelius spoke of caravans of carts and wagons hauling the dead from cities. During the fifteen-year duration of the epidemic, between a quarter and a third of the empire’s population died. Almost a century later, a second terrible epidemic struck the Roman world. From 251 to 266, at the height of what became known as the Plague of Cyprian (Cyprian was the bishop of Carthage), 5,000 people a day were said to be dying in Rome. Two-thirds of Alexandria’s population most likely perished.


Pagan Rome was completely ill-prepared to help the sick or deal with mass death. People knew that their priests were clueless as to why the gods had sent so much misery to earth, or whether the gods were involved or even cared. Worse yet, the doctors, priests, and nobles fled infected areas in droves. Since pagans had no belief in immortality, and Stoicism demeaned any sort of heartfelt compassion, the plagues were meaningless and cruel. The basic response of pagans was one of flight.


The best of Greco-Roman science knew nothing about how to treat epidemics other than to avoid all contact with those who had the disease. And this they did, often evacuating entire towns, being afraid to visit one another. Hence, it turned out that the famous physician Galen who lived through the first epidemic during the reign of Marcus Aurelius got out of Rome as quickly as possible.


Christian response

In stark contrast to such hopelessness and fear, Christians showed how their faith made this life—and even death—meaningful. Cyprian, for example, almost welcomed the great epidemic of his time, knowing that it was an opportunity for the church to give witness to the hope that was within them. He was so overwhelmed by a sense of confidence that the members of the Alexandrian church were accused of regarding the plague as a time of festival.


Instead of fear and despondency, then, the earliest Christians expended themselves in works of mercy that simply dumbfounded the pagans. For them God loved humanity, and in order to love God back they believed they needed to love others. God did not demand ritual sacrifices; he wanted his love expressed in deeds of compassion on earth.


This love took on very practical, concrete forms. In Rome, Christians buried not just their own, but pagans who had died without funds for a proper burial. They also supplied food for 1,500 poor people on a daily basis. In Antioch of Syria, the number of destitute persons the church was feeding had reached 3,000. Church funds were also used in special cases to buy the emancipation of Christian slaves.


During the plague in Alexandria when nearly everyone else fled, the early Christians risked their lives for one another by simple deeds of washing the sick, offering water and food, and consoling the dying. Their care was so extensive that Emperor Julian eventually tried to copy the church’s welfare system. His efforts failed, however, because for Christians it was love—not duty—that was their motivation.


The first Christians not only took care of their own, but also reached out far beyond themselves. Their faith led to
a pandemic (pan = all; demos = people) of love. Consequently, at the risk of their own lives, they saved an immense number of lives. Their elementary nursing greatly reduced mortality. Simple provisions of food and water allowed the sick who were temporarily too weak to cope for themselves to recover instead of perishing miserably.


Pagans couldn’t help but notice that Christians not only found strength to risk their lives, but they also noticed that in caring for one another they were much less likely to die. Christian survivors of the plague became immune, and therefore they were able to pass among the afflicted with apparent invulnerability. In fact, those most active in nursing the sick were the very ones who had already contracted the disease early on, but who were cared for by their brothers and sisters. In this way, the early Christians became, in the words of one scholar, “a whole force of miracle workers to heal the ‘dying.’” Or as historian Rodney Spark puts it, “It was the soup they [the Christians] so patiently spooned to the helpless that healed them.”


In the midst of intermittent persecution and colossal misunderstanding, and in an era when serving others was thought to be demeaning, the “followers of the way”—instead of fleeing disease and death—went about ministering to the sick and helping the poor, the widowed, the crippled, the blind, the orphaned, and the aged. The people of the Roman Empire were forced to admire their works and dedication. “Look how they love one another,” was heard on the streets.


What about us today?

Our time is not unlike the twilight years of the Roman Empire. The god of materialism provides no hope; the structures and institutions of society that are meant to address social needs are indifferent and cold; and the current adversarial atmosphere of mistrust, suspicion, and violence breed fear and loneliness.


In an age of impersonal medicine, fear of death, social isolation, and mounting catastrophe, today’s church has the opportunity of going beyond the precautions of quarantine and vaccine
by trusting in the ultimate protection: love. Instead of retreating from the onslaught of pain and death, the church has the chance to demonstrate that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Instead of fear, which makes it difficult to look beyond the precautionary, followers of Christ can show the world that it is in giving our lives away that we find life. How we live and how we die is our message. If we would but dare more in faith in the here-and-now, then perhaps, as with the early church, an outpouring of new life and real hope—instead of terror and flight—will sweep the earth.

A Theology of Celebration (Part II)

This is a continuation of “A Theology of Celebration (Part I).” You are welcome to read that one first.

However, I have decided to make this second part more briefly than originally. Part one was written close to the time when some Christians were expressing the belief that Valentines Day may be “Un-Christian” and therefore should not be celebrated. But that was a few weeks ago. In a couple of more weeks, we will start getting the FB notices and articles that Easter is “Un-Christian” and likewise should not be celebrated. But at the moment, I am not feeling that annoyance so I will shorten my argument.

The starting point for a Theology of Christian Celebration is that God approves of celebration. We see celebration as being affirmed in Heaven in a number of places. Consider Luke 15:10 and Revelation 7:9ff. Celebration then, at least as a concept is not sinful… it is even viewed positively by God.

On earth, celebrations were identified by Jesus as good (consider Luke 19 and John 12 as examples of people celebrating Jesus’s presence). Additionally, the Jews had a number of celebrations of different sorts. Consider for a moment some of the variety.

  • Some had been formally commanded by God (in the Torah) and some were not.
  • Some were tied to historical events (Passover, dedication of the temple, Purim, Chanukkah), and some were not.
  • Some were based on harvest festivals (pre-Jewish celebrations) and some were not.
  • Some were national and some were tied to rites of passage (circumcision, wedding) and some were ad hoc (community feasts like described in Luke 15).
  • Some were highly religious (day of atonement), some were not really religious at all (community feast), and some were non-religious where a religious significance was tied to it (Like Shavuot).

Let’s consider this last one. Shavuot marks a period of time in the year in Palestine where the end of the Barley harvest meets the beginning of the wheat harvest. As such it lines as a harvest festival and was certainly celebrated as a harvest festival well before the time of Moses. However, with Moses and the arrival of the Torah, The Feast of Weeks was established (“Shavuot”) in the Torah, to commemorate the gift of the Law to the Israelites. Later on, during the Feast of Weeks (also known as Pentecost), the Holy Spirit came upon the 120 in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. This event has been marked until today as Pentecost and is celebrated as part of the Christian Liturgical calendar. So we have one continuous celebration from Pre-Israel days to the Christian era— a harvest festival, the arrival of the Torah, and the arrival of the Holy Spirit. Not only does this appear to be blessed by God, it appears to be intentional. The arrival of the Holy Spirit ushering in the Church age, is supposed to remind people of the arrival of the Torah ushering in the era of the Law, and both are to remind people of the joy of the arrival of the first wheat of the agricultural cycle. The overlapping symbols are not competitive but supportive.

Today there are those who feel that symbols have a certain permanence of meaning to them. And a symbol of permanent meaning has a permanent moral value associated with it. Therefore, a day that was once used by pagans cannot be used by anyone else for any other purpose. A symbol that has meaning in one faith can never be redeemed by another faith.

The truth is, however, that symbols (especially “pure symbols”) have meanings associated with them that are purely arbitrary. Even with iconic symbols, however, they can be redefined as well. A cross can be a symbol of disgrace and of execution, or it can be a symbol of faith and salvation. Meat that had been sacrificed to the Greek god Zeus, can symbolize the power of polytheistic Greek faith to give health and blessing, or it can be a worthless activity that can be ignored as one thanks the God of the Bible who provides all good things.

Celebrations are similar. If someone feels like he is doing wrong by celebrating something, then he should not. If someone feels like he is celebrating something worthy of Godly joy, he should feel no shame.

However, the challenge comes when these two people come together. What do we do then. Who is the weaker brother? It could be argued that either of them is the weaker brother and is required to adjust to the other out of loving concern. On the other hand, perhaps neither are the weaker brother. Perhaps they each simply disagree. Neither needs to apologize and neither needs to try to shame the other.

But that brings up a new thought. Can one join a celebration of a different religion or celebrate a secular event? Is that wrong? Generally, there are two answers given:

  • No you can’t. You are joining in something that is wrong.   Or…
  • Yes you can. We have Christian liberty. What is not clearly wrong is… right.

I would argue that there is another option… and that is “Maybe.” From a missiological standpoint there are then two questions that need to be considered.

Question #1.  Rather than focus on Yes I can or No I can’t celebrate, the question can be “How can I as a Christian join with the celebrations of my community, my friends, and still be true to my faith?”

Question #2.  How can I redeem the symbols of this celebration so that Christians can embrace the culture transformatively?

To me these questions are better to consider than addressing the issue of Bad versus Good.  Is Valentine’s Day non-Christian? In some ways, historically, and practically, the answer is clearly Yes. In some ways Valentine’s Day is non-Christian. Is Valentine’s Day Christian? Historically, it is also quite clear that the answer has to be Yes as well. Valentine’s Day has very clear Christian roots. So instead of fighting about trying to argue that Yes is No… Christians should ask the question,

“How can we as Christians celebrate Valentine’s Day in a way that is transformative in our community and true to our God.”

 

Demons on Coffee Break

Two demons were talking in the office during their decaf break.  The first demon, #10215, turned to the second demon,  #31244, to talk business. It was a requirement at their firm to only discuss business during decaf break. They were also required to address each other by their full names at all times: but #31244 and #10215 were rebels.

“Hey 44,” said 15. “I have heard that you are really ruffling some feathers and scales with the guys in management.”

“Yeah. but not my fault. They are old guard and just can’t embrace new possibilities, 15.”

“But who can blame them, 44. Our business is Lies. The boss is ‘The Father of Lies.’ He claims he invented lies… if you can believe anything he says. To start marketing Truth seems pretty off-brand for us.”coffee

“That’s their problem,” responded 44.  “They think the goal is the product. But the goal should be the results of the product, not the product itself. If the Truth creates as good or better results than a Lie, we need to grab that niche before someone else does.”

“Okay 44, tell me how the Truth thing works again.” 15, despite his rebellious streak, ‘religiously’ followed the corporate policy promoting needless exposition— ‘Tell, don’t Show.’

“Of course,” stated 44, also a supporter of this corporate policy. “Our goal is to undermine faith, or adherence to the truth. An obvious way to make this happen is to encourage people to believe a lie in its place. The problem is that lies commonly have a shelf-life, going bad and revealing themselves as lies at inconvenient times. Truth has the advantage of standing up to both time and scrutiny, so if truth can be used to undermine faith then it can often be more efficient in the long run.”

“How do you do this?” queried 15, wishing to extend the exposition further.

“It is so simple. Just change the tone of truth so that it guides people to the wrong response. There are an awful lot of truths that are pretty unpleasant. One needs hardly to make the effort to create lies. Just tell the truth in such a way so that it engenders FEAR or ANGER, or sometimes MISTRUST. Put out some truth as a story that has the implicit message that one should be very fearful rather than courageous. Or put out a story that suggests that one should sit around and be oh so very angry. It hardly matters at what— anything as long as it doesn’t get directed to constructive action. In some cases, we can also share a truth in such a way that leads people to mistrust whole groups of people or sources of information. This can actually innoculate people to understanding the bigger picture and to respond in faith rather than fear and anger.”

“How do we promulgate the truth? That really is not our specialty.”

44 laughed derisively (the only form of laughter allowed during working hours). “We just give these messages to Christians, and tell them that they simply must share them with all of their friends on social media. You would be amazed at how hard Christians will work to steer people away from faith!”

The 6.5 minute decaf break was over. 15 and 44 scurried back to the cubicles. So much to do.

Is Righteous Anger Righteous?

Before getting into the topic, I would like

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Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

to with my view of anger. I think anger is neither good nor bad. It is an emotion and emotions are not good or bad. Emotions begin to take on ethical concerns when tied to motives and actions. In this sense, then, I believe that anger itself is neither righteous nor unrighteous. Thus, the term “righteous anger” is neither self-contradictory, nor even paradoxical.

“Righteous Anger” seems to have come out of the cultural belief that anger is in itself… bad. Some prefer the term “righteous indignation. Of course, to some extent indignation can be seen as a different emotion, or perhaps a more nuanced emotion. Often indignation suggests anger that is motivated by injustice. Thus Aristotle saw it as a healthy state— between envy and spite. Therefore, righteous indignation is anger motivated by the injustice of the success of the undeserving. (Are there, however, people who deserve to be successful and people who don’t?)

In Christian circles, I think indignation is usually just a euphemism.  A person who is clearly angry may choose to defend himself by saying… “I am NOT angry… I have righteous indignation.” That has the double problem to me as it seems to be both emotionally dishonest, and suggesting false virtue.

For Christians, it is big concern since the Bible describes God as angy at times. The dominant emotion of God in the New Testament is Love, the dominant emotion used to describe Jesus in the Gospels is compassion,  and the dominant emotion ascribed to God in the Old Testament is mercy. The latter two, compassion and mercy, could perhaps be better said to be emotions tied to motivation and action. Nevertheless, anger or wrath are certainly described as emotions of God.

Some would argue that God doesn’t have emotions. Emotions are neurochemical responses that we have as biochemical lifeforms. God is spirit not flesh so emotions are not really part of His nature. From this view, God could be seen as not having emotions as we do (impassibility), and the emotional descriptions of God are simply attempts to make God make more sense to us (anthropomorphisms). I would argue oppositely. I would argue that God does have emotions, and created us with a biochemical analog of this characteristic of God.

That being said, I do think that sometimes the anger of God is used in the Bible to help explain something about God to us, rather than explain His actual emotional state. A good example of this is in the theological concept of Propitiation. The concept is drawn from a term in the Bible meaning to assuage or satisfy the wrath of God. As it is used by some theologians, it says that God is full of anger because of our sins, and the only thing that can fully satisfy or remove that anger is the blood (death) of Jesus. I personally, think the language is more metaphoric than literal. My main reason for believing this is that Jesus was able to walk around for over three decades on earth without appearing to be full of rage about people’s sinful behavior. Many Christians like to use the expression, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” In the case of Christ, it seems more like “Love the Sinner, Inspire the Good.” The term “propitiation” seems more like a metaphor for salvation, much like “justification,” “redemption,” and “adoption.”

Additionally, in some places in the Bible, hate or anger appear to be emotion-laden terms that actually refer to a much less emotional activity. When it says that for God, “Jacob have I loved, and Esau have I hated,” this seems to be less about emotion, and more about choice. After all, God actually chose to bless both brothers. However, the salvific history of God runs through Jacob.

Other places, it is not that simple. Jesus showed a wide range of emotions that have the spontaneity of the emotions we are familiar with. In Christian theology this should not be surprising since we see Jesus as fully human. However, such genuine emotions does not seem to be out of touch with the description of God’s quality. Thus, Jesus as fully God is not inconsistent with his emotions.

I like the quote of B.B. Warfield in this regard,

“Our Lord’s emotions fulfilled themselves, as ours do, in physical reactions. He who hungered (Matt. 4:2), thirsted (John 19:20), was weary (John 4:6), who knew both physical pain and pleasure, expressed also in bodily affections the emotions that stirred His soul… Not only do we read that He wept (John 11:35) and wailed (Luke 19:41), sighed (Mark 7:34), and groaned (Mark 8:12), but we read also of His angry glare (Mark 3:5), His annoyed speech (Mark 10:14), His chiding words (e.g. Mark 3:12), the outbreaking ebullition of rage (e.g. John 11:33 and 38), of the agitation of His bearing when under strong feelings (John 11:35), the open exaltation of His joy (Luke 10:21), the unrest of His movements in the face of anticipated evils (Matt. 27:37), the loud cry which was wrung from Him in His moment of desolation (Matt. 27:46).”

When I was young, I was told that anger was okay, ONLY if it was directed in support of the holiness of God. Jesus expressed anger at the sellers at the temple because it lowered God’s glory by turning a place of worship into a den of thieves. But is this the only time that anger is good?

Years ago, I was driving in Baguio City, when I saw a small girl walking on the sidewalk. She was carrying her books close to her, was hunched over, and appeared to be crying or on the verge of crying. Right behind her were two boys slightly larger than her. They were saying things that appeared to be derisive (although I could not hear them) and were tossing small pebbles at her. I also noticed that others who were around were ignoring her situation. I felt angry. I stopped my car in the busy traffic got out of my car and yelled at the boys to stop what they were doing immediately. Was that unrighteous anger. I don’t know. Perhaps it was. It certainly wasn’t directed towards defending God. But I would argue that God has called on us to focus more attention on defending the weak, the innocent, the disempowered, and the marginalized, than on defending Him. God can defend Himself quite well if the need arises. I think this type of anger is quite appropriate.

Since anger is built into our limbic system to trigger quickly, even though it is a “secondary emotion,” almost before we can identify the trigger, it seems as if God designed us to be angry… at times.  Overcoming anger is not always a virtue.

That being said, in missions one must also realize that in many cultures, anger is seen as almost always wrong. It is also true that many people have used “righteous anger” as a justification for unspeakable evil at times.

So where are we? My post has been pretty convoluted. However, it seems like the answer is that we should throw out the phrase “righteous anger.” Anger is anger. It can be triggered by appropriate things as well as inappropriate. It can motivate one to good actions or evil actions. It can be healthy to express anger in some environments and unhealthy to express that same anger in another context. In the end, I just don’t see it as a useful term. The guidance of St. Paul in Ephesians 4 seems appropriate:

Be angry, but do not sin.

 

 

Fulfilling Culture

H. Richard Niebuhr wrote a book that has become a seminary classic: “Christ and Culture.” Actually, it was a series of lectures that were compiled into a book. Niebuhr suggested five major philosophies or categories as to how Christ can interact with human Culture. The five are:

  1. Christ Against Culture
  2. Christ Of Culture
  3. Christ Above Culture
  4. Christ and Culture in Paradox
  5. Christ the Transformer of Culture.

<If you want to read a VERY BRIEF description of each category one can go to an article in Focus on the Family HERE. The first half of the article is beneficial. The second half was a waste of time as the article writer feels the need to demean Niebuhr as a “liberal.” Apparently, because he is liberal, he should not be trusted, while D. A. Carson (who is less liberal) is more trustworthy. I have trouble with this. First, trusting a person because of how closely he conforms to your preconceived opinions is a dangerous road to go down. As a second point, Niebuhr’s categories are a framework. As such, they are useful or not useful, rather than true or false. Judging a framework on who established it is kind of foolish if you get right down to it.>

I find the categories rather useful. I think that the first two categories (Christ Against Culture, and Christ Of Culture) are simply wrong. However, the remaining three have potential value. So I am adding another expression here with a bit of caution. But here it is:

Christ Fulfilling Culture

This one is not distinctly different from one or more of the latter three categories. Rather, I like this expression because it gives a better image of what I think Christ’s role is in terms of culture. To me Christ Transforming Culture is a good descriptor of Christ as one who takes what exists and makes it better, but does tend to focus more on the role of changing what is bad over the role of preserving what is good. Christ and Culture in Paradox is good and I think it fits well as a term with Bevan’s description of countercultural theological contextualization. However, the expression focuses on conflict… and that is a bit too simplistic. Christ Above Culture is good in that it makes clear that Christ and Culture are not equal— Christ has priority. However, in every other way, the term is unclear.

I prefer the expression “Christ Fulfilling Culture.” It suggests the idea that in Christ the work started in culture is completed in Christ… or that in Christ culture can become what it was meant to be, rather than what it is. Culture is generally (but not universally) understood to develop organically to meet the needs of a group as well as the individual members of that group. Culture guides behaviors and interpretations so that people can meet their holistic needs (physical, psycho-emotional, social, and spiritual) within a society as well as to attain human potential/flourishing. As such, culture IS because culture seeks to be good. However, culture always falls short of its lofty goals. Culture always ultimately fails to satisfy completely the felt and real needs of the group— because it is a construct of flawed humans in a flawed world. Christ, then, fulfills or satisfies what was dissatisfying in a culture.

Consider a couple of stories that point me in this direction.

Story #1. I was talking to one of my students who is of the Kachin people. The Kachin people are a group of tribes in Northern Myanmar, and parts of China and India. He was describing the beliefs of his forefathers. He noted that the Kachin people believed in one supreme creator god. They believed in the fallenness of man. They believed that God had given a message to the people but that message was lost. They believed in the need for sacrifice for reconciliation with God. When Christian evangelists came from the Karen tribe to their people, large numbers responded. However, many of them did not see themselves as leaving the religion of their ancestors. Rather they saw the Christian faith as fulfilling or completing the religion they already had. They now had the message they lost, and the completion of the sacrifices, through Christ.

Story #2. Acts 15, the Jerusalem Council, was a major event where an important issue was decided. Do Greeks have to become Jews to become Christians? The end result of the council was “NO.” Christ’s message is relevant to Greeks in the same way it is relevant to Jews. Christ fulfills the Jewish Religion and Culture, and Christ fulfills the Greek Religion and Culture. As such, Christians may behave considerably different in many key ways and still be understood as living according to the will of God. In the end, I feel that fulfill best expresses this.

Quitting as Lack of Faith or Act of Faith?

Going into Missions is often thought of as an act of letting go. One lets go of one’s former job, one’s home culture, and often many friends and even family.

One might think that means that missionaries

walking away

are good at letting go, but that is often not the case. In fact, the letting go in the past may make one less prone to do it in the field. One of the main challenges is letting go of ministries or projects. There can be a number of reasons. This is not an exhaustive (or exhausting) list.

  1. Fear of Change. We are creatures of inertia or homeostasis. It takes energy to change, to learn, to grow. If we have been doing something, we are likely to try to keep it going (1st order change) rather than stop and do something different (2nd order change).
  2. Comfort. Not unrelated to the first one, but now expressed in a more positive way. We get good at something and it feels like we have found our niche or our calling. It feels right to stay where we are and it feels wrong to cut ties… break relationships… end what has been so much of our present. Innovation and new challenges seem wrong, because we have gotten good at thinking “inside the box,” and hanging out in our “comfort zone.”
  3. Sense of Ownership or Privilege. We identify our ministry work with ourselves rather than with God, or with locals. The ministry feels like “ours” and not “theirs.” We sympathize with the writer of Ecclesiastes whose complaint was of how the rewards of one’s hard labor eventually go to those who did not work for it or earn it.
  4. Hubris. It is tempting to think that a ministry cannot survive without us. To let go can feel like dooming a ministry to collapse. Unfortunately, that attitude can actually create this reality. Thinking one is indispensible can lead a missionary not to train up others to take his/her place.
  5. Unable to Recognize the Times. I Chronicles 10:32 speaks “Of the sons of Issachar, men who understood the times, with knowledge of what Israel should do,…” Missionaries don’t always recognize when times have changed and situations changed. A need may disappear. A missionary may have transitioned from pioneer, to parent, to partner, to participant, and can (and should) move along. Many projects come to their natural end of life, but instead of being celebrated as a completed task, are put on life-support and maintained in a state of ineffectiveness.
  6. Fear that it Suggests a Lack of Faith. When is giving up on a project a sign of lack of faith, and when is it an act of faith? This takes a great deal of discernment, because leaving can be a calculated plan to follow God’s calling, or a running away from difficult tasks and choices. Retreat can be an act of cowardice or a an act of sound strategy. Leaving too soon is bad, but so is leaving too late. For some people it is a lack of faith because they believe the calling of God is static (“God has called you to this place for this ministry… until death”) rather than dynamic (“Calling is following God wherever He leads”).

If you are looking for easy answers, you will find none here. Listening to God and to wise mentors and peers are important, but these will remove all doubt. It is somehow right that MINISTRY rhymes with MYSTERY. There is, and should always be, a certain amount of uncertainty. Ultimately, our decisions must be Acts of Faith.

Dem Pesky False Prophets (Part 2)

Clearly this is part 2 to a part 1. You are welcome to click on that HERE, if you had not read it yet.

To continue… one may assume that a true prophet would have the qualities that were suggested from Matthew 7 and enumerated in the last post.

  1. A true prophet understands him/herself. The prophet understands that he/she is called by God to speak on the behalf of God. <As noted before, this is not a good test since many false prophets, mistakenly, believe themselves to be speaking for God.>
  2. A true prophet claims to speak in God’s name (rather than some other name). Again, not the best test since many people will claim to speak in the name of God… or the Bible… or Jesus Christ… or the Holy Spirit.
  3. A true prophet does signs and wonders that provide veracity that they are true prophets— at least if they do signs and wonders. Many many prophets in the Bible did not appear to do miraculous signs, and the passage in Matthew 7 does not imply that all true prophets perform miracles. In fact, Matthew 7 points to an opposite problem. The ability to perform miracles is NOT guarantee that an individual is not a false prophet.
  4. A true prophet produces good fruit.  We will talk about this last one the most, and note that #5 won’t be included on this list (it doesn’t really fit here).

Matthew 7 suggests that the most valid of these is the 4th one. A true prophet produces good fruit. False prophets can also be productive… but what they produce is ultimately worthless or counterproductive. The issue here is then not success.  False prophets can be quite successful. So what might be some good fruit?

  • Truth. A true prophet says what is true. Truth is identified in confirming to what is true. If God is true, the Bible is true, and the Created Word is true, then what the prophet reveals must conform to it. The words of the prophet must speak of God in line with the character of God. It must also conform to canon (the Holy Bible). It must also conform to Creation. So if a prophet was one who retells the future, most don’t, the words must conform to that future.
  • Moral good.  A true prophet must be fruit-bearing… but such fruit must be a moral good. So if prophet seeks wealth or power (a la Simon Magus) then the person is not a true prophet. If the prophet places him/herself above morality, then the person is false. When the prophet appears to be working at odds to God or the church, one should be concerned. (Note of course that a prophet, like Jeremiah, sometimes preaches against God’s people to encourage them to return to God.)

So let’s consider possible false prophets:

Hananiah.  Jeremiah 28.  Did Hananiah know he was a false prophet. Not sure. He was a court prophet, meaning that he served the king. There is an inherent challenge to serve both God AND king. Nathan appeared to be able to do it. Hananiah clearly wasn’t up to the task. He ended up telling the king and leaders of Judah what they wanted to hear. Ultimately, his message was proven false. His false message also led people to do the wrong thing— keep on keeping on.

Harold Camping.  Harold Camping is a different type of false prophet. For those who don’t know, Camping made several predictions over around 17 as to the return of Christ. He would probably be described as a Christian. Most would probably use the term “born-again” to describe him. As such, we might be uncomfortable calling him a false prophet. Also, he may not have self-identified as a prophet. Instead of saying that he is an accurate sharer of God’s message. However, he did claim to accurately discover and share secrets in the Bible. In reality, he was filtering the Bible through the dubious frameworks of numerology and pretrib-style dispensationalism. Unfortunately, bad came of it. Many Christians bought into this message… and then were disappointed.  100 million dollars was siphoned into a world-wide Christian message campaign that was false. Camping sold off many of his radio stations for this (at least he wasn’t doing this for the money). Non-Christians were given added confirmation that Christians were gullible. And since the message was linked to the Bible as if the predictions actually came from the Bible (although they didn’t), so some people would understandably reject the Bible.

Sadhu Sundar Selvaraj.  This is a recent self-styled prophet in a somewhat classic stereotype (claiming special powers to foretell based on information from God). He has made lots of prophecies with very little success. But in each case there is a contingent aspect to the prophecy to cover his back side. There is nothing wrong with that I suppose. But after awhile one must wonder if he is just a faker. Certainly, he has benefited from the celebrity status accorded him by those faithful to him. Some people have been able to overlook his bad foretelling, and his bad theology (like the Prophet Joel floating around the conference that he was speaking at). But some believed one of his predictions so much, that they either (1) fooled a major network to create a false news story, or (2) a member of that network did it intentionally. Certainly not good stuff. Falsifying news stories to provide veracity to a false message is truly wrong. Instead of rehashing this painful story… please just review my previous posts on this.