Sunday, February 28, 2016

Perilous times - are you on this list?

Most Christians believe that we are approaching the last days before Jesus’ return.  Though only the Father knows the exact day, there have been a lot of signs in the Bible that are visible here on the earth right now.  But instead of speculating on politics and current events, let’s look at the spiritual signs that God says will be evident at the end of the world:

Know this: In the last days perilous times will come. Men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, slanderers, unrestrained, fierce, despisers of those who are good, traitors, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God, having a form of godliness, but denying its power. Turn away from such people.  (2 Timothy 3:1-5 MEV)

This isn’t about atheists and unbelievers – it was written about people within the church.  It’s a list of demonic attitudes that will infiltrate Christian communities and contaminate the body of Christ.  The question is, are we on the alert for these attitudes?  Are we tolerating them because we assume that everyone we know is a true believer?  Are we on this list ourselves? 

Just because someone has a position in church or is knowledgeable about the Bible doesn’t mean a thing if they can be characterized by any of these dangerous qualities.  Paul is warning that these attitudes are a sign that perilous, or dangerous times have come – times when the lines between “Christian” and unbeliever become blurred.  Whoever is a lover of themselves – always out to save their own skin, their own reputation, boost their own standing and comfort – is on this dangerous list.  Boastful church leaders, greedy for fame and money, unthankful church members, gossips and slanderers who want to smear and defame the names of whoever they dislike, fit on this list as well.  Christians who make promises just to appease bothersome people, who casually break their word and throw their friends under the bus, who divorce and remarry, or cheat and deceive…  And even young people who disrespect their parents are considered as dangerous as greedy liars and all the others mentioned.  God doesn’t view anyone on this list as His child, and on top of that, He commands us to stay away from them.

These horrible qualities are understandable among unbelievers, among people who live by selfish emotions.  But this list easily describes modern-day church communities, and even worse, it’s become accepted as normal.  “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” is a common saying that isn’t often acted on.  But sometimes showing love to someone who’s deceived, means cutting them out of our lives when we see that they stubbornly want to continue living their way.  It’s a tough love that allows God to work where our words and presence in their lives cannot.  But do we do it?

God is holding us to a standard that is not politically correct.  It’s holiness.  It’s a standard of purity, humility and gratefulness to God in all things.  They’re not popular qualities, but if we belong to the Kingdom of God, the standards of this world don’t apply any more.  

We are approaching dangerous times.  We can’t afford to have what Paul says is just a form of godliness.  If we just have the appearance but refuse to live in godliness, we are denying God’s power – we might as well be slapping God in the face by living in such selfishness.  We desperately need His power, we need His justice to right the wrongs that have hurt us, and to forgive the sins we’ve committed. If we deny His power by living unholy lives, then we are hopelessly lost.  Now is the season of seeking to live in holiness and righteousness so He can give us His justice.  It’s what we all long for.   “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” (Matthew 5:6)

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Myth #2 – The Poverty Gospel

From the time that the Roman Catholic Church took control of Europe many centuries ago, the idea of poverty equaling holiness has been accepted as truth, even among evangelical Christians.  We don’t make vows of poverty and celibacy, but a general feeling exists that wealth beyond the basics for living is dirty and sinful.  Most Christians pray for God to provide for an honest job and to pay their bills, and they believe that giving to the poor is a noble and spiritual act of faith.  But they’ll often look at a Christian who is wealthy with suspicion, and view a church with a large expense account as greedy and unspiritual.  

A friend of mine was a non-denominational pastor who couldn’t make ends meet with the offering of his church.  He felt it was selfish and unethical to ask for offerings or tithes during the service, and so he would just remind his congregation that an offering box was located at the back of the church and that they were free to give whatever they felt led to give.  He believed that if it was God’s will for the church to be blessed, it would happen automatically.  Months would go by with barely anything dropped in the box, and he and his wife were forced to work separate jobs to provide for their family.  The church membership didn’t mind, in fact they were proud of their hardworking pastor who provided for himself so they wouldn’t have to give anything.  The church members never learned the power of giving by faith, the pastor and his family felt unappreciated and resentful, the church never grew, and no evangelism happened – ever.  This church no longer exists today, and my friend has left the ministry.  This idea of just waiting around for God to drop financial blessings into our laps without seeking or knocking or asking, is not a Biblical one.  Teaching that God does want to provide and does want to give in abundance is very Biblical, which means that teaching the principles of giving to receive are necessary, just as Jesus taught. 

When our church in Brazil announced its massive building project of the Temple of Solomon, the attacks came fast and furious.  “Why waste so much on a fancy monument, instead of giving all that money to the poor?”  “God doesn’t live in buildings, it’s wrong to spend so much when people are suffering.”  “They’re just trying to show off…”  Of course there have been abuses of money by churches, both Catholic and non-denominational.  No one denies that greed is a big weapon that the devil uses to undermine the Kingdom of God.  But does that mean all big purchases or building projects of a church are evil?  Are all wealthy Christians greedy?  Should every church be run out of a shack in order to remain spiritually pure?

There are a vast amount of verses that teach that we should pray for prosperity (1 Chronicles 4:10, Psalm 115:14, Psalm 118:25, 3 John 1:2, for example).  There are also many that warn against the love of money, (1 Timothy 6:10, Matthew 6:24, Hebrews 13:5). But it’s the love of money that is evil – not wealth in and of itself.   

Those who are quick to condemn those who pursue God’s financial blessings, shut their lives off to great lessons of faith, and an opportunity to be a testimony of God’s faithfulness.  What if my pastor friend had had the courage to challenge his church to give and beleive in God’s provision?  What if he’d stood on God’s promises and prayed regularly for God to provide financially for both his church members and his personal life?  What if he shook off the sense of shame that inhibited him from asking for offerings?  That church could be saving many souls today, he and his wife could be stronger and more blessed in their faith, the church members could have grown in their faith and the word of God would be more than just preached, but lived out as an example that God is true to His promises – that He provides and prospers. 

What about that massive Temple of Solomon project that has now been open and functioning for a year and a half?  Over 20,000 people worship there on Sundays alone, and many more attend every single day of the week, where the gospel is preached faithfully.  People of every religion have come in curiosity to learn about the God of the Bible.  The Jewish community in the country gathers regularly with our pastors to learn and share their thoughts on God.  Testimonies pour in every month of people who were suffering in sickness and poverty, learned to depend on the God Who Provides, and are now healed and blessed with homes and jobs.  It was their experience in the Temple of Solomon that helped them to view God in a whole new way, as enormous and powerful, and also as their Lord and Savior.   

Jesus’ warning that it’s harder for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, ends with His words, “With people, nothing is possible, but with God, all things are possible.”  It’s not about being wealthy or poor, it’s about the state of our hearts – where our treasure is.  If a Christian has wealth, but has a heart that is set on heaven, he’ll freely give whenever God challenges him to sacrifice, because his treasure is in God, not in what he owns.  God can trust him with wealth.  Possessions don’t contaminate him because he’s, as Jesus says on the Sermon on the Mount, “poor in spirit.”  In other words, he reacts to His word with humility and obedience, with the courage to live out his faith, and that’s the kind of poverty we all need to have.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:  “May those who love you prosper; may there be peace within your walls, prosperity within your fortresses.”  Because of my brothers and friends, I will say, “Peace be with you.”  Because of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.  (Psalm 122:6-9 HCSB) 

Monday, February 22, 2016

Myth #1: Prosperity = Spirituality

I know of some churches that publically shame members who don’t earn a large salary, while giving preferential treatment to the biggest givers.  

Church positions are awarded according to financial status, as if faith is proven by the size of a bank account.  How I found out about them is because some of those shamed church members have sought counseling from me and from my colleagues.  Some were barely surviving as they dug themselves into debt, feeling obligated to appear in church in expensive clothes with new cars, lying about successful careers that didn’t exist.  Suffering, struggle and losses were treated as a sign of weakness.  If God were really pleased with you, you’d be rich.  

That’s one end of the spectrum when it comes to Christians and their ideas of prosperity, but there’s an opposite extreme too.  Other Christians treat suffering and poverty as noble and sublime — not necessarily when they are personally going through it, but they hold up the examples of others as true saints who patiently endure misery and hardship, and easily criticize a fellow Christian who might be well-off.  I’ll deal with that concept in the next blog post, but what most critics refer to as the Prosperity Gospel is serious enough to warrant an entire post of its own. It’s not that blessings or prosperity have no basis in the Bible — the Bible’s full of verses, passages and examples of God providing abundantly for His people.  You can’t believe in the Bible as the complete word of God, and not believe that He is a God of prosperity.  But that beautiful attribute of God becomes twisted and distorted by many, which is a real travesty.  

This distortion is not an exception by any means.  Pastors obligate their members to publicly honor them with expensive presents on their birthdays, churches hunt down and harass those who are late with their tithes, special seats and honored positions are given to the wealthiest church families, while scandals of infidelity and immorality are hushed up, from the membership straight to the highest levels of leadership.  As long as big donation checks are being written, all sins can be overlooked. This type of Prosperity Gospel exists everywhere, from the US to Singapore, to Brazil and more.  This has nothing to do with the biblical prosperity of God, and it has nothing to do with the gospel.  It should rather be called, the Doctrine of Greed.  

Shondra had been a member of one of those churches for 11 years. She sat quietly at the back of our church services for months, slipping out at the last “Amen” and speaking to no one.  I finally was able to talk with her and learned how afraid she was of revealing all the problems weighing her down.  They were her debt, her divorce, her overdue car payments, and the shame of being on the brink of bankruptcy. She couldn’t keep up appearances any longer.  “Pastor,” she said, “this is the first time I’ve been taught anything about the Bible beyond how I have to give tithes and offerings.”  With patience and months of consistent discipling, Shondra has now developed a real relationship with God that knows how to give as God prompts her, not out of compulsion.  She’s much happier to live sincerely for God, and not under pressure to put on a show for anyone.

I fully believe in the prosperity of God, that He is good and merciful and giving, but the fact remains that true believers do go through baptisms of fire, and are often called upon to sacrifice.  God’s provision isn’t meant to be flaunted with pride, or used as a way to manipulate or humiliate others.  Sometimes even the possessions and wealth of professing Christians are gained through unethical means, and God has no part in that.  God’s prosperity should cause us to humble ourselves before Him, to recognize that He is the provider of all our needs and that we are totally dependent on Him.  We believe in God’s abundance and provision – and take on the deserts and baptisms of fire in strength and faith. 

Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy.  Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed. (1 Timothy 6:17-19 NASB)

Next post, the Poverty Gospel…

Friday, February 5, 2016

Becoming a Lighthouse

God doesn’t want us just to be better versions of ourselves, cleaned up and spit-shined. He wants us to become like Him. Dozens of verses say that we are to be imitators of Christ, imitators of God, baptized into Christ, to put on Christ, to become new creatures and be renewed by putting off our old self and putting on a new self. Being Christ like is a total transformation. C. S. Lewis, the famous Christian scholar and author said, “He came to this world and became a man in order to spread to other men the kind of life He has — by what I call ‘good infection.’ Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.”

In response, the devil has craftily created his own image of what looking like Christ is, and it’s boring and stuffy. Most of the world believes his lie, even Christians. How many times have you prayed, “Lord, I want to be like You,” and then stubbornly resisted doing what He would have done? We subconsciously believe that if we become Christ-like we’ll no longer have any fun, we’ll always be ridiculed, turn into social misfits, and settle for lonely, mediocre lives.  

Of course being Christ-like means changing our character, morals and behavior. You can’t put on Christ and be self-centered and sin infested at the same time. Let’s look at the bigger picture. To be like Jesus, would also mean being the kind of people who rise above the storms and problems, who aren’t battered by them. It would mean having authority over spiritual forces that want to destroy us, and even over principalities in high places. It would mean having the vision to see beyond the pettiness of everyday life, and be at peace – just like Jesus as He slept through the storm. It would mean having the authority to create joy, light and peace in the worst situations, because we live by His Spirit. Whoever is Christ-like, becomes a lighthouse for everyone around them. They become solid ground that can be trusted and relied on, they are sought out for wisdom and strength when everyone else is shaken.  

There’s nothing boring about being like our Lord. Sacrifices of our flesh have to be made daily, but they are so worth giving up for the new life that we’re given the privilege to put on. Our mindset should change from “I have to become Christ-like,” to, “I actually get to become Christ-like!”  

Isaiah wrote about this during the time of King Hezekiah, and was referring to him and his officials. But through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Isaiah was also referring to the coming Messiah, to Jesus, and to Jesus’ “officials,” or disciples – us. This passage was written looking forward to the day that the King of kings and those who serve Him, will become a rock of safety for others, a river of refreshment and a place of protection. Have you ever viewed yourself this way? Have you ever believed that you could become an answer to people’s prayers, just because of the strength of faith growing inside of you? When we become like Jesus, we impact our world. We change personally, and we become a strength for others, and there’s nothing boring or stuffy about that. 

Look, a king will promote fairness; officials will promote justice. Each of them will be like a shelter from the wind and a refuge from a rainstorm; like streams of water in a dry region and like the shade of a large cliff in a parched land. (Isaiah 32:2 NET)

Monday, February 1, 2016

The raw faith prayer challenge

When the Israelites were being prepared for the Promised Land, God gave detailed instructions on how to live, worship, and work the land.   Every tribe was to have a large section of the land of Canaan where they could settle and thrive – every tribe except one.  The tribe of Levi had a special purpose.  

Their inheritance was to serve God in the tabernacle, and later in the temple.  They were to have no farmland allotted to them, but to dedicate their lives solely to the worship of God, and to offer the sacrifices that God’s people needed to make to remain in communion with Him.  It looked like they were getting less, but in dedicating their entire lives to God, they were receiving so much more.  Being a Levite was a great honor.

Centuries later, King David echoed that same sentiment.  In Psalm 16, he rejoices that God is his portion, his beautiful and pleasant inheritance.  Nothing else mattered but his salvation.  It’s beautiful poetry, but David wrote it in tough times.  In the first verse he cries out to God to rescue him, to be his refuge.  He was a king of warfare, and had bloodthirsty enemies all around him who wanted to see him dead and his kingdom in ruins.  David’s victories and prosperity came through hard choices and life-and-death challenges.  Those beautiful words of rejoicing were nothing short of raw faith in the face of trials.  He chose to dwell on the joy of serving God in the middle of all that.  He affirmed that God’s call to be a warrior was pleasant, even when it didn’t feel pleasant.  That raw faith paved the way for God to give him victory after victory.

The whole secret of intelligent, or thinking faith, is in choosing to see God and His love for us exactly as He is – despite intimidating circumstances.  David visualized the blessings and saw God as a rock, unmovable and unchangeable.  God was his, and he was God’s, and no threat of enemies could steal that away.  This is the raw faith evidenced in God’s people from Genesis to Revelation, if we could only discipline our hearts to put it into practice too.   

You and I are where we are right now because God has a calling for us.  Maybe you aren’t following His calling, which is why you’re road is so bumpy and unpleasant - He's trying to wake you up and follow Him in the right direction.  Maybe you are truly following His calling, but have to confront enemies who want to derail you, and He’s strengthening you with supernatural wisdom and power to overcome.  Right now He wants each of us to determine this prayer of David as the reality we see by faith, that we confess as truth, and that we choose to live by in joy and faithfulness – despite intimidating circumstances. 

God is your portion. Determine it.  The blessings He has for you, no one can take away as long as you remain in faith.  He is the one who supports you, no one can knock you down.  Determine that the boundary lines of your life are pleasant and good, even if they feel cramped or restraining, they are there to bless you.  You may have no physical inheritance, but God is giving you a beautiful inheritance, and not just when you go to heaven (although that’s the inheritance we long for the most), but here on this earth.  God is giving you counsel, maybe you haven’t been listening, or you’ve been shrugging Him off, so humble yourself and listen.  Your love for Him instructs and lead you peacefully, even in entire seasons that seem dark as night. They're not scary, they're pleasant. You’re determined to set the Lord before you, front and center of all your thoughts, all your prayers, all your decisions and all your motives.  He is your right hand, cut Him off from you and you will die.  And in all of these things, you will not be moved.  

Challenge yourself to make this your prayer today, and every day, and watch how pleasant your portion and cup really does become.  Pave the way for God to give you victory after victory as well.

“The Lord is the portion of my inheritance and of my cup; You support my lot.  The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; yes, an inheritance is beautiful for me.  I will bless the Lord who has given me counsel; my affections also instruct me in the night seasons.  I have set the Lord always before me; because He is at my right hand, I will not be moved.”  (Psalm 16:5-8 MEV)