Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.
John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople; sermon, ca. 400
The Prosperity Gospel
Most professing Christians in America are infected with at least some measure of the health and wealth gospel, said one theologian.
That is, believers have no concept of a love and a joy that does not eliminate hardship and heartache, Sam Storms of Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City said at a pastors conference this week.
"For most professing believers if God is love He must promise to minimize my struggles and maximize my pleasure," he lamented. Many believe it's their spiritual birthright to experience comfort and prosperity and that it's God divine obligation to provide it.
It's a disease that's rampant in the culture and in the church. People are inundated with messages from powerbrokers, media, entertainment, TV evangelists and bestselling authors that say joy is inextricably bound up in material prosperity, physical health, relational success and all the comforts and conveniences Western society provides.
For most people, joy and suffering are incompatible, Storms noted.
Thus preachers have a difficult task at hand in communicating to such a culture a genuine joy found in Christ.
The so-called prosperity gospel that teaches wealth and good health is a sign of God's favor and blessing is prevalent in the church, Storm lamented. Underlining the seriousness of the problematic theology many preachers have picked up, the Oklahoma City pastor called it a "corrosive and disintegrative pox" on the church and "a disease far more infectious and ultimately fatal to the soul than the worst bubonic plague and the affects it might have on the human body."
"We have to fight this infection in the body of Christ," he emphatically told pastors at the Desiring God conference in Minneapolis.
But the blame for the rampant "disease" shouldn't fall on the TV evangelists, Storms noted.
"I want to lay it (the blame) at our feet," he said.
"It's the pastors and leaders of the church today who fail to explain from the biblical text how hardship and tribulation are actually used by God to expose the superficiality of all the human material props on which we rely," he explained. "We failed ... to show ... how hardship and persecution and slander compel us to rely on the all-sufficiency of everything God is for us in Jesus."
That failure has left most professing Christians unable to grasp "the simple truth" that "infinitely more important and of immeasurably greater value than our physical comfort in this world is our spiritual conformity to Christ," Storms noted.
And conformity to the image of Christ is orchestrated through trials and hardship.
"If I suffer it is because God values something in me greater than my physical comfort and health that He in His infinite wisdom and kindness knows can only be attained by means of physical affliction and the lessons of submission and dependency and trust in Him that I learn from it," he said.
"That's how suffering serves joy."
Everyday people are hearing about a joy less durable and far inferior than the one offered by God. Yet, Storms asked pastors, when was the last time you expounded on the nature of the fullness of joy, ... the superior beauty of God?
Citing the work of 18th century theologian Jonathan Edwards, Storms advised pastors on how a "Christian hedonist" should preach on the pursuit of joy.
"The pursuit of God brings 'delights of a more sublime nature', 'pleasures that are more solid and substantial . . . vastly sweeter, and more exquisitely delighting, and are of a more satisfying nature . . . that exceed the pleasures of the vain, sensual youth, as much as gold and pearls do dirt and dung,'" he said, reading from Edwards' sermon "Youth and the Pleasures of Piety."
He continued, "Loving God 'is an affection that is of a more sublime and excellent nature’ than the love of any earthly object. Such love is always mutual, and thus the love one receives from Christ 'vastly exceeds the love of any earthly lover.'"
"Edwards argued that the problem isn't the pursuit of pleasure but the willingness of uninformed minds to settle for comparatively inferior joys when God offers us unsurpassed and far more durable delights," Storms explained.
The Bridgeway pastor reminded fellow ministers that delighting themselves in the Lord isn't a choice, but a command and duty. Sin, he said, is denying a fillet mignon so you can fill your bellies with rancid ground beef.
We are not pursuing pleasure without God, but in Him, Storms stressed.
Speakers at the Feb. 1-3 Desiring God conference devoted their talks on the foundation of Christian Hedonism, a term coined by Desiring God's John Piper, and the pursuit of joy.
Bob Blincoe, U.S. director of Frontiers in Phoenix, Ariz., defined Christian Hedonism as "the desire for God," "desiring Him more than all other things" and "the confidence that there is nothing else worthy of our desire, nor rival treasure to treasuring Him."
"Christian Hedonists ... neglect every distraction, every attraction, every seduction, every sinful thought, and every temptation because we have set our hearts on the far exceeding treasure: God Himself," Blincoe said.
Have you ever seen the movie “The Ghost and the Darkness,” starring Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas? It’s really a good flick and illustrates a concept that I have had to take to heart many times.
In the movie, which is based on a true story, a construction camp in Africa is harassed by man-eating lions. These lions are unusual because they kill for sport, which made the movie downright creepy in a few parts. As the plot thickens, Kilmer, who plays engineer Col. John Henry Patterson, has a chance to kill one of the lions and fails. Afterward, he feels terrible, especially after professional hunter Charles Remington (Douglas) chastises him for making an error that hunters usually don’t make.
Remington is a good guy though. After he chastises Patterson he said, “We have an expression in prize fighting: ‘Everyone has a plan until they’ve been hit.’ Well my friend, you’ve just been hit. The getting up is up to you.”
Proverbs 24:16 says, “for though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again ...” According to the Puritan minister Matthew Henry, this means that a “sincere soul falls as a traveler may do, by stumbling at some stone in his path; but gets up and goes on his way with more care and speed ...”
Henry said that the fall should be understood as adversity rather than actual sin and in the context of the other verses surrounding it, he is correct. I also think, however, that this is also a good principle to remember when we commit sin or, perhaps, when we have unintentionally hurt someone. First John 1:9 says that whenever we confess our sins God will forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. In addition to this, we also have to forgive ourselves.
Many of us, including myself, have a hard time forgiving ourselves when we’ve done something wrong. We ask for God’s forgiveness, but that doesn’t stop us from wallowing in self-pity or self-blame. I’m sure that God understands this because he knows that we don‘t want to do wrong; however, when this happens, I picture him saying something similar to what Remington told Patterson in that African jungle.
Yes, there are times when we may fall. Life is not easy, but that doesn’t mean we should lose faith and quit. We should put the incident in the past, get back up, dust ourselves off, make amends, if necessary, and keep on going. Sometimes this is easier said than done, but it is an essential part of life.
Presented as a devotional, La Junta First Church of the Nazarene's Lenten service and dinner, March 19, 2010:
The first time I ever saw a crocus was when we lived in eastern Michigan. My kids and I were outside sometime during late March or early April and there was snow on the ground. While the boys explored, I stood in a corner of the yard watching them.
"Mommy, look," said Andrew, who was three at the time. "A flower!"
"A flower?" I walked over to where Andrew stood pointing and saw a tiny purple flower adding regal beauty to the white snow. Later on that day I asked one of our friends about it. She told me that it was a crocus, the first flower of spring. I had never heard of a crocus. I knew about tulips and daffodils, but not about these tiny flowers.
I will never forget that day. Michigan is cold during the winter and it stays cold longer than other places I have lived. That crocus was a simple reminder that spring and warmth were on the way.
I now have crocuses at my house in Colorado and, today, Andrew, now 17, called me to say that the crocuses were coming up in the garden. They seemed later than usual this year so I thought that I would have to buy more. It delighted me to hear that they were returning to brighten the world for a short time.
Good moments from creation don't last very long, but they bring a deep satisfaction to my soul. These moments are a constant reminder of my creator. He is the same creator who fashioned the earth with such intricate detail that a little flower, with a bulb the size of a hazelnut, will appear for a short time in spring, fall dormant and then return year after year. Returning bulbs and birds that habitually migrate year after year always seem to impress on me how orderly creation is.
Although we may have chaotic times, fire may destroy foliage, tornadoes may come, lightning may strike, or floods may ravage the landscape, we can still count on God's creation to replenish itself, often in a way that is more beautiful that it was previously. God has instilled the same drive in humanity. Trouble may come, but our desire to live carries us forward, hopefully more resilient than we were previously.
Spring is also a reminder that God is in the business of constant renewal and remaking the old. He is constantly working to renew us and make us better people.
God is good, isn't he? Spring is a great time to make that known.
When our family lived in the small town of Bad Axe, Mich., the circus came to town. It was a big deal. It seemed like everyone in Huron County showed up to go to the circus and we were no different. Although we liked living in Bad Axe, after growing up in Southern California, we found the small farming community a veritable entertainment vacuum, so the circus was our chance to “get out on the town,” so to speak.
This circus was no different than any other small circus. There were clowns, elephants, trapeze artists and huge snakes. The boys seemed to enjoy the atmosphere and so did we. The circus seemed to have a good display of showmanship that was fun for everyone.
Unlike the circus, spirituality is best enjoyed when it is not showy. Jesus once told a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector who were both in the temple one day. The Pharisee stood up to pray and thanked God out loud that he was not like the scumbag tax collector. Meanwhile, the tax collector prayed silently asking God to forgive him for all the things he had done.
At the end of their prayers, Jesus said, the tax collector went home justified. The tax collector’s heart was in the right place. He didn’t care about the opinions of others. He just wanted God’s approval.
M. Robert Mulholland wrote in his book “Invitation to a Journey: Road Map for Spiritual Formation,” that the cure for showy spirituality is to fix the heart. This is done by practicing three spiritual disciplines: silence, solitude and prayer.
Silence, Mulholland said, “is fasting from speaking to listen to God.” By giving up our voice, silence helps release control of our relationship with God. Through our silence, God takes the reins and begins to tell us what we need to know.
Practicing silence leads to solitude, which is fasting from fellowship with others to be alone with God. Part of solitude is drawing away from others, Mulholland said, but the main crux of the discipline is to be ourselves with God and to “acknowledge who we are to ourselves and to God.”
Out of this recognition and the peace that it brings flows prayer, In prayer we offer everything we are to God. It is through prayer that God works to change us into what he wants us to be.
Through this process of letting go, we become more and more comfortable with who we are and with who God is. When we reach this point it does not mean that we have “arrived” at a place where we no longer need God to work in our lives, it means that we look at ourselves realistically and, therefore, we do not need to compare ourselves with others to make ourselves feel better. It is through these disciplines that we become able to have compassion on others and ourselves as well.
During the time I was growing up in the Nazarene church, the church had a prohibition against watching movies.
I guess with the advent of the VCR and later advances in home movie viewing, it became increasingly difficult for the denomination to enforce such a rule. Instead the church encouraged a guideline: to watch whatever was true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy. The guideline works much better than the prohibition, especially when Hollywood is producing movies that have great moral themes. I have watched two recently that would be excellent to watch during Lent because of their strong scriptural undertones of Biblical reconciliation and forgiveness.
The first film I would recommend is the 1998 version of “Les Miserables” (or, if you are really ambitious, read the book by Victor Hugo). In this classic tale, Jean Valjean is imprisoned for stealing bread and is freed after 19 years of hard labor. After his release, as he makes his way to his parole officer, Valjean has a life-changing encounter with a priest and learns about reconciliation and forgiveness. Valjean then spends his life giving this gift to others, sometimes at great cost to himself, while being pursued by a former prison guard who recognizes him.
The second movie is the 2001 flick “To End All Wars,” which is based on a book written by Ernest Gordon. Gordon was a British POW in Thailand during the Japanese occupation of that country. He was one of thousands of POW’s who was used as slave labor to build the “Railway of Death.” After World War II, Nelson was ordained in the Church of Scotland and later served as Dean of the Chapel at Princeton University. The movie adaptation of his novel shows what happened to four allied POWs who were in a Japanese prison camp during World War II.
“We were treated worse than animals,” he said years later, as quoted by The Internet Movie Database. “The conditions were worse than you could imagine.”
The prisoners learned to live in their circumstances and also won limited sympathy from their captors by conducting secret classes in which they studied the classics, including the Bible. Because of lessons learned through their study, some took beatings for others, and one died in place of another who did not deserve it. This caused considerable consternation among their captors, who followed the Japanese warrior code of Bushido. The movie demonstrates the evolution of the concepts of forgiveness and eventually reconciliation between prisoner and captor.
Through such dramatic and interesting examples, the movies give us a glimpse of what it is like to live triumphantly in adverse circumstances and to truly forgive. While watching these movies, I asked myself several times whether or not I could forgive like Jean Valjean or Ernest Gordon, or ultimately as did Jesus.
“Faith thrives when there is no hope but God. It is luxury and success that makes men greedy,” Gordon also said.
In our day of relative ease and comfort, perhaps it is through the sacrifice practiced during Lent, the praying, fasting and giving of alms, that helps makes this kind of forgiveness possible.