Thursday, June 2, 2016

Spiritual Spin-Mastery: A Slippery Slope

It's common knowledge that news anchors, journalists, political pundits, and the like, often quote a person's statement in partial form, or out of context, in order to put their own spin on it. This use of spin is usually intended to create impact, to sell a story, to push an agenda, or even to slander. In other words, spin is always used with an ulterior motive.

Misrepresenting a person's statements is widely looked down on. The fact is, however, Christians can do exactly the same thing with our own handling of the truth. Just like the tabloid reporters we vilify, we can also put our own spin on God's Word—unintentionally or otherwise.

If we're really honest, we could probably all think of an occasion when we've twisted God's Word to suit ourselves. It's tempting to quote Bible verses selectively to prove a point, isn't it? It's comforting to cherry-pick tidbits of Scripture to support our presuppositions or to satisfy our emotional needs. It's convenient to filter the Word of God through the lens of our own theology or circumstances rather than letting our view of Scripture arise from an honest, humble examination of the text.

Our intentions in spinning God's Word may be well-meaning. We might want to be sensitive, relevant, or tolerant
We might want to present a more culturally acceptable, less polarizing, version of our faith to the world (lest anyone be offended) rather than speaking the truth in love (which isn't always well received)But the problem is, the more we systematically approach Scripture from our own perspective rather than from a desire to understand God's, the more we will find ourselves in it, and the less we will find Him. In other words, we can put ourselves in danger of becoming spiritual spin-masters.

In truth, we are all subjective beings, and we'll always get bits of ourselves mixed up in the text to some extent. But the less we do this, the better. When studying God's Word, reading a Christian book, or listening to a sermon, Christians need to exercise discernment, asking ourselves: whose voice am I really listening to? Am I submitting to the guidance of the Holy Spirit as I humbly seek truth or am I tight-fistedly gripping the control? Am I being diligent in testing every teaching or am I absent-mindedly letting myself be deceived?

Spinning God's Word is dangerous. It can create an entire web of lies. Is this not how Joseph Smith was able to found what is now the fastest growing religion in America? He closely mimicked the Word of God, and put his own spin on it—even to the extent of adding to it and rewriting chunks of it! And think of the greatest spiritual spin-master of all time... Satan masterfully mixes truth with lies. He tweaks, twists, and intertwines God's truth with lies to trick us and tempt us into sin just like he did to Adam and Eve.

But spiritual spin-mastery can also appear in other less obvious places, even emerging on the mission field. In Islamic contexts, for example, a growing number of missionaries have begun to contextualize biblical truth in an effort to win more converts in what has long been a very hostile mission field. Some degree of cultural contextualization is necessary. Too much, however, is a slippery slope that quickly leads to syncretism. For example, in order to contextualize the gospel in a culturally sensitive way for the purpose of "building bridges" to Muslims, certain outspoken—but widely influential—leaders in Muslim ministry have encouraged using the Koran (as opposed to the Bible) to introduce Muslims to Jesus. Numbers-driven strategies in missiology such as the C5 (or the high-spectrum contextualization) method and the Jesus in the Qur'an trainings (CAMEL), are examples of this. In addition, Muslim idiom translations of the Bible have been promoted in these contexts, which remove un-Islamic concepts (such as God as Father) from Scripture, even though doing so is to take away from God's Word and obscure the doctrine of the TrinityAnd in an effort to make Jesus more "accessible" to Muslims by repackaging Him in a Muslim-friendly way, some C5 missionaries go so far as to effectively extract Jesus from Christianity altogether. Christian speaker and Muslim, Carl Medearis, for example, likes to state that Christianity has laid unfair claim to Jesus anyway.[1]

The problem is, however, the Jesus of Islam is an entirely different person from the biblical Jesus and when you extract Him from Christianity there's no longer clear doctrine to define in absolute terms who He is and what He has done for us on the Cross. It all becomes culturally relative. These contextualization strategies go way too far in spinning the truth. And this results in false converts.

It is important to remember that it is the role of the Holy Spirit to convict hearts, not ours to finesse and spin the Word of God to make it more culturally appealing. We are to proclaim the gospel message, and let the gospel stand for itself. Or as Paul puts it: "renounce disgraceful, underhanded ways" and "refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's Word, but by the open statement of the truth...commend ourselves to everyone's conscience in the sight of God." (2 Cor 4:2). For seeking to ingratiate ourselves with a world that has rejected Christ is like trying to mix God's light with darkness. This dangerous form of spiritual spin will undoubtedly result in 50 shades of grey.

Spiritual spin-masters are everywhere. We need to be aware of them, and identify them, in order to guard ourselves and others. Remember: Satan masquerades as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14). He doesn't only try to destroy our faith by denying the Bible; he often quotes it out of context to lead us into disobedience—just as he attempted to do to Jesus in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-11). Evidently, just because someone quotes Scripture, doesn't mean they speak God's Word!

Are we just nit-picking by trying to identify the spin-masters in our midst? Why be so negative? If people get something positive out of a Christian book even if it's not in line with Scripture, why make a fuss about it? There's a short answer to this: Because Jesus did.

Jesus repeatedly warned against false teaching and urged His followers to watch out that they are not deceived, for “many will come in My name” to lead people astray. (Luke 21:8; Mark 13:6). Jesus' description of false teachers is sobering: “They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” (Matt 7:15-16). The Epistles and Proverbs contain many of the same warnings. As a result, people who claim to have information from God should be tested carefully (1 John 4:1). In fact, every teaching should be tested (1 Thess 5:21).

Take for example the vastly popular "prosperity" teaching of the Word of Faith mega-pastors. While they call themselves "Christian," and have mass-appeal among many professing Christians, these preachers are in fact promoting a false gospel and a false Jesus. They preach the Convenient Christ—a lovable, Santa-esque figure who wants to make us happy and bless us abundantly. Their Jesus wants us to be comfortable in the world and for the world to comfortable with him. He always refrains from saying things that might offend people (conveniently skipping over the polarizing, convicting things that Jesus actually said). Their Jesus wants us to be successful, wealthy, and healthy above all else!

Earlier this year, Mega-Pastor Joel Osteen, for example, explained on a special Easter edition of CBS Sunday Morning, why he specifically chooses not to preach on repentance: "You know, it's not hellfire and brimstone [at Lakewood Church]. But I say most people are beaten down enough by life. They already feel guilty enough." As is often the case with prosperity preachers, calling for repentance is mistaken for guilt-tripping, and conviction of sin is muddled with beating people down. But, in actuality, preaching the gospel of Christ necessitates preaching repentance—otherwise the atoning power of the Cross is completely negated. As a result, the message Osteen preaches, bears very little resemblance to God's Word. He has put his own health-and-wealth spin on it, with a wink and smile to boot.

Beware of preachers who stick to positive, crowd-pleasing topics, dodging Bible verses that could ruffle feathers—like, for example, when Jesus said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?" (Matt 16:24-26). Or when He said, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword." (Matt 10:34). And what about the multiple times He talked about sin, hell, repentance, salvation, and eternity? There's certainly very little emphasis on cross-bearing or eternal salvation from within the Word of Faith camp. Instead it's all about Your Best Life Now![2]  Know your Bible.

...And then there's the enormously popular book (dare I even say it), Jesus Calling, in which the author, Sarah Young, writes in the inspired first-person voice of Jesus.[3] While she states up front that, unlike Scripture, her writing is not inerrant, she nevertheless presents words received directly from the "spirit of Christ." In fact, she has given interviews in which she describes the process by which she received the words, which involved sitting before a blank piece of paper with pen in hand and "listening" for guidance (perhaps due to criticism, this point has not been emphasized so much by the author of late).

This is problematic. Firstly, the method of receiving inspiration that she describes is akin to the occultic practice of "automatic writing," and has absolutely no biblical basis. Secondly, the words she received, while alluding to certain Bible verses, do not reflect the same themes of Scripture as those Jesus actually preached during His earthly ministry. Her consistent emphasis is on how much God delights in us as His children, which is certainly true, but Scripture consistently points us to Christ, and not back to ourselves like Young's book unfortunately does. In essence, her words do not echo the tenor of God's Word.

Jesus' teaching certainly didn't take the form of a crooning love song. It was a soul-piercing, hard-hitting, life-and-death message of repentance, hope, and salvation. In Jesus Calling, the author seldom speaks of sin and repentance and even less of Christ’s work on the Cross. There is almost nothing of the gospel in her book. But why would the tenor of Jesus' teaching change now in the 21st century? Remember that God never changes (Num 23:19; Heb 13:8; Jas 1:17). We can trust, therefore, that His voice is consistent and unchanging also. In truth, the author's voice in Jesus Calling sounds suspiciously more like a middle-aged woman in living in post-modern suburbia than it does the voice of the living God.

We are commanded to hold all teaching up against God's Word, like the "noble" Berean Jews were commended for doing in the Book of Acts. For we've been forewarned that "the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths." (2 Tim 4:3-4). It is crucial, then, that we equip ourselves with a thorough knowledge of Scripture, and biblical doctrine (such as that of the Trinity and biblical inerrancy), in order to distinguish absolute truth from lies in a relativistic culture of deception.

As James Montgomery Boice, late pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church, so rightly pointed out, the great issue of our day would not be the authority of the Bible, but its sufficiency. The temptation for Christians today is to turn to other revelation and experiences of God, instead of relying on Scripture. In actuality, it's a form of spiritual greed. Jesus Calling represents just that trend. As Kathy Keller puts it in her emphatic warning against the best-seller, "Young had the Bible, but found it insufficient."[3] 
Or as Young herself puts it in the introduction to her book, "I knew that God communicated with me in the Bible, but I yearned for more."[4] 

Just because a particular book, teaching, song, or other spiritual resource seems appealing, helpful, comforting, etc., that doesn't always mean it is from God. He might redeem the use of that resource in your life by His grace, but this doesn't mean He has ordained it...

Why bother with books like these that have received so much criticism from credible sources? Why tolerate preaching in our churches that doesn't point to Christ? Why bother dabbling in Eastern philosophies? Why bother taking cues from secular self-helpism or New Age spiritualism? If we take God at His Word, we will believe that His Word is sufficient (2 Tim 3:16). And God promises that the work He has begun in you, He will bring to completion (Phil 1:6). Why look elsewhere?

For the Bible tells us, “Every word of God is flawless; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him. Do not add to His words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar." (Prov 30:5-6). And this sobering warning is echoed at the end of the book of Revelation: "I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll." (Rev 22:18-19). Be on guard against extra-biblical writing that claims to contain new messages from God. Avoid books like these and stick to Scripture as the sole source of God's truth.

Don't overlook a little Scriptural twist here and a little Scriptural tweak there, because if you start inching off in the wrong direction, in time, you will find yourself way off course. If we keep spinning Scripture, in the end, we'll spin out of control. But if we know the Word of God well, we will not be led astray when Scripture is twisted or misapplied! If we abide in God's Word, we can rest assured that He will abide in us and His Word will be a lamp to our feet. (John 15:7; Psa 119:105).

[1] Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism, Carl Medearis, 2011

[2] Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential, Joel Osteen, 2007
[3] This is a particularly controversial topic as many mature believers enjoy her book and get a lot out of it. It is unpopular to bring up concerns over it, and doing so almost always offends people. My concern here, however, is that while the book is not heretical in itself, it is not reflective of the tenor of God's Word. On this, I cannot remain silent, despite the fact that there is always backlash.
[4] Jesus Calling by Sarah Young: A Review by Kathy Keller (wife of Pastor Tim Keller)

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