Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Convenient Christ

The Convenient Christ is on the rise in our churches! He's a lovable, Santa-esque figure who wants to make us happy and bless us abundantly. He wants us to be comfortable in the world and for the world to comfortable with him. He refrains from saying things that might offend people. After all, can't we all just get along? The Convenient Christ loves us, so why would he ever call us into trials, sickness, or poverty? He never wants his children to suffer hardship or persecution. That wouldn't be loving. He wants us to be successful, wealthy, and healthy! He wants us to shine as his victors!

Each Sunday, tens of thousands flock to hear Joel Osteen deliver the message of the Convenient Christ at Lakewood Church in Texas, which boasts the largest congregation in America, topping 45,000 in attendance every week. And millions more tune into his sermons, which are televised weekly on national TV. Why the popularity? As Michelle Vu of The Christian Post explains, "Joel Osteen doesn't like to ruffle feathers; he is known for his open-arms, positive-thinking, God-wants-to-bless-you approach to Christianity, which has earned him a loyal following of millions worldwide and the largest and fastest growing church in U.S. history."[1] Osteen does indeed present a very attractive, very convenient, version of Christianity: "God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us," Osteen wrote in a 2005 letter to his flock.[2]

It is this God-wants-to-bless-you mantra that is promoted in the hugely popular prosperity gospel, or Word of Faith theology, preached by heavy-hitting Christian leaders like Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, T.D. Jakes, and Kenneth Hagin. And this brand of health-and-wealth preaching has certainly garnered the world's attention. Bravo TV's new reality show, Thicker Than Water, for example, features prosperity Pastor Ben Tankard and his southern family, as they "integrate their strong religious conviction with their penchant for the finer things in life." While Jesus clearly taught that it is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, and urged His followers to store riches in Heaven and not on earth, the prosperity gospel turns this teaching upside down. And the world is watching.

Despite the fact that Osteen has no theological training, he has claim to the title of most successful pastor in America. As would be expected, Osteen's Word of Faith pronouncements have been eagerly embraced by Oprah Winfrey who has glowingly endorsed his mega best-selling books. This makes sense considering Osteen's preaching certainly reflects the same self-help ethos that exists at the heart of the other spiritual gurus she promotes, like Ekard Tolle, for example. Just like Osteen, many New Age spiritualists, have adopted their own Convenient Christs (in a variety of forms, including the concept of Christ-consciousness, for example) who fit neatly into their preconceived worldview or religious convictions. 

Staying true to his Convenient Christ, Osteen's message is devoid of inconvenient truths. He sticks to positive, crowd-pleasing topics, dodging bible verses that could ruffle feathers, like perhaps those that record Jesus' own words: “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). There is certainly very little emphasis on cross-bearing and denial of self from within the Word of Faith camp.

Creating your own Convenient Christ is tantamount to setting yourself up as God. It is not surprising, therefore, that there has been an effort underway among prominent Word of Faith teachers to redefine themselves as "little gods." Prosperity preacher Kenneth Copeland, for example, has stated "You’re all God. You don’t have a God living in you; you are one! … When I read in the Bible where God tells Moses, ‘I AM,’ I say, ‘Yeah, I Am too!"[3] Word of Faith preacher, Kenneth Hagin, wrote that God "made us in the same class of being that he is himself," and claims that the believer is "called Christ" because "that's who we are, we're Christ!"[4] According to Hagin, by being "born again" the believer becomes "as much of an incarnation as Jesus of Nazareth."[5] This teaching mirrors closely the self-deification of both Mormonism and of New Age philosophy alike; just like them, the Word of Faith movement veils an underlying desire to become our own, self-autonomous, God. It is an old story, far older than the Gnosticism and the destructive greed sects that first infiltrated the early church. It is a story that began in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve made that first, fatal grasp for godhood themselves at Satan's beckoning. It is a pattern of human behavior that repeats itself throughout history, reemerging over and over again in various forms, but always motivated by the same age-old desire for personal godhood.

The Convenient Christ is an enabler of selfism. He panders to our fleshly desires and lures us in with false promises of earthly security and happiness. He preys on the desperate, the weak, the sick, and the financially strained—and he is readily received by a voracious audience of religious consumers. As followers of the true Christ, we need to recognize this insidious counterfeit in our midst and stand firm against his false doctrine. Speaking out against false prophets is biblical. Jesus warned us to watch out for wolves in sheep's clothing (Matt 7:15). The Apostle Paul was by no means accommodating to, or conciliatory with, false teachers who propagated heresy in the early church. He called them out as dangerous deceivers and urged Christians to avoid them. However successful Word of Faith preachers may be, however big their following, however many books they sell, we must have the courage and conviction to stand firmly against them. Maybe the Convenient Christ calls for a little table-flipping in the Temple so-to-speak.  

This is because of the sheer tragedy that so many seekers are being led astray by the Convenient Christ. Unlike counterfeit Christs of false religions or cults that more blatantly misuse the name of Jesus, the Convenient Christ is not so easily spotted, and can certainly seem like the real dealespecially when a few misinterpreted or selectively used bible verses are thrown into the mix. For example, prosperity preachers often give out-of-context emphasis to the widely-popular verse from Jeremiah: "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'" (Jer 29:11). While this verse should rightfully give us a sense of hope, it is pretty much always deliveredin the health-and-wealth contextwithout any acknowledgement that this was God's promise through Jeremiah to the people of Israel while they were in exile to Babylon. This is not to say that the promises of the old covenant (given to Israel under Old Testament Mosaic law) are not applicable to Christians today under the new covenant (in which the law of Moses has given way to a new life in Christ). Paul clarifies this: "For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ." (Cor 1:20). Because all God's promises are now fulfilled for us in Christ, the realization of these promises for believers today is different from how they were fulfilled for the Israelites. As promised, the Isrealites came out of exile after 70 years. But for us, the promise of prosperity, hope, and a future now has eternal meaning in Christ. Hebrews 9:15 declares, “For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that He has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.” Prosperity preachers, however, misapply this verse claiming that God promises us an earthly life of material prosperity.

The problem is, the prosperity gospel relies on soundbite theology with a feel-good twist that neglects huge chunks of Scripture and replaces the gospel of Jesus Christ with a cheap substitute. It is short-sighted preaching that is of this world, not of God. While the Convenient Christ wants nothing more than for us to get cozy in the world and to chase after the carnal pleasures it has to offer, we are reminded by Scripture that this is not God's best for us. It is not "our best life now" to coin an Osteen-phrase. Paul teaches us that we "must no longer live as the pagans do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed." (Eph 4:17-19). We are described in Scripture as sojourners in an alien world, as "foreigners and strangers" whose "days on earth are like a shadow, without hope." (1 Chron 29:15) . The beguiling pleasures of this world can deceive us into losing sight of the true riches that await us in Glory. Peter reminds us of this when he writes, "Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul." (1 Peter 2:11). Our earthly lives are vaporous (James 4:14), but living life in the here-and-now clouds our Eternal perspective. 

Despite all this, I am often stunned by the number of (even mature) Christians who have told me how much they like Joel Osteen's sermons and books. Osteen does have a slick interview style, often giving vague, evasive answers to tough questions, which he occasionally peppers with choice Bible verses and smothers in Christianese. But a closer look into what Osteen actually teaches reveals very quickly that his message is actually more akin to that of New Age philosophy than sound biblical teaching. In his most recent book, Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential, Osteen tells his readers: “You have to begin speaking words of faith over your life. Your words have enormous creative power. The moment you speak something out, you give birth to it. This is the spiritual principle, and it works whether what you are saying is good or bad, positive or negative.” As is often the case with false teachers, Osteen mixes partial truths with heresy. It is true that the tongue is a powerful force for good or evil, but human words have no sovereign power. Only God's Word does. God doesn't have to do what we say; the Bible teaches that God's will determines the answer to our prayers (Rom 8:26-27). Yet Osteen is committed to the notion that faith is a force that shapes our lives and our own words are conduits for that force. It is a concept that is shared by New Agers like Rhonda Byrne, for example, whose best-selling book, The Secret, "teaches us that we create our lives, with every thought every minute of every day" and is based on the idea that the law of attraction determines our destiny (i.e. positive thinking brings good health and prosperity, negative thinking brings the opposite). The difference between the Word of Faith movement and its New Age counterpart is largely semantic; the former talks of a "faith force," the latter refers to "the power" or "Christ force" depending on whom you are reading. Yet the Word of Faith movement is still mistaken by many as authentic Christianity.

The Convenient Christ can creep into our hearts if we let himif our eyes aren't fixed on Jesus. Authentic Christianity is counter-cultural. As soon as our faith starts to mirror the worldly values and teachings around us, or feel a little too convenient, we need to check ourselves and ask, who is it that I am actually following?

[1] http://www.christianpost.com/news/interview-joel-osteen-on-prosperity-gospel-crystal-cathedral-and-jesus-74040/#Y4H2sJJWGfJzjRkO.99
[2] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/opinions/outlook/worst-ideas/prosperity-gospel.html
[3]Kenneth Copeland, "The Force of Love", (Teaching tape, Kenneth Copeland Ministries, 1987)
[4] Kenneth E. Hagin, Zoe: The God-Kind of Life, (Kenneth Hagin Ministries, Inc., 1989)
[5] Kenneth E. Hagin, "The Virgin Birth" in Word of Faith Magazine (December 1977)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

My Search for Significance in a World of Stray Cheerios

When I had my first baby seven years ago, I experienced a text-book case of identity crisis. I had recently left my joba job in which I could walk around in business suits and heels, call meetings, and hold conference calls. People called me on my extension to ask me questions. And I had answers. I was significant. But then I quit. I found myself abruptly thrown from a busy world of downtown DC streets, metro stops, bustling lobbies and conference rooms into the quiet solitude of our town house. It was a beautiful Victorian on Capitol Hill, but suddenly the house I had loved, and in which my husband and I had envisioned an idyllic family life, seemed more like a prison cell with its window-less walls on each side and the bars in front. The depth of the floor plan, which had initially been an appealing feature to us as home-buyers, now felt claustrophobic, like I was trapped in a long, narrow tunnel with the only source of light filtering in dimly from each end. To make matters worse, we lived a stone's throw from the Capitol building. Exciting things were happening just blocks away, but I was completely shut off from it all. So near, yet so far! I would walk past soaring monuments and imposing buildings with my baby stroller feeling extremely smallalmost invisible. There was a nice security guard I would often pass on my purposeless treks to Union Station, and he'd always wave and shout out something friendly. But he was the only one who seemed to notice me. When at home, I often half-joked to myself that I was like Mariana in the Moated Grange, watching the clock, waiting for my husband to battle rush hour traffic and return home!...

All day within the dreamy house,
   The doors upon their hinges creaked;
The blue fly sung i' the pane; the mouse
   Behind the mouldering wainscot shrieked,
   Or from the crevice peer'd about.
Old faces glimmered through the doors,
   Old footsteps trod the upper floors,
   Old voices called her from without.
She only said, "My life is dreary,
    He cometh not," she said;                           
She said, "I am aweary, aweary,
    I would that I were dead!"

It was all very tragic. Logically, I knew we were blessed to live in a such a wonderful place and to be able to provide for our child in ways that many people in other parts of the world could not. But my identity crisis, clich├ęd and admittedly quite comical as it is in retrospect, was seriously crippling at the timepreventing me from appreciating all that God had given me and, more importantly, all that God is.

The problem, it seemed, was that I had lost my sense of purpose. Some would say, I had lost my sense of self. I had a graduate education and eight years of work experience, but rather than using my skills, I now spent my days at home with our baby, who slept most of the time, leaving me alone to clean up a perpetual mess of misplaced sweet-potato spoonfuls and stray Cheerios. I was often on my knees scraping the kid-crumbs out of the cracks in our old wooden floors, the charm of which was now lost on me. My big-picture world of international development had been reduced to a myopic one that magnified floor grit and dust balls. 

But my gloomy outlook wasn't a product of my circumstances. It was rooted in a deep-seated heart problem that presented itself in my desperate need for significance. What is my purpose? I would ask my harrowed husband as he walked in bleary-eyed from the DC rush-hour craze. I am here all day, not using my God-given gifts. Has God forgotten about me? Why did He give me gifts if I can't use them?

In my frantic search for significance, I read The Purpose-Driven Life, and prayed for God to reveal to me my purpose...for God to impart to me His plan for my life and my special calling. But the more I prayed, the less I heard. And I was left more confused than ever. I wanted to serve Him, but I didn't know how. I knew that my identity was in Christ, not in my career, in my family, or in anything other than in Him. But I hadn't understood the depth of what this really meant. I still felt insignificant.

But the Bible teaches that our true significance is found in God's love for us. We each are significant because there is a mighty God, the Creator of the universe, who values and loves each of us individually, for even the hairs on our heads are numbered (Luke 12:7). And He loves each of us intimately for He knows every word we will utter before we speak it and He is familiar with all our ways (Psa 139:3-4). He cares about the details of our lives, because every day ordained for us was written in His book before it came to be (Psa 139:16). And we know that He loved us so much that He laid down His life for us (1 John 3:16). 

In actuality, I had been seeking my sense of significance in my "calling," rather than in God's love for me. This realization hit me one Sunday when our pastor pronounced: "It's not about what we can do for God, it's about what He's already done for us!" It was then that I began to understand the need to stop focusing on myself and to instead fix my eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of my faith, who had endured the cross for me (Heb 12:2). Up to that point, it had been about all about me; my calling, my gifts, my purpose. Without realizing it, I had been trying to fit God into my own self-centered world, in which I was the star. But it wasn't about me at all. It was about Him. It wasn't about some lofty purpose or grandiose calling on my life. It was all about Him.  

It can be very confusing for us as Christians when we are constantly told we need to identify our special purpose on Earth and access our spiritual gifts in order to function more effectively as servants of God. But, actually, the more we focus on these things, the more we take our eyes away from Jesus and the more egocentric we can become. It's good to know what our gifts are and how best to use them, but we shouldn't build our lives around our gifts. We can trust God that He will lead us to use the gifts He has given us in His perfect way, in His perfect timing. The pressure is taken off us, as we surrender more fully to Him. This is especially true in ministry as I was to find out some time later. I learned (sometimes the hard way) that as soon as I made my ministry about myself instead of God, I was working in my own strength, not His. Rather than treating our gifts as the starting point, then, we should start out by responding to the needs of others first. If we see a need, we should prayerfully try to meet it according to our ability. If God opens up an opportunity to reach out to someone with His love, we should take it. This enables us to step out of our comfort zone and grow in our faith.

So, instead of getting bogged down in a quest to find our special purpose, we can rest in the knowledge that our purpose as believers is singular: it is to glorify God. We know from Scripture that we were created to please God, for He said, "Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth—for everyone who is called by my name, I created for my glory, whom I formed and made" (Isa 43:7). There are many ways in which we can glorify Him, through obedience, service, ministry, worship, and witnessing. But the end goal should always be for His glorynothing more, nothing less. 

I realized that my God-given role right then was to take care of my new baby and husband both of whom I was really thankful for. It wasn't a high-profile role in ministry or missions, but it was where God had me at that time. This was a good lesson in humility because I began to realize that I didn't need to be significant in the world's eyes. I didn't need to seek credibility in the approval of others. What really mattered was glorifying God in all I did, even if He was the only one who noticed. And even if my job was picking up stray Cheerios that day, I needed to do it for His glory! 

Now, when I see a stray Cheerio on the floor (which I often do), it makes me chuckle as I'm reminded how something that seems so small and insignificant can actually carry so much meaning.

Monday, January 6, 2014

From Astrologist to Apologist: A Testimony

In her amazing testimony, Marcia Montenegro describes her unprecedented metamorphosis from professional astrologer into Christian apologist. She had been very active in the New Age movement for twenty years and had practiced astrology for eight years. Yet the longevity of her entrenchment in the occult did not prevent God from pursuing her, even when her conversion may have seemed unlikely by earthly standards. 

Marcia recounts how an “unexplained compulsion” caused her to begrudgingly walk into a church one Sunday. For some time, she had resisted the urge to act on this compulsion with all her might. She hated Christianity and feeling this strange and undeniable compulsion had made her angry. But she couldn't shake the feeling as much as she tried, so eventually she decided to give in, hoping that doing so would get it out of her system. This decision was to become the beginning of a transformation in Marcia she would never have expected. She recalls her experience:
In the opening minutes of a service in a large church in downtown Atlanta, I felt a love I had never known wash down over and through me, so powerfully that I started quietly crying. I knew this love was from God, not from the music, the people, or the place. I returned the following Sunday, not to have another experience, but so that I could be where that love had happened to me.
Marcia knew she had experienced the love of a personal God—one whom she did not yet fully believe in or understand. So powerful was her experience of this personal God that she felt compelled to read, and subsequently to study, the Bible. Studying the Word of God would eventually lead her to commit her life to serving Him and to make the difficult, costly decision to give up her careerand her entire lifeas a New Ager. 

Prior to accepting Christ, Marcia had subscribed to a New Age perspective on God. Spiritual counterfeits of the New Age masquerade as the "real" version of God—a plausible alternative to rigid religious doctrine and the "old man in the sky." New Agers claim that they are releasing God from the constraints of religious dogma, freeing him [or the amorphous energy-source that he really is] from a man-made construct that limits, reduces, and distorts. New Age ideas are the result of thinking outside of the religious box! Or are they...? The problem with New Age perspective on God, is that it merely replaces one believe system with another. Through an elaborate voyage of self-exploration to access one's inner truth, the New Age movement seeks to deify the self in place of God. But in actuality, beliefs that are contained within the limits of our earthly imaginations are far more constrained than the transcendent knowledge that can be imparted to us by the One who truly is the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End (Rev 22:13). I'd pick God-sized ideas over self-truth any day!

Rather than seeking self-truth, we are called to fix our eyes on Jesus as the author and perfector of our faith (Heb 12:2). When we seek to know ourselves, it should ultimately be to confront the reality of our sinful state, and our true, deep-seated need for God. As Kevin DeYoung so aptly puts it, "Know God. Know yourself. Know yourself to know your need of God. Know God to know you are not gods." We should point ourselves and others to God and move away from ideas and practices that distract us from centering ourselves on the gospel of Christ.

Perhaps the most tragic downside to the New Age perspective on God is that because theirs is an impersonal God, a mere energy-source, there is no experience of relational love involved. But as Christians, we know that it is the love of God as our Father, that changes everything...

Marcia’s story demonstrates how being exposed to a loving, personal God can touch the heart of an unbeliever. How comforting it must be to someone who's been struggling in their own lonely journey to realize that there is a God that loves each one of us individually, and with whom we can have an interactive relationship. Psalm 139 is my favorite of all the psalms because it illustrates the intimacy of God's love for us so powerfully. Sharing personal stories with unbelievers about the ways in which we have experienced the love of God in our lives can be a powerful witness, especially to those who subscribe to the New Age concept of God as mere form of energy. We can talk about specific ways in which we have experienced this interactive, Father-child relationship through answered prayers, life-transformation, and heart-changes, for example. 

New Agers are trapped in a perpetual struggle to attain spiritual enlightenment through their own efforts—through practicing meditation, hypnotism, yoga, creative visualization, past-life regression, channeling, or other spiritual disciplines. It must be exhausting! Yet as Christians, we can rest in the knowledge that we do not have to strive to attain spiritual fulfillment in our own strength, for we can be confident that He who began a good work in us will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1:6).  It is by grace that we have been saved, through faith, and not by works (Eph. 2:8)—the work of our salvation is already accomplished for us in Christ. For those who are wearied by the futile struggle to achieve spiritual enlightenment through New Age disciplines and practices, or through the lonely process of self-actualization, this news can offer a powerful sense of relief.  We can prayerfully share with them the truth that they can be justified by faith, and have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:1).

Prayer is the most important thing we can do for unbelievers who are caught up in the New Age movement or in a quest to self-actualize. As Marcia was to find out later, it was the prayers of her Christian coworker and his small group that had been answered that day she felt an unexplained compulsion to walk through those church doors. When things seemed impossible, the prayers of the faithful were answered in a powerful, unprecedented way. Now Marcia is a full-time missionary and founding director of Christian Answers for the New Age (and a personal friend of mine).