The Prosperity Gospel’s Deadly Whisper

“Find rest, o my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him. He alone is my rock and salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken. My salvation and my honor depend on God; he is my mighty rock, my refuge. Trust in him at all time O people; pour out your hearts to him, for god is or refuge” (Psalms 62:5-8).

That was the verse shared by someone at church about four months ago, a verse I memorized in college. But that Sunday, I just thought, “That’s nice. I like that verse” and moved on with my life. Only later did I realize it was for me, that it was the verse God was giving me as the theme for the season of trial He was about to lead my family through.

A week or so later, my husband lost his job. We had just come off a year of great blessing. Great new job. Great new house. Beautiful new baby. This year could not look any more different. Unemployment. Sickness. Job offers falling through. Maybe we’d put too much stock in these earthly blessings. “Are you punishing us, Lord?” I wondered. Not punishing. Refining. Refining our hope. Refining our rest.

What does it mean when trials come regardless of “good behavior”? This is the great question of the book of Job.

The truth is, we all want a simple calculus. Do good. Get good. Do bad. Get bad. Obey. Reap blessings. Disobey. Reap trials. We want God to operate on our terms. It’s no different, really, from the Old Testament draw to idol worship. Gods made of human hands can be controlled by human hands. They are manipulable. Containable. Predictable. Non-threatening.

A living, breathing, omnipotent, sovereign God on the other hand? That can be a terrifying thing. He cannot be controlled or manipulated. He lives far above us in heaven and does all that He pleases (Psalm 115:3). His judgments are unsearchable and his ways are inscrutable (Romans 11:33). If we submit to Him (or not), we are very much at His mercy.

Trials have a way of revealing what we really believe about God and about ourselves. I could give you a point by point run down of the Gospel.  I can scoff at Prosperity Gospel preaching and provide a scriptural rebuttal and yet, its seductive whispers can sneak behind my theologically equipped mind and make their way into my more vulnerable, more wayward heart. It is there that God is sifting.

I must confess that I can want God to behave more like an idol, to be a tool in my hands that I bend into making my life what I think it should be. I can want the Prosperity Gospel to be true.

As we have endured and continue to endure this season, it has forced me to ask myself some questions. Do I really believe that God is sovereign? Is the misfortune that has come our way a product of bad luck or divine providence? What has God promised me? Comfort, ease, and a life free of trouble? Or a hope, a joy, and a peace that remain in spite of trouble? What is the purpose of my life and what role does God play in it? Is my life about me and is God my fairy godmother who makes all my dreams come true? Or is my life about Him and His glory?

The answers to these questions directly determine how we respond in trials and suffering. I cannot pretend that my answers have always been the “right” ones. The verses I’ve been most drawn to are from Psalm 77. “Has his steadfast love forever ceased? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion” (v. 8,9)  My soul has refused to be comforted (v. 2), and yet still searched diligently to remember the deeds of the Lord (v. 11). I believe. Help my unbelief.

The lie of the enemy is that God owes us much and yet, withholds much. The truth of the gospel is that God owes us nothing but wrath and yet, gives us nothing but grace. Which will I believe?

I do not serve a god made of clay, fashioned by human hands, but the great and mighty creator and ruler of the universe. He has redeemed my life from the pit and it is His to do with as He pleases. He is not a good luck charm I invoke when trials come. He is my refuge when trials come. He is not making a plan for my life. He is making my life for His plan.

No one cares if we praise God when the sun is shining, but the world will stop and marvel when we praise Him in a storm, when our worship operates completely independently of our circumstances. That is the mark of a faith that is really real, of a heart that loves God for Himself and not for His blessings.

I am weak and weary, but I pray that trials will prove the tested genuineness of my faith, refined like gold in the fire, and resulting in the praise and glory and honor of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:7). I have faltered and will no doubt falter again, but I am resolved to say with Job, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away: blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21). “Though he slay me, yet I will hope in him” (Job 13:15).


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Dear Moms, God Doesn’t Need You To Be Perfect


It was one of those days. One of those days that started out like all the rest and then, somewhere in the middle, headed completely south. I’m pretty sure my son whined from sun up until sun down and was bound and determined to steal all of his sister’s toys just to be spiteful. My patience was thin and by thin, I mean nonexistent. If I’m being honest, I may have even dropped a swear word. Throw in some self-pity and a little resentment towards my husband and you’ve got a recipe for a stellar day.

I can relive these moments and cringe at my failures. Some days, okay a lot of days, it can feel like I’m in competition against some kind of motherhood/homemaker ideal. Her house is always spotless. She never loses her temper. She always has fresh baked cookies and she has time to do creative, thrifty things like turn old pillowcases into adorable outfits. Have you met her? I know you have. She lives in your head just like she lives in mine. 

We have this idea that we need to be perfect, even that God expects us to be perfect. The thing is though, my worst days, days like today, often lead to the sweetest moments. As I put my son to bed, crying softly into his freshly cleaned curls as we read about Jesus, he grasped the Gospel just a little bit more. As we talked about how Mommy sins and Daddy sins and Jesus takes all your yucky sin, I could tell it was starting to mean something to him because it was meaning something to me. 

If we’re not careful, we can offer our kids the Gospel, but refuse it for ourselves. We can preach grace, but live out legalism. In the end, it won’t be our efforts or “perfection” that will lead our children to Jesus. If anything, they will only push them further away. What will make God’s grace irresistible to our children is to stop resisting it ourselves, to let it fill all our broken places and spill over onto them.

So, Moms, God doesn’t need you to agonize over your failures. He’s actually pretty good at using screwed up people to do amazing things (see: the Bible). He doesn’t need you to be perfect. He’s pretty much got that on lock. What He needs is for you to get your messy, broken, sleep-deprived, possibly unshowered self to the Cross and He needs you to bring your children with you. 

Yes, Monogamy is ‘Unnatural’

Friday is my husband and I’s five year anniversary. On that day, my husband and I stood before God, family, and friends and took vows of commitment to one another. I’m not here to hand out marriage advice. Five years feels like a big milestone, but I know it’s not much compared to people like my parents and grandparents, who have been going strong for 30, 60 plus years. Like any marriage, we have had and have our difficulties.

I recently read that, after splitting from her second husband, actress Scarlett Johannson called monogamy “unnatural” and “a lot of work.” This is an opinion I’ve heard from other celebrities and many people in general. I’m not here to condemn her for view. Actually, to some extent, I’m here to agree with her.

We feel that there is something unnatural about monogamy because there is. What comes naturally is what comes easily and what comes easily is self-love. Commitment, the promise to love another more than ourselves, to stick with it when things gets hard, flies in the face of all of our natural instincts. But if our only standard for living is what feels natural, we have reduced our lives to virtual meaninglessness. Nearly everything worth attaining takes work and sacrifice. The student spends hours studying despite the fact that he would naturally rather not. The marathon runner trains, pushing himself through pain and straining against every natural instinct which begs him to stop. If we only do what feels natural, we may have comfort and ease, but we have very little actually worth having. 

In our society, we are both idealists and cynics. We want to believe in a love so powerful, so consuming that it is always easy to give, that never demands something we don’t naturally feel like doing. We want the sensation of falling in love, but we don’t ever want to hit the hard ground of reality, where things become mundane and difficult, where feelings dissipate. The problem though is that we inevitably do hit the ground and when we do, we feel that love has failed us somehow, that if it was real love, it wouldn’t be so hard. Falling in love is effortless and only takes a moment, but choosing to love for a lifetime takes a lifetime of work.

Real love is made of weightier stuff than feelings. It finds its form and substance in difficulty. It is refined in pain and trials like silver in the fire. It is not simply felt, but forged. It matters more when it is given in spite of and not because of natural instinct. Loving in moments of ease might make us feel good, but it means very little.  We all love that which makes us feel good and no one needs vows to do what is natural. Real love, however, is very unnatural and costly, but then by definition, it is very precious. If we only strive for that which costs us little, we will only attain that which is not worth very much.

I write this not to hold my own marriage up self-righteously or to condemn anyone who has gone through divorce, but rather to dispel the notion that love should come easily. Five years is very short in the long run and I know that we will yet encounter greater difficulties than we have so far. There may come a time when one or both of us will want to throw in the towel, but like a runner who runs to win a prize, I set my face toward the goal with the expectation of difficulty, a prayer for endurance, and the hope of reward. I am determined to keep my vow, to strive for the essence of love that God has given me, the love which promises, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

Indeed, we find this love perfected in Jesus Himself. Being fully God, there was nothing natural about Him condescending to come to earth and certainly nothing natural about Him dying on a cross. Leaving us in our sin and self-wrought misery would have been natural, easy, and just. Being fully human as well, we know there was nothing easy about Him doing it. Indeed, he sweat with blood and prayed with tears that the cup should pass from Him. Showering us with mercy and grace came with great pain and at a very high cost. And yet, because of His love for His bride, the Church, He laid down His life in order to make her His own. This is real love, love which has supernatural power precisely because it pushes us beyond our nature to imbue our lives with beauty, hope, and purpose. 

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Holiness Made Its Home Among The Cursed

At Easter, it is natural to reflect upon the death and resurrection of Christ. This year, I find myself also thinking upon the broader scope of His life and its meaning for us. What does it mean that He was Emmanuel? What does it mean that God not only forgave our sins, but came to dwell among us, the sinners? It means God was not merely after forgiveness, but restoration. Restoration of the world in its entirety. Restoration of the human condition in its entirety.

You don’t have to look far to see that we live in a broken world. There is pain. There is injustice and evil and grief. We can find that even our greatest joys can be tinged with sadness as if we know things are still not what they should be. We can be haunted by the dauntless specter of death, our one shared and final fate though something tells us it shouldn’t end that way. Why? Why is the world fraught with sorrow? Why does life end in death? Because we are fallen. We bear the curse of our sin and every square inch of creation bears it with us (Romans 8).

Yet in the life of Christ, we see mercy dawning. We see God retracing the steps of the Fall. We see the Holy One enter the cursed womb and set into motion our ransom, our rescue. The first place He sent sin’s curse was the first place He sent sin’s cure. And there is nowhere else He has commissioned His curse that He has not also commissioned His grace, no scars of His judgment that He has not also touched with the healing of His redemption.

The incarnation means that Holiness made its home among the Cursed. Yahweh, a name too sacred to be spoken by our tainted lips, became Emmanuel, God With Us. How astounding that the holy, eternal God entered into the wasteland of our transgressions. How astonishing to see Him be born of a sinful woman, labor among the thorns and thistles of our cursed ground, touch and heal the sick and perishing, and finally, die the shameful death of a common sinner.

Christ, the God-man, our lamb and conqueror, subjected Himself to our curse that He might defeat our curse. The Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6). Who could but falter under such an unfathomable burden? Yet, He never did. He carried it to completion and finally, cast it off, hurling our iniquities into the depths of the sea (Micah 7:19) and with them, our condemnation. Now we find the wrath of God is quenched, spent, satisfied like a fire which finds nothing left to burn. Its cup is emptied. Not a drop remains for He drank it all for thee.

What, then, remains for us to fear? What part of our curse shall hold terror for us still? Shall we fear the womb, be it emptied or filled or aching with the pain of loss? No, for our Lord has been there. Shall we live in dread of sickness? Jesus has taken up our infirmities (Isaiah 53:4). Shall we falter under the burdens of loneliness, grief, persecution? He has been well acquainted with them all (Isaiah 53:3). Shall we tremble as we face our final breaths? No, for Christ has breathed them before us.

He has lived and hurt and died, not merely pardoning us from afar, but entering fully into our human experience and leaving grace for all and in all in His wake. Yes, this ground we tread is cursed still, but now Holiness has been here, sowing the seeds of redemption. For now, they may seem to lie dormant as in winter, or barely shooting up, as in the first, fledgling moments of spring, but someday…someday, they will burst into full bloom. They will chase away the curse forever. All will be made new. It will. It will.

“The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy….” Isaiiah 35:1,2

“But only the redeemed will walk there, and the ransomed of the LORD will return. They will enter into Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” Isaiah 35:10

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Rob Bell, Jesus Wasn’t “Relevant” and His Church Shouldn’t Be Either

Today, I happened upon an article about Rob Bell and his recent remarks to Oprah that the Church will become irrelevant if it continues to cling to the teachings of the Bible. From what I know about this man, he has renounced the doctrine of hell and obviously, doesn’t see the scriptures as authoritative. Without the Bible, I’m not sure Christianity can be called Christianity, but nonetheless, this is nothing new. The church has always been tempted to give way to the culture in the desperate hope that it can influence the culture.

However, this is completely counter to who Jesus Christ was. Jesus wasn’t “relevant” in His day and He never will be today, not in the sense we want. He wasn’t the Savior anyone hoped for or looked for. He didn’t tell anyone what their itching ears wanted to hear.

He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised and we esteemed him not. Isaiah 53:2-3

A “stumbling block” and “rock of offense,” Jesus came to love, yes, but to love and lead people out of their sin. Never once did he amend His message in order to make it more palatable, more popular, or more “relevant.”

The great irony is, that if he had, He would’ve been irrelevant. 

Can you imagine if He had told the woman caught in adultery, “Go and keep on doing as you please.” Or to the tax collector, “Continue in your greed and thievery.” Or to the Pharisee, “Stay in the comfort of your self-righteousness.” These messages would have been well-received, no doubt, but they would have had no impact. If this had been Jesus’s message, the Cross itself would be not only pointless, but laughable and certainly, irrelevant.

A drop of rain which falls in a stream becomes indistinguishable from it. It has no power or influence over the stream, for it is simply carried along by its tide. It is the rock which stands staunchly immovable against the tide that has the power to influence the course of the stream. The more the Church adjusts its views to appease the culture, the more it will look like the culture. And a Church which looks just like the culture will have nothing notable to say to the culture.

Those who suggest we “update” Christianity’s teachings say they are motivated by love, but love without truth, love which points out no wrongs and accepts all is a love which renders itself meaningless and powerless. Jesus loved people enough to tell them they were wrong. He loved them enough to tell them they needed something they couldn’t obtain on their own. And He loved them enough to die to give it to them.

Yes, Mr. Bell, love has, indeed, won, but without a battle, there is nothing to win.  As Tim Keller said, “We’re far worse than we ever imagined, and far more loved than we could ever dream.”  Through the cross, Jesus both showed us our greatest problem and satisfied our greatest need. This is the the Good News which Jesus came to bring and the most relevant message Christians have to offer the world.

Good Friday Was Bad

The older I get, the more I become aware of life’s fragility, of our precarious position in this world. We are not promised tomorrow, nor even tonight. What’s more, neither are our loved ones. Living is risky and loving is even riskier. Motherhood has made me all too aware of this. From ISIS and the zika virus and just basic human error the endless list of what if‘s could bring a mother to the brink of insanity. I think with each pregnancy, I will confront fear again and again. I can be haunted by the words of Job, “What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me…”

The question then, is what is the answer to the problem of our fears? Is it a blind, unfounded belief that bad things won’t happen to us? Do we just tell ourselves God wouldn’t do that? I don’t think so because we can plainly see that bad things do happen to people. As scripture tells us, God not only lets them happen, but He ordains all that will come to pass. How then can we know that this God, this sovereign God is really good? How may we look our fears in the face, knowing that they might all come true and yet believe that God is trustworthy?

Whenever I wrestle with the sovereignty of God and the existence of evil and suffering, a profound mystery, God always leads me to the surer, solid ground before the cross. We celebrate today, the day Jesus died, and we call it good, but the truth is, it wasn’t really good. Good Friday was bad. Nothing could have been more disastrous, more terrible for followers of Jesus than the death of the one on whom they had pinned all their hopes.

But it wasn’t even just that it seemed bad at the time. It was really wrong. It was really evil and unjust that Jesus, who had committed no wrong, was crucified at the hands of those who had. Jesus himself, when they came to arrest him, said, “But this is your hour when darkness reigns” (Luke 22:53). What a startling statement for the light of the world to make. God purposed that darkness, evil, should reign–but only for a time. For we know that the real injustice wrought by man was, at the same time, mysteriously coinciding with God’s perfect justice against sin and amazing grace to sinners. You see, the cross tells us that God always re-purposes or rather, “supra-purposes” evil and suffering. What man intends for evil, God intends to work for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Genesis 50:20, Romans 828).

So my answer to my fears and worries is not some wishful belief that they will not happen, that they could not happen. As they happened to Job, they could happen to me. All that I fear might come to pass and it might be truly bad, truly wrong. Yet if I follow the logic of Romans 8, the logic of the cross, I find the freedom to walk in faith instead of fear. Good Friday was bad, but now it is so very, completely good. Through His resurrection, Christ redeemed His own death and if He can redeem such a great wrong, He can and will redeem all the pains and sorrows of those He suffered so greatly to purchase. If He can redeem the cross, He can redeem anything and if He can redeem anything, we have nothing to fear. That is not trite, vain hope, but plain, solid truth to which our souls can firmly hold.

 

For the Mother Whose Life Feels Small

It has been a while since I’ve written. I’ve wanted to write, but honestly, I just haven’t had much to say and don’t want to write something just to write something. With the New Year, I’ve been reflecting back on where my writing took me in 2015. I don’t regret a single thing I wrote, but it has caused me to sort of re-examine why I write and what I want my writing to achieve. I think the ultimate answer to that question is that I’d like my writing to enlighten or encourage and, in the best of cases, both.

I remember driving back to school the summer before my junior year of college and calling my dad to tell him I didn’t want to study Microbiology anymore. “I want to write,” I told him. It was a little crazy, but I changed my major to Philosophy halfway through school and as I got into my studies, I knew I had made the right decision. I felt so assured of God’s purpose for me. My strengths, my passions, and God’s plan all seemed to be in perfect alignment. And they were, although in a different way than I thought at the time. I saw myself doing what I loved, thinking and writing, and doing it for the glory of God. If I was honest though, I envisioned more than a little glory for myself too.

It’s funny how as we get a little older, we realize that our lives are not going to be quite the movie or biographical material we thought they would be. It can come as a bit of a shock to our individualistic American sensibilities that we are after all, quite common. Growing up, I was a star. I say this not to applaud myself, but more to laugh at myself retrospectively. I was a star athlete, a star student. Man, I had potential. With my perfect GPA and variety of extra-curricular activities, I felt as if I was on an upward path to something really special.

Now sometimes, I feel more like a rocket that failed to launch. My days are quiet, as quiet as days with a one year old can be. Each day is a repetitive cycle of diapers, dishes, and laundry. My greatest recent achievement is teaching my son where his nose is, which he points to and inevitably starts picking. I love being home with him. I treasure the moments of tickle-induced giggles and sleepy bedtime snuggles. I wouldn’t trade any of it. I know I am so incredibly blessed.

But sometimes, my life just feels small, so very insignificant. I look at people who I went to school with, out conquering the world and doing big, important things and think, What am I doing? Putting on real pants if I’m having an especially motivated day, that’s what. “I know what I’m doing is important,” I told my husband the other day, “but it just doesn’t feel very important.”

What I’m learning, really re-learning and then re-re-learning, is that importance cannot be measured in audience members or applause or even in difficulty. The greatest of tasks can be cloaked in the humble and ordinary. Purpose is not always tangible and it’s often delayed in fulfillment. The one who sows the seed waters bare ground for days before he sees any reason to. And then it is many years until that seedling becomes a great tree. So it is, I think, with being a parent of little ones.

My husband and I met with our pastor today to get some advice about starting to discipline. On the way home, I was thinking about the end goal, the vision of the godly man I hope my son will grow to be. I was struck by what a great task the Lord has given us and how very important it is, but that that importance is only felt in light of this far-off vision. What this world needs most apart from Jesus Himself is men and women who are like Him. And so it needs fathers and mothers who do the mundane task of watering and nurturing our children like the tiny plants they are. That is my task, my great, great task which for the moment, feels so very, very small.

So for now, I’ll teach my son where his ears and feet are. I’ll make sure he has a clean diaper and keeps his fingers out of outlets. I will do these menial tasks to meet his basic needs, to love him. But someday…someday, I will teach him greater things. I will teach him to love what is good and to hate what is evil, to cling to what is honorable and right and true. I will point him to Jesus, to life. And someday, I pray, he will be like a tree, planted by the stream which is Christ (Jeremiah 17:7), bearing much fruit and offering shade to the weary. I hope that day comes and that then he will know what I am learning: the most important things in life are often what make us the least self-important and the greatest life is the life which is given away.