When I was working on my Undergraduate degree at FSU I also had the privilege of moderating a section on a Christian website that was devoted to prayer and encouragement to those who came in need of it. It was a time of great growth in my spiritual walk as I learned to carry the burdens of others in my heart as I helped to give them comfort and advice from the Bible. There was one experience that would cause me to have a paradigm shift in my faith that came from that time of my life.
A teenager from China put a message on the board requesting prayer for her family as they had just lost her brother. He was murdered outside of a grocery store for professing faith in Christ. Evidently, he was just walking to his car when someone pulled a gun on him and asked him if he believed in Christ. According to her, he unashamedly admitted he followed Christ and that he would not turn away from what he knew to be the truth. The gunman pulled the trigger and the teenage girl got to sit with her brother as he bled to death in the parking lot.
This event caused me great anguish; not just for her but also for my way of thinking. After all, I was a college kid whose only idea of suffering was that I had to eat tuna fish and mac & cheese for the third night in a row. In my neat little American world I had always been fed, clothed, and sheltered. Persecution meant being picked on by other college students or my professors. It certainly did not mean fear for my life as I went through my day knowing I might die for being a Christian.
Yet this has become reality for most Americans who claim to follow Christ; they may get insulted or ridiculed but there is not true persecution. Instead we have traded a faith that causes death and poverty for one that believes God wants us to be healthy, wealthy, and wise. The Prosperity Gospel has taken a firm hold in the Christian ranks of America and when trouble comes we are quick to blame God for not being the cosmic genie we have made him into.
This mentality is fraught with problems, the greatest of which is that is simply not the teaching of the Bible. Every Prosperity Gospel advocate I have ever met or heard teach has to take the Bible out of context to make it say what they want it to say. Yet if you turn on the radio or television you can easily find a preacher in an expensive suit preaching in a huge auditorium to thousands if not tens of thousands of people who hang on every word.
Why does this happen? Because Americans want an easy fix to their problems. We want magic diet pills that shed fat while letting us eat fried foods galore; we want winning lottery tickets that provide instant wealth to keep us from hard work and we want an easy life with no hardship or pain. The truth we all know deep down is that life is never the perfection seen in the movies and that suffering lurks around the corner regardless of age, race, gender, or background.
How do we combat this problem? The answer is simple: balance. For the next few weeks we will dig into some of the more divisive issues in American Christianity and find that balance is the answer that keeps us from shifting too far to one side. Like a pendulum, the issue of pain and suffering is a two sided problem that must be kept in check. On one extreme is the Prosperity Gospel (which claims that God wants us to be wealthy and have all our desires) and on the other is the Social Gospel (which claims that God wants us to sacrifice our own possessions for those in need). Both of these have some truth in them; yet we must find the harmony in the middle for the following reasons:
1. The Bible does not teach extreme wealth or extreme poverty.
As much as both sides try to search for it, there is no passage in the Bible that teaches extreme wealth or extreme poverty is required to be an obedient follower of Christ. Instead, we see Jesus and the Apostles teach that there must be both hard work as well as generosity. The parable of the rich barn builder shows the hollowness of storing up wealth (Luke 12) yet Paul taught that believers should work to earn their own living rather than depend on others (2 Thess. 3). The answer is found in how the first century Church operated; they worked to take care of themselves but also cared for those in need (Acts 2).
2. The Bible does teach that followers of Christ would suffer but find joy in the midst of that suffering.
Admittedly, many of the passages prophesying trouble for followers of Christ were directed to those who lived in the time of Roman Empire. Yet history is riddled with examples of Christians being persecuted. Jesus promised the Disciples that they would have trouble but to take comfort in the fact that he had overcome this world (John 16). Why should we expect anything different? Instead, we must take joy that when we do suffer that God is the one in control and that we get to share in the suffering that Jesus endured on our behalf.
3. Jesus and the Apostles were not wealthy and comfortable.
If the Gospel of Jesus was to provide wealth and prosperity to all who follow him then shouldn’t he have been the most prosperous? This is obviously not the story of Jesus or the Apostles; they all suffered whether they were persecuted, beaten, stoned, beheaded, boiled in oil, imprisoned, or even crucified. If Jesus intended for his followers to be wealthy and comfortable shouldn’t those who followed him closest of all have been in the most rewarded positions?
In preparing this blog entry I searched the Bible for the word suffering. Amazingly it comes up with a vast array of entries with most of them dealing with suffering for Christ. The Apostles and Jesus taught that those who followed after Christ could expect to suffer for it. Why should we expect any different? If Jesus and the Apostles found joy in what being obedient cost them why should we shrink away or vainly expect God to be our cosmic genie giving us our selfish desires?
Again, balance is the key. Does the Bible teach that we should give to those in need? Yes. Does it teach that we should work hard for our own living? Yes. Should we provide for our families and keep our children safe? Yes. Should we expect God to make us healthy and wealthy just because we speak magic words of faith? Absolutely not.
Here is a final note for this entry: why not dig into the Bible ourselves rather than listen to someone in an expensive suit on television or some mega-church? In this age of information you don’t need a seminary degree to study the Bible for all it is worth. Instead we should use the tools at our disposal to make sure we are reading the Bible as the literature it is and in the proper context. Listen, learn, study and apply all that you can. Then you can know God’s desire for your life and work hard to know God’s will for how you should live.