concept money trap dollar sign attached to a lying nose, a group of business people jumping off a cliff trying to grab the dollar

It Only Works if You Believe in It. And That Is the Problem.

The Prosperity Gospel makes big promises of health, wealth, great relationships, and success in all your endeavors. The promises often don’t come true. When they don’t come true, the most common answer to why is you didn’t have enough faith. But the good news is you can exercise your faith and make it stronger. How do you build your faith? Romans 10:17 says, “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (KJV). What you hear over and over again, you will eventually believe. They combine this with a belief that what you believe and speak will come to pass (Mar 11:23-24). So don’t give up. Keep listening to positive, faith building messages. Stay away from negative, “It will never happen” messages. Keep believing you received your blessings, keep speaking as if they have already come, and they will come. So if I keep listening to and believing the promises of prosperity in the Bible, I will become prosperous. I will get that book deal. I will write that bestseller. In the meantime, I will have a day job that pays the bills, leaves enough leftover the give to my church and the poor, and includes full benefits. All of that can be mine if I believe and do not doubt.

After several years of believing and (not) receiving, I realized the problem with this is it only works if you believe in it. No matter how many messages I listened to that God promised to both meet all my needs according to God’s riches in glory, and give me all the desires of my heart, when month after month, year after year, it came time to pay the bills, and I had nothing leftover, how was I supposed to keep believing? I tried. I kept meditating on the scriptures that promised health, wealth, and success. I kept listening to them on tapes, CDs, and TV. I kept confessing prosperity, not poverty. But it was like this guy I heard of who showed up to work one day with his hand in a cast.

“I was in my karate class and about to break bricks for the first time. I meditated to get my ki going. I knew I could break those bricks. I raised my hand up. I knew I could break those bricks. I brought my hand down with all my might. I knew I could break those bricks. My hand was about to make contact. I wasn’t sure I could break those bricks.”

That is what “believing and receiving” all those promises of health, wealth, and success year after year did to me. Much as I wanted to, I could not force myself to believe I had money that I didn’t have. The only way this could ever work for me was if I could found some promise in the Bible that did not depend on my belief, and my doubt could not stop. It could not be like a placebo, where it only works if you believe in it. It had to be like gravity, where it works whether you believe in it or not.

Just Obey. No Belief Required.

Well, I found it. There is a scripture on tithing that appears to promise prosperity whether you believe in it or not.

Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it. And I will rebuke the devourer for your sakes, and he shall not destroy the fruits of your ground; neither shall your vine cast her fruit before the time in the field, saith the Lord of hosts.

(Mal 3:10-11 KJV)

God is saying, prove me. See if I will not open the windows of heaven for you. See if I will not pour you out a blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it. See if I will not rebuke the devourer for your sake. None of that “first believe, then you’ll see” nonsense. God told the nation of Israel here, just obey, and you will see. So if I give at least 10% of my income, no matter how small, to a “Bible preaching, Bible believing church,” I should see more money roll in for me than I have room to receive.

So here is a promise in the Bible that does not require you to believe, only obey.

Now in case you’re thinking this verse did not promise money, it promised “a blessing,” there are many ways God can bless you, money is only one way, and the blessing might come in a different form, that is not the way the Prosperity Gospel reads it. The Prosperity Gospel says this promises wealth to those who tithe. For the Israelites, wealth was in land and crops. God promised to make their land produce crops in abundance if they tithe their harvests. Wealth for us today is in money. Therefore, God will bless you with an abundance of money if you tithe 10% to a “Bible preaching, Bible believing church or ministry.” By that, they mean it has to be a church or ministry that preaches the Prosperity Gospel.

It makes perfect sense. It serves God’s interests as well as yours. You give God 10% of your income, and God will grow your income so that the 90% you keep is greater than the 100% you would have made without God’s blessing. 10% of more means your tithes will get bigger as your income gets bigger. As your tithes get bigger, God will bless you with more money. 10% of more means your tithes will get even bigger. And that cycle will just keep repeating until you don’t have to be concerned about money anymore.

How will the money come? It’s not going to just fall out of the sky or magically appear in your bank account. It might come through raises or promotions at work, that big contract that seemed out of reach before, the book you write that becomes a bestseller, or people might just give money to you. Why? Because God told them to. Prosperity preachers say that last one happens to them all the time. I wonder why people do that? Maybe because they tell people by giving to them, you are giving to God, so God will give to them in return. After all, their books become bestsellers by telling you how to get rich by giving to them. Isn’t that wonderful? God is so good.

Smiley face emoji with dollar signs in eyes
God will bless you if you give me your money.

My Tithe Check Bounced

There’s the punchline of the joke of the Prosperity Gospel. My tithe check bounced. I don’t mean when I was just starting out, and there had not been time for money to reach me. I had been diligently setting aside 10% of any income I made, no matter how small. Even if it was $10, I would set aside $1 for the tithe. Thirty years I had been tithing faithfully, and finally there was not enough money to cover it.

And it wasn’t a faith check. You know what a faith check is? That’s when you write a check and believe God for the money to cover it before it gets cashed, because you don’t have the money in your account at the moment. Very bad idea, and even Prosperity preachers will discourage it. I never did that, or at least I thought I didn’t. When I wrote that check, I honestly thought I had the money in my account to cover it. But this was one of those instances where I had missed my payment the month before, so I put two month’s tithe on that one check. You know how much it was? $200. After thirty years of tithing, I did not have enough money to cover a $200 check. How much was I making? 10% = $100. Do the math, and you’ll see I was not even close to “a blessing for which you do not have room to receive.” And again, the Prosperity Gospel is clear. The blessing in this verse is supposed to be money. It’s been thirty years. Where is my money?

It didn’t work for you because you don’t have enough faith.

Oh no! You don’t get off the hook with that excuse this time. This verse says it will work whether you believe in it or not. “Prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.” God said, “Prove me now,” not “It only works if you believe in it.” The only thing required was obedience, not belief. I gave God thirty years to prove himself. What happened?

Context, Context, Context

If you read my last post, you know what happened. The Prosperity Gospel takes that verse completely out of context. I listened to people who told me that God promised me things that God never promised me—or you. In that post, I give a detailed explanation of why this Malachi scripture has nothing to do with making us rich. I won’t rehash the whole thing here, but here are the main points.

  1. The promise was made to the nation of Israel, not to the church, not to any other nation, and not to you and me as individual believers.
  2. The tithes in Israel were taxes, not the voluntary offerings we give to the church.
  3. The tithes were food, not income. The purpose was to ensure there was food for everyone, even the poor and those who had no land.
  4. God was telling people who were already rich to pay their tithes, i.e., taxes, not telling people who were poor how to get rich.
  5. God did not tell the rich they will be richer if they tithe. The metaphors of opening the windows of heaven, and a blessing that they will not have room to receive only meant that they would have more than enough for themselves and their families. It was not an investment with guaranteed positive ROI (Return on Investment).

So if you are tithing because you think God will give you back more than you give, just remember God never promised that. That was the trap I fell into, believing God promised me things that God never promised me. And how did I fall into that trap? By listening to people who profited by reading the Bible out of context. Think about it. If your preacher says, “Look how rich I am. It’s because God blessed me. God blessed me because I tithe. And God will bless you if you tithe,” who receives those tithes you pay? Who receives those tithes everyone pays?

They might say, “It doesn’t go to me. It goes to the church.” But who controls the purse-strings of that church? Do they tell you how they spend all that money they receive? My church shows the budget to all the members, and we vote to approve it. So we know how much our pastor makes. If he showed up to church driving a Mercedes or a Lambo, you’d better believe we would ask him where he got the money for it.

Where Do We Go from Here?

It may sound funny to say this, but I am grateful for that bounced check (with apologies for whatever inconvenience it caused my church). Because any time my prayers for healing, income, a job, protection, or building a career as a writer were not answered, prosperity preachers could it was my fault for doubting too much or not having enough faith. But when it came to this scripture, they could not say that. The deal here is, if I obey this one commandment, God will bless me financially. There is no other requirement. I obeyed. How can it possibly be my fault? What should I conclude from that?

One thing I love about Jesus is when his enemies would try to trap him by presenting him with two options, both of which were bad, he would catch them in their own trap. For example, should we pay taxes to Caesar or not? If he says yes, he will be discredited to those who believe he is the Messiah. If he says no, he will be in trouble with Rome. Which is it, A or B? In situations like this, he would choose C. He held up a coin and said, “Whose image is on this?”

“Caesar’s.”

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mat 22:21 NRS).

They gave him two choices, thinking “Heads we win, tails he loses,” and he chose a third option they had never even considered.

So back to the question of why God wasn’t filling his end of the bargain when I tithed, it seems we only have two choices here. A., the Bible is wrong. Or B., God wants to bless me financially, but somehow I keep screwing it up. It can’t be A, so it must be B, right? That’s why I fell into the trap of always trying to get more faith. But I never seemed to have “enough faith” to make it happen. But this promise specifically says it does not depend on my faith. God was practically daring Israel to tithe and see if they receive more wealth as a result. Could it be that there is a C that I had never considered?

C. They are reading the Bible out of context.

You think what they say has to be true because it comes from the Bible. I will say this a thousand times if the Lord lets me live long enough. Just because they are quoting scripture does not mean they are speaking the Word of God. The Bible is only the Word of God when it is rightly read, rightly interpreted, and rightly applied. And rightly doing all of that begins with three things: Context, context, and context.

By now, I think I have shown that in context, this is not a promise of positive ROI if you give 10% of your income to your church. It is not a way for the poor to get rich, and the rich to get richer. It was a message to the rich that if they paid the tithes God commanded, they would still have plenty for themselves and their families. Not more than before, but more than enough. If you still don’t see that, again I will refer you to my previous article where I explain in depth the tithe Malachi was referring to. The tithes were meant to help the poor, not bring more hardship to them.

And in the New Testament, there is no minimum amount we are required to give to the church. Not 10%, not even 0.1%. We give not under compulsion, not under the threat of a curse if we don’t, or expecting a return as if we are investing in stocks or cryptocurrency. If you have a heart to give to your church, then by all means give. The church needs money to operate, just like any other organization. Give as you are able, and give with a willing heart, because God loves a cheerful giver. And remember, money is not the only thing you have to offer. You can give of your time by volunteering, serving on a committee, visiting sick church members, teaching Sunday school, singing in the choir, or ask your pastor where they need help. And never let them bully you into giving more than you can afford.

The lesson I learned was much bigger than the purpose of tithing or even the right way to give to the church. It taught me something about the true nature of faith. Faith is not something to manipulate God into giving you what you want. It is a relationship with God based on trust. You can ask God for what you want, and whether God gives it to you or not, you trust that God always loves you and will work whatever happens for good. When understood like that, faith is not something you use as a means to an end. It is an end in itself.


Thank you for reading. Feel free to leave a question or comment below. No trolling, but I am happy to engage in honest discussion and debate. As always, remember these words from Matthew 7:12.

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

(NRSV)

Grace and peace to you.

Vulture hoarding dollars and gold.

Word of Faith and a Cult Checklist

How do you know if a religion, sect, or organization is a cult? I posted earlier about the time my sister thought I was in a cult. This was in reference to the Word of Faith (aka, Prosperity Gospel), which I believed in for several years. I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t fully a cult, but it wasn’t healthy either.

An organization called International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) has an article on their website called “Characteristics Associated with Cultic Groups” that lists a number of patterns that are consistent throughout all cults. Some groups may check several boxes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is a cult.

I will go through this list, using my experience with the Word of Faith. You might want to consider answering for whatever group you are thinking of.

If you want a primer on the Word of Faith, I did a video about it.

Number 1: The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.

As a group, Word of Faith (WoF) believers are devoted to their pastor, sometimes even referring to him/her as an apostle or prophet. They also have celebrity preachers that they follow closely. I became disenchanted with one of my churches when the pastor quoted a particular televangelist more than Jesus. It seems at times they take what their leaders say as just as much the Word of God as the Bible, even more so in extreme cases.

The lines between commitment to God and commitment to your leader can get blurred sometimes.

I will say yes to this.

Number 2: Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

They are not punished but definitely discouraged. They encourage you to question and dissent outsiders, traditional churches, seminaries, “the fake news media,” experts, scientists, doctors, evidence, and anything that does not agree with their narrow interpretation of the Bible. But if you question, doubt, or disagree with them, you are automatically wrong, because their leaders are appointed and anointed by God. They might even tell you this is the reason your prayers aren’t being answered, because in questioning them, you think you are smarter than God.

I’ll say yes to this.

Number 3: Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).

The only one on that list they practice is speaking in tongues, and it’s not done as a mind-altering exercise. It is to fulfill what they believe is a restoration of the gifts of the Spirit listed in 1 Cor 12:7-10.

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.

(NRSV)

I don’t remember it as altering my mind, except on a few occasions, and there was no one to witness it. I did not do it in the church, because later in that same letter, Paul says only speak in tongues in public if there is someone to interpret it (1 Cor 14:28). They do believe in meditating on God’s word, but chanting is too new-agey or Buddhist-like for them.

But I’m not sure I can say no to this. The ones who invite people up for healing have gotten good at using the placebo effect. That requires some mind-alteration for people to believe they are healed when they aren’t. I was in my church choir for several years, so music is a big part of the worship experience for me. The way they use music, however, is to make you more suggestible or induce a sense of euphoria, so you will be easier to manipulate.

I will say yes, they do use some mind-altering methods, even if not the ones listed specifically.

Number 4: The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).

In my own experience, they would express opinions on some of these issues, but they would not command or forbid one way or the other. They did not tell you what job to take, who to marry, what clothes to wear, where to live, etc. However, they did tell you how you should think, act, and feel in other ways.

If you prayed for healing, they would tell you things like, “Don’t consider your body. Don’t consider your feelings. Don’t consider your symptoms. Consider only the Word of God that says, ‘By his stripes you were healed.’” In other words, ignore the obvious signs that you were not really healed. They would not forbid but strongly discourage seeing a doctor, taking a prescription, getting vaccinated, or doing anything for your illness that did not come from the Bible or the Holy Spirit.

They would tell you that if you have Jesus, you can’t be depressed. For someone with undiagnosed clinical depression, I’ll let you guess how well that worked for me.

This is a tough call, but I’m going to say yes to this.

Number 5: The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and its members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).

They did not have a specific leader they considered to be the Messiah, although as I said earlier, there were a few preachers they exalted to a level that felt equal to Jesus. That was when I really had problems with it. They also were somewhat elitist in thinking they were the only ones who believe the Bible, the only ones who stood for the word of God, and the only ones totally devoted to God. Traditional churches were dead as far as they were concerned.

You didn’t have to be part of their church or movement specifically to be saved, but you were considered a lesser version of Christianity. They were not happy with Billy Graham, because he would encourage those who came forward to give their lives to Christ at his crusades to join a local church. They wanted him to tell them to join a “Bible preaching, Bible believing church.” In other words, you have to join a church like ours, because we are the only ones who believe the Bible and teach it correctly.

I will say yes to this.

Number 6: The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.

They believe they are persecuted, which fosters an us-versus-them mentality. And to them, that is confirmation that God is on their side, because Jesus said those who were faithful to him would be persecuted.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  

(Mat 5:10-12 NRS)

When they do and say crazy things, and people say they are crazy, it means they are blessed. They are righteous. The more they are reviled and ridiculed, the more they think that is proof that they are right. But not all persecution is for righteousness’s sake. When a minister drives Mercedes S-Class or Bentley, or has a private jet, or is known to pull in tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars, and people ask how they can afford that, they complain. “Tom Cruise makes $20 million per movie. No one asks him how he makes so much. No one asks about the pastor who drives a Toyota. Why do they ask me about my Rolls Royce?”

Here’s why. Maybe Tom Cruise does make too much money, but we know where his money comes from. He doesn’t require people to give him 10% of their income to buy a ticket to his latest movie. My pastor drives a Toyota. We don’t ask him how he got it because we know how much he gets paid. The members of the church saw the budget proposal and approved it. We know his car is what he could reasonably afford. We don’t begrudge him any of his salary or benefits because being a pastor of a church our size will keep you pretty busy. We don’t want him to have to work another job just to make ends meet and take care of his family. But if he drove up one Sunday in a Mercedes, Rolls Royce, or Bentley, you’d better believe we would be asking him how he got it. And if he told us it was none of our business, we’d probably fire him.

Number 7: The leader is not accountable to any authorities.

Yes, and this is a big problem. The pastor or leader of the church is considered to be “the man of God” and accountable only to God. When I left my WoF faith for the Presbyterian church, one of the first things I noticed was they have an annual congregational meeting where they propose a budget for the next year. Everything the church spends money on, including compensation for the clergy and staff, is laid out for everyone to see. We vote on it and approve it. We can propose changes if we like, but usually everyone is satisfied with it. Any leader of a church or ministry who is not willing to do that should not receive your money. They should never tell you it’s none of your business how they spend your donations.

Some won’t even accept accountability to the government or law enforcement. One who was investigated by the Senate for possible fraud said the IRS has the right to audit their finances, but the Senate does not. He used to say Christians should obey the governing authorities according to Romans 13:1. Why does everyone else have to answer when the Senate comes knocking, but he doesn’t? Is he a Constitutional lawyer? Freedom of religion does not include the right to commit fraud. The church I’m in now would have no problem showing their financials if that happened. We have nothing to hide.

blond woman hiding face behind money
Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

Number 8: The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before they joined the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).

The ends justify the means. Defending the indefensible. It does happen, though I can’t think of many examples from my own time in WoF. I’ve seen it a lot more looking from the outside now. Even as hospitalizations and deaths mounted, they kept telling people not to wear masks and not to get the vaccine. Too many of them are not doctors but they play one in the pulpit.

When they said God will make you healthy, wealthy, and successful in all your endeavors if you send money to them—be it tithes, offerings, or “seeds”—at first I did not consider it reprehensible. I thought they were preaching “the Word of God.” It was silly dead church traditions that hid God’s promises of reaping a harvest from the seed–i.e., money–you sowed into God’s ministries. That changed when I saw the only people receiving the promised “harvest” were the preachers who received all those “seed offerings” and tithes. I went to one convention with my favorite televangelist at the time. I had been so looking forward to it, because I thought he was the most Spirit-anointed man walking the face of the earth. The first night, he told the story of how someone promised to give him a plane, didn’t do it, and died. That happened to three people, according to him.

I was horrified. He’s claiming God killed three people, because they lied about giving him a plane? Before I was really in the WoF camp, that would have been a stone-cold deal breaker for me. This guy was not only a heretic. He was dangerous. But I rationalized it by saying Jesus said and did things that offended a lot of people too. If I want to be anointed like this guy, I need to listen and not question. If God has anointed him, maybe I’m wrong. That thinking kept me in the WoF much longer than I should have been. Thank God I figured out he’s not really anointed. He’s just good at mind control.

I will say yes to this.

Number 9: The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.

There were times I felt shame and guilt, but it’s hard to judge how much of it was self-inflicted. The fact that I didn’t know I was living with clinical depression did not help. They tell a lot of stories of people who stood steadfast in their belief for answer to prayer. It did not matter what the doctors said. It did not matter what the experts said. They kept believing for a miracle, and they got it. So if you don’t see the answer to your prayers, you have to keep believing. Keep praising God as if your prayers have already been answered, and you will get what you pray for. But if you doubt at all, that will cancel out your prayers. So there is pressure to believe things they say, even when you know they are not true.

They had me believing it was my fault that all those promises in the Bible were not coming true for me. That would make me feel guilty and ashamed, so I would double down. Read the Bible more, pray more, sow more seed offerings, and listen to more tapes of WoF stars to build up my faith, because “… faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom 10:17 KJV). Keep listening to WoF teaching, and your faith will grow. As your faith grows, your prayers will be answered. That’s how it works, according to WoF doctrine. Except no matter how deeply I immersed myself in their way of reading the Bible, it never worked for me. After I figured out this was a different Gospel, and what they spoke was not of the Holy Spirit, then I was able to walk away from them and their shame and guilt.

I will say yes to this.

Number 10: Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and to radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before they joined the group.

They are more likely to say pray for your family and friends than cut ties with them. Unless the family member or friend is LGBTQ, or “living in sin,” however they define that. Then they will tell you to cut ties with them until they “obey the Word of God.” With that one caveat, I will say no to this.

Number 11: The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.

I think any church wants to bring in new members. But generally, they are more concerned with saving souls whether or not they join our church. I will say no to this.

Number 12: The group is preoccupied with making money.

Many of them claim that God will not answer any of your prayers if you’re not tithing. So 10% of your income (gross, not net) is the cover charge for even getting in God’s presence to pray and be heard. The preachers brag about how rich they are and claim God will make you rich too if you give them money. Here are a few sound bites I’ve heard recently.

  • “You want your loved ones saved? Get yo’ money! You want peace of mind? Get yo’ money! You want respect? Get yo’ money!”
  • “Mone-e-e-e-e-e-e-y cometh! To me! Now!”
  • “Tithing is the door that opens up the door to all the blessings.”
  • “Every sinner I know who got saved started by tithing.”
  • “Why are you coming to church if you’re not tithing? You’re not going to get anything from it.”
  • “I’d like to take all the non-tithers outside, hand out uzis to the ushers, and shoot ‘em all dead.”

Yes, they are preoccupied with making money.

Number 13: Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.

They would have Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night services. That is more than the Presbyterian church I’m in now, but I don’t consider that inordinate.

Number 14: Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

No. Generally, they recognize you have work, school, and a life outside the church. You should act morally in all aspects of life, but they are not complete separatists. There is no compound where everyone lives.

Number 15: The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.

I’m not sure what this looks like. I didn’t fear reprisals from the group, but they would speculate about whether you were still saved or not. “Why would anyone leave us? We have the truth,” was a common attitude. Parents who see their children leave “the faith” often feel shame, wondering where they went wrong. But I wouldn’t say they feel there can be no life outside the context of the group, at least in my experience.

I will say no to this.

Conclusion

There were fifteen items on the list. I said yes to ten and no to five. Some of them I couldn’t answer definitively yes or no. For about a third of them it was difficult to give a definite yes or no, which is why some of my explanations were long. I can think of some cults where I would say yes to all of these. If I were more generous, I might have answered seven or eight yes instead of ten. Just out of curiosity, I ran my PCUSA church and pastor through this checklist and answered everything no.

So back to the original question, is WoF a cult? You could say it’s relative. Compared to Scientology, no. Compared to most traditional churches, yes. However, having been in it and now out of it, I can say there is enough mind control, authoritarianism, and manipulation to be concerned. And knowing my current church checks none of these boxes, even one yes is a red flag for me now.

It’s no fun to think you were in a cult or even a half-cult. Whether it’s a cult or not, Word of Faith is something I am never going back to.

If you are interested in in learning more about the checklist and the dangers of cults in general, you can follow this link to the ICSA website.

Have you had experience with cults? Do you wonder if you or someone you know is in a cult now? Did this questionnaire provide any clarity for you? Let me know in the comments.

Links

Michael D. Langone. Characteristics Associated with Cult Groups—Revised. ICSA Today, Vol. 6, No. 3, 2015, 10

ICSA – Founded 1979 – About Us (icsahome.com)

Is the Word of Faith movement biblical? | GotQuestions.org

Thank God I was a Coward

When I started college, one of the first things I did was rededicate my life to the Lord Jesus Christ. It did not turn out like I expected.

I had a couple of friends from high school at that college. Hanging out with them led me to a fraternity. I pledged and made it through. One of my fraternity brothers, Dave, was an atheist. He respected my faith but made it clear any efforts to convert him would be wasted, except he made this challenge. Another fraternity brother (Paul) was legally blind. Dave said if I healed Paul, he would believe.

Most of us have at least heard stories of Jesus and the disciples healing sick people just by laying hands on them, making the blind see, the deaf hear, and the lame walk. Dave certainly had heard those stories, even if he didn’t believe them. Have you ever wondered why we don’t see anyone performing miracles like that today? If God did it then, why not now? If you had asked me back then, I would have repeated what I heard from my favorite televangelists. People stopped believing in miracles and divine healing, so the gifts of healing and miracles the Bible talks about dried up. In other words, it only works if you believe in it.

I was involved in a movement of Christianity called the Word of Faith. Today, it’s more likely to be called “Prosperity Gospel,” but I think Word of Faith is more accurate. Here is their view of faith and how it works is based on this passage from the Gospel of Mark.

For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith. Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.

(Mar 11:22-24 KJV)

You have to believe and not doubt. No doubt. Even a mustard seed of doubt will stop you from receiving what you pray for. You must believe you receive what you pray for when you pray—not some time in the future, right now. If you believe you receive it when you pray, you will have it. So when you pray for healing, do you believe your body, do you believe what you see, do you believe your symptoms, do you believe the doctors, or do you believe the Word of God that says by his stripes you are healed (Isa 53:5; 1 Pet 2:24)?

You also have this definition of faith from the book of Hebrews.

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

(Heb 11:1 KJV)

Faith is what gives substance to your prayers. Faith is like the God Particle that causes prayers to manifest into reality. The more your faith grows, the greater things you can manifest. So when you say it and believe it (hence the label “word of faith”), and do not doubt but believe what you say will come to pass, your faith will manifest it into physical reality. That is how you receive healing, according to the Word of Faith. That is how you get your prayers answered. Growing in faith means being able to manifest more and more what you pray for. And don’t look for evidence. Faith is the evidence.

If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like “the Secret” or similar philosophy that says you create your own reality, because whatever you think, believe, and/or desire will manifest in your life, you are right. The difference is they use believing and saying in place of thought and desire. In fact, one of the pioneers of the Word of Faith movement copied directly from E.W. Kenyon, the founder of New Thought, which formed the basis of the Secret and other similar philosophies.

So going back to Dave’s challenge, the question was whether my faith had grown to the point where I could manifest healing for Paul, the same way Jesus manifested healing for a man born blind (John 9). But I didn’t want to tell Dave I wasn’t sure I believed in gifts of healing, so I said something about not being filled with the Holy Spirit yet.

Why was that important? One of my Word of Faith preachers used this analogy. When you are born again, you have the authority to use the name of Jesus, who has been given authority over all of heaven and earth (Mat 28:18). When you come up against sickness and disease, you have authority over it like a traffic cop. When the cop holds up his hand for the car to stop, the car stops because he has authority behind him. But what if one driver defies that authority and drives through anyway? The cop does not have the power to stop the car. Now imagine that cop is inside a Sherman tank. If he says stop, he not only has the authority of the city behind him. He has the power to blow you out of the road if you don’t. That’s the difference being filled with the Spirit makes.

When I heard that, I was like, I’ve got to have that. After you get filled with the Holy Spirit, they said, you have to speak in tongues. But even after I started speaking in tongues, I still wasn’t sure I was ready to heal him. Especially since I could not manifest healing for myself. I had a condition called Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), which causes intense abdominal pain and diarrhea at random times. I did what they told me. I did not believe my symptoms—no matter how painful. I spoke only healing, not sickness or pain. Through gritted teeth I kept saying, “By his stripes I am healed. By his stripes I am healed. By his stripes I am healed.” No matter how bad my symptoms, no matter how bad the pain, I refused to speak doubt or consider my symptoms. I only considered the word of God that says, “By his stripes I am healed.”

Eventually, it would subside, as happens with IBS. But each attack just showed I didn’t have enough faith to manifest healing for my own condition. How could my faith manifest healing for blindness? As I got closer to graduation, I couldn’t see the path to healing Paul and thus convincing my atheist friend that God was real.

I got to my final semester. Time was running out. If I was going to help Paul receive his sight, I had until the end of the semester. I had received the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues, so I didn’t have that excuse anymore. But I still had way too little confidence and too much doubt. So I prayed more than usual. I went through the reasons why I was afraid. I had a conversation with the Holy Spirit in my head that went like this.

“What if it doesn’t work?”

“Why are you worried it won’t work? Didn’t I promise in my Word?”

“But I’ve prayed for people to be healed before, and they didn’t get healed.”

“I told you, ‘And these signs will accompany those who believe: … they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.’ (Mar 16:17-18 NRS) Did you lay hands on him?”

“No, but don’t I need permission from him? All the preachers who have taught this say you can’t usurp anyone’s free will.”

“So you need to convince him. Did you tell him how to be saved and healed?”

“No.”

“You need to have that conversation with him then.”

“He might be offended.”

“Did Jesus ever offend people?”

“Yes.”

“Then what makes you think you can follow me without offending people?”

***

Illustration from The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy scolding the Cowardly Lion
“You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

I was afraid if it didn’t work, it would make God look bad. The Holy Spirit told me to just obey and let God worry about his own reputation. So I had to admit the real reason. I was afraid if it didn’t work, I would look foolish. The Holy Spirit said that was the reason my faith was not working. I had to get to a place where I did not care what people thought of me. I only cared what God thought of me. That was what it took. So I decided then and there when I heard the voice of the Holy Spirit, I would obey, even if it was crazy or made me look foolish. I was going to be ready when the Spirit said it was time to have the conversation about being both saved and healed.

That’s another thing about Word of Faith. They claim that if you are born again, you have a right to be healed because the Bible says so. If it’s in the Bible, you have a right to believe and receive it. This was sometimes called, in a derogatory way, “Name it and claim it.” But I didn’t care what the critics said. I only cared what God said.

I prayed and prepared myself to have that conversation. I still had some doubts, so I prayed until I felt no more doubt. And I promised God if the opportunity presented itself, I would not let it slip by, like I had in the past. Then I found out Paul did not return that semester, because he had graduated early. He didn’t tell me. I had to hear it from someone else. I couldn’t believe it. It never occurred to me he would graduate early and leave without saying good bye. I would have been angry with him, except I believed this was orchestrated by the Devil. I must have really been ready to help Paul receive his healing, because the Devil made sure I would never have that opportunity.

I felt so guilty. I never took the opportunities to teach him the way to salvation and healing, because I always assumed I would have another chance. Now I had lost the best chance I had to convince Dave, convince Paul, convince all my fraternity brothers and every student at the school, even some professors, that God was real. Satan must have been laughing at me. It left me feeling like a failure. I had failed Paul, I had failed Jesus, and I had failed my own faith. I was a coward.

That was how I felt then. But …

Since then I have learned a few things that totally changed my perspective.

Faith or Placebo?

I learned that all that time I was beating myself up for not having “enough faith” to get healed or lay hands on people to be well, for not being obedient to the voice of the Holy Spirit, for being afraid of looking foolish, while I saw my favorite televangelists healing people left and right because they weren’t cowards, and they didn’t care what other people thought of them, no one was really getting healed. All those healings I saw, all those people who fell down under the power of the Holy Spirit, were nothing more than a placebo effect.

The placebo effect is when, for example, a boy out in the countryside where medicine is hard to come by breaks his arm. The doctor gives him some pills and says they will kill the pain. The boy takes the pills, and minutes later the pain is all better. The mother asks the doctor what he gave her boy, and it turns out to be sugar pills. How could sugar pills relieve pain? Placebo effect. It worked because the boy believed it would work.

If it works, why should we care if it’s real medicine or a placebo? Here’s where it gets tricky. Some conditions can respond to the placebo effect, and some cannot. In medical terms, functional illnesses can respond to a placebo. Organic illnesses cannot.

When you watch the healing part of these meetings, you will see people on stage who are legally blind and deaf, not totally. You will see the preacher pray then go through demonstrations of Can you see this? Can you hear me? How many fingers am I holding up? Repeat what I say. They respond, and it looks like they are healed. People cheer and shout, Praise the Lord!

The reason you don’t see totally blind or deaf people up there is that is an organic condition. It cannot respond to the placebo effect. I would not have thought partial blindness or deafness is functional. It turns out, though, partial blindness and deafness can respond to the placebo effect. In these meetings, the legally blind and deaf might experience temporary improvement in their seeing or hearing. But when they get home, away from the energy, away from all the talk of faith and expectation of miracles, i.e., away from the placebo, the blindness or deafness returns.

Paul was legally blind. I don’t know all the details, but he could see some things in a fuzzy way. If he got up really close to the television, he could see enough to follow what was happening. He could make out shapes of people but had to rely mostly on the sound of their voice or smell to know who was talking to him. He had a computer that would magnify words to where he could read them, and he could type papers on his computer. That kind of blindness can respond to the placebo effect. Any modern faith healer knows how to use the placebo effect to make it appear they are healed. Here’s a video of someone demonstrating how they do this.

If I had convinced Paul to go to one of these meetings with me, he could have experienced just that. To have him go through that moment of ecstasy when he could see more clearly, and believe that his eyes were being healed, then lose it. And then listen to me or those preachers tell him to resist the Devil, keep believing, don’t give in to the Devil who’s trying to convince him he wasn’t really healed, and nothing come of it. And then have him think this healing thing isn’t real, and therefore God isn’t real. Or like me, come to believe over time that God is real but a cruel prankster, to heal us and then take it away. Thank God I never put him through that just because someone dared me to. In the end, God worked good out of my cowardice.

Admitting that was difficult. It meant letting go of what I thought was proof of God. I realize now it is not my job to prove God’s existence. And even if it is, we are not going to find that proof by clinging to false signs and lying wonders. If Dave asked me again to prove God’s existence somehow, I would just have to admit I can’t. I might have stopped believing in God altogether except for one thing. Jesus and the disciples warned us repeatedly this would happen.

Jesus answered them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah!’ and they will lead many astray.

(Mat 24:4-5 NRS)

And again,

And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.

(Mat 24:11 NRS)

And again,

Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘There he is!’– do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.

(Mat 24:23-24 NRS)

They will produce great signs and omens, and people will think they are anointed. If you say, “I won’t be led astray. I’m saved, sanctified, holy ghost filled, fire baptized. I’ve got Jesus on my side,” he said it was possible for even the elect to be deceived.

And again,

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.

(Mat 7:15)

I could go on, but I will just add this for now.

Take note, I have told you beforehand.  

(Mat 24:25 NRS)

He told us beforehand. And not just him. 26 of the 27 books of the New Testament include warnings against false teachers, false prophets, false “anointed ones,” and wolves in sheep’s clothing. I used to think this was very intolerant, to call anyone who disagrees with you a false teacher or false prophet. But if you look at how they are described, the false teachers they condemned were using people’s desperation and sincere desire to please God to defraud them. They used fear and greed to manipulate people. They told them what they wanted to hear in order to exploit them.

“Sow a seed for your need.” That means God will answer your prayers if you give me money.

“Sow the best seed you have.” You need to give more.

“Don’t consider your symptoms.” Ignore the obvious signs that you were never healed.

“Only believe the Word of God.” I’m quoting the Bible out of context.

“Do not believe what the doctor says. Only believe the Bible.” I’m not a doctor, but I’m playing one in the pulpit.

“Don’t believe those dead church traditions.” Because if you do, you’ll see this is not really the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

“I’m not the healer. Jesus is the healer.” So don’t blame me when it doesn’t work. It’s your fault for not having enough faith.

“We believe God is a good God.” So don’t criticize my multi-million house, luxury cars, private jets, and designer clothes, all tax-free and made possible by your donations.

“That’s why I drive a Rolls Royce. I’m following in the footsteps of Jesus.” That money you sent me may not have answered your prayers, but it answered mine.

They will quote scripture after scripture, so they can claim they are speaking the Word of God. I will say this a thousand times if the Lord lets me live long enough. The Bible is only the Word of God when it is rightly read, rightly interpreted, and rightly applied. And rightly doing all that begins with three things: context, context, and context. If they tell you the Bible promises you perfect health, abundant wealth, protection from pandemics, control over the weather, and success in all your endeavors, I’m telling you they are reading it out of context. That message is a parody of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Yes, there are many promises in the Bible, but most of them are to the community as a whole. They are not to you and me as individual believers. When you read the Bible in context, I see only two promises to you and me as individual believers: Forgiveness for our sins, and nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ. That’s it. That’s all we are promised.

So are you saying God wants me to be sick, broke, and a failure?

No. I don’t know what God wants for you. I don’t even know what God wants for me. Maybe God will bless you with wealth and success. Maybe God will answer your prayers for healing. I’m saying God never promised to do that for you. God never promised to give sight to my friend, Paul, whether he was born again or not. God never promised that I could personally lay my hands on Paul and give him perfect vision, even if I had perfect faith with zero doubt and spoke in tongues.

A Cowardly Lion’s Moment of Truth

I haven’t seen Paul since he unceremoniously left me to wrestle with my doubts and feelings of failure. What would I say to him today? If I were honest, I would say I was mad at him for leaving without saying goodbye. But it was probably a good thing he did, because I was about to do something I would have regretted, and he probably would have regretted too. I would have to explain everything I just explained to you. And I would ask him how he would have reacted if I had said everything I was planning to tell him. I don’t know how he would answer, but I would also have to tell him my faith is very different now from what it was when he knew me.

I used to believe I might be able to heal his eyes if I had perfect faith. I no longer believe that. I can’t lay hands on him and heal him the same way Jesus did. It turns out I’m not Jesus. Go figure.

I might tell him about a pastor I found online. He was blind in his right eye and raised in a charismatic church that taught this Word of Faith doctrine. From the time he was eight years old, he began praying for his eye to be healed. He came forward for his church to pray for him nearly every Sunday. He was told to fast and pray, so even as a child he would fast two days at a time. The pastor there talked constantly about wholeness and healing, and how God wanted to heal every sickness and disease. When he came forward for healing, he would close his eyes, receive the prayers from the elders, and open them fully expecting to see. He would pray before going to sleep at night, fully expecting to wake up seeing.

After several years of this he still wasn’t healed. Then an elder spoke to him, and this is how he described the encounter.

[H]e was a bit frustrated with me. He told me that I wasn’t healed because I didn’t have enough faith.

 He essentially said it was my fault that I didn’t have the victory, that I wasn’t fully whole and restored.

Religion News Service.

“When I heard that story,” I might tell him, “it made me think of you and what I was planning to do. What that elder did to him, I would have done to you if I had gone through with my plans. And when I think of how I wanted to bring you with me to one of those faith healers, and what I know now about the placebo effect, I am so glad I never did. Because what could have ended up happening is you would go up there and see better temporarily because of the placebo effect. We would both think God was healing your eyes, and the fake healer would have promised 20/20 or better eyesight. But when the placebo wore off, and you lost that healing, which would have been inevitable, I would have thought either you or I didn’t have enough faith.

“For years, when I thought I didn’t have enough faith, I would double down. Like that boy, I would keep praying, fasting sometimes, until I expected healing, and over and over again healing never came. It was the worst possible thing for my faith and mental health. When you graduated early, I beat myself up for being a coward because I never had that conversation with you. And when I think that I, your friend and fraternity brother, almost put you through all that, all I can say now is …”

Paul might say at that point, “Thank God you were a coward?”

I would laugh and agree. Paul was a philosophy major, while I was a religion major. We had some pretty in-depth discussions about the two subjects, especially where they intersected. I imagine he might ask, “So why aren’t you a coward now?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you just made a heavy confession to me, but I didn’t hear any fear in your voice. Why not?”

“I don’t know. For some reason, I just felt the need to say I’m sorry for thinking the way I did and what that almost made me do to you.”

“You were afraid back then, even though you felt the need to tell me about getting healed. So why aren’t you afraid now?”

“Because I really believe in this.”

“So you’re not afraid now, because you really believe in this.”

“Oh, I see where you’re going. At the timeI could not have admitted this, but I didn’t totally believe the whole Word of Faith theology, even then. And I thought that was the problem. It only works if you believe in it, so I tried all kinds of ways to make myself believe. Because I thought if I could get ‘enough faith,’ I would see the miracles I wanted to see.”

“What is ‘enough faith’?”

“I don’t know, but apparently, I never had it.”

“And you disobeyed the Holy Spirit. How do you feel about that?”

“That wasn’t the Holy Spirit. I know that now because it sounded just like the Word of Faith preachers I was listening to at the time. I don’t believe anymore that that was the Holy Spirit. I believe that is what happens to me when I commit myself to a particular ideology, any ideology. It starts talking to me to reinforce itself.”

“You know what, David? I don’t think you were a coward. I think you just couldn’t push something on me that you did not believe in yourself.”

“Hmm.” I have to pause to think. “You may be right. In fact, I think the reason I never totally believed that is because there was always some part of me, deep inside, that knew there was something wrong with this view of faith and God. God is God, and I am not. Learning to accept that has been critical for my healing, if you’ll pardon the expression.”

“It sounds like you’ve been on quite a journey.”

“Oh, man! That is not even the tip of the iceberg.”

“Are you gonna try to save my soul now?”

I laugh and say, “Actually, you helped save mine. But I’d be happy to share more of my journey with you if you’re interested.”

“You know I love to discuss the meaning of life. I’m interested in hearing what’s different about you now.”

And so we would be off on another of our in-depth philosophical/theological conversations. Paul, wherever you are, I hope we meet again, in this world or the next, because I miss those conversations so much.

-end-

Further Reading

Alan Cross. “Prosperity Gospel’s False Promises Aren’t Always about Money.” Religion News Service. September 10, 2019. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from https://religionnews.com/2019/09/10/prosperity-gospels-false-promises-arent-always-about-money/

Lauren Zakalik. WFAA. April 27, 2017. Retrieved August 1, 2021, from

https://www.bishop-accountability.org/news2017/03_04/2017_04_27_Zakalik_ManHealed.htm

New Podcast Appearance: Ebb and Glow, hosted by Jenelle Tremblett

Episode #14: “Faith and Clinical Depression with David Anderson

Podcast tagline: “Learning and sharing our ‘failures’, setbacks, comebacks, and pivots, and talking about the tactical steps you took to get through the bump in the road.”

The Ebb and Glow Podcast with Jenelle Tremblett
Look for Episode 14, “Faith and Clinical Depression with David Anderson”

This is my third appearance as a guest on a podcast, and each one has been a great experience. Each one has challenged me in different ways while encouraging me to talk about something I’m passionate about, which is helping people with depression find a faith and plan for recovery that works for them. If you want to know how to get an introvert talking, that’s how you do it.

In keeping with her tagline, the theme was about being diagnosed with clinical depression and living in recovery from it. Among the things we talked about are

  • The difference between situational and clinical depression
  • How I found out I have clinical depression
  • Signs that you should be tested for clinical depression
  • How some kinds of faith can help recovery
  • How some kinds of faith can hinder recovery
  • Some tips on coping with depression under pandemic conditions
  • Reconciling faith and science, and how both were important to me in recovery
  • Depression during the holidays

I ended up talking more about religion more than I thought I would. Though Jenelle is not religious, she did not shy away from asking me about it. And she had some really nice things to say about my book. The episode lasts for about an hour, but it could easily have gone on all night. I have learned in those situations I need to be mindful of the time, because not everyone wants to hear my perspective for six hours, no matter how brilliant I think it is. But I have listened to it, I’m delighted with the result, and I hope you will get some value from it.

In the end, she said the book was helpful to her understanding of friends or family members who struggle with depression, which affirmed something I had hoped. Even though I had to talk about my faith and how it affected my experience with depression, I had hoped it would be helpful to people who don’t necessarily share my faith or beliefs. I can’t thank her enough for that vote of confidence.

If you are looking for podcasts with hosts that are eager to help you get your message out, and you have a topic that matches the tagline of “Ebb and Glow,” I would strongly recommend Jenelle. She put me at ease and drew out some things I didn’t even know I wanted to talk about.

New podcast appearance: This is the Situation with Brother B

I love that he included this graphic. See how the non-depressed brain is so much more lit up?

If you missed with Brother B on Muskegon 100.9 FM, you can still listen to it on podcast. Just click the link below.

Podcast: This is the Situation

Host: Brother B

Episode: FAITH&RECOVERY

Date: December 7, 2020

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/faith-recovery/id1462754264?i=1000501590655

Brother B and I talk about:

  • The difference between situational and clinical depression
  • Signs you may have clinical depression
  • Faith that is good for recovery versus faith that is bad for recovery
  • Some encouragement for those experiencing depression because of racism (you can thank Brother B for that)
  • My “red pill” moment about the Prosperity Gospel/Word of Faith movement
  • Learning compassion for yourself and others
  • What the Bible is all about in one sentence (And no, it’s not John 3:16)

This is of course part of a promotion for my book, Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain. He made a really cool promo that I want to continue to use to cross promote his podcast and my book.

Like my conversation with Steve Pederson on The Dream Highway podcast (episode 26), it was a great experience for an introvert like me. I have talked a lot about living with clinical depression, but I have not talked much about being an introvert. Most people think introverts are shy and quiet, so you might be surprised to learn I enjoy interviews like this. But being “shy and quiet” is not the whole picture. Introverts tend to think a lot about big issues, like climate change, the state of the government, repercussions of policy and court decisions, what does freedom really mean, existential angst and such. Because of that, small talk is a challenge for us, so we often appear awkward in social situations.

This is what small talk feels like for an introvert.

But if you get us talking about something we are passionate about, we can talk all day. And I could have in both those cases, because I am passionate about writing and helping people struggling with depression. Fortunately for you, each episode is less than an hour.

A word about the YouTube channel

I set up a YouTube channel called Almost Ordained. Though I’ve had fun with it, I think I need to switch it to a podcast. I’ve been frustrated somewhat with aspects of video production. The last episode I filmed hasn’t aired, because the lighting was just out of control. Light, dark, light, dark … that’s what made me say, enough is enough. The episodes are still available to watch if you want to catch up on them. And I’m glad it was still up when Brother B sent me that promo, so I had a place to post it. But apparently, I don’t have the technical set up to make my own videos. Less can go wrong with audio, so I will give that a try.

That’s all for now. Until next time, remember these words from Matthew 7:12,

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

-(NRSV)

Grace and peace to you.

six photos of book Dark Nights of the Soul, me with a box of books, me at book signing, Self-Published E-Book Awards, Writer's Digest magazine cover and page with my name as winner of the nonfiction category

Vlog Part 2

six photos of book Dark Nights of the Soul, me with a box of books, me at book signing, Self-Published E-Book Awards, Writer's Digest magazine cover and page with my name as winner of the nonfiction category
In the last photo, notice the Nonfiction winner (humble brag)

The May/June issue of Writer’s Digest is out, listing the winners of the 2019 Self-Published E-book Awards. You’ll see in this montage my lovely wife put together, I am listed as the winner in the Nonfiction category. I know I’ve told you about it, but seeing it in print is so exciting.

I have my own YouTube channel called Almost Ordained. You can follow the link to check it out or even subscribe. “Almost ordained” because I have two seminary degrees, but never got ordained. That means I have the theological and biblical training, but I can’t pastor a church or perform sacraments or weddings. My sister took up that mantle.

I have links to the latest episodes below, along with running times so you can gauge whether you have time for it. This is an example of a vlog (video blog). As the name implies, it is a blog done on video. Keeping some kind of diary or journal is often helpful in getting through a stressful time, so I encourage you to do it, whether on video, your blog, or the old-fashioned way.

Episodes

Kingdom Priorities (23:18)

Wisdom from Psalm 30 (30:05)

A New Haircut, The Stockdale Paradox, James 1:2-5; and Letting Perseverance Complete Its Work (28:08)

Confessions of an Ex-Prophet (58:07)

Coronavirus Confessions, and Why Gardening Is Good for Depression (12:08)

The Second Sign of a False Prophet (30:39)

rough looking kitty meme, "When you had a rough day but are trying to stay positive"

My Fourth Principle for Recovery: Getting the Right Help, Part 2

In my last post, I introduced my fourth principle for recovery: With the right help, you can live a happy and fulfilling life. For most depressed people, getting the right help begins with testing. I talked about standard testing for depression in the last post. If your depression is bad enough, you may need testing for more specific types. At my mother and sister’s suggestion, I got tested for clinical depression. At the time, I don’t think the standard tests I’ve read about would have caught it in my case, so I’m glad I took their advice.

Getting Tested for Clinical Depression Was Different

If you are considering getting tested for clinical depression, I can tell you a few things you probably won’t find online. I won’t give away too much. Part of the effectiveness of the testing comes from going in fresh. But in many ways it was not what I expected.

It Was Not Talk Therapy or Psycho-Therapy

It did not involve talking about my emotions or childhood. It did not involve my history, or how I’ve been feeling the last few weeks, or trying to determine if there’s a particular reason for depression, or if it is just always there regardless of any reason. Someone observing would not have thought it had anything to do with depression. The psychologist (I say psychologist, but I don’t know exactly what his title was) gave me various tasks to do and questions to answer. After each task, he asked why I did it that way or why I concluded what I did.

The only thing I recognized as “psychiatric” was the Rorschach inkblot test. You’ve probably seen it on TV. They show an inkblot, and you tell them what it looks like. On TV, they usually say a bat or a rabbit or something simple. My answers were much more elaborate. In fact afterwards, I asked if I could get copies of them, because I thought I saw scenes that could be used in a fantasy or sci-fi story. Turns out they are copyrighted, a trade secret, or something like that. In other words, they’re not available to the public.

It Takes More Time

With the standard question-and-answer tests I’ve seen, I can’t imagine them taking long. That kind of testing was made for something more general. It is one step in a process for your doctor to determine if you need treatment for depression or something else. The test I took was to look specifically for clinical depression. It took around two or maybe three hours. The time it takes for each person varies, because there is no time limit for the tasks. So if you took the kind of test you see online, and it only took a few minutes, that was not a test for clinical depression. There is a difference between situational depression, which usually does not take long to identify, and clinical depression.

Trust the Process

Like I said, you might not see what the questions and tasks you’re given have to do with depression. Clinical depression is not about how you feel or how you’ve been feeling the last two weeks or more. It is a condition of the brain. One thing about your brain. It is always with you no matter where you go, what you do, what’s happening to you, or who you’re with. Your brain is unique. But if you have clinical depression, it is there in your brain. And just like your brain, it is always with you, no matter how you feel. Even if you don’t feel depressed at this time in your life, you still could have clinical depression.

After the process was over, I realized the tasks and questions the psychologist gave were designed to give him a window into how my brain works. That is the only way to detect clinical depression. Somehow, the psychologist has to see your brain at work, how it processes information, and how it responds to various challenges and stimuli. That’s why he asked me to explain my thought processes each step of the way. Each answer gave him a little more data about how my brain worked.

Disorientation

When it was over, I set a follow-up appointment to get the results. The psychologist said I could bring someone in with me if I wanted. My sister was happy to do it. She should have been, since she roped me into it in the first place. So she was there when the psychologist gave me the news: “You tested high for depression in every possible way.”

The world stood still. It was so shocking I didn’t know how to respond. If he had said anything else, like I tested moderate to severe in every possible way, or I tested high in half the ways, I would not have been surprised. But high in every possible way? How was that possible? I only felt mildly depressed. How could I have tested high in every possible way? That would not have been the case with one of those standard online tests. I’m not denigrating them. I’m just saying diagnosing clinical depression as opposed to situational depression is much more involved than that.

As I adjusted to the shock, the next thing I felt was shame. Because I am a Christian.

What Will This Do to My Testimony?

I had struggled mightily with depression in the past. But I always thought it was in specific episodes. I was depressed in college. I was depressed during and after my first year of Divinity School. I was depressed when I turned thirty, and I was nowhere near where I was supposed to be in life. And each time, I said, Jesus delivered me from it.

If you are a Christian, you might have picked up the message that you should be able to overcome depression by faith alone, because Christ is all sufficient. He is all you need for peace of mind. You’ve heard others give that testimony. You wanted it to be your testimony.

Do you see the joy on my face? It’s because of Jesus.

Since I found Jesus, I don’t get the blues.

I can’t be depressed, because the joy of the Lord is my strength.

Too blessed to be depressed.

rough looking kitty meme, "When you had a rough day but are trying to stay positive"

For me, all of that went away with my diagnosis. I wanted that testimony to show people what a difference Jesus made in my life. But I also learned long ago that in my relationship with God, honesty is much more important than having “the right testimony.” Honestly, as much as I wanted it, that was never my testimony. But there was still a part of me that thought it should be my testimony.

Here’s what you need to understand. Christ is all-sufficient when it comes to salvation, forgiveness of sins, and eternal life. When we get to heaven, we probably will never be depressed again. But when it comes to life on earth, we will sometimes need help from people, whether it’s warm bodies to carry things when you move, doctors and nurses to bring you back to health from sickness or injury, or mental health professionals to help you diagnose and treat mental illness. Christ is not at all offended if you need help from a professional, whether your illness is physical or mental.

Getting Reoriented

The psychologist explained clinical depression is a condition of the brain. It means my brain does not produce enough natural antidepressants, like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. It’s a natural condition and nothing to be ashamed of. A diabetic has a pancreas that can’t produce insulin. There is no shame in that. It says nothing about that person’s faith or lack thereof. If my brain doesn’t produce normal levels of “happy chemicals” (as I call them), I shouldn’t be ashamed of that either. It can happen to anyone, regardless of what kind of faith they have.

Just like there is treatment for diabetes, there is treatment for clinical depression. That usually starts with antidepressant (AD) medication and counseling. Counseling, I had no problem with. But I had some resistance to medication.

***DISCLAIMER: In the medical field, the effectiveness of AD medication is being seriously questioned. Just keep in mind, any psychotropic drug affects each person differently. My experience might be the same as yours, and it might be totally different. You should never take one without a recommendation from a doctor or mental health professional. And you need to pay attention to how it affects your thoughts and emotions, especially in the first few days or weeks. Before you start taking AD medication, be sure you know what to do if your condition doesn’t improve or gets worse.***

With that disclaimer, I’ll tell you why I took it, and why I’m glad I did.

Medication

Most doctors seem more reluctant to prescribe AD medication today than when I was diagnosed. Part of the reason is recent studies have indicated it is no more effective than a placebo for anything other than severe depression.

Okay, but remember, I had just tested high for depression in every possible way. The diagnosis of clinical depression meant I had been living with depression my whole life and did not even know it. If that is not severe depression, what is? If my diagnosis had not been so extreme, I would not have even considered it. I would more likely have accepted counseling and tried doubling down on faith confessions, positive thinking, motivational messages, and meditating on scripture. I’m not saying those things were not effective for me. They kept me going in some of my worst and darkest moments. But I had been doing all that for almost two decades, and I still tested high in every possible way. That realization took down most of my resistance.

There was also the comparison with the diabetic. He/she needs to take insulin, because their body can’t produce it. If my brain doesn’t make normal levels of “happy chemicals,” taking medication for that is no different.

She Is So Much Nicer Now

This was also where having my sister there was helpful. She knew some things I didn’t. For example, she knew of a relative who had recently started AD medication. “She is so much nicer now,” I said. Oh, and another who was moody and had a volatile temper. “That was depression?” I had never made that connection before with him or myself.

In the past, I had chalked up my own moodiness to “artistic temperament.” But it had never occurred to me that was a sign of depression. This is one way you can be depressed and not know it. You know some of the signs, but not all of them. Like here, I knew I was moody and temperamental, but I didn’t connect that with depression. And seeing how much nicer that one relative was with medication, I thought maybe it wouldn’t be a bad thing for me.

Perfectly Timed for College

The psychologist also told me clinical depression usually gets its worst between late-teens and early-twenties. Bang! That was totally true for me. At first, that was connected to a crisis of faith. But even after that crisis was resolved, I still had this malaise I couldn’t shake. It was so hard for me to get motivated for anything back then. I thought it was the work of the devil. Finally, I realized, it was the work of my chemically imbalanced brain.

Furthermore, whenever I had a crisis of faith, depression always accompanied it. So how do you know if this is the situational depression of a dark night of the soul, or clinical depression felt more intensely because you’re wondering, “What the hell is God doing to me?” You don’t without getting tested.

What about “Artistic Temperament”?

I wanted to be a writer. Let’s face it. Some of the greatest writers and artists in history were very moody and temperamental. I can’t diagnose them, but it’s likely most of them had clinical depression or similar mental illness. But is that where their genius came from? Was depression the muse that inspired their work that we still celebrate today? What if they could have taken AD medication so as not to be tormented with those dark thoughts and emotions anymore? Would that have made them less creative?

Many times, depression compelled me to write something. It was therapy before I began therapy. If I lose that, will I lose some of my creativity or my urge to write? Can I really be an artist without the temperament?

The psychologist’s answer was, in effect, yes, I could. Since I started AD medication, I’ve been able to go back to some of those dark places when I needed to without being caught up in the darkness myself. I can write about the insanity I experienced without re-experiencing it. And I still feel the urge to write, even when I don’t feel depressed. In fact, the most depressing thing for me is to go a few days without writing. That’s when I really get moody and temperamental. So if you are a creative or artistic type, I can tell you taking AD medication has not dampened my creativity one bit. In fact, now I have so many ideas, there aren’t enough hours in a day for me to write them all.

One More Tip No One Told Me

So I had the results of the test. I had the beginnings of a plan for recovery. I accepted the diagnosis and agreed to medication. The psychologist recommended a pastoral counselor for me, because I knew I would need help with some of the theological issues I still had. I left with a copy of the report, and my sister and I sat down in a coffee shop to talk more about the implications of all this.

One thing I remember from the conversation was the relationship between depression and anxiety. In addition to depression, I seemed to be more anxious than people around me. My sister said that depression and anxiety were located close to each other in the brain. If you have issues with one, it’s common to have issues with the other. That reminds me of Chris Cornell. He took Ativan for anxiety, but in some of his interviews he also talked about depression. The good news is if you treat one effectively, it often helps the other. That has been true of me, and I wish it had been true for Cornell.

Overall, after adjusting to the shock, it was one of the most enlightening days of my life. My recovery began that day. But there was one thing I wish someone had told me. Don’t read the results of your test. Normally, I’m the type of person who would say, “If you have the test, read it. The more information you have about your condition, the better.” This is an exception. That report was the most depressing thing about myself I have ever read.

You don’t need to read it to know what you need to. Ask the psychologist who tested you about the results, what they mean, and what kind of treatment you need. Don’t throw it away. Keep a copy of it in case you need to make a disability claim. But don’t read it unless for some reason you absolutely have to.

Life after AD Medication

Back in college, I had this voice in my head that was so negative and so condemning, it felt like it came straight out of the pit of Hell. I could cast it out in Jesus’ name. Temporarily. But anytime I failed, or my prayers weren’t answered, the voice returned. And in some ways, I felt I deserved it, because I still didn’t have enough faith (whatever that means). In the Word of Faith, they tell you that voice is a demon or the Devil. And then, it changed from the Devil to Jesus, beating me up for not having “enough faith” to get what I prayed for.

Fortunately, I did learn not to associate that voice with either one of them. I had an incredible Epiphany that drove it away for a couple of years. But eventually, it came back. After a few days on medication, that voice went away for me. I don’t know if there really are such things as demons or Satan, but I do know this. If a pill can make it go away, it’s not a demon. For that matter, it’s not Jesus either. It’s a mental illness.

Here’s another thing that happened. I used to think I had ups and downs like everyone else. I could be happy or sad, stressed or at peace, friendly or misanthropic. But even when I was happy, there was this underlying sadness I couldn’t get rid of. I never felt like I belonged anywhere, even among friends. I thought it was normal, because that was how my brain worked. When I started AD medication, those feelings finally went away. From that, I learned that however your brain works, you will think it’s normal because everything about your experience is processed through your brain. If your brain is naturally tilted toward depression, it will color all your experience with that brush. That was why I didn’t recognize it as depression except when it got really bad.

Takeaways

That leads into my fifth principle for recovery: Never believe a chemically imbalanced brain, even if it is your own. I will dive into that in my next post. Until then, here are your takeaways.

  1. Situational depression is much easier to recognize than clinical depression. Situational depression is about how you feel. Clinical depression is a medical condition.
  2. Because they are different, the testing for each is different.
  3. Testing for depression is only one part of a process to determine if you need treatment for depression or something else.
  4. If your family and friends think you are sad or depressed even when you don’t, you should seriously consider testing for clinical depression.
  5. Sadness and lack of motivation are not the only signs of depression. Anger, moodiness, and a quick, extreme temper are also signs.
  6. Like any medical condition, clinical depression has nothing to do with faith or the lack thereof. Don’t believe anyone who tells you faith should be all you need to treat it.
  7. AD medication is normally for severe or clinical depression. Research has not confirmed effectiveness for less severe kinds of depression.
  8. If you have severe depression, it’s no sin to try AD medication.
  9. Like other psychotropic drugs, AD medications affect everyone differently. Before you take it, make sure you know what to do if your depression gets worse after taking it.
  10. You do not have to read the results of your test. Just follow the advice of the one who tested you, and you’ll be on your way to recovery.

Grace and Peace to you.

P.S. I’ve talked about how my sister and mother encouraged me to get tested. You might be wondering about my father. He recently confessed to me that he thought I had problems with depression too, but he did not know how to talk to me about it. So it’s official. Everyone in my family knew I was depressed before I did (see Takeaway #4). But that in a nutshell is why I’m writing these posts and why I wrote my book Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain. I’m sharing what my clinical depression looked like as best I can, in the hopes that A) someone undiagnosed will see themselves in it and be prompted to get help, or B) someone who cares for a depressed person can use it to help share their concerns.

References

https://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/depression-tests#1

https://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/default.htm

Alternatives to Anti-Depressant Medication

https://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/alternative-therapies-depression#1

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/natural-cures-for-depression_n_7502392

My Fourth Principle for Recovery: Getting the Right Help

My fourth principle for recovery from depression says, “With the right help, you can live a happy and fulfilling life.

Getting the right help first requires proper diagnosis. If you think you are depressed, your doctor can help with screening to see if you need therapy.

***Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or licensed therapist. Any advice I’m offering is based on research and personal experience. Unlike WebMD articles, it has not been vetted by professionals.***

I think the way I can be most helpful is not as a professional but as a bridge between the professional and layperson. I am a layperson myself but with personal experience of clinical depression and treatment for it. If you think my experience might inform you, keep reading.

Should I Get Tested?

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) has a list of symptoms of major depression. You could look at that, but these two questions might make it simpler:

  1. During the past month, have you been bothered by feeling down, depressed, or hopeless?
  2. During the past month, have you been bothered by loss of interest or pleasure in doing things?

If you answer “yes” or “some” to one or both of these, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about being tested for depression. Information about how they test is available online. However, I don’t think you should look into testing beforehand more than this. If your doctor wants to ask more questions, I think it’s best not to prepare for it ahead of time. Just answer the questions honestly and leave the diagnosis to the professionals.

Is It Depression or Something Else?

First, however, your doctor will probably want to eliminate any physical causes of your symptoms. There are a number of conditions with symptoms similar to depression, including

  • Hypo- or hyper-active thyroid. If your thyroid gland is too active not active enough
  • Nutritional deficiencies, especially vitamin-D or calcium
  • Certain types of cancer or tumors
  • Hormone imbalances
  • Anemia
  • Cushing’s disease (a disorder of the adrenal gland)
  • Head trauma
  • Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
  • Stroke
  • Syphilis
  • Certain medications, e.g., corticosteroids
  • Withdrawal from certain medications (for example, steroids, amphetamines, OTC appetite suppressants, or anti-depressant medications)

Some of these you probably already know if they apply to you. Others you will probably have to be tested for. Consult your doctor about which tests are appropriate for you. The most common physical causes of depression have to do with the brain and nervous system, thyroid and endocrine system, or sometimes a nutritional deficiency such as Vitamin-D or calcium.

And here’s a couple of tidbits I learned from personal experience. Many types of depression are related to a serotonin deficiency. So is Irritable Bowel Syndrome. So if you have IBS, chances are you will be depressed too. Also, if you recently had heart surgery, many post-op patients experience depression.

Depression Testing

If your depression is not related to any physical causes like the ones listed above, the doctor should screen you for depression. This will involve answering some questions that may make you uncomfortable. But as usual, you should answer your doctor honestly if you want an accurate diagnosis. Doctor-patient confidentiality is there for a reason.

There are several testing options your doctor can choose from. I’m not going to explain them because, unlike when you were in school, I think it’s best to go into these tests without “preparing” for them. Your doctor needs honest answers, not the ones you scripted beforehand. If further treatment is needed, he/she can advise you on the next steps.

Self/Online Testing

There are tests available online, including one called “3 Minute Depression Test.” Tests like these are convenient, private (unless you’re being hacked), and often free. That can be a good place to start. However, that is hardly enough for a diagnosis of major depression or any of the possible physical causes. Getting the right help will involve seeing a doctor at some point. And after that, you’ll probably need to see a therapist or counselor for a while. I don’t see how any self test can tell you if you need it. But if the results prompt you to talk to your doctor, then it’s served a purpose.


I think this sums up the standard advice on getting tested. However, this kind of screening is about situational depression, not clinical depression. We need to think of that as something separate from standard screening for depression.

Testing for Clinical Depression

The questions in most screenings are about how you have been feeling recently. Getting tested for clinical depression is different. When I got tested, the therapist did not ask anything about how I was feeling. The test involved going through different tasks and explaining why I did it this way. So it is about how your brain responds to different puzzles and challenges. This makes sense, because clinical depression is not about how you are feeling at the moment or in the past few weeks. It is about how your brain works. This is why clinical depression is harder to detect than situational depression. It requires a trained professional test for it.

When I was diagnosed, I only felt mildly depressed. It seemed odd to me that my mother and sister were pushing me to get tested. There were times in my life when I had much worse depression, so why are they bringing it up now? I would have said at the time that I was mildly depressed. And why not? I was in my early thirties, unemployed, and never had a girlfriend. Who wouldn’t be at least a little depressed? I didn’t think depression was something that needed to be addressed before finding a job. But my sister said to me, “I have always experienced you as being depressed.”

That got my attention. She has known me for a long time. She knew things about me no one else did. The same is true of my mom. If they are seeing something, maybe I should at least look into it. Since I was unemployed, my mom agreed to pay for it. The testing took about two or three hours, which is another reason why I don’t think a three minute test is enough for diagnosis. I’m not saying don’t use that tool if you suspect you are depressed. Just remember it is only one step in the process of being diagnosed.

Wouldn’t You Know If You Are Depressed?

Not necessarily. Remember I said I only felt mildly depressed when I got tested? Here is how the therapist summed up the results. “You tested high for depression in every possible way.”

What? High in every way? How is that possible?

I only felt mildly depressed. On a scale of one to ten, I was at a two, maybe three. And still, I tested high in every possible way. This was probably the greatest shock of my life. And it’s how I learned the difference between situational depression and clinical depression. The therapist explained to me that the brain naturally produces antidepressant chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. When it doesn’t get enough of these chemicals, you have clinical depression. While situational depression is about how you feel over a period of a few weeks or sometimes months, clinical depression is a condition of the brain. No matter how you feel—happy, sad, hopeless, confident, angry, peaceful—it is always with you.

While you may think you have highs and lows like everyone else, your lows are lower because of your brain chemistry. While situational depression is usually triggered by something that got you down, with clinical depression, you can be depressed even when you know you have no reason to be. Again, that is because of your brain chemistry. It’s not your fault, and it is treatable.

It’s important to note not everyone who is depressed is clinically depressed. While some experts question a definition of depression that is based on brain chemistry, I still believe it was a major factor in my case. It was hard to take in at first. But once I accepted it, the path to recovery became much clearer.

Next Post: Getting Treatment

So I had my diagnosis, clinical depression. The next step was to get treatment. That usually means medication and counseling. I’ll talk about that in more detail in the next post.

To sum up so far,

  1. Getting help for depression will most likely involve your doctor and a counselor. Understand they each have different roles to play.
  2. Your doctor can test for various physical illnesses that could be behind your depression symptoms. Treating anything that comes up from that might clear up your depression.
  3. Your doctor can screen you for depression and tell you if the tests indicate a need for further treatment. He/she cannot give professional counseling but may be able to recommend a counselor to you.
  4. Only a trained mental health professional can test specifically for clinical depression. If your doctor (or mother or sister) recommends testing for it, take his/her advice, even if you don’t think depression is that serious a problem for you at the moment.
  5. A mental health professional cannot test for physical illnesses. That’s something for your doctor.
  6. Your doctor might recommend counseling. However, you don’t need a doctor’s order to get counseling. If you feel like you need it, you are probably right.
  7. Even if you don’t feel like you need counseling or testing, but people close to you who have your best interests at heart think you do, consider that they may be right. I didn’t get tested for clinical depression because I felt like I needed it. I got tested because my mother and sister thought I needed it.

Grace and Peace to you.

P.S. I haven’t tried online counseling. But if you’re interested, this link will take you to a site that lists and ranks some of the most popular sites.

References

E-Counseling.com. “Top Online Therapy Services—February 2020.” https://www.e-counseling.com/tlp/online-therapy/?imt=1

WebMD. “Tests Used to Diagnose Depression.” https://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/depression-tests#1

My Third Principle for Recovery, Part 2

My third principle for recovery says some kinds of faith are good for recovery and some are bad. In my previous post, I talked about the Word of Faith and why it was bad for my recovery. Here is an example of what I mean.

It Was (Not) All Up to Me

When I was young I had an uncle with a terminal illness. Of course, I prayed for him. But when I got into the Word of Faith, it changed how I prayed, because they taught, “Believe and receive your healing.” Okay, it’s not my healing in this case, but it’s my uncle’s healing. But they had me thinking if my faith is strong enough, or if his faith is strong enough, he can be healed. Even though doctors say, “There is no cure,” I am following the lead of my televangelist preachers who say, “Oh yes, there’s a cure, faith in Jesus Christ.”

I tried telling him, and he didn’t buy into it. I tried telling other family members. They didn’t buy into it. I was the only one who bought into it. So if it was going to happen, it had to happen through my faith.

And so I prayed. I prayed sometimes for hours on end. I fasted and prayed to make it happen at times, and that really freaked my family out. “Wait a minute! You’re going to not eat?” for however long I was going to do it. They really thought I’d gone off the deep end there. And they were a lot closer to the truth than I was at the time, I have to admit now. Not that there’s anything wrong with fasting, but me thinking I could break the power of Satan over my uncle with it? Guess where I learned that. No, it didn’t work.

And so, eventually, when he died, my family—even though they were sad—accepted it as the natural outcome of his disease. Because I thought my faith was supposed to change it, this was a victory of Satan over me. More specifically, it was a victory of Satan over my faith. That was a lot of pressure to live under. Understand, this is all speaking from the perspective of my Word of Faith background. This is the harm that can come from this particular understanding of faith.

Word of Faith vs. Real Faith

If Christian faith is important to you, as it was and still is to me, it’s important to have a sound biblical definition of faith. Those who preach the Word of Faith message claim faith is something you use to receive what you want from God. Whatever you pray for, believe you receive, and you will have it. Mark 11:22-24. And when it comes to sickness and poverty, this is the work of the devil. The devil comes to kill, steal, and destroy. I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly. John 10:10. Abundant life isn’t sickness and poverty. Abundant life is health and wealth. So you can overcome any sickness and financial struggle with nothing but faith. When I bought into this, I didn’t even know I was living with clinical depression. So when it didn’t work, the depression and feeling of betrayal was probably worse than most because of it.

What saved me was something I first heard from my religion professor in college. She taught that a true biblical understanding of faith is not about trying to convince yourself to believe something you just know is not true. It’s not about believing all the right doctrines. If they respond to normal questions anyone with a brain might ask with, “Just believe,” or “Just take it on faith,” or “That’s faith. You shouldn’t ask questions about that,” or anything like that, that’s a bad faith for recovery.

And faith certainly is not about thinking you can make God do what you want if you believe. The primary understanding of faith throughout most of the Bible is a trusting relationship with God.

Faith Is Trust and Relationship

Those two words are really important, trust and relationship. It’s something you build, over time. One analogy I could make is, when my wife and I were seeing each other, I was the first one to say I love you. It took her some time to say it back to me. And I understood that, because of past experiences, it was difficult for her to trust, not just me, but any man that she would be in a relationship with at the time. It was going to take time in our relationship to build the trust where she could say it.

The same was true when I wanted to propose marriage to her. I brought up the subject, and it’s a good thing I did before buying a ring and presenting it to her, because at the time she just wasn’t ready. It was going to take time in relationship together for her to get her trust to where, if I asked her to marry me, she would be able to say yes. And that really is what faith is like. You are building a relationship with God. You may have difficulty, at first, trusting. And along the way, you are going to experience some doubts. I suppose, maybe you can over time have so much trust that you have no more doubts. Theoretically, I guess it’s possible, even though I haven’t got there myself.

But what is more important in a relationship, having no doubts, or being able to talk about those doubts honestly? You can talk about it with God. In fact, over the years, I’ve learned honesty is much more important to a healthy relationship with God than belief. You can be honest with God. I would also seek out someone who you can talk to about doubts and issues that come up. They’ve probably had the same questions and issues come up on their journey. The most helpful people are usually those who have “been there,” so look for a mentor, someone with genuineness in their relationship with God.

Believe, and You Will Receive (Maybe)

Another thing to notice is if they talk about faith as if you should be able to control everything in your life, that’s a bad faith for recovery. In Alcoholics Anonymous, they have a certain prayer they’ve made famous, and others have latched on to. It’s called the Serenity Prayer. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

When I tried to help my uncle “believe and receive” his “promise of healing,” I nearly robbed him of the peace of mind that came from him being reconciled to God and being at peace with himself. Thank God there was a minister in his life who was able to counsel him with wisdom. Because he had the wisdom to know what we could control, and what we could not, my uncle knew serenity in his last days.

He prayed things like, “Lord, we lift up _______ before you and ask that you heal him. However, if it is not within your will to heal his physical illness, then heal him in other ways. Surround him with your presence and comfort him. Grant him the peace of Christ that passes all understanding. Give him assurance that you love him. And if this is the sickness unto death, receive him into your eternal kingdom.”

There is a lot of wisdom in the way he prayed. It was the perfect balance of what we can control and what we can’t. He asked God to heal him of his physical illness but did not make any claim that God was somehow obligated to do it because of this or that Bible verse. And I should point out before he used the phrase “sickness unto death,” he had already had conversations about the possibility of death and what it meant to my uncle.

Almost everyone, when they near the end of life, needs more than physical healing. They need to be made whole in their mind, in their soul, in coming to terms with end of their lives in this world. And if they believe in God, they may have questions about the state of that relationship that need to be answered. Like I said, a lot of wisdom, but I did not fully embrace it at the time.

Do Not Pray “If it be thy will”

In the Word of Faith, they tell you not to pray, “If it is Your will” when God has already promised healing in the Bible. So when he prayed that, inwardly, I rebelled. I thought that just guarantees he won’t be healed. 1) If it’s a promise in the Bible, you don’t pray “If it be thy will.” God wouldn’t have promised it if it wasn’t God’s will. 2) You are already expressing doubt in your healing when you say that. So it was up to me to keep praying for him “according to the Word.” I thought the outcome of his illness was under my control, and accepting death was surrendering to Satan.

Hopefully by now, you understand I don’t accept that definition of faith anymore. I’m probably going to have to write a book on all the ways the Word of Faith messed me up. Again, I say, thank God that minister was there to model a truly biblical and Godly faith for my uncle. He was able to die at peace with himself and at peace with God. And even then, I knew that was really more important than curing his disease.

From Faith to Faith

One lesson in this is any kind of faith that tells you, you are supposed to control things you cannot control is bad for recovery. You need to stay away from that. You need the kind of faith that teaches wisdom to know the difference between what you can control, and what you cannot. You need the kind of faith that doesn’t beat you up for not having “enough faith,” whatever that means.

And something I found through all this is when you do read the Bible in context, it teaches a kind of faith that is good for recovery. I’m talking about the kind of faith my professor taught me, the kind my uncle’s minister showed, because it’s good at teaching the wisdom between what you can control, and what you can’t. But again, only when it’s read in context. So that’s what I want to leave you with. Faith that is good for recovery shows itself in serenity, courage, wisdom, and peace. So I invite you to make this prayer a part of your recovery.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know that difference.

-The Serenity Prayer

Grace and peace to you.

My Third Principle for Recovery

Does faith help or hurt recovery? In my experience, it depends what kind of faith. In most religions, I would say there three possible meanings of faith.

  1. Faith as a set of rituals and doctrines accepted by members of a particular religious order. For example, if someone asks, “What faith are you?” it’s like asking, “What religion are you?” And you could answer, “I’m of the Catholic faith,” or “the Presbyterian faith,” or “the Jewish faith,” or whatever.
  2. Faith as belief. The Apostle’s Creed, for example, has many statements about what Christians believe. Those beliefs we usually say we accept by faith.
  3. Faith as trust. If someone says, “I believe in God,” that usually means they believe God exists and would be the second kind of faith. If someone says, “I have faith in God,” that is usually more personal. That person claims to have a relationship with God built on trust. This kind of faith doesn’t have to be religious. You can faith in your family, a mentor, a friend, a program like AA, anyone or anything you think is trustworthy.

When you encounter the word faith in the Bible, or you hear people talk about faith in church or synagogue, it could mean any of these. Usually, you have to infer the meaning through context. For example, Genesis 15:6 says of Abraham,

And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.

(Gen 15:6 NRS)

When it says Abraham “believed” God, what kind of faith is it talking about? Not the first. There were no temples or organized religion about the God called “the LORD” at that time. Is it the second, belief? God had just promised him his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in heaven (Gen 15:5). He believed that promise, so it could be belief. God said it, and he believed it. But the Hebrew word for “believe” in verse six can also mean “trust.” Maybe the point is not Abraham’s belief itself. Maybe it was trusting God, believing the one who promised was trustworthy, and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Faith and the Third Principle

I’m talking about this because my third principle is: Some kinds of faith are good for recovery, and some are bad. Make sure you know the difference.

So of the three, which is best for recovery? Number three. Lesson’s over. You can go home.

Sorry, I wish it was that simple. Any of them can help with recovery.

Regarding the first kind of faith, if you are part of a church, synagogue, or other organized religion, you can probably gauge whether it helps or hurts your depression. How do you normally feel when you leave the service? Uplifted or beat up? I’ve experienced both. If it’s the former, it’s good. If it’s the latter, it’s bad.

Regarding the second, if you believe in the tenets of a religion, it can be a comfort. I can sometimes calm myself by repeating the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostles’ Creed. On the other hand, feeling pressured to believe something you don’t is likely to make you more depressed. But ideally, one and two should lead you to three.

The third, a trusting relationship with your higher power (whatever that means to you), I think, is essential to recovery. However, trust in a higher power, just like in a person, does not happen automatically. It takes time and experience. And like recovery, it is mostly one day at a time. But any of these three meanings could legitimately be called faith. Each of them plays a different role in the life of a believer, but number 3 is the one I have found most helpful.

Another Kind of Faith?

There is one more type of faith that seems to be uniquely American, and I don’t mean that in a good way. I say that because most preachers of this kind of faith historically began in America. It is no longer unique to America, but even most of those who are from other countries learned it from Americans. I would advise you to avoid it altogether.

When I was involved in it, it was often called the Word of Faith or Full Gospel movement. Some other names I’ve heard are “Health and Wealth,” and “Prosperity Gospel.” Unless it is a local church broadcast, this is the version of faith you usually see preached on television. They own the Christian networks, and the biggest names have audiences in the millions.

This type of faith says, If you believe something enough and do not doubt, your faith becomes some magic force you can use to coerce God to give you whatever you ask for, as long as you can find a passage in the Bible that promises what you want. You stand on that promise until God gives it to you. And you don’t take “No” for an answer.

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11:1 KJV) is one of the most popular verses for explaining this. Faith is what makes the unseen seen. When you hope for something, it is not seen yet. But faith (belief) will make it manifest. And so basically, this says God is under your control.

But before you buy into this, you need to ask, “Did God really promise this? Did God promise health, wealth, victory and success in everything I do?” The Word of Faith preachers say yes, and they have a whole litany of scriptures about how you will be healed and prosperous and victorious in every situation—if your faith is strong enough. They quote all these Bible verses that sound like that’s exactly what God promised every believer. On the surface, it looks like trust, because you are taking God “at his word.” That is, if God promised it in the Bible, they believe it. That means they trust God, because they know God is not a liar.

“(I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden,” by Lynn Anderson

Did God Promise That?

But what if God never promised you that? Would you still trust God? See, I was in the Word of Faith for a long time, over a decade probably. When I prayed, I would have my verses lined up, and I prayed, and I believed, and I received the way they taught, and it never manifested. I thought it was my fault, because I didn’t have enough faith, or I had too much doubt for it to happen.

But faith that is trust recognizes God is in control, not you. You can’t use faith to force God to give you what you want just because you quote some Bible verses around it. God may answer you like the leper who came to Jesus and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” And Jesus said, “I am willing. Be clean” (Mat 8:2-3).

But we don’t always get our prayers answered like that. And so, if you’re in a model of faith that says God promised this to you, it feels like a betrayal if you don’t get it. But if you understand God never promised that specifically to you, you can still pray and ask God, and trust that God hears you.

But not all of us get our prayers answered like that. And so, if you’re in a model of faith that says God promised this to you, it feels like a betrayal if you don’t get it. But if you understand God never promised that specifically to you, you can still pray and ask God and trust that God hears you.

And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.

(1Jo 5:14 NRS)

But there’s the rub. If we ask according to his will, God hears us. “If you are willing, you can make me clean,” said the leper. That’s the model of faith the church has taught from Jesus to the apostles to the saints of the last 2000 years to today. It is the most authentically biblical model of faith. It has been practiced in both Judaism and Christianity from their origins, and it is the essence of AA’s third step, which says surrender your will and life to the care of your higher power.

Promises. Promises.

The Word of Faith does not belong to any legitimate, Biblical understanding of faith I outlined above. Of course, I understand why it’s so popular. I practiced it for over a decade. I was a true believer in that model of faith. The problem is, they don’t read the Bible in context. If you don’t read it in context, you can find promises of health, wealth, success, or whatever you want. If you can find it in the Bible, God has to give it to you. God has no choice. And if you can make the Bible say anything you want and then use that to make God give you whatever you want or do whatever you want, then wow! Suddenly, you’re like the young John Connor in Terminator 2.

“My own terminator? You have to do what I say? Cool!”

You have access to power most people can only dream of. All you have to do is believe what the Bible says. You literally have the keys to the Kingdom, on earth and in heaven, right there in your Bible. Who wouldn’t want that? I saw the appeal, and I went for it.

When the Other Shoe to Drops

Unfortunately, all those promises of health, wealth, and success were taken out of context. I learned that the hard way, but thank God I learned. Now, I’ve come to the conclusion that when you read the Bible in context, there are only two things God promises to you and me personally: forgiveness for our sins, and he will be all with us always (as in eternal life). That’s it. Those are the only things the Bible promises to you or me as individual believers.

I think this is why people get fooled. It’s not just about people reading or not reading their Bibles. I read my Bible daily, and I still got fooled. The problem is most people don’t know how to read the Bible in context. So when they say God promised you things that God never promised to you as an individual believer, you don’t know they are taking it out of context. The result is they misrepresent God and set you up for disappointment. I lived with that disappointment long enough. I can tell you, it is no fun.

Faith in Magic or Faith in God?

The way I see it, if you want to live a life of faith, you have to choose between two types of faith. Will you choose the faith that trusts God’s promises of forgiveness and restored relationship with God? Trust in the promise that God will be with you always? Faith that trusts that God loves you and desires ultimately for your good, even if you don’t understand how your current circumstances have anything to do with your good? Faith that acknowledges God is in control, not you?

Or will you choose faith as a “substance” that claims if you know how to use it, God will have no choice but to give you the desires of your heart? Which one will you choose? Faith as trust, or faith as magic? I chose the latter, and it almost ruined me. Because over and over again, I kept trying to force God to fulfill promises that God never made. Trust me, that is a losing game no matter how many aces you have up your sleeve.

So when I talk about faith that is good for recovery, I mean a trusting relationship with God, or your higher power if you prefer. This is the kind of faith Jesus taught, his Apostles taught, and the church has taught for the last 2000 years. Yes, that tired, old, dead tradition (as Word of Faith preachers call it) is what taught me what true faith is. And really, full disclosure, if I had received the miracles and healings and wealth they promised, I’d still be in the Word of Faith camp. But when that didn’t come, I almost lost my faith. Actually, I did lose my faith. I lost my faith in magic and found my faith in God.

What Kind of Faith Is Good for Recovery?

I don’t know where you are on your journey. Maybe you want to believe in something but don’t know what it is. If so, that’s not a bad place to be. Your search could lead you to your higher power, one that is worthy of your trust.

Maybe you’re in a good traditional faith, but you’ve encountered this magic faith, and those promises of health, wealth, and success are tempting you. Maybe you’re already in the magic faith like I was, and it’s not working for you, and you think it’s your fault. It’s not. It’s not your fault that it’s not working. It has nothing to do with whether you have “enough faith” or not, because God is in control, not you. The only thing you did wrong was believe people who preached a different gospel. That is the only thing you did wrong, and you can stop following them at any time.

You can come to faith as trusting God, trust that God loves you, trust that your sins are forgiven, because while we were yet sinners Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). Trust that God ultimately is working for your good. I have been in that kind of faith for a while, and ironically, this is not the faith that promised me healing. But I have experienced healing here, healing that never would have been possible if I had continued to believe I could control God with my “faith.”

My third principle of recovery says, Some kinds of faith are good for recovery, and some are bad. Make sure you know the difference.

Here are some questions to ask before you apply any type of faith to your recovery.

  1. Is it about faith in God or faith in faith?
  2. Is faith about making God give you what you want, or is faith about acknowledging God is in control?
  3. Do they only talk about success and victory, as if no one who has faith ever fails at anything, is poor, or gets sick?
  4. Is the Bible like a magic spell book to them, as if it will give you anything you ask, if you quote the right verse?
  5. How do they explain when it doesn’t work? Is it always your fault?
  6. Do they talk about “believing God for something,” as opposed to believing in God?
  7. Is there any room for reasonable doubt, or do you have to believe everything they say, no questions asked, even if you know it’s not true?

Trusting God doesn’t mean you never have doubts or questions. It means you trust God loves you and will never leave you or forsake you in spite of your doubts and questions. It doesn’t mean you expect God to stop anything bad from happening to you. It means in the midst of trials and tribulations, you trust God is with you and will work this for your good, as Paul said in Romans.

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

(Rom 8:28 NRS)

That is the only kind of faith I have found to be sustainable, healthy, and good for recovery.

Grace and peace to you.