Abraham and Sarah had a son, Isaac, when they were both “as good as dead.” What does that tell us about Jesus? My latest blog post continues the seed motif I began with “On Snakes and Advent.” As subscribers to this blog, I am giving you free links to my Medium articles. FYI, Medium offers three free articles per month. But my free links will not count toward that three.
I am late with this. My pastor retired at the end of June. My televangelists of the past mocked the idea of pastors retiring. I don’t think any of them really retire from ministry. Their ministry just takes on a different kind of practice, so I don’t begrudge them their retirement. I have been in churches all my life, but I think this was the first time I was there to see a pastor give his or her final message before retirement.
What I’m doing here, though, he might question. He said he sent all his old sermons to the recycling bin. Though he meant every word of those sermons at the time he preached them, he said, “something goes out of them after their preached, and … they’re done.”
I was a little sad to hear that. I had often wondered if he would ever collect his sermons into a book. Apparently not. I would have bought that book. If you’ll forgive me Dr. Bailey, I don’t think this last sermon is done, so I’m going to share for those who weren’t there some highlights. He said a number of interesting things about the art of ministry and preaching sermons. For anyone who has ever wondered how pastors feel about the enormous task of proclaiming the word of God, I think you’ll appreciate his insights.
He said he gave his first sermon on July 4, 1982, called “New Beginnings.” This one, the last before retirement, he called “A Couple of Thousand Sermons Later.” That alone says a lot about why he is qualified to give advice on how to write and deliver a sermon. He thanked not only us but his former congregations for having “open minds, a sense of humor, and forgiving hearts.” No pastor can last long without that.
He believed pastoring a congregation was based on two foundations.
- Relationships of trust built by being a faithful friend and pastor.
- A willingness to continually go through the process of wrestling with scripture, prayerfully seeking from it what is God’s message for today, and delivering that message in a way that makes sense and makes a difference.
I’m not the only member who will attest he did very well on both counts. I think that’s why when at times he said some things I knew a lot of the congregation did not agree with, they did not push back too hard or try to get him fired. They already considered him a faithful friend and pastor, and they knew he would not say anything from the pulpit without honestly wrestling with the scripture and prayerfully seeking from it God’s message for us. That is where the ability to speak the truth in love served him well. He could let you know where he stood without being confrontational about it.
I Am a “Dinosaur”
Looking back to when he was interviewing for this position, he told the nominating committee that he was “a dinosaur.” It seemed the megachurches had brought a new style of worship that included rock bands, short film segments, multi-media presentations, light shows, and stadium seating. That was not his style, and he hoped that there were some people who still found the traditional style of worship appealing.
Though sometimes I feel like I’m a dying breed, I am among those who still find the traditional style of worship appealing when it’s done well. In fact, a few years ago, I watched video of a megachurch service with all the bells and whistles that usually come with that. When I was younger, that would have appealed to me. But now it seems I’m at a point in my life where I want church to be church. That includes corporate and responsive prayers, singing of hymns, music from a choir (traditional or contemporary), reading of scripture, reading of the Apostles’ Creed or something similar, and a sermon that explains the scripture well.
Pastors Work More than One Hour
Most of the sermon was focused on the art of preaching itself. It is not the only part of pastoring, just the most visible. The pastor actually does work more than one hour per week. I remember in seminary, I heard a professor say you should plan on one hour of preparation per minute of your sermon. So if your sermon is 15-20 minutes, that means about 15-20 hours of preparation. And that does not include other duties like committee meetings, hospital and home visits, weddings, funerals, counseling, et al, and I was blessed to experience his wisdom and grace in all those capacities.
In an age when we are bombarded with media of different kinds competing for our attention, preaching is challenging today. It requires sustained attention from both the preacher and the listeners, and while megachurches have many tools to keep your attention, the traditional preacher only has words.
As a writer, I think that is what I appreciate about the art of a traditional sermon. I know what it’s like to have to determine not only what I want to say but what are the right words to say it. As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is … the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” So I appreciate pastors who know how to capture the lightning. Pastoring requires regular writing on a deadline that has to communicate the word of God to the listeners, which is why I don’t understand why more pastors don’t collect their best sermons into a book, Dr. Bailey’s comments about them being “done” notwithstanding.
He realized early in his career that effective preaching required complete honesty. And so he would confess some things about himself in sermons that he would rather not tell us in private conversation. Because of that, it was always a challenge when he had to preach more than once on the same day, as when we did multiple services to accommodate Covid restrictions. I never heard him complain about it, though perhaps he did in private. But throughout the Covid crisis, his first concern was our safety. So if that meant preaching multiple sermons to keep social distancing or putting more effort into directing people to the church’s YouTube channel, or just doing things that were uncomfortable, he was willing to do it. And I agree that honesty is truly necessary for effective preaching.
Some Sundays, he felt like he had completely failed to get the most important points across. But then as he greeted people at the end of the service, someone would enthusiastically tell him that something he had said really made a difference for them. Then there were other Sundays where he felt great about both the sermon and delivery, but afterwards someone would ask, “Are you okay?” I imagine anyone who speaks in public regularly can relate to that.
How to Stay Encouraged with Low Turnout
On Sundays when people commented there was a low turnout, it never discouraged him. He said he was always amazed that anyone showed up. He knew most of the reasons people show up had nothing to do with him. But even so, he said, “I hope you will allow me to say that your presence here … is and has been the most wonderful affirmation for me that you believe God has called us into partnership to be a community of faith together.”
Lightning. The pastor is the leader of the congregation, but he is not the whole show. I don’t trust pastors who take an authoritarian approach, a model that is sometimes called shepherding, where the pastor’s word is law. As Dr. Bailey said, church should be a partnership, not only between pastor and parishoners, but within the congregation as well. I joined the church because I liked the pastor and his sermons, but also because there were people there who made me feel welcome from the beginning, especially in my Sunday School class. Going there feels like a family reunion, where there are families with multiple generations represented, and you know you are already loved even before you walk into the building. That is what I think being a community of faith together means.
The Privilege of Focusing on God’s Word
“It’s an amazing privilege in one’s job to be able to study and pray over God’s word at length and then attempt to bring that word to others, and to have people show up to engage you in that enterprise with you.”
Lightning again. Though I am not ordained, I feel most alive when I am able to study and pray over God’s word at length and then attempt to bring that word to others. That is why I started this blog. It’s a sign of his humility and grace that he recognizes that is a privilege, one that no preacher should take for granted, to be able to do that, and have others around who believe in you enough to pay you to do that, not for them but with them.
Hope, Joy, Good News, and Challenge
“My hope and prayer is that in the long run, the sermons have brought mostly hope and joy and good news to people as well as the challenge to live the way God calls us to live in Jesus Christ.”
Lightning again. I’ve heard some preachers say they only want to bring hope, joy, and good news to people. I’ve heard others who complain about them, saying speaking the truth of God’s word needs to challenge people and convict them of their sin, but they don’t have much to say that is encouraging. The way he described it strikes the right balance. He hoped that his sermons brought mostly hope, joy, and good news, while also recognizing living the way God calls us to live in Jesus Christ is a challenge, and preachers need to be honest about that. Again, speaking the truth in love goes a long way to earning your parishioners’ trust.
Truth-telling and Ambiguity
He quoted a line from Frederick Buechner, one of my favorite authors. Buechner called the sermon “… a creative type of truth-telling that is willing to live with ambiguity, willing to live with unanswered questions rather than presuming to have all the answers.”
I wish more preachers today would take that to heart. Too many of them presume to have all the answers, maybe because they never learned to live with unanswered questions. You’re human. It’s okay to admit you don’t have all the answers. But they have to make you think they know everything, so they quote a Bible verse or two, usually out of context, and say, “This is the word of God,” meaning there is no more room for discussion, no possibility that they might not see the whole picture.
I heard one Jewish woman say, “Jews open the scriptures to begin a conversation. Christians open the scriptures to end a conversation.” Like most statements of this nature, that is true–to an extent. But I agree Jewish tradition is much open to conversation than Christian tradition. Opening the scriptures, and hence sermons, should be an invitation to further thought and discussion. Yes, there are some things I think are the Truth (with a capital T), and I try not to compromise them. But even then, I have room in my thinking for honest and thoughtful debate. On most of my posts I make my opinions clear. But I take the time to explain why I think or believe the way I do, and I’m always hopeful that people will use the comments section to share why they agree or disagree. Most of the time, I am looking to begin a conversation, not end it.
His final prayer for us: “I pray that God who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ. And I pray that you will continue to open your hearts and your ears and your mind to those who will stand here in the pulpit in the future, attempting to the best of their ability to tell the truth.”
In other words, he hopes we will treat the next pastor the same way we treated him. And he hopes we will continue our partnership of being a community of faith together with whoever is next to occupy our pulpit.
Presbyterians don’t usually applaud, but we gave him a standing ovation. Even the “frozen chosen” have moments when we must show our appreciation. I said in an earlier post I think the next pastor will have big shoes to fill. But if he/she (yes, women can be pastors, at least in PCUSA) honestly wrestles with the scriptures to give us the truth to the best of their ability, is a faithful pastor and friend who invites us to join in their work of carefully studying God’s word and trying to draw from it God’s message for us, whose preaching invites conversation rather than shutting it down, and who offers hope, joy, and encouragement in the challenging work of living as God in Jesus Christ calls us to live, I for one will accept them with an open mind, a sense of humor, and a forgiving heart.
Thank you for reading. Feel free to leave a comment or question 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)
I was involved in a movement called by different names. Word of Faith is what we liked to call ourselves. Today it is more likely to be called the Prosperity Gospel. Looking back, I think going in with undiagnosed clinical depression added a whole other dimension to just how tormented I was. I’ll try to explain what I mean.
For one thing, I expected to get healed of a number of pre-existing conditions I had. They told me the healings we read about Jesus and the Apostles doing in the New Testament were for believers today. And any church that didn’t preach that and believe that was dead, because they didn’t believe the Bible. That’s the way they describe traditional churches, dead because they believe their “dead traditions” over the Bible, which is the Word of God. And here’s a quick public service announcement. If the idea ever occurs to you to tell your mother her church is a dead church, DON’T. Nothing good can come of it. Trust me.
They had me convinced for years if I’m not getting healed, I didn’t have “enough faith.” I had to get “more faith.” I would spend more time in prayer, more time meditating on the right Bible verses, until I believed and did not doubt. And I would get to a place where I’d think, “Surely, I have enough faith now.” Still, it didn’t work.
They could never answer the question, “How do I know I have ‘enough faith’?” And if I ask why it’s not working, or what am I missing, is that a negative confession? Because if you make a negative confession, that will undo all the prayers you made before. It will cancel all the prayers you made in faith. Just one negative confession, and Phft! It’s like you never prayed or believed at all. Everything you confessed before, believing and receiving, it’s just gone. You have to start over.
They would say, “Don’t believe your circumstances. Don’t believe your symptoms. Believe only the word of God that says ‘By his stripes you were healed.’ You are not the sick trying to get healed. You are the healed that the Devil is trying to put sickness on. Don’t let him. Keep believing you have it, and you will have it.”
Okay, I believe it. I won’t surrender to the Devil. But I can’t stop myself from thinking, “How long do I have to believe I have it before I have it?” To put it another way, How long do I have to fake it before I make it? I could never get “enough faith” to make it happen. I believed all that for years, even though no one could give me a definitive answer on what “enough faith” meant. Did it mean having no doubt? How can I have no doubt when I’m doubled over from the pain of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?
But I stayed true to the faith. I prayed and believed and received my healing the way they taught. I confessed healing scriptures like Isaiah 53:5 the way they taught me, and I wasn’t getting healed. Either I or the Bible was wrong. It couldn’t be the Bible, so it had to be me, right? So I doubled down, listened to more tapes to build up my faith, because “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God,” Romans 10:17. What you keep hearing over and over again, you will believe. So if I hear over and over again that I’m healed, God promised healing, and claim verses like Isaiah 53:5 and1 Peter 2:24, and I keep hearing that over and over again, maybe eventually, I will believe it and not doubt anymore. I continued to confess only healing, never sickness, and if I did, I would repent and get back to confessing healing.
It only works if you believe in it, and this is the “it” you have to believe. Anything you say, positive or negative, if you believe it, it will come to pass. That is why it was called the Word of Faith. You must speak (word) and believe (faith). You have to believe you already have it, and thank God as if you already have it, and then you will have it. So I believed I already had it, and I really tried to keep believing I already had it, and I was careful to only confess positive things and thank God as if God had already answered my prayers, but doubts wouldn’t go away.
After I turned away from the Word of Faith (aka, Prosperity Gospel), I could finally admit I was never healed. But I couldn’t admit that before, because they taught me that if I speak as if I am sick, that would cancel out all my prayers. This is why when you hear testimonials from people saying, “I had this heart condition (or whatever they claim to be healed of). I was taking medication for it, but I’m healed now by the power of God. I don’t need medication anymore,” you don’t know if that’s real or if they are saying it “by faith.” And that’s the danger of it too. They have a heart condition that requires medication, but they are “believing for their healing.”
“I believe I am healed. I receive my healing. I am confessing I am healed. I am healed. Therefore, I don’t need medicine anymore.” The vast majority of people who do that end up dying. Or if the condition is not life-threatening, they keep saying they are healed, even though there is no difference in their condition. That is how it was for me. I couldn’t bring myself to say I wasn’t healed, because I was taught if I did, I was giving up on God, and I would lose whatever progress I had made toward having my healing manifest in my body.
Now, if you can, imagine on top of that I was living with clinical depression. That means my brain chemistry was out of balance, which made my brain naturally predisposed to depression. I can’t remember anything more depressing than thinking God had made all this perfect health and abundant wealth available to me, and I couldn’t get it. My prayers were not being answered, because I didn’t have “enough faith.”
I know now part of the problem was my clinical depression was undiagnosed. I didn’t know my brain was predisposed to magnify all the depressing thoughts I was getting from trying to live according to Word of Faith doctrine. They didn’t cause clinical depression in me, but they definitely made it worse.
Declaring Healing Is Not Healing
In one of the conventions or revival meetings I went to, the preacher onstage declared the entire body of Christ was healed of depression. I wasn’t sure how to receive it. On one hand, it felt great to hear it. In fact, it was awesome. I didn’t know I had clinical depression, but I had struggled with depression at times. I didn’t have to worry about depression anymore. Or did I?
I tried really hard to believe it, because I knew it wouldn’t work unless I believed it. It only works if you believe in it. Not believe in God. Believe in it. Believe whatever you say will come to pass. If you don’t believe it will come to pass, it won’t work.
So I tried really hard to believe it. But at the same time, I wondered if he could really do that. Can he just declare an end to depression for every Christian on the planet? Of course, he did not mean every Christian when he said “the body of Christ.” He only meant the “real” Christians, the ones who were born again and read the Bible exactly the same way he did. But that is still a lot of people, tens or even hundreds of millions worldwide. How could he just declare an end to depression for all of us? We were healed of depression for the rest of our lives. Every Christian on the planet. Really? Maybe it was just every Christian who believes in Word of Faith doctrine. But still, really?
By their own doctrine, it only works if you believe in it. Faith comes by hearing. The only people who heard it were those of us in the building. So how could the entire body of Christ believe it if they never heard it? Even as I was trying to believe it, it made no sense.
What gave him that idea? He probably heard something. He says he hears the voice of God from his solar plexus, so I’m guessing he heard, “Declare an end to depression for the body of Christ.” So he did. He claims we are seated in heavenly realms with Christ, and all authority in heaven and earth has been given to Christ. Therefore, we as the body of Christ have all authority in heaven and earth. We have authority over depression. And he is only speaking what he hears from God, so I’d better believe it, or God will be disappointed in me. Again.
I know now that whatever he said did not come from God. Whatever he heard, it was not the Holy Spirit. And no, he did not have authority to declare an end to depression for every Christian worldwide. He did not have authority to do that even for everyone who was in the building. Yes, Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Mat 28:18 NRSV). But what does that mean for us? Continuing in verses 19–20.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”(Mat 28:19–20 NRSV)
You see? He said he has all authority. He did not say we have all authority. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations …. None of his instructions there have anything to do with declaring an end to depression or any other mental illness. It does not give us any authority to heal anyone of anything, whether the illness is physical or mental. Why did God wait nearly 2,000 years to whisper it in some preacher’s ear, “Declare an end to depression for all true believers”? If it were that easy, God could have done that as soon as Jesus rose from the dead. God could have had one of the Twelve Disciples declare an end to depression for all true believers, and I never would have been born with clinical depression.
Do I have to tell you I got depressed again? In fact, more than a decade later, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. So much for the end of all depression. Did that mean I wasn’t really part of the body of Christ? That I wasn’t really a true believer? That I didn’t have enough faith to please God? Should I have believed in my healing despite my feelings or in spite of my symptoms? I did for as long as I could. But with disappointment after disappointment, unanswered prayer after unanswered prayer, at some point I couldn’t keep faking it. I couldn’t keep believing things that all the evidence said were not true. Especially when a specialist told me, “You tested high for depression in every possible way.”
“High in every possible way.” And the funny thing is I only felt mildly depressed at the time. Should I have just rebuked that in the name of Jesus and said, “I don’t receive that”? Should I have continued living in denial? That is what the Prosperity Gospel would say, but I just could not pretend anymore.
Hearing God: Blessing and Curse
I thought the best thing about coming into the Word of Faith movement was they taught me how to hear God speaking to me. They would relay conversations they had with God and said I could have conversations just like that. They would even claim to be speaking directly the word of God live from the pulpit, with “says the Lord,” or “says the Spirit of God.” And they said I could hear God in the same way.
At first, it was thrilling, the idea that I could actually hear God speak to me. Prayer wasn’t just a one way conversation anymore. I would be in the middle of prayer, and in the midst of it, I would hear a still small voice inside me say, “I love you.” I didn’t just read it in the Bible, or hear it in a sermon or song at church. I heard God say it to me personally. And love, joy, and peace would permeate every cell of my body.
But after giving me that gift, they ruined it. Because that voice of love became a voice of judgment and condemnation. As month after month, year after year passed with prayers only being answered no, or at best not yet, their message that it was because I did not have enough faith took over.
Imagine thinking your prayers are not being answered because you don’t have enough faith, and then coming across a verse like Hebrews 11:6, “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” So God is not hearing my prayers because I don’t have enough faith. If I don’t have enough faith, it’s impossible to please God. I’m a disappointment to God. How can that be?
“I’m doing the best I can. I’m trying to believe the way you told me to, or the way I’m supposed to, or the way that pleases you. I really am. But I need help. Like the man said to Jesus, ‘I believe. Help my unbelief.’”
I could hear the voice of the Holy Spirit saying, “Why don’t you believe My word? I promised in Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 2:24 ‘By his stripes you were healed.’ I gave you My word. Do you think I’m a liar?”
“Then why don’t you believe?”
“I do believe!”
“I see what’s really in your heart and mind. You still doubt.”
“Because I’m still having these horrible attacks of stomach pain and diarrhea.” (I didn’t know at the time the name for my chronic abdominal pain and diarrhea was Irritable Bowel Syndrome. But even if I did, I couldn’t have named it, because that would have confirmed I believed in the Devil more than God).
“So you believe your symptoms over My word? After all these years, your faith has not grown at all.”
“No, I believe your word.”
“You can’t hide from Me. I am inside you. I see the doubt in your heart and mind.”
“Okay, maybe I still have some doubts. But I’m fighting them the best I can. I can’t make them go away, but I’m not making any negative confessions. I’m confessing health, not sickness. What else am I supposed to do? What am I missing?”
A brain that was chemically tilted toward depression, and conversations like that going on in my head. On top of that, I had an uncle, a great uncle, and a great aunt, all with terminal conditions. I prayed and confessed the Word of God as I prayed, so that should have forced God to heal them.
“… he sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction.”(Psa 107:20 NRSV)
There’s the promise. As I pray for them, God is sending out his word, healing them, and delivering them from destruction. If I believe it and do not doubt, that is. I was standing on the promises of the Bible, which meant God had to answer. God had no choice, because God promised it “in His Word.” I didn’t know at the time these so-called promises in the Bible were all taken out of context.
But I was careful and diligent to follow their instructions, because if you don’t follow their instructions, you can’t blame them or God when it doesn’t work. It didn’t work.
Is it possible I missed something? Of course. I’m not perfect. It’s always possible I missed “something.” It’s always possible you missed “something.” But what exactly did I miss? I got all kinds of different answers. They could raise some possibilities of what a lot of people miss. But once I eliminated those, it should have worked. It didn’t work. Why not? They could never give me a definitive answer. But they seemed to be good at implying that it was somehow my fault.
Here’s the Reason It’s Not Working
If you’re in that situation now, let me tell you something. If you believe it has to be your fault that God is not healing you or someone you’re praying for, you will find a reason. Even if it’s not true, you will find “a reason.” After years of finding reasons to blame myself and eventually blame God, I found the real reason for it. You want to know what it is?
They claimed God promised you things that God never promised you. That’s it. Here I was beating myself up for not believing God’s “promises” that God never really promised.
But the Bible says…
I’m gonna stop you right there, because they quoted the Bible out of context. That was their mistake and still is. Your mistake, just as it was mine, was that you believed them. The reason God didn’t give you the healing you asked for had nothing to do with your faith or a lack thereof. When people came to Jesus for healing, they didn’t all have perfect faith. But they all got healed. Sometimes he commended them for their faith, but sometimes their faith clearly had nothing to do with it. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all say Jesus would go into towns and healed every sick or injured person who was brought to him. Do you really think they all got healed because they had perfect faith? The kind of faith that would keep believing for their healing, even if their symptoms did not go away?
It’s possible that a handful of them had that kind of faith. But every one of them? Not a chance. Everyone did not have perfect faith, but everyone got healed. So no, anyone who tells you that whether or not you get what you ask for when you pray is all about your faith and whether you have “enough faith,” they are either lying, or they are deceived. I don’t care how many Bible verses they can quote. It’s like when the Devil quoted scripture to Jesus. The Devil was not speaking the word of God. It is not Biblical, and it is not Christian.
You simply believed the wrong people. That’s all. That was your only mistake. If you learn to read the Bible in context, that will all become clear. Just because they’re quoting scripture doesn’t 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 that begins with three things: Context, context, and context. I’m telling you, no matter how many scriptures they quote to tell you God “promised” healing and prosperity to you in the Bible “if you believe and receive the promise,” their reading takes the Bible out of context. Therefore, it is not the Word of God.
My not getting healed, my great aunt, great uncle, and uncle who didn’t get healed, none of it had anything to do with my faith or any lack thereof. Yes there are a lot of promises in the Bible, but they are usually given to the community as a whole, to the nation of Israel or the church. They’re not to you and me as individual believers.
What Are We Promised?
Here are the only two things I feel quite confident the Bible promises you and me as individual believers: Forgiveness for our sins, and nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. That’s it. That’s all you and I are promised as individuals. No promises of health, wealth, and success in everything you do. I’m not saying you’re going to be poor, sick, and a failure. I’m not saying you can’t pray for healing or success. I’m saying God never promised that to you or me. As John says,
And this is the confidence that we have toward [God], that if we ask anything according to [God’s] will[, God] hears us. And if we know that [God] hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.(1Jo 5:14–15 ESV)
Well, there it says, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of [God]. But did you notice it says, if we ask anything according to his will, [God] hears us? There’s the rub. God answers according to God’s will.
It can be tough to understand why God wouldn’t heal you or your loved one. Maybe that’s why I stayed in the Word of Faith longer than I should have. I did not want to believe that it was not God’s will to heal me or anyone I prayed for. I’m not saying God won’t heal you. You can always ask, and maybe it will be God’s will for you. But when you go into it thinking that you can determine the outcome by believing and not doubting and quoting the right scripture, and even if it is not God’s will, God has no choice but to give you what you pray for, because you are claiming a “promise” from the Bible, and then it doesn’t happen, it’s at least twice as bad, especially for someone who is already prone to depression. Trust me, you do not want to go down that road.
God hasn’t healed me of my pre-existing conditions, so apparently that wasn’t God’s will. God didn’t heal my uncle, great uncle, or great aunt I was praying for. Why not? I don’t know, because I am not God. I can’t say I’m happy about that. But I can accept it. I am not God. Can you accept that you are not God? If so, congratulations, because that is the beginning of true faith. God is God, and we are not.
When you read the Bible in context, you see people who were both faithful (loyal to God) and full of faith (trusted God) were often poor. Some of them got sick. Some of them were persecuted and died young because of their faith, not in spite of it. And yes, sometimes God delivered them out of their afflictions. But in the end, Jesus and all of his Apostles died as martyrs. Do you think they were complaining, “God, you promised me long life in Psalm 91:16. I can’t die now. I can’t be crucified. You promised you would deliver me from my enemies”?
And God would have said, like Lynn Anderson, “I beg your pardon. I never promised you a rose garden.” Anyone remember that song?
I’m not being flippant. I’m saying don’t blame God for not keeping promises God never made. And don’t let anyone tell you it was because you did not have enough faith.
They tell us if we have this expectation that if we obey the commandments, and believe all the right doctrines, and pray the right prayers, and quote the right scriptures, and believe we received what we prayed for in spite of the cold, hard facts staring us right in the face, God will have no choice but to answer our prayers. It took me forty years of wandering in the Wilderness before I saw there is no way you can read the Bible in context and come to that conclusion.
Faith is not believing something that clearly is not real. It is not denying the facts. It is not believing you are well when you are clearly sick or broken. Faith that denies the facts is not faith. It’s denial. Faith is seeing the facts as they are and trusting that God loves you, no matter how crappy the facts are.
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.(Rom 8:35-39 NRSV)
It doesn’t say a life of faith will be free of hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword. It only says none of that ever has or ever will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
As I neared the end of my sojourn with the Word of Faith, I was a wreck: spiritually, psychologically, emotionally, and mentally. It’s a wonder I have any faith at all today. But I do. I love God and love Jesus as much if not more than back then. My relationship with Christ back then was like being in an abusive marriage, where at times I knew and felt His love, and it was awesome. But other times He beat the crap out of me psychologically for not having “enough faith.”
My relationship with Christ now is what it was meant to be all along. He is a loving father and brother, mother and sister to me. And neither COVID-19, quarantines, masks, social distancing, nor anything else in all of creation can separate me from the love of God in Christ.
And that is how I started to recover from both the Prosperity Gospel and depression. It begins with the truth. It begins when you face the facts as they are, even if they contradict your most cherished beliefs. You may have believed them so deeply it never even occurred to you to question them, until recently.
This pandemic may have you questioning things you never questioned before. Maybe you think you will grieve the Holy Spirit if you ask about something that you are supposed to believe. Or maybe you never really believed but have been afraid to admit it. Maybe you are afraid that if you stop believing this or that, you will go to Hell. And why do you believe that? Because it’s the truth, or because that’s what you’ve been taught? Because that’s the word of God, or because of some Bible verses taken out of context?
You know something is wrong. You will have to ask questions about God and about the Bible you never dared to ask before. Some people won’t understand why you need to ask these questions. You may not understand why you need to ask these questions. But God does. The only reason I’m still here is God stayed with me when I asked those unthinkable questions.
So going back to hearing the voice of God and what that was like, one of the toughest moments you can go through on your faith journey is when you realize you’ve been hearing a voice you thought was God, but it wasn’t really God.
The Abusive God Wasn’t God
Eventually, I realized the abusive voice wasn’t God. On the one hand, that was a relief. On the other hand, it was very disorienting. If I thought for years that was the voice of God, what does that mean? How could I have been so wrong for so many years? It caused me to question everything I thought I knew about what the Word of God really is, what faith really is, and what the truth really is. I felt confused and uncertain about everything. I figured if people in that church I belonged to at the time knew what was going on inside me, they would say, “Oh, David went to that cemetery — I mean, seminary — and they taught him not to believe the Bible.”
I didn’t care what they thought. I knew I had to get out. But strangely, I did not feel depressed. Because somehow I knew God was with me. Not an abusive God, not the one who condemned me for not having “enough faith” (whatever that means), but a God who understood what was happening inside me much better than I did. A God who showed me the offramp to my freedom. Somehow, I knew that in moving away from the false God I had been following, I was moving toward the truth. They may have thought I had taken the offramp to Hell. But Jesus did not say knowing the truth will send you to Hell. He said it will set you free. And so it did.
Grace and peace to you.
Would you like to take a little stroll down Memory Lane to a time before the Covid lockdowns? I thought so. Super Bowl LIV was exciting because the Chiefs struggled for three and a half quarters. The odds against them were staggering, but they did not give up. And in the last seven-and-a-half minutes, we finally got to see Patrick Mahomes going all Patrick Mahomes. They went on a tear and won 31-20. That kind of never-give-up attitude was admirable, and they could not have won without it. In football, as in politics, it is admirable to never give up while there is still time on the clock. But when the game is over, it’s over.
What if the 49ers were clamoring for two and a half months after the game that they really won, and the only reason they lost was that the Chiefs cheated, the game was rigged, and the referees were biased against them, because the whole NFL was a secret child trafficking cabal of Satanic pedophile cannibals that their coach and only their coach threatened to expose. I don’t think anyone believes the NFL owners and commissioner are saints. But if you make an accusation that they are Satan worshipping child traffickers, pedophiles, and cannibals, you’d better have proof. And I mean a lot of proof, way beyond a reasonable doubt. Repeating an accusation 100 times or even 1,000 times doesn’t make it true. Any courtroom would say that’s hearsay, not evidence. Show us the evidence.
“Here is the evidence. The game was almost over. Seven and a half minutes left in the game, and we were ahead by a lot. The oddsmakers in Las Vegas calculated the Chiefs had a one in one thousand chance of winning at that point. And then, all of a sudden, the Chiefs score twenty-one points in the last seven-and-a-half minutes? When they had only scored ten points before that? And look at that, a helmet-to-helmet hit on our quarterback, and the referees did not call it. There is no way the NFL did not rig that game.”
You would say that is ridiculous. The game is over. They lost. They need to accept it and move on, and I don’t know, maybe work harder to get to the next Super Bowl and win that one?
But instead, when the NFL commissioner refuses to change the final score—because one, he does not have the authority to change the outcome of any game, and two, he doesn’t have the power of time travel to give the 49ers the chance to play those last seven-and-a-half minutes differently—instead of accepting the loss, he calls the commissioner and says, “We won by hundreds. I’m only looking for 12 more points. That’s all I need. You know, 49ers’ fans all over the country are angry. They’re saying they were cheated out of their victory, and they’re not gonna stand for it. Just 12 more points. That’s all I’m asking. Or even 11 points. Then we can have another game, or just play overtime, and let our season ticket holders choose the referees. Or even better, let our season ticket holders be the referees. That way we know the game is not rigged. I think that’s more than fair, considering we won by hundreds.”
The commissioner again refuses, because again, he can’t do that. The game is over. Even if you do find a couple of penalties that should have been called, you still can’t change the outcome of the game. But instead of accepting the rules that every team in the NFL has agreed to accept ever since the players wore leather helmets, a bunch of 49ers’ fans, who have been told for two and a half months that the game was stolen from them, storm the NFL headquarters, take all the owners hostage, and tell the commissioner at gunpoint that he’d better declare them the winner, take the Lombardi trophy away from the Chiefs and give it to them, or he’s dead.
The game is over. Do you get that? It’s over. I’m not saying the result is good or bad. I’m saying that’s the way it is.
“The Election Was Stolen!”
Maybe you keep thinking God has to overturn the election because your vote was stolen. No, your vote was counted along with 155 million other votes. You voted for the candidate who got fewer votes. He lost. That’s how democracy works. Even if it was stolen, you can’t change the results at this point any more than the 49ers can change the results of the Super Bowl.
That is why I always accepted the results of our elections, no matter how upset I was that my candidate did not win. I’m not saying I didn’t complain. But I didn’t try to overthrow the government either. In the end, when the candidate was sworn in, I accepted that he was the President each and every time.
Why did you accept a president that you voted against?
Because I understood no one is guaranteed they will get the candidate they voted for. You can try again in four years. That system has worked since 1789. No, it’s not perfect, but more than anything it is what makes this nation great. You accepted the win in 2016. Now you have to accept the loss.
Look, we’ve all got an extended case of cabin fever. The stress and anxiety of living in a Covid world are getting to us all. We’ve been watching a lot more social media where conspiracy theorists and false prophets run amok. They said God promised to give Trump the victory. Trump was God’s candidate, and Biden was Satan’s candidate, and there is no way God is going to allow Satan into the White House. Hollywood, the liberal elite, the Democrats, and antifa are all in some deep state underground sex trafficking ring run by the Devil, to whom they have all sold their souls. If I believed that, I’d think it was the end of the world too.
The Promises of God Are Sure. But …
There have been many times over the years that I felt God betrayed me, because God would make promises that did not come true. Of course, it was my fault they did not come true, because I didn’t pray enough, or I didn’t have enough faith, or some other reason that sounded biblical. It only works if you believe in it, so doubt was the enemy. I would censor any reports, any facts, that did not agree with “the promise of God,” or “the word of God.” I had a lot to learn about what those phrases really meant. But for a long time, false prophets spoke promises to me that did not come true, and I always assumed I must have messed it up some how. I assumed because they told me the word of God can never fail, so I must have failed. God wanted to bless me with health, wealth, and success, but because I had a mustard seed of doubt, I stopped God from doing what God wanted to do. At one point, I got so frustrated, I prayed, “God, stop making promises I can’t keep.”
So I understand why you refuse to believe the vote counts are real. Once God has spoken, you can’t allow for any doubt. If facts cause doubt, you must squash them. But what is the word of God, what the prophets on YouTube said or what the Bible says? It’s both? Okay, but the Bible says you will know false prophets when what they say does not come true.
It took a long time before I realized if God makes a promise, it will come true. You can’t stop it. I can’t stop it. The deep state can’t stop it. Antifa can’t stop it. The Democratic party can’t stop it. The electoral college can’t stop it. Congress can’t stop it. And even the agents of Satan on earth can’t stop it. No amount of doubt can stop it. So if it did not come true, God did not promise it. Or as Deuteronomy 18:22 says, that is a word that the LORD did not speak.
If the Facts and the Prophets Do Not Agree, What Should We Believe?
If the facts do not agree with what the prophet said, that is a word the LORD did not speak. The prophet spoke presumptuously. They presumed to think their own imagination or wishful thinking came directly from God. And I made that same mistake many times. When the facts do not agree with what the prophet said, believe the facts, not the false prophets.
Remember Micaiah said exactly that. If what he said did not come true, the LORD did not speak through him. But what he said did come true. He told the people of Israel that is how you will recognize a false prophet. Just look at the facts. If what they said did not come true, that is a word the LORD did not speak. They said Trump would win, but who got more electoral votes? The official count was 306 to 232. The one who got 306 won. Who is that? Not Trump. It was Joe Biden. This is 2021, not 2017. What the prophets said did not come true. Therefore, it is a word the LORD did not speak.
See, that’s the problem with believing “the Word of God” over the facts. The false prophets say, “Don’t believe the facts. Believe me because I speak for God.” The Word of God says the facts will tell you if the prophet is false. Therefore, God says they do not speak for God. And if their prophecies about the election did not come true, I guarantee it was not the first time. In a previous post, I tell you about 62 prophets who prophesied what God would do in 2020, and none of them got it right. Do they speak for God? No. So stop believing them, and start believing the facts. Joe Biden is the president-elect. You don’t have to like it, but those are the facts. As long as we have our democracy and constitution, you will get another chance in four years.
I’m Not Prophesying, But …
Joe Biden will be inaugurated on January 20. God didn’t tell me that. The constitution did. If somehow that doesn’t happen, I will take back everything I said in this post. But if it does, will you finally accept the results of our democratic election? And will you stop listening to the king’s prophets who over and over again have proven themselves false? Trust me, there is a lot better content on social media if you look for it. I’d like to leave you with a message from Arnold Schwarzenegger, and a video where I share my “Confessions of an Ex-Prophet.”
As a writer and a Bible Geek, I get frustrated by verses like this:
Now the rest of the acts of Rehoboam, and all that he did, are they not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah?(1Ki 14:29 NRSV)
The author says this as if we could just go down to the local library to check this out, or search for The Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah online. Apparently, he never envisioned a time when such a book would not be available to his readers.
Back in 1993, I went on an archeological dig organized by professors from Duke University, the University of North Carolina, and the University of Connecticut. (Good thing it wasn’t for basketball). The topic of theoretical sources like “Q” (which scholars say was a common source for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke) came up. Some students wondered why scholars would make up these sources if we don’t have any manuscripts of them. One professor pointed out about two-thirds of all ancient books we know of, we have no manuscripts for. We only know they existed because they are mentioned in manuscripts of books we do have, as in the example I gave above. If we had copies of them, who knows what more books we would learn about?
Among the books mentioned in the Bible that we have no copies of today are
- The Book of the Wars of the Lord (Numbers 21:14)
- The Book of Samuel the Seer (1 Chronicles 29:29)
- The Book of Nathan the Prophet (1 Chronicles 29:29)
- The Book of Gad the Seer (1 Chronicles 29:29)
- The Records of the Prophet Shemaiah (2 Chronicles 12:15)
- The Book of Iddo the Seer (2 Chronicles 12:15)
- The Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah (1 Kings 14:29)
And I have to include here Solomon was said to have written more than a thousand songs (1 Kings 4:32), yet only two are preserved in the book of Psalms (72 and 127), and of course the canonical Song of Solomon. The imagination boggles at the information lost because the Biblical authors assumed these sources would be preserved forever.
The Book of Jashar
One more of these is the Book of Jashar (also spelled Jasher). In Hebrew it translates as “The Book of the Upright” or “the Book of the Just Man.” It is mentioned in Joshua and 2 Samuel.
On the day when the LORD gave the Amorites over to the Israelites, Joshua spoke to the LORD; and he said in the sight of Israel, “Sun, stand still at Gibeon, and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.”
And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in midheaven, and did not hurry to set for about a whole day.(Jos 10:12-13 NRSV)
This is one of the most famous stories in the Bible, God making the sun stand still because Joshua prayed for it. Maybe you think this did not really happen. If so, I don’t blame you. But what I’m interested in is the mention of a book that we no longer have any copies of.
Then it is mentioned in reference to “The Song of the Bow,” which David likely composed, but again, we have no manuscripts.
[David] ordered that The Song of the Bow be taught to the people of Judah; it is written in the Book of Jashar.(2Sa 1:18 NRSV)
So imagine my excitement when I found out there is a copy of something called “The Book of Jasher” today. Turns out it is not the same book as mentioned in the Old Testament. It is an eighteenth-century forgery that alleges to be a translation of the “lost” Book of Jasher by Alcuin, an eighth-century English scholar.
Another book by this same name, called by many “Pseudo-Jasher,” while written in Hebrew, is also not the “Book of Jasher” mentioned in Scripture. It is a book of Jewish legends from the creation to the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, but scholars hold that it did not exist before A.D. 1625. In addition, there are several other theological works by Jewish rabbis and scholars called “Sefer ha Yashar,” but none of these claim to be the original Book of Jasher.
So potentially, there were at least three or four copies of the Book of Jashar that turned out to be fake. But just out of curiosity, I got a copy of one of these on Kindle. It presented some intriguing possibilities for biblical fiction, as I had hoped.
Making Sense of Abraham Moving to Canaan
For example, Abraham’s first encounter with God is in Genesis 12. God just appears to Abraham and tells him to leave his father’s house and country and go to a land “that I will show you” (Gen 12:1-3), and he does it. I always wondered how Abraham how he could recognize the God called Yahweh or El Shaddai when the only gods he had been exposed to were the gods of Ur and Harran. This version of The Book of Jasher presents an interesting answer, even if it is speculation.
The Book of Jashar says Abraham already knew God when he went with his father’s family to Ur of the Chaldees, but his father worshipped the gods of Ur. Like his neighbors, his father had idols of Babylonian gods in his home. Abraham wanted to test the idols of his household. He prepared some savory meat (like Esau), placed it before them, and invited them to eat. Nothing happened. He invited them again. Don’t they smell that enticing aroma coming from the meat? Don’t they want to taste it? He sat for hours, waiting for them to eat this delicious food he had prepared for them. They didn’t eat. They didn’t answer him when he asked why they didn’t want to eat it. After mocking them in this way, he smashed the idols to pieces except for the biggest one.
His father was very angry at losing his gods. Abraham said it wasn’t him. The idols all reached for the meat he had prepared for them, but the largest idol grabbed an axe and smashed them to pieces, so he could have the meat for himself. His father told him to stop lying. The idols can’t reach, eat, taste, smell, speak, or grab an axe and destroy idols. Abraham was like, “Aha!” He had got his father to admit the idols were not gods. They were nothing but wood, metal, clay, or stone fashioned with human hands.
They all had to leave, because the king was angry with them. Abraham’s younger brother Haran gave his life to protect Abraham, so the family left the city. They settled in Harran, and eventually Yahweh appeared to Abraham and told him to leave his family and move to Canaan.
Helpful for biblical fiction. Sort of.
If I were to write a novel based on Abraham, that would present a believable scenario for how Abraham came to know the God he called Yahweh. There are many other examples like this that present intriguing possibilities for filling in some of the gaps in the Biblical narratives. The best stories were those associated with Abraham and his family.
But after Abraham, especially when it gets to the sons of Jacob, it goes too much into flights of fancy to be at all believable. For example, the sons of Jacob over and over again face armies in tens of thousands with one or two hundred and utterly destroy them. One infamous story from the Bible is when Simeon and Levi killed all the males in the city of Shechem to avenge their sister Dinah (Gen 34). There are no more battles in the Bible after that.
But the Book of Jashar says while they were in Shechem, seven kings of Canaan came with their armies to avenge themselves against Jacob and his sons. With a hundred shepherds, the sons of Jacob obliterated armies of thirty, forty, or fifty thousand, in succession. They went on to tear down walled cities with their bare hands. Come on!
“But it’s fiction,” you say.
Do you know the difference between fiction and real life? Fiction has to make sense. It goes on to say while the Israelites were in Egypt, 150 Israelites killed 400,000 of Pharaoh’s army. That doesn’t make sense, because then, how could the Egyptians possibly have enslaved them, as the Biblical book of Exodus says? The book tries to explain it by saying they tricked the Israelites into making bricks in order to weaken them first. Then they enslaved them. But if 150 can kill 400,000 trained soldiers of the most powerful empire of the time, there is no way making bricks is going to weaken them enough to enslave them. There is no labor at all that could weaken them.
So it can be a source for Biblical fiction. But as with everything, you have to separate the wheat from the chaff.
I’m going to put this blog on hold for a while. Instead, I will be posting a sort of video diary on YouTube. If you subscribe to this blog, you will receive announcements of when they go up. Here’s the first one.
If you want something to read while staying at home, check out my award-winning ebook, Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain, also available in paperback. And check out other books I recommend on Biblical Fiction, Depression, and Self-Publishing. And see the Recommended tab at the top. In the category of Depression, you should check out Carrie M. Wrigley’s Your Happiness Toolkit, now available in audiobook.
Digging Deeper: The Gut, Gluten, Protocols, Detoxification, Dementia, and ADHD, tonight at 8 pm, replay available 24 hours.
Episode 7, spiritual practices help depression, tonight, 8 PM, replay available for 24 hours
Web series of experts giving the latest of brain health. Depression, Anxiety, and Dementia Secrets, Episode 6: Feeding Your Mind, How to Heal Your Brain With Food.
Tonight, 8PM EDT.