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

Vulture hoarding dollars and gold.

My sister thought I was in a cult (and I’m not sure she was wrong)

Why did she think that? I’m not sure. I know it had something to do with the Word of Faith movement. At the time, I had a great uncle who had Alzheimer’s. Everybody was saying there was no cure, which medically was true. If you’re in the Word of Faith, you don’t accept no cure. Your answer is, “Oh yes, there is. Faith in Jesus Christ.”

One of my word of faith teachers preached on using fasting to increase the power of your prayer. The text came from Isaiah 58. By the way, spoiler alert, that’s not what Isaiah 58 says when you read it in context. This teacher that I thought was so brilliant and so anointed and spoke the uncompromised Word of God, yeah, he took it out of context, like just about every other Bible verse he preached. But I didn’t know that at the time.

And I was thinking I was the only one who believed in the power of faith to heal. Everyone else believed, “God can heal, but you don’t know if it is God’s will.” And I’d be like, “Well, Isaiah 53:5 says, But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed (KJV). 1 Peter 2:24 says, Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed (KJV).

Note: I’m using the King James Version because when I was in the Word of Faith movement, it was the preferred translation. It is not necessarily the most accurate. More on that in future posts.

They taught and still teach if you belong to Christ, the Bible says Jesus’ death didn’t just bring you forgiveness of sins. It’s not just about the sweet by and by. It’s about the rotten stinking here and now. You can have peace of mind and healing for your body along with forgiveness for your sins. Why settle for one when you can have all three?

If it says it in the Bible, then it is God’s will. If you can find a verse in the Bible that says you have it, it’s yours. If you find a promise in the Bible, you can claim it. And if you do that in faith, and believe and do not doubt, and don’t believe the lies of the Devil that you are sick when the Bible says you’re well, God will have no choice but to give you what to ask. That is what I learned from the Word of Faith on how to get your prayers answered yes.

With all the focus on health and wealth, it can sound selfish. This wasn’t selfish. My great uncle had Alzheimer’s, and it was ravaging his brain. He needed to be healed. I had one side telling me we don’t know if it’s God’s will to heal your uncle. I had another side telling me it is always God’s will to heal, because the Bible says so. Which do you think I chose?

If it is to be, is it up to me?

But inevitably, there will come a time when you pray for healing and don’t get healed. Or you pray for someone else to be healed, and it doesn’t happen. How can that be if God promised it? It’s because either you didn’t know about the promise of God, or you didn’t believe that God would heal you or whoever you prayed for. You started out in faith, but some doubt crept in, and that stopped your prayers from being answered. Those are pretty much the only reasons. It’s never because it wasn’t God’s will, because they say it is always God’s will to heal.

I was the only one in my immediate family who believed this way. Therefore, I was the only one who could exercise faith to get my uncle healed. If it was going to happen it had to be through me, through my faith and my belief. And I needed all the help I could get. My favorite televangelist preached on this passage on Isaiah 58.

Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?

(Isa 58:6 KJV)

So fasting will supposedly release you from bands of Satan and break every yoke the Devil has put on you.

Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy rereward.

(Isa 58:8 KJV)

There it is, thine health shall spring forth speedily, because you fasted. The televangelist quoted that and then would tell stories about himself or other big names in the Word of Faith when they fasted because they weren’t getting their prayers answered, or some stubborn demon wouldn’t leave, and they would be saved, delivered, and healed because they were super-charged with the power of the Holy Ghost. So I thought that was what I needed to do.

I think my brother is in a cult

One weekend, I came home from college. My sister was there. My parents had gone away, and we were supposed to call Domino’s or Pizza Hut to get a pizza or something for dinner. But I couldn’t eat. I was fasting so I could focus my prayers for uncle Raymond. So I told my sister that I wouldn’t be eating anything for dinner, so she could get whatever she wanted. She kind of freaked out. In fact, anytime I fasted, none of them took it well. I was like, “What? Like this hasn’t been a common religious practice, not only in Christianity but Judaism and Islam and Buddhism for thousands of years?”

I thought she was overreacting. But like I said, I was deep into this Word of Faith doctrine. And if I remember correctly, she had just recently seen a movie about people who got sucked into a cult. That’s how it always works with a cult. You kind of get sucked into it, because they seem to have all the answers you seek. They may not be correct, but they’re easy to understand, and they appear to make sense out of your life. When I listened to this one teacher, I felt like he was pulling back the veil and revealing the glories and mysteries of the heavenly realms.

People’s Temple cult leader, Jim Jones, in sunglasses and priest’s collar.
Caption: Not “Word of Faith, “ but definitely a cult leader. Rev. Jim Jones at an anti-eviction rally Sunday, January 16, 1977 in front of the International Hotel, Kearny and Jackson Streets, San Francisco. Photo by Nancy Wong

And so, you think you are getting the truth from them, and you can’t get it from anyone else. Maybe you think they can teach you how to have supernatural gifts and manifestations of God, just like you read about in the Bible. You end up doing things you wouldn’t normally do in the name of your faith.

She had watched me for years with my, shall we say, eccentric ideas about God and religion and faith. So I’m guessing it wasn’t just what I said about fasting and praying for our uncle to be healed that she was reacting to. I think she had been worried about this for a while, and this was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

So she called the pastor of the Presbyterian Church the rest of the family attended. My Word of Faith teachers called churches like this “one of those dead churches, stuck with their dead religion that care more about their dead traditions than they do about the Bible. And that’s why they don’t get their prayers answered, and then they say it’s the will of God. It wasn’t the will of God. They don’t believe the Bible.” That was their standard answer basically to everything that was wrong with denominational churches. So, if I wanted help getting my prayers answered, I knew I couldn’t get any help from that pastor.

Poor guy. He just had no chance with me at the time. I mean, the Word of Faith was promising me miracles and supernatural manifestations of the Holy Spirit with power. And that church was telling me I could pray, but it was really up to God.

But she called him and said, “I think my brother is in a cult.” She even wanted to have me kidnapped and deprogrammed. I guess she had seen that in the movie. She had told me this years ago, but she never told me what he said to her. I just knew that somehow he had talked her out of the whole kidnapping and deprogramming idea.

But I found out what he said, and I wish I had known back then, because I would have respected him a lot more. She and her husband came to visit. Down here — this was so cool — It was in February of 2020, just before Covid restrictions, and in our little town, the oldest venue there is the Opera House, which was hosting Jeremy’s 10, a Pearl Jam tribute band. So I called my brother-in-law (or maybe texted him) and I was like, “You want to see a Pearl Jam tribute band?”

And he was like, “Do they really sound like them?”

“I think so.” I sent him some links from their website.

Wisdom in action

They came down for the weekend. He and I went to see them, and my wife and sister had their fun just hanging out and talking about whatever sisters-in-law talk about when they get together. They watched a couple of episodes of Cold Case. I didn’t watch that when it first came out, but my wife and I ended up watching the whole series on Roku.

Anyway, during that weekend she brought up that incident, and I finally found out what he had said to her. He asked her what was happening that made her think I was in a cult. After she explained it, he said, “It doesn’t sound like he’s a danger to himself or to you. If that changes, call me.”

I did a video and post earlier on what I think makes a good pastor. It’s not comprehensive. It was just a few thoughts off the top of my head, because where I am now the pastor is getting ready to retire, and he’s been really good. One of the things I am learning more and more is how important wisdom is for any kind of leadership, and how rare it is. So it is really important for a pastor to have wisdom, because you’re going to be getting calls like what my sister did that night. And you’re going to have to help them navigate not just theological territory that is confusing for them. You’re going to have to help them navigate some scary emotional and family situations. And his answer was perfect wisdom. He didn’t dismiss her concerns, and he had the wisdom to recognize the most important question is not, “Is he in a cult?” but “Is he a danger to himself or others?” Because even if she was right, I don’t think anyone could have convinced me I was in a cult. In my mind, I was in the Truth (with a capital T). But knowing I was not a danger to myself or others set her mind at ease.

My family in general did not know how to handle me. That’s because no one knew about the Word of Faith back then. There was nothing to prepare them or guide them in dealing with a son or brother who swallowed this strange new theology hook, line, and sinker. Word of Faith was new to a lot of people, and I think because I had these strange ideas that were coming from someone who claimed to speak the Word of God, which of course meant you couldn’t question it in any way, it looked like a cult.

What is “the Word of God”?

And speaking the word of God did not just mean quoting scripture. Sometimes, they would even start speaking words from God directly, punctuating them with “says the LORD,” or “says your God,” so you know it’s not the preacher speaking now. It’s God. That was so exciting. I wanted to be able to access God directly like that. How can a traditional Presbyterian church compete with that?

These days, you hear people talking about the Prosperity Gospel. Well, Word of Faith was Prosperity Gospel before Prosperity Gospel. Our pastor did try to address it in one sermon. But even he didn’t understand why it had a hold on me and why it can have a hold on anyone, especially if you have a heart that wants to please God. And I doubt any of his classes in seminary taught him how to counter this false gospel.

He said at one point, “Nowhere in the Bible does God promise health and wealth and success if you have faith,” or something along those lines. Well, if it were that simple to refute, I would have left it a long time ago. But when people said something like that, I would think, “What do you mean nowhere in the Bible does it say that?” And I could roll off a whole bunch of scriptures that said just that, like, Isaiah 53:5 “By his stripes we are healed.” There’s the promise of healing. First Peter 2:24 promises forgiveness of sins and healing of the body. Protection from harm? Psalm 91. Healing for your loved one? Psalm 107:20. He sent his word, and healed them, and delivered them from their destructions (KJV). When I pray for my uncle, God is sending his word to heal him and deliver him from destruction.

Prosperity? 3 John verse 2. Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth. (KJV). Okay, so there’s prosperity and health right there.

Abraham was rich because God blessed him (Gen 13:1–2). And Galatians 3:13–14 says, “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (KJV).

Jesus died on the cross, so that the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles. Well, that means if Abraham was rich, I have a right to be rich. I am entitled to any blessing God gave Abraham, because I belong to Christ. If it says it in the Bible, you have a right to it.

And people would say, “God answers prayers, but sometimes the answer is no.” The Word of Faith said, if it’s promised in the Bible, don’t take no for an answer. God is looking for people who will challenge dead traditions, who will not take no for an answer, who will believe the Bible, who will take God at His word and believe it above all circumstances, above their symptoms, above what the doctor says, above how they feel, above their bank account, above everything, seen and unseen, that contradicts it. David believed in God more than he believed in the size of the giant, and God gave him victory because of it. That’s the kind of faith you need to have if you want to get your prayers answered. And if you don’t have that kind of faith, don’t expect any answer except No. If you’re happy with God saying No, believe that old time traditional church teaching. If you want to know how to get God to answer yes, listen to us.

Gothic church with many spires and statues on top of each
Anyone want that “old time religion”? Photo by Alessandro Cavestro on Unsplash

Full Gospel or Fool’s Gospel?

Eventually, I found a “full gospel” church (that’s what Word of Faith folks liked to call themselves) that preached this message. The pastor one time imitated religious folk with, “‘Well, brother, we hope and pray…’. Then he countered, “God already said in his word, knuckle head! I didn’t mean that! I didn’t mean that! I apologize! I was talking to myself.”

We had a good laugh out of it, but that was basically the attitude we were taught to have. When you pray for something that is already promised in the Bible, you don’t hope and pray. You don’t pray, “If it be thy will.” If it wasn’t God’s will, God wouldn’t have put it in the Bible.

Of course, in order to maintain that belief, you have to ignore verses like,

And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us:

(1Jo 5:14 KJV)

See, there’s the rub. If we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. There were situations where even Jesus did not heal every sick person he saw. There is no guarantee that if you pray for healing, it is according to God’s will. Or this?

Go to now, ye that say, To day or to morrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain:

Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.

For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that.

(Jam 4:13–15 KJV)

They say praying If the Lord will shows a lack of faith. Yet that is exactly what James says to do, and it is in keeping with the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament. And all their promises of prosperity do not explain this verse.

Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?

(Jam 2:5 KJV)

What does that say about all those claims that if you are rich and making a lot of money, it’s because God is blessing you? Or if you are faithful to God, God will make you rich and successful in everything you do?

I think I will say this a thousand times if the Lord lets me live that long. 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. When you read the Bible in context, there are basically only two promises God makes to you and me as individual believers: forgiveness for our sins, and he will be with us always. That’s it. No promises of perfect health, abundant wealth, protection from diseases like Covid, or success in all your endeavors. When they quote verses like Isaiah 53:5; 1 Pet 2:24; 3 Jn 2; Psa 107:20; Psa 91; Isa 58:6-8, or pretty much anything in the Bible, I’m telling you they are quoting it out of context. My Presbyterian minister–and the rest of my family, for that matter–had that right. But I didn’t know that then.

Failing the smell test

I don’t know how much of the specifics my sister knew, but she knew I followed some televangelists who did not pass the smell test. And she had seen enough I guess that when I talked about fasting so that I can pray for our uncle like it was under my control — that I could make it happen because of my faith, regardless of whether it was God’s will or not — then she couldn’t help thinking I needed serious help. She was right about that. I’m still not sure if it was a cult, but I needed help. The problem was I don’t think anyone knew — me least of all — what kind of help I needed.

Word of Faith, or Prosperity Gospel, I don’t believe is a cult, because there isn’t one authoritative figure that everyone follows. I was never part of an isolated community like the Jim Jones cult. Their theology is strange and a different gospel, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are a cult. However, it is possible that they have adopted standard cult methods of mind control to manipulate true believers, like I once was, to believe their message. Looking back, especially at that one teacher and self-proclaimed prophet I followed more than any other, I think I was manipulated. So that’s why I say I’m not sure my sister was wrong.

In case you haven’t guessed, my uncle was never healed of his Alzheimer’s. I carried that burden of trying to “believe God for his healing” for years. Thank God by the time he died, at least I had finally learned that it wasn’t because I lacked faith.

Whether I was in a cult or not, I have seen many ways religion can hurt people. If anything about my experience sounds familiar to you, maybe you should reconsider whether you are on the right path. If you want to know more, or you know you need help but don’t know where to turn, the International Cult Studies Association’s website is a good place to start. 

Beyond that, let me tell you this. Just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t mean God promised it to you. The Bible does say Abraham was rich, and that through Christ we have access to the blessing of Abraham. That does not mean God promised to make you rich. God also blessed Abraham with a son when he was 100 years old. God did not promise that same “blessing” for you or me (Thank you, Jesus!). I’m not saying God won’t give you health, wealth, or success. I’m saying God never promised to give you that. This might not be what you want to hear, but I’m telling you, that is the truth that set me free.

WRITTEN BYDavid Anderson


David Anderson is a multi-passionate author of fiction and nonfiction. His latest book is Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain.

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Dec 25, 2020

Who Were the Magi?

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,

(Mat 2:1 NRSV)

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