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

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

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

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

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

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

Just Obey. No Belief Required.

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

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

(Mal 3:10-11 KJV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Tithe Check Bounced

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

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

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

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

Context, Context, Context

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

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

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

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

Where Do We Go from Here?

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

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

“Caesar’s.”

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

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

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

C. They are reading the Bible out of context.

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

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

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

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


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

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

(NRSV)

Grace and peace to you.

blond woman hiding face behind money

The Tithe of Malachi 3:8-11 Was a Tax

Word of Faith, a.k.a., Prosperity Gospel, preachers love to talk about tithing. That refers to a traditional practice of giving 10% of your income to your church. If you listen to them, most likely you will hear the same things I heard.

  • “Tithing is the door that opens up the blessings of God.”
  • “If you tithe, you will be blessed. If you don’t tithe, you will be cursed. It’s that simple.”
  • “10% of your income belongs to God. Therefore, if you don’t tithe, you are robbing God.”
  • “Every sinner I know who got saved started by tithing. Then they saw how God blessed them and gave their lives to Christ.”
  • “God can’t bless that which is cursed. That’s why God isn’t answering your prayers. You’re not tithing; therefore, you are cursed.”

If you don’t mind my giving away the ending, all of that is crap. But I don’t expect you to take my word for it, so I’ll show you where that doctrine came from, and why it is both unbiblical and unchristian.

But first I want to make it clear I am not against tithing per se. Many people have given 10% of their income to the church their whole lives, and it has never been a hardship for them. It can be a good exercise in discipline and stewardship of the resources God gives you. I am certainly not against giving to your church. The church needs money to function, just like any other organization. What I am against is the message that every Christian is required to give 10% of their income to the church, even when it is a genuine hardship to do so.

Giving to the church should be done voluntarily and not under compulsion (2 Cor 9:7). It should carry neither the threat that God will curse you if you don’t, nor some false promise that God will give back to you more money than you gave. God loves a cheerful giver. Give because you believe in the work your church is doing and want to contribute to it, not because some preacher told you to pay your protection money. And if you think tithing carries a supernatural guarantee of positive ROI, stick around, because you need some truth.

What Do the Scriptures Say?

There are several scriptures that explain tithing. I believe the one most abused by prophets of greed to line their own pockets is Malachi 3:8-11.

8 Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings.

 9 Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation.  

10 Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.

11 And I will rebuke the devourer for your sakes, and he shall not destroy the fruits of your ground; neither shall your vine cast her fruit before the time in the field, saith the LORD of hosts.

(Mal 3:8-11 KJV)

I can hear your thoughts now. How can you say this is unbiblical? There it is from the Bible, plain as day.

  1. If you don’t tithe, you’re robbing God (verse 8).
  2. You’ll be cursed if you don’t bring all your tithes to God (verse 9).
  3. If you tithe, God will pour you out a blessing for which there is not room to receive, and God will rebuke “the devourer” for your sakes (verses 10-11). I don’t know what “the devourer” is, but I want God to rebuke him.

I will probably say this a thousand times if the LORD lets me live long enough. Just because they are 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. This reading and the doctrines that derive from it are out of context. Therefore, it is not the Word of God. I’ll show you why.

How Do You Read?

Reading it rightly includes reading the whole passage. How do I know it’s out of context? Because I read the whole book of Malachi, not just the verses cherry-picked by prosperity preachers. Reading it rightly also includes asking the right questions, for example, who is this for? What is it really about? What did it mean to the people it was written for? So let’s see what a difference context makes.

Who Is This For?

If you read the whole book, right away you should see this is not for America or the church today, nor for you as an individual believer.

An oracle. The word of the LORD to Israel by Malachi.

(Mal 1:1 NRS)

The very first verse Malachi writes tells us his whole message was for Israel. Contrary to what you may have been taught, America is not Israel. They were a theocracy. America is a democracy. And the church is not Israel. Israel was a nation. The church is not tied to any particular nation. Even though tithing was a requirement for Israel while the Temple stood, that doesn’t mean it is required for us today. Because Israel was a theocracy, the tithe could be considered a tax. Giving to God is voluntary, but taxes are not voluntary. And again, America is not a theocracy. It is a democracy. In a democracy, the church cannot impose a tax on people. Therefore, giving to the church is voluntary.

What Is It Really About?

To answer this, we have to ask another question: What is the tithe? Contrary to what you have been taught, the tithe is not 10% of your income, and it never was required of everyone, even in ancient Israel.

There are three parts to the Biblical tithe.

  1. 10% was given to the sanctuary in Jerusalem (the temple tithe).
  2. 10% was given to the Levites (the Levites’ tithe).
  3. 10% every three years was given to the poor (the poor tithe).

Add that up: 10 + 10 + 10/3 = 23.33. Why don’t they tell you you must pay 23.33%? Maybe because they know people would balk at that, especially if they claim that’s gross, not net. Many churchgoers can accept 10% of their income as reasonable, but 23.33%? On top of taxes that you already said are not voluntary? A lot more people would be challenging that.

That being said, prosperity preachers don’t claim all of these tithes. They tell you about the first part, claiming that the church has taken the place of the temple in Jerusalem. Therefore, they are entitled to 10% of your income. And as Malachi says, if you don’t pay them your tithe, you are “robbing God.” But if we must pay that, then we must pay not only the temple tithe, but the Levites’ tithe and the poor tithe. They never tell us who should receive those. And they certainly don’t connect those with any blessing or curse.

Here is where context is important. The tithe Malachi refers to in the passage above is not the first tithe to the temple, but the second tithe to the Levites. Malachi was chastising Israel for not supporting the Levites. It had nothing to do with the tithe to the temple in Jerusalem.

A Tithe for the Levites

Who were the Levites, you ask? Levi was one of the twelve sons of Jacob whose descendants became the twelve tribes of Israel. While the other tribes were each given a plot of land, the Levites did not have any land of their own. That’s because God set them apart to serve as priests and ministers to all the tribes, with the provision that they would be supported by a tithe of all food produced in the land of Israel. You had to be from the tribe of Levi to be a priest, but not all Levites were priests. The majority of them served administrative roles in either the Temple or the government, as we see here.

 2 David assembled all the leaders of Israel and the priests and the Levites. 3 The Levites, thirty years old and upward, were counted, and the total was thirty-eight thousand. 4 “Twenty-four thousand of these,” David said, “shall have charge of the work in the house of the LORD, six thousand shall be officers and judges, 5 four thousand gatekeepers, and four thousand shall offer praises to the LORD with the instruments that I have made for praise.”

 (1Ch 23:2-5 NRS)

The Temple had not been built yet, but God had already told David that his son Solomon would build the Temple in Jerusalem. In this scene, David knows he is about to die, and he wants Solomon to know the assignments of the Levites. You see they administered not only the work of the house of the LORD. They were also officers, judges, and gatekeepers, i.e., civil officials. That is how we know tithes were taxes. At least some of them went to the people who were responsible for the administration of the government.

The claim some preachers make today is you are robbing God because the church is entitled to the Temple tithe. But when Malachi talks about robbing God, he means the Levites’ tithe. Therefore, there is no chance he is saying you must give 10% to your church. Why didn’t Malachi make that clear, you might ask? Because the people he wrote this for would have understood that. They didn’t need to have that explained to them. This is what happens when you read the Bible and “just do what it says,” but don’t take into account the fact that it was not written to us today. The book of Malachi was written to Israel in approximately 400 BC, not the church in the 21st century.

Food, Not Income

Furthermore, the tithes were not taken in money. Every tithe came from food that was produced in the land of Israel. That means only farmers and herders tithed. They gave tithes from the crops they grew and the livestock they raised. It was only food from the land, so fishermen did not have to tithe. It was only from the land of Israel, so Jewish farmers outside Israel did not have to tithe. And it was not money or income, so merchants and craftsmen did not have to tithe. If you think about Jesus and his apostles, four of them were fishermen. They did not tithe. Matthew was a tax collector, so he did not tithe. That did not stop them from following Jesus. Heck, Jesus himself was a carpenter. He did not tithe.

Nowhere in the New Testament does it say you have to give 10% of your income to your local church. In the time of the New Testament, there were no local churches. Believers gathered in people’s houses to worship. Even in the Old Testament era, they did not even say you had to give 10% of your income. They tithed food, not income.

What Did It Mean to The People It Was Written For?

The storehouses Malachi refers to collected food, not money. And as I already mentioned, this tithe was to feed the Levites. Since the Levites had no land of their own, they could not grow food themselves. God commanded those Israelites who were blessed with their own land and produced food off that land to set aside a portion of it to feed people who by the nature of their calling could not produce food for themselves and their families.

Since the tithe was food and not money or income, what does it mean that God would “open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it”? Opening the windows of heaven meant that God would send the rains in their season to make their crops grow. There would “not be room enough to receive it” meant their land would produce plenty of food for the tithers, more than enough to fill the Levites’ storehouses and their own personal storehouses.

What is “the devourer”? The word in Hebrew is ha-’ochel. KJV and ESV call it “the devourer,” while NRSV calls it “the locust.” NIV is the most explicit, saying “I will prevent pests from devouring your crops” (Mal 3:11). I think in context, NRSV and NIV get it right (see Translation Notes below). Even if the farmer is diligent in plowing, planting, and keeping wild animals away, and the right amount of rain comes at the right time, there is always the threat the locust will come in and devour all the work of their hands.

This was answering the objection that the tithes were too much of a burden for them. God is telling the landowners, “Obey me concerning the tithes, and I will make sure you have plenty of food left for yourselves and your families.”

When God chides them for not bringing the tithes to the storehouses, they understood that was the Levites’ tithe, not the temple tithe. God is chastising them specifically for not supporting the Levites. Of course, they still had to bring the temple tithe and the poor tithe as well. But that’s not what this verse is talking about. Notice how there are tithes not only designated to the Temple and its administrators but also to the administrators of the government, the judicial system, and the poor. Also notice the tithe is food, not money. I’m stressing that point, because that was part of the purpose of the tithe: to be sure everyone in the land of Israel could eat, even those who could not produce food themselves.

This was especially important during the religious festivals. Holidays like the Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles were supposed to give them a foretaste of the coming Kingdom of God on earth.

In the Kingdom of God, no one goes hungry. There is plenty for everyone, rich or poor.

It doesn’t matter if you are a wealthy landowner with full barns, a craftsman getting by on your trade, a tenant farmer, a fisherman, a day laborer living hand to mouth, citizen or alien, Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, widow or orphan, too poor or disabled to work, can’t afford it–none of that matters. You can eat your fill. God has blessed our land with plenty of meat, bread, grain, fruit, olive oil, and wine for everyone. It also shows why they collected food, not income, as tithes. It wasn’t because they didn’t have money then. They did (Gen 23:12-16; 2 Sam 24:23-24). It was because you can’t eat money.

Tithing and Taxes

So when Malachi talks about tithes in this passage, he’s really talking about taxes, not the voluntary giving we do in church. For those who didn’t meet the requirements to tithe, there were other taxes. But since we’re focused on the Levites’ tithe, I find it interesting that God commanded a tax that was only for the wealthy (landowners) and for the purpose of paying government officials and feeding the poor. When the wealthy complained about paying taxes and feeding the poor, God told them, “You have two choices. You can set aside the 23 1/3% I commanded for the priests, Levites, and the poor, because they can’t produce food for themselves, and keep 76 2/3% of what I provide. Or you can keep 100%, let people who serve Me and the public go hungry, and take your chances that the rain and the locusts will be favorable.”

When people wax nostalgic about the 1950’s and the old Leave It to Beaver suburban lifestyle, do they ever stop and think in the 1950’s, the wealthiest people were taxed 90%? They still lived well. Warren Buffet gives away 99% of his income to charity, and you don’t see him in line at the soup kitchen. When you deny government services and public assistance to the people, you rob the nation (verse 9). That is the real meaning of Malachi’s message on tithing.

Why Not Theocracy?

We are a democracy, not a theocracy. Our constitution is set up to allow everyone to follow whatever religion seems good to them, even if that’s no religion. Therefore, the government cannot be seen as favoring any religion over the others. Personally, I think that’s a good thing.

Just because Israel was a theocracy does not mean we have to be. God does not have any kind of fetish for theocracy or any particular government. There is no authority except from God, so God can work with any form of government (Rom 13:1; Joh 19:11). The only thing God requires from those in authority is justice and righteousness (Isa 1:17; 3:14).

If we want God’s favor, we need to do what ancient Israel failed to do: execute justice and righteousness, defend the rights of the widow, the orphan, and the alien, protect the poor from exploitation by the rich and powerful, accept the results of our democratic elections because there is no authority except from God, and see that no one lacks basic necessities, no matter what race, religion, or nationality they are (Jer 7:4-6; 22:3). That is what I think a real Christian nation would look like.

Summing It Up

If your preacher is telling you that if you don’t give at least 10% of your income, you are robbing God, and that is the root of all your problems, they do not know how to read the Bible in context. Don’t be afraid. God is not going to sick “the devourer” on you. Tithing or not tithing has nothing to do with whether God answers your prayers or whether you are saved or not.

The blessing and curse described in Malachi 3:8-11 had nothing to do with giving to the Temple then or to the church today.

In the New Testament, it’s possible some people tithed voluntarily, but no one in the church was required to tithe. Jesus never connected his healing and ministry to people tithing to him.

But he had to get money somehow. Yes, people gave to him voluntarily but never as a quid pro quo. And no, tithing does not guarantee God will give you more money than you had before. If they promise positive ROI for giving to them, don’t be surprised when it doesn’t materialize.

On the other hand, if you go to a church where no one feels obligated to give 10% or any minimum amount, where some give more than 10% and are happy to do it, some give 10% because that’s what they have done their whole lives, some struggle to give 1% but give what they can, and some really can’t afford to give anything but come because they want to worship God in spirit and in truth, chances are good there is a place for you there.

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)

Translation Notes

Ha-‘ochel (Mal 3:11 WTT): Verb qal participle, masculine singular absolute with definite article.

The most common meaning for this verb (’achal) is eat, consume, or devour. As a participle (’ochel), it often refers to some kind of destruction or the means of destruction itself, such as fire, wild beasts, the sword, famine, or pestilence. Sometimes it is the locust (Joe 1:4; 2:25; 2 Chr 7:13; Amo 4:9) or more broadly of pests that devour crops (NIV). Since in this context Malachi is talking to farmers concerned about locusts devouring their crops, this seems most likely.

hand grasping golden apple

The Mind of Christ

In my last post, I talked about the claim from some preachers that if you are born again, you are a “little god.” I argued that is not true, first by pointing out that when the Bible says we were made in the image and likeness of God, that is not the same as being a god.

I’m sure some of them will say, “Well, what about Philippians 2:5-6?”

5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:

(KJV)

See? It says we should have the mind of Christ Jesus and think it is not robbery to be equal with God.

Problem is that reading is out of context. Context is so important to understanding the Bible, so let me explain what that means. Reading in context is about trying to figure out what the author meant when he wrote it, and what it meant to the audience it was originally written for. When I say something is being read out of context, I’m saying that is not what the author meant when he wrote it, and/or that is not what it would have meant to the original audience. When the author of Genesis 1:26-27 said the first man and woman were made in God’s image and likeness, he did not mean they were equal to God. The original audience would have thought of an image or likeness in the same way they would have thought of a statue, drawing, or painting of a person. It can look just like the person, but it is not the person. Therefore, reading image and likeness as equality is out of context.

With that in mind, does Philippians 2:5-6 say we should think of ourselves as equal to God? What does it say in context? That’s what I am about to examine.

Context: What does the verse really say?

To answer that, we have to dive into the Greek a little bit. If you didn’t know, the Old Testament was written in Hebrew—except for a few chapters of Daniel that were in Aramaic—and the New Testament was written in Greek. Or maybe they thought Paul wrote in King James English. If so, you need to know he wrote in Greek, because that was the language of the people of his congregations. And because King James English was over a thousand years and hundreds of miles removed from even one person speaking it, but I digress. For us trying to understand today what any of the Biblical authors wrote, it is inevitable that some things will get lost in translation.

In Greek the word translated robbery in the KJV is harpagmos, which could mean “robbery” but also could mean something taken, plunder, a prize, or a thing to be taken or held onto forcibly. Most other translations say “a thing to be grasped.” So should we consider it not robbery to be equal with God, or should we consider equality with God not a thing to be grasped? More context is needed.

Context: What does it mean within this particular section?

In this case the section we are looking at is Phil 2:5-11. Here is the World English Bible’s translation, which I am using because it is not copyrighted.

5 Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, existing in the form of God, didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, yes, the death of the cross.

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave to him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

(WEB)

The Mind of Christ

So Paul starts with “Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus” (v. 5). I prefer the NRSV, which says , “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phi 2:5 NRSV). What does it mean to have the same mind as was in Christ Jesus? That is what Paul explains in the rest of the passage. We believe verses 6-11 were a hymn. If so, it could be the oldest Christian hymn we have record of. They didn’t know how to write music then, so we can only guess how it was sung. But the Christians in Philippi would have known and probably sung along in their minds as it was read to them.

Having the mind of Christ means humility and love that is willing to sacrifice oneself for others, even if it means suffering and death.

The hymn starts by describing Jesus as “existing in the form of God,” but then goes on to say in verse 7, he “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men.” So the hymn begins by contrasting his existence before he became a man with the human form he took as a man called Jesus of Nazareth. And when he was “in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, [even] the death of the cross.”

In between his being in the form of God and in human form, verse 6b says he “didn’t consider equality with God” harpagmos. In that context, which is more likely, that he did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, or did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped? Considering how verses 7-8 stress how in his human form, he humbled himself, taking the form of servant, becoming obedient to the point of death, that does not sound like someone going around saying, “I don’t consider it robbery to call myself equal with God.” That sounds like someone who did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped. Unlike us, he already existed in the form of God. He had the right to claim equality with God. But instead, he humbled himself, taking the form of a servant. Paul is saying that is the mind of Christ that you should have.

Context: What else does the Bible say about this?

I’ve already talked about Genesis 1:26-27, where it says human beings were created not equal to God but in God’s image and likeness. This passage from Philippians makes the point more powerfully by saying even Jesus did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped. That particular phrase also connects this passage with the Creation story in Genesis.

First, God placed them in a Paradise and gave only one restriction.

15 Yahweh God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate and keep it. 16 Yahweh God commanded the man, saying, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but you shall not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; for in the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.”

(WEB).

They can eat from every tree in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They should consider that poison, because “in the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.” They were fine with that until a serpent told them,

4 … “You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

(Gen 3:4-5 NRSV)

They probably never thought about being like God before. But now that the serpent put that idea in their head, they thought, “That would be awesome.” So at a tree on a hill, they considered equality with God a thing to be grasped, and they grasped it. Because of that, they were banished from the Garden. God would still be with them, but it would never be the same.

hand grasping golden apple
Photo by Alan Cabello from Pexels;

The Second Adam

In Romans 5:12-21, Paul describes Christ as a second Adam. When he was brought to a tree on a hill, he did NOT consider equality with God a thing to be grasped but humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross—the perfect act of faithful obedience to God and loving self-sacrifice for us. And in so doing, he reversed the curse and restored our broken relationship with God.

Having the mind of Christ means humility and love that is willing to sacrifice oneself for others, even if it means suffering and death. He had a right to claim to claim equality with God, but instead he submitted himself to God’s plan to redeem humanity. How much more then should we stop grasping for equality with God and show God’s love through service and humility?

God Highly Exalted Him

That was the first half of the hymn. The second half describes how God highly exalted Jesus in response to his perfect obedience. He gave Jesus a name that is above every other name, confirming his status as Christ and Lord. Because God glorified him, he can be called equal with God. We cannot expect to be glorified in the same way. But Paul said in the book of Romans we are children of God and heirs with Christ “if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:17 NRSV). If we share in his suffering to redeem the world, we will also share in his glory.

Furthermore, he said, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18 NRSV). We still won’t be equal to God. But whatever we are, it will be awesome.

Jesus is not a model for us to claim equality with God. He is the model of a servant who submits to God’s will, even when it means suffering unjustly at the hands of others. God’s will was for the redemption of humanity, even those who persecuted him. God’s will was to show the extent of God’s love in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Only after Jesus’s death and resurrection did the disciples understand what it meant for him to be the Messiah. It meant suffering and death, not for its own sake, but to save others.

A Suffering Messiah

It was foreshadowed in one of Isaiah’s songs of the suffering servant. God prophecies of someone called “My servant,” who is beaten so much that he does not even look human anymore. People see his suffering and think it must be the wrath of God on him. The servant does not demand justice, because he understands they do not know what they are doing. They are like lost sheep who have gone astray. Somehow they see God glorify him, and their conscience is pricked. They seek the one whom they once despised and rejected and want him to teach them the ways of justice and righteousness (Isa 52:13-53:12).

And the irony was he could have rescued himself. He could have grasped the equality with God that was already his. Before he came to us in human form, he was in the form of God. But he willingly surrendered that status as Son of God to become the suffering servant. If you want the mind of Christ, meditate on that for a while.

So if you think this verse is about how you can become equal with God, you have missed the point entirely.

Thanks for reading. I hope you’ll come back next time. Until then, remember these words from Matthew 7:12.

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

(NRSV)

Grace and Peace to you.

Vulture hoarding dollars and gold.

Word of Faith and a Cult Checklist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will say yes to this.

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

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

I’ll say yes to this.

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

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

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

(NRSV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will say yes to this.

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

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

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

(Mat 5:10-12 NRS)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will say yes to this.

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

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

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

I will say yes to this.

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

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

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

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

Number 12: The group is preoccupied with making money.

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

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

Yes, they are preoccupied with making money.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will say no to this.

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

Links

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

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

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

Thank God I was a Coward

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

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

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

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

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

(Mar 11:22-24 KJV)

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

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

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

(Heb 11:1 KJV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What if it doesn’t work?”

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

“He might be offended.”

“Did Jesus ever offend people?”

“Yes.”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

That was how I felt then. But …

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

Faith or Placebo?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Mat 24:4-5 NRS)

And again,

And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.

(Mat 24:11 NRS)

And again,

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

(Mat 24:23-24 NRS)

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

And again,

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

(Mat 7:15)

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

Take note, I have told you beforehand.  

(Mat 24:25 NRS)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Cowardly Lion’s Moment of Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religion News Service.

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

“Because I really believe in this.”

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

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

“What is ‘enough faith’?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-end-

Further Reading

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

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

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

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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