Friday, May 20, 2005

An Evening With Pastor David Cho

Last night a men’s prayer group I’m part of attended a revival service at which the main speaker was Pastor David Yonggi Cho, pastor of the world’s largest church (750,000 members in Seoul, South Korea) and author of hundreds of books, both in Chinese and English, including “The Fourth Dimension”.

I have to admit I went to hear Cho with a certain amount of skepticism, not because I’m not open to signs and wonders (which are supposed to occur often during his services)-- after all, I attend a charismatic church where people regularly speak in tongues and pray for "signs and wonders". But I was concerned by what I had read on the Internet about Cho, especially concerning his theology.

It had been years since I read “The Fourth Dimension”, but I remember when reading it thinking that the visualization techniques Cho suggests might be misdirected towards the pursuit of goals not necessarily God’s will for one’s life. For example, he told a story of a woman he counseled that had been praying for over 10 years for a husband, but had not received an answer. Cho identified her problem as not praying specifically. He took out paper and pen and interviewed the woman, asking her questions about the kind of husband she wanted and writing down her answers. Now, with a mental picture of her husband based on the characteristics she desired, he advised her to begin praying daily according to this specific vision, by faith believing that her prayers would be answered, because she was now praying specifically. Sure enough, a short time later a man visited her church fitting the description in her vision; he took an interest in her and soon after they were married.

It is a nice story, but I wondered about some of its implications. Could it be presumptuous for a believer to decide in advance what kind of outward characteristics they want in a spouse and then expect God to answer according to their desires? What if God has a person in mind for you that doesn’t match your specific vision? I noticed too that Pastor Cho asks her the specifics of what she desires in a husband, yet he asks only about outward characteristics, such as height, occupation, hobby, etc.; no questions are raised concerning the character of her future husband. Why is this? The moral the story seems to teach is that so long as I’m praying specifically it doesn’t matter what I’m praying for? Wouldn’t God be more concerned about the character of my potential spouse than about merely outward traits? Perhaps Cho takes it as a given that the woman, being a believer, would have new desires that are directed by the Lord, and therefore her specific desires and the Lords’ will would line up together. However, he doesn’t make that very clear.

The danger in Cho’s teaching about visualizing goals then, is that he doesn't always balance it with teaching about God’s sovereignty. One could easily read the example above and go away with a strategy to seek out a spouse in a way that makes my personal desires paramount, over and above what the Lord’s will might be. How do I know in advance the precise characteristics of the spouse God has in mind for me, especially in context of His sovereign plan for my life? I cannot. Certainly as a human being I will have preferences and desires, and should pray to God about these. But because the Lord sees my future and is all-wise, I should pray with an attitude of humility that leans upon Him for understanding, and trusts Him to provide for my best, rather than dictating what I think is best. Cho elsewhere does speak of our dependence upon the Holy Spirit for guidance and direction, so I think that he isn’t saying that all of our visualized goals are necessarily right to pursue, but only those imparted to us by the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, I think his teaching would benefit from making that important point more clear.

Thankfully, Cho’s evening message turned out to be both God-centered and gospel-oriented. A diminutive yet charismatic presence, Cho spoke powerfully and convincingly, with many examples from his life and ministry, of the believer’s need to learn to think in a new paradigm. Although he did not title his message, it probably could have been called something like, “Living Out the New Paradigm of Faith”. He began the message by pointing out how a believer might remain stuck outside of the “promised land” that God is trying to lead him into, just as the Israelites wandered around in the desert for 40 years after the Lord delivered them from Egyptian captivity. This happens he says, because even though God brings us out of Egypt, Egypt hasn’t left our hearts. In other words, worldliness continues to exert a strong grip on our minds and in our hearts, keeping us from thinking and acting in the new way we ought.

So Cho’s first key to entering into the inheritance God has for us as believers is renewing of the mind according to” revelation knowledge”(God’s word), which enables us to think in terms of faith, rather than according to mere “sense knowledge”. This is living the God-centered life of faith, which learns to see things according to God’s word and is not limited to man’s wisdom or ingenuity in response to solving life’s problems.

Cho taught on themes familiar to those who have read his books. He spoke of knowing, through the revelation gained by much study and meditation in God’s word, our true identity as believers. He showed how our new identity is directly linked with what Jesus did for us on the cross, explaining that on the Cross, the old person we were died when Jesus died, and the new person we have become arose when Jesus arose. He said that Jesus became a curse, in order to remove the curse of the law (sin) that was destroying our lives, quoting Galatians 3:13.

Cho mentioned Abraham as an example of someone who was able to possess the promise of God because he was first shown it— God had him look and count the stars above and also look all around him at the land he was treading upon. These actions of seeing according to the vision God has for our lives is key to realizing that vision: “Seeing precedes possession”, said Cho.

Cho also described poverty as a curse, and spoke of how envisioning a successful outcome in business will bring about the power of God working in your situation, bringing supernatural wisdom and vision (he used the story of Jacob with Laban’s sheep as an example to illustrate his point).

But as I mentioned above, there are times that Cho is so enthusiastic about emphasizing our potential as believers to act on our dreams and goals that it is possible that some of his listeners may receive a lopsided message. For example, although I agree that poverty and sickness are curses, I think too that there are seasons in which God may sometimes permit these to touch us. The Apostle Paul was afflicted by difficult trials and difficulties in his ministry, including at times, lack of money or physical ailments. Yet certainly this was not a sign that Paul was no longer in God’s will. Rather, the apostle states that through such experiences he had learned the secret of contentment. "Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to get along happily whether I have much or little. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little" Phippians 4: 11-12 (NLT).

I agree with Cho that our God is very good and certainly I want to grow my faith to receive all that God has for me. Yet I am troubled by teaching that seems to imply that all Christians must become rich, or that we can never ever be sick. Again I think balance is needed in teaching abot these things, because the Scriptures are balanced in their teaching about money and health. Regarding money for example, there are numerous warnings about the danger of money and possessions becoming an idol that distracts us away from serving the Lord and the kingdom priorities– at the same time, money and resources are seen to be desirable and good when used rightly. My impression is that Cho’s ministry uses its vast resources towards ends which fulfill the Great Commission of making disciples and being salt and light in the community. This is wonderful. At the same time, we must always be on guard against materialism and greed creeping into the ministry. Some ministries that begin with right motives are corrupted by the allure of worldly wealth. And since the marketing and selling of all kinds of Christian merchandise these days is something that even turns me off, as a believer, I can imagine how it might be really distasteful to those outside of the church. Many are looking for justification to reject Christ and His teaching. Therefore I think that we ought to be very, very watchful in this area for two reasons. One reason that vigilance is needed is so that we are not seduced by the materialistic spirit of this age. Another reason is to guard our witness to the world from being compromised by appearing to be more about profit and greed than about the love of Jesus. We ought not to give any unbelievers any ammunition to be able to say that the way of Christ is somehow phony.

I am happy to say that overall I was encouraged and inspired by Pastor Cho to believe that God will do incredible things in us and through us as we are seeking to do His work on earth and submitted in obedience to His word.

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