Sunday, July 29, 2007

Compassion for Tammy Faye and other Health-Wealth Disciples

The other day an item appeared on a well-known Christian blog that showed a video clip of Tammy Faye Messner's last appearance on the Larry King show. The blog pointed out that Mrs. Messner, a long-time proponent of "Word-Faith" theology, was now (in her illness) a vivid illustration of the false hope of that brand of teaching. Sadly, a few days after appearing on Larry King, Tammy Faye died.

Now, while I have come to the view that the way healing is taught in the Word-Faith movement misinterprets Scripture in many instances and is therefore incorrect, nonetheless I feel that compassion should be shown towards someone like Tammy Faye. To me it is not in very good taste to show footage of a deathly ill woman just for the purpose of scoring a point against Word-Faith teaching-- even if one's point is correct. Christians especially ought to have, and show, compassion for the sick and dying. If her hope in God and in His healing was misinformed because of Word-Faith teaching, all the more reason to show sympathy towards her.

I wasn't very familiar with Tammy Faye, not ever having watched the PTL show, but she seemed to have many fans, even now long after the heyday of the popularity of her Praise the Lord telecast with then-husband Jim Bakker. In this, her last public appearance, Tammy Faye held herself with dignity, expressing her faith and hope, as best she knew how. She came across as a gentle, kind soul, yet with the courage to show her dying face to the world.

The Healing/Prosperity Message of "Word-Faith" Teachers (aka Health/Wealth Gospel)

These days as I surf the Christian channels it seems I keep encountering shows featuring testimonies and/or demonstrations of people supposedly miraculously healed. Are these "miracles" actually taking place? I must admit I view them with a mixture of desirous curiosity and strong skepticism. I wish that the miracles they say are happening were truly happening. But it seems that for every testimony one hears about people receiving healing, there are also the many who are not healed. This latter group includes people who "faithfully" follow popular Word-Faith teachings like "healing is in the atonement", or the notion that healing will come by spoken, persistent proclamation of certain scriptural promises (this demonstrates faith, through which God then brings about healing). I know, because my wife was one of those sincere people not instantly healed though putting such teachings into practice [She is however much better these days and we certainly thank God for her progress in healing. It's just that we don't think that there is a correlation between seeking God for healing via the Word-Faith approach and her progress to date].

Even as my wife and I several years ago were applying such teachings to our own circumstances, I had certain misgivings. I thought: if our expectation of healing is founded upon Christ's atoning work, so that together with forgiveness of sins, healing is the believer's birthright, then why isn't the believer in the atonement who seeks healing necessarily always healed?

Sin is always forgiven (without the one exception of "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit") through the cross of Christ. If then this "healing in the Atonement" teaching is true (that the atonement means sickness as well as sin is removed from the believer), we would expect that healing would occur in the believer's life in every case. Yet the reality is that there always are exceptions to healing- there are countless people who pray for healing with faith, but do not receive it. Some have prayed and been healed at one time, and yet have not received healing the next time they have asked. It is known as well that even prominent Word-Faith style teachers have experienced sickness and negative answers to requests for healing.

Unfortunately, lay people who follow these teachings and have not been healed may feel both discouraged and guilty. This is how my wife and I felt. Surely if God heals all, the fault for non-healing must lie with us, rather than with God. So people end up concluding that they have not exercised the right kind (or amount) of faith, and must be to blame for having missed out on the promised healing. Word-Faith teaching does try to explain non-healing, but their answers aren't satisfying: the bottom line in their explanations seems to be that a non-healing indicates defective faith somewhere, or something left undone by the believer.

But for my wife and myself, when healing did not come through the Word-Faith approach, we began to consider other explanations. Could it be that God is actually sovereign over all things our lives and did not want the healing to happen at this time, for His own reasons? This at times seemed like a horrible thought. For Word-Faith teaches that God doesn't inflict illness upon His children just for the sake of teaching them life-lessons, or to discipline them. But if sickness is a suffering, and suffering may be used by God to mold us in Christ-likeness, then why might He not allow a physical suffering in our lives to teach us? Why is the suffering of sickness put into a different category by this type of teaching? Indeed through study of the ancient viewpoint presented in classic Reformed theology, and also as we thought through these issues, we began to think differently about healing.

We Are Being Redeemed

The guarantee of physical healing in this life simply does not fit with the stage of redemption we are in-- we still live with mortal bodies that get sick and eventually die. The perfect physical healing that comes through the atonement will indeed become ours, but only when our bodies are fully redeemed. Until then, we deal with sickness and death in this life. God may, and often does, heal now in answer to prayer, but we cannot demand that our prayers for healing be granted because we apply a certain formula based on guarantees the Bible does not actually give.

There is a parallel to this "in-between" redemption in the spiritual realm. Although we are being sanctified by the Spirit of God and will someday be just as He is, becoming Christians did not completely remove sin from our lives as believers. We still live with a "sin principle" that resides within our mortal bodies, and therefore we can and do sin (Romans 7:17-18). Thank God that because the power of sin has been broken we do not have to sin (Romans 6:3-4). The power of the Spirit within us can always help us choose not to sin (1Corinthians 1:13), but in this in-between state of redemption we live in now (Romans 8:18-25), often we do choose to sin (1 John 1:8).

Therefore just as being in Christ doesn't entirely remove the presence of sin from our beings and from our lives, so also the presence of sickness is not yet completely removed from our bodies. Again, we have to deal with sickness and death in this life.

Prosperity Teaching
Closely related to the well-intentioned though mistaken doctrine of healing in the atonement is teaching that Christians must prosper financially/materially. Prosperity teaching says that special material blessings from God are, like physical healing, the birthright of every Christian. These come to us however, only as we "sow our seed", by tithing to our churches and by giving to this or that ministry. In the same way that proclaiming faith in God's promises to heal is supposed to be the vehicle by which God becomes obligated to heal, "sowing seed", in the form of sending money to a particular ministry, is supposed to demonstrate a faith God is absolutely certain to reward. I find preacher after preacher on TV teaching along these lines. Whether the ones sowing seed are thus being blessed by God or not, it may certainly be observed, from the lavish personal wealth of the leaders of ministries promoting this message, that they themselves benefit greatly from all this "seed-sowing". Are such teachers purposefully trying to deceive people then, and teaching these things just so they themselves get rich? I am not saying that. Many are no doubt sincere in teaching this doctrine and believe that they too ought to reap the material harvest that their teaching brings. In fact they may point to their own example, saying, "You can have what I have".

But even unbelievers can see that prosperity teaching does not correlate well with the biblical portrait of the lifestyle of Jesus Christ Himself, who lived humbly during in His time on earth. In contrast to telling followers that they would certainly reap a financial harvest by sowing seed into His ministry, Christ strongly and repeatedly warned against the dangers of covetousness.

Look at the fruit. Does prosperity teaching teach us to live humbly and be satisfied with what we now have materially, or does it promote covetousness? Prosperity teaching seems to say that if we don't have the material things we want (and supposedly ought to have, because God wants to give it) it is only because we have yet to exercise the right kind of faith. With the temptation that lies within the human heart to look to material blessings for comfort and satisfaction, this is a dangerous message. Jesus who knows human hearts more than all recognized this, and rightly warned us to "be on your guard against all kinds of greed".

Truth and Error in Word-Faith teaching
Truly God is our great Provider, and He richly blesses us spiritually, and often materially. But is the truth of the reality of the presence of God in our lives proven only if we are blessed with this world's goods and thus can show the world that "Christianity works"? Is it not rather demonstrated when we show our joyful satisfaction in God Himself, whether or not we have been richly blessed materially, and by our contentment with whatever we have been given?

Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs (1Timothy 6:6-10)

Is Word-Faith all wrong then? Personally, I think there is truth mixed in with a lot of error and mis-emphasis. The truth of course is that our God is indeed a miracle-working, "nothing is impossible" kind of God, and we should therefore raise our expectations of what He can do in and through our lives. Certainly God works through such faith in Him, faith that is depending upon Him alone to bring about wonderful results we can't even foresee or fully imagine.

But the great error and mis-emphasis in Health/Prosperity teaching is to make material blessings or physical healing the proof that God is at work in our lives, the proof that He is indeed a good God. What of poor Christians who live in underdeveloped nations? What of faithful Christians all over the world who get cancer and suffer or die? Are such believers ignorant of their supposedly invulnerability in Christ to such suffering? If they just knew how to pray with the right faith would they suddenly be healed of all sickness and poverty? The answer to these questions ought to be obvious. Despite the teaching of some, Jesus Christ was not a rich man leading an extravagant lifestyle and neither were His followers. They seemed to have what they needed (food, clothing) and even enough to be generous to others. But the early Christian community lived with a sense that Christ's return was imminent, and they were not living a lifestyle of building up for themselves "treasures on earth".

Also not every believer in this community always lived in perfect health. There are New Testament examples of those who were became ill (among them great leaders in the church, including Trophimus, Timothy and the great Apostle Paul). Since Jesus taught that it is "easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God," (because of the way wealth tricks us into worshiping it rather than God), does it make sense then that Christians should be exhorting one another to prosperity in this life?

Can a Christian Be Rich Then?
Does this mean that a Christian who seeks to do well in his field and to make a good living sins? Not necessarily. If in pursuing the course that God has mapped out for us and using our God-given talents we prosper and even become wealthy, we will be good Christians as we steward these resources to give generously to the work of the kingdom. We should also enjoy without guilt the blessings God has given. But what is driving us? Are we after the comfort and security of wealth, trusting in it rather than God for our security? Are we keeping money and material blessings in their proper place, as we pursue the priorities of God? These are difficult things for us all, for the human heart retains its temptation to make idols of riches and comfort and all sorts of worldly things, even though we have truly become new creatures in Christ. So we must be on our guard against covetousness, as Jesus warned.

May the Lord forgive us if we have made health and wealth the measure of our faithfulness to Christ or of His goodness to us. May He teach me and every believer to eradicate the idols from our hearts. May we have compassion for those lured by false ideas, whether they are in the world or whether they are Christians. May we learn to live fully by the truth of God's word, and teach others to do so as well, and so be set free.

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money (Matthew 6:19-24)

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