If the light within you is darkness

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”  (1 Peter 2:9)

“But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6:23)

I love to read history, and the other night I came across something I had never seen. After Arius, who was a heretic, died in the early 4th century, his followers rioted and were then summarily slaughtered by the first Christian Roman emperor, more than 3000 of them.

The author, historian William Manchester (A World Lit only by Fire), claims that this was more than all the Christians martyred in the first three centuries of the church. This is a startling figure, even if the total isn’t 100% accurate, the early centuries of the church not noted for being statistics obsessed.

(Unlike us, where I believe the trajectory of foul balls by MLB players is now being tracked: cheap seats, upper reserved, VIP boxes, caromed off the press box, beaned the cotton candy guy.)

It’s not just the number of deaths, of course. It’s the murder perpetrated by Christians upon—well, do we know that they were all died-in-the-wool deniers of the divinity of Christ (what Arius taught)? And, even if they were, was it the will of God to kill them? The parable of the wheat and the weeds comes to mind, uprooting some wheat when you think you’re uprooting weeds (Mt 13:24-30).

In any event, I can think of several persons or ministries that fit the classic definition of heretic today, and I’m not scheming to kill any of them or their followers. And they have the potential through Internet and television to poison the minds and corrupt the faith of millions of people just like that.

I wrote in my last post that seeking and receiving guidance from God is a critical issue today, and especially so during this pandemic. To some, that sounds like hitting a clinker on the trumpet, or maybe the expressly biblical, “Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?” (1 Cor 14:8).

But if “hearing from God” in the abstract is acknowledged as vital, what’s not so clear is how and why something is lost in the transmission. Is there still a “stairway” such as Jacob saw that affirms the two-way communication between God and man? Of course there is.

James wrote “the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure” (Jas 3:17). But what if something happens on the way down the stairway? When “earthly, unspiritual” wisdom is driving “there you find disorder and every evil practice” (vv. 15-16). Like slaughtering followers of Arius.

But let’s look at light and darkness another way. In the first quote at the top of the post, what does “God’s special possession” mean? “Special” is inferred; it’s not a separate Greek word (I checked). And I can already picture the derisive smile forming at the corner of your mouth, since “special” was the Church Lady’s all-purpose word for great, just wonderful, a real blessing. You know, special.

If you think your ministry’s private jet is special because it comes with upholstered seats that have already been treated with Scotchgard, then I’ll pretend I didn’t see you nudge your ball out of the rough and back onto the fairway. I’ll even attest your scorecard back at the clubhouse.

But if you ride your mountain bike through the woods over hard ground laced with exposed roots, hit one you didn’t see and go sailing over the handlebars, and you believe that because you’re “God’s special possession” that the ground will turn to sofa cushions a split second before you hit, then not even some novice TBN producer is going to take that bait.

If the light within you is silly (example 1) or ridiculous (example 2), you might become an anecdote in a blog post (you are here) or a magazine article or a book, but your influence goes about as far as that video of the person staring at his cell phone until he somersaults over the knee wall of the mall fountain.

But like it or not, there are popular ministries whose hyper-positive messages are next door neighbors to example 1. If you don’t believe me, spend a couple of hours surfing televangelist or megachurch sites that have syndicated telecasts, or watching them live. Then, go back to your Bible to wash it all off.

I should say right here, however, that I don’t believe all broadcast ministries are uniformly corrupt, watered-down or “out there.” I think the medium is a way of sharing the ministry of truly gifted persons with an audience that may include those whose experience of church amounts to, as Jesus described it, “they tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Mt 23:4).

In an era of a monetized church, it’s a truism to say ministries give people what they want. But why do they want it?

We also live in an era, at least in the United States, where many believers are “tossed back and forth by the waves and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming” (Eph 4:14).

I can’t discern the motives of all the persons who are reacting to some bad experience that makes them vulnerable to another “wind of teaching,” but they do not deserve to be condemned indiscriminately as shallow, unwilling to make a commitment, fair-weather Christians, etc.

They started attending a church with the reasonable expectation of being taught, built up and encouraged. If that didn’t happen, are you going to condemn them to a life of carrying “heavy loads” with no one lifting a finger to help them?

I’ve only seen a couple of Joel Osteen telecasts (though I have seen and read other excerpts), but it’s not hard to discern why he is so successful. Some of my more zealous brethren have a two-word explanation: “itching ears” (2 Tim 4:3).

I think there’s more to it than that. I think people grew tired of weekly browbeating and harangues that left them feeling so small they couldn’t reach the gas pedal to drive home after church.

I wrote about this in another post, describing it as sending people to the altar over and over but never taking them to the laver, for “washing with water through the word” (Eph 5:26)—instructing them in what is right and how to do it. After all, Jesus commanded his disciples to make disciples, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded” (Mt 28:20). There’s a difference between that and just teaching what he commanded, a gap as wide as the Jordan River.

There is a well-known folk tale of how to cook a frog in a pot of water. You don’t boil the water and drop the frog in directly because it will just as quickly spring back out. You start out with water the frog tolerates (being cold-blooded), and heat it slowly, by small increments increasing the temperature. The frog keeps adapting to the small changes in temperature, unaware of what’s happening–until it’s cooked.

This is how adulterated teaching has found its way into the church. There are bits of scriptural truth sewn on an attractive embroidered background that is first beguiling, then plausible, then reasonable, then gospel truth, and I’m happy as a clam in soft mud (who is feeling sorry for the frog).

Joel Osteen riffs on the goodness of God, and the evidence for God’s goodness is real and abundant. For all the trials I’ve lived through, I cannot fault him for reminding people of something they may have lost sight of over years of feeling guilty every Sunday afternoon and not really getting over it until the following Sunday, when it happens all over again.

But Joel Osteen’s message is a caricature of the goodness of God. He goes too far. At certain stages in my life, particularly when I was ostracized from my church, if Joel Osteen himself had come up beside me, put his hand on my shoulder and started telling me about “my best life now,” I might have been tempted to clobber him with my best right hook.

How are his messages holding up now? Can you say, “Peace, peace” when there, on the horizon, is a Babylonian army headed your way with anything but peace on its collective mind? When a ministry’s message doesn’t work anymore, what happens next?

Some followers will just cash in their chips and leave—for good. And some will be blown by the next “wind of teaching” in a new direction, until that fails and the wind changes direction once again. This is what has to stop.

Note: I do not promote books, DVDs, etc. on this site. I don’t monetize anything. But I’m not opposed to it as practiced by others; I just don’t do it myself. Therefore, the reference to the William Manchester book’s product page is for identification and reference only.

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