And other lies I have been taught
My good friend passed away a few of months ago after battling with stomach cancer for less than a year. He was only twenty nine. During his brief illness, he made peace with God and was confident that God will heal the tumour that had taken illicit refuge in his body. He prayed for hours every day pleading with God to heal his afflictions. Whenever we visited him, he exclaimed joyously that God would heal him and that he has taken a personal decision to serve God till his very last breathe. With the amount of faith and belief he had in God, we were all sure that God was going to heal his body. When after a series of chemotherapy treatment, his health begun to deteriorate, he prayed harder telling himself that God was only testing his faith.
With his newly found gift of salvation he echoed Paul’s words ‘for me to live is Christ and to die is gain’. After battling hard for less than a year, he passed away peacefully on a rainy Sunday morning in May. A few weeks after he passed away, during a revival service in the church, the preacher thundered with conviction that God would heal every disease, every broken heart, every broken family and every financial woe if only we believe that Jesus died for our sins and we obey His commandments. I left the church service wondering what part of the Bible I had missed.
Today, prosperity gospel has infiltrated the pulpits of many churches in our land. It is simply the teaching that God will give us our heart’s desires if we only have faith in Him. We simply have to have enough faith in God and He will remove all obstacles from our lives. Simply surrender your life to God and open the gateway to a prosperous life free from diseases, pain and heartbreaks. We religiously read the books and listen to the prosperity preachers and we’re thoroughly convinced that prosperity in our lives is only a mustard seed of faith away. Echoing their distorted gospel, we have preachers urging us to stand up from our seats during youth revivals and give our life to Christ if we want freedom from our diseases, pain and suffering and open the floodgates of blessings form heaven. Simply believe in Jesus and He will make all things right in our lives. We have tailor made solutions for all our problems. We have become ardent devotees of cafeteria Christianity, cherry picking Bible passages that we like and ignoring those that we don’t, often misquoting Bible verses out of their proper context.
Want to receive physical healing? Jeremiah 30:17 “I will give you back your health and heal your wounds.”
Want to pass your exams? 1 Chronicles 28:20 “…do not fear nor be dismayed, for the LORD God, my God, is with you He will not fail you nor forsake you.”
Want to get a government job? Psalm 37:4 “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.”
Worried about your future? Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
Lost confidence in yourself? Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”
You have tried all these remedies and still are in pain? Worry not for “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28).
Except that the author of that passage, Paul, gave his whole life for the sake of the Gospel until he was imprisoned, beheaded and his body dumped in an unmarked grave.
Many prosperity preachers today are guilty of quoting Bible verses out their proper context. Consider Philippians 4:13 which says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” We have this verse inked on bookmarks, T-shirts, Coffee mugs or even tattooed on our bodies. We think that this verse is telling us that with Christ on our side, we can accomplish anything we set our minds to. Is this really what Paul is trying to convey? Absolutely not. Paul is actually talking about contentment in this verse. If we truly want to understand the meaning of a Biblical passage, we cannot strip away all the surrounding verses, remove it from its original context and still expect to understand it. Before Paul says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” notice what he says in Verse 11 and 12. “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Paul is saying that he has found himself in the good times as well as in the bad times. He has had days when he had plenty and also days when he was hungry. But he has learned to be content no matter what the situation is. So Paul is encouraging us that we can learn to be contented in life no matter what the situation we are in. He has tested all the situations and he has learned the secret of being content in all situations. What is the secret? That is where Verse 13 comes in. The NIV translation makes this point very clear which translates verse 13 as, “I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.” When we read “this” instead of “things” we realize that the passage is talking about specific things- all the things Paul has been talking about- and not “all things” in the sense that we can do anything. Philippians 4:13 is not a promise that Christians will have superpowers or that they will be invincible or immune to life’s challenges. Instead, the promise of Philippians 4:13 is that we will have strength from the Lord to faithfully endure any circumstances that arises in life and be contended with it.
Or consider another passage, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11). This is another popular verse when taken out of context seem to suggest that God’s plan for our lives to make us wealthy, healthy and popular. However, when put into context, this verse is not given to an individual but to the Israelites exiled in Babylon. Again, we cannot isolate verse 11 alone from its surrounding verses and preceding chapters and interpret it on its own. Here is the historical context. The Israelites were in exile, a punishment from God as a result of their disobedience. The false prophet Hananiah had proclaimed that God was going to free Israel from Babylon in two years and that they would be returning to Jerusalem soon. It was a lie. Jeremiah rebuked Hananiah and gave this directive to the Israelites from God: “Seek the peace and the prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Further in verse 10, Jeremiah reminded the Israelites that the exile would continue for another 70 years. This meant that none or few in the current generation of Israelites would ever return home. This was not what they wanted to hear. They wanted to be told that their suffering would end and that they were going home. Instead God’s plan was to stay right where they were and help prosper the nation that enslaved them. In verse 11, Jeremiah reassures the Israelites in exile that God has not forsaken them and that they will be restored.
Many Christians have been taught that God will give us prosperity and success and prevent all pain and suffering if we follow Him dutifully. Time and again we have heard preachers proclaiming from the pulpit to surrender our lives to God if we want success and prosperity in our family. Based on this premise we arrive at so many erroneous conclusions. When a faithful Christian achieves success like passing an examination or getting a job, that is God rewarding his faithfulness. When a person who doesn’t even know how to pray achieves the same measure of success in life, that is surely because of his parent’s good deeds or prayers. What about a family who doesn’t even attend church prospers in life materially? Surely one of the grandparents in the family lineage has done something good and acceptable in the eyes of the Lord. How about when a person is struck with a terminal disease like cancer? Oh, that because of his sins. But he was a faithful follower of Christ. Then it is because of some ‘unforgiven sins’ committed by his great grandparents. We have reduced Christianity to nothing but another new age teaching.
The central theme of the gospel is the salvation of mankind.
The primary goal of our life is to accept the free gift of salvation made possible by what Jesus did for us on the cross. Our jobs and spouses and well-being are secondary. That is why Jesus said, “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Matthew 16:26) God is more concerned about our eternal life than our earthly life and God can use anyone and anything to get our attention. Many a times it is on our sickbed that we realize the immeasurable love of God and surrender our lives to Him. Surrendering our lives to Christ and attaining salvation doesn’t mean that God will now fulfill all our dreams and we will live our life free from pain and suffering. It means that we now live free from the bondage of sin and we now prepare for our eternal life by fulfilling God’s calling and mission for our lives here on earth.
Secondly, as a born again Christian, God is more concerned about our character rather than our comfort. God wants us to develop the kind of character described in the Beatitudes of Jesus, the fruit of the Spirit, Paul’s great chapter on love, and Peter’s list of the characteristics of an effective and productive life. When we walk with Christ every day, God will bring a myriad of circumstances and situations to help us grow. And often it is through hardships and hurdles that we grow up.Sometimes it takes a painful experience to make us change our ways. In other words, we are not as likely to change when we see the light as when we feel the heat! Why? Because we change only when the fear of change is exceeded by our pain.
Paul says in Romans 5:3-4 “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
Thirdly, we are instructed to live for God’s glory alone. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God”. This includes the good times as well as the bad times. In whatever circumstances, we may be in, we live for the glory of God alone. We are called to glorify Him through our wealth as well as our poverty, through our health as well as our pain, through our success as well as our sorrows. If God wants me to glorify Him through my career, so be it. If God wants me to glorify Him through my cancer, so be it.
Nowhere in the Bible is there a promise that we will all lead a healthy wealthy prosperous life if we surrender our lives to Christ. Consider the fate of the twelve apostles. They followed Christ till their last breath preaching the gospel to different parts of the globe and they all faced a great deal of persecution and suffering. Apart from John, all of them faced unnatural deaths. Peter was crucified upside down by the Emperor Nero, Andrew was crucified in Greece, Philip was arrested by a Roman Consul and cruelly put to death, Matthew was arrested in Ethiopia and beheaded, Bartholomew was martyred in Armenia, Thomas was most probably killed in South India, James was stoned and clubbed to death in Syria, Simon was killed in Persia, Matthais, the apostle chosen to replace Judas was burned to death in Syria, Jude was crucified in Persia, James the less was beaten to death. Or consider the life of the Apostle Paul. After the dramatic Damascus experience, he gave his whole life for the sake of the Gospel. And he faced persecution and pain everywhere he went. If he wasn’t preaching, he was in jail because of his preaching. Five times the Jews gave him the punishment of thirty-nine lashes with a whip. Three times he was beaten with rods. One time he was almost stoned to death. Three times he was shipwrecked and the list goes on endlessly. Paul prayed fervently for a certain ‘thorn in the flesh’ that dominated his thoughts asking God to remove it from his life. God’s answer was as clear as Paul’s request, “My Grace is sufficient for you.” The message is very clear. God’s grace to save a wretched sinner like you and me is worth more than any worldly treasure or riches.
So, will God heal my sickness if I have enough faith? Will God bless my family if I follow Him? Will I have a successful career if I surrender my life to Christ? The point here is that these are the wrong questions for a Christian to ask. God may or may not heal you. God may bless you with worldly riches or He may not. God’s will and His glory take precedence in everything. Contrary to popular culture, our goal here on earth is to receive the free gift of salvation that God has given us through Christ, take up the cross and respond to God’s call every day through humble obedience.
I have been often angry at God for not healing my friend’s illness and taking him away from us. But then I look out of my window every morning and wonder – Maybe God in His infinite wisdom and love gave him an opportunity to respond to what Jesus did for him on the cross through the illness and he accepted the call. If not for the temporary painful experience, maybe he would have ended up gaining the world and losing his soul. I take solace in the fact that God has also given me an opportunity to respond to His call. God always does for everyone. What’s your response?
Sentilong Ozukum is the author of ‘Campus Blues’ and ‘Sincerely Yours.’