MISPLACED FAITH THAT GENERATES FALSE HOPE
Updated: Feb 10, 2020
You know the 1970 Lynn Anderson song, right?
“I beg your pardon
I never promised you a rose garden
Along with the sunshine
There's gotta be a little rain some time”
(Full lyrics here)
Well, I think Jesus would be singing that right now to a few Christian preachers after some rather disturbing sermons delivered over the past two weekends reacting to the 2019-nCoV outbreak.
One recent one, in particular, that has been making the social media rounds via a YouTube video is entitled “Why no virus can come near you” by a very well-known and popular preacher with a wide international audience.
In my last column, The Good Samaritan Response To The Coronavirus, I mentioned that my faith isn’t that strong that I would be able to claim confidently that “I’m covered by the blood of the lamb and I do not need worldly protection.” I’m sure that confession would make me seem faithless in the eyes of many of my fellow Christians, but that’s just me being aware of my weakness. Jesus knows my foibles but I am quite certain He loves me anyway.
I am, therefore, incredibly impressed with believers who can claim absolute protection afforded by their iron-clad faith because I envy their security, assurance, and resoluteness.
I have big problems when I hear preachers encouraging misplaced faith and generating false hope among their congregations by promising them nothing untoward will befall them in the physical realm because of spiritual protection from heavenly realms.
These sorts of messages tend to be an emotional panacea for their followers, helping them to feel good by giving them a short-term spiritual “shot in the arm” and providing temporary relief from worries and anxieties.
And these preachers have a verse for everything. They cherry-pick a verse here and cherry-pick a verse there, cobbling them together to conveniently support their feel-good message. Why? Cynical ol’ me believes that this brings in the congregants, which fills the offering bags, and sells books and other collaterals. But I digress.
I listened to this particular “Why no virus can come near you” excerpt with particular dismay because, just yesterday, it was reported that Singapore’s Coronavirus case #41 is a 71-year-old grandfather who had attended Paya Lebar Methodist Church before his illness got detected and he was hospitalised.
That rocked quite a few in the Methodist Church and we are all obviously saddened and worried for this poor man. Imagine also the unease of his fellow local church members who would understandably be worried about community transmission within their midst.
Also think about The Life Church and Missions Singapore which has had not one but five cases linked to its congregation - a married couple from Wuhan as well as three Singaporeans - and is now being considered a possible cluster.
How do you think the affected people - or their family, friends and church members for that matter - would feel hearing this particular preacher pluck out Psalm 91:5-11:
“You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will only observe with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked. If you say, “The LORD is my refuge,” and you make the Most High your dwelling, no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.”
He then followed this up with another cherry-picked verse, this time from Hebrews 12:22-23:
“But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect.”
Wow. So this 71-year-old Methodist grandpa and the other five cluster cases are undergoing “the punishment of the wicked” and have not got the protection of the “thousands upon thousands of angels”? They had all gone to the “church of the firstborn” (which this preacher interprets as the church of Jesus) where these innumerable angels assemble, and they still got struck by the pestilence and plague anyway?
What sort of message do you think these afflicted believers and their suffering family and friends are going to take away if they heeded a preacher like that?
And what about the thousands worldwide who have contracted the Coronavirus so far? If I were one of them or their family members, I would think the legions of angels have forsaken me because I’m not worthy of heavenly protection. Especially when told explicitly that the virus is directly from the Devil himself.
Don’t just take it from me. Upon watching the video, one of the elders of the Methodist Church said: “It is irresponsible and cruel to say that angels will cover God's people and protect them from the virus.”
I, for one, totally agree.
This is not limited to the Coronavirus outbreak either. Preachers of this ilk pooh-pooh suffering all the time. If you’re suffering from ill health, financial struggles or career failure, your faith is not strong enough. You are not praying with enough confidence and claiming God’s promise of full potential for your life. (Some even say you’re not sacrificing or tithing enough but I’m not going to go there in this column.)
How then do the many believers suffering on different fronts in their lives not end up thinking that God has forsaken them because they are not good or faithful enough?
I personally know of a few of my own acquaintances who lost their religion completely because they were beset by struggles, suffering or tragedy despite trying their best to follow the claim-it-and-you-shall-prosper theology of this school of teaching.
God is not a vending machine - as an old friend shared with me during the recently-ended Chinese New Year festivities. You don’t covet something, put enough of an offering in, push a button and automatically get the worldly desires you want.
That’s why this Chinese New Year, instead of going around wishing everybody health, wealth, prosperity and success, my husband and I decided instead to wish everyone peace of mind - or God’s peace.
God’s peace to accept the vicissitudes of life: the ups and downs, the good and bad, the fortunate and unfortunate, the celebrations and the disappointments.
The Christian writer C.S. Lewis said: “Life with God is not immunity from difficulties, but peace within difficulties.” Now, this message of hope is one I can get behind. Something that generates well-founded faith. An acceptance that Life isn’t perfect and God isn’t going to give you what you want.
Trust me, there’s a 99.9 per cent certainty that you will suffer in your lifetime and, rather than rely on false hope that no misfortune will befall you if you pray hard enough, asking that you will endure the hardship with God’s peace will grant you far greater resilience. You’ll be more likely to stay afloat with a buoyant faith rather than drown in despair.
One of the verses in the Lynn Anderson song goes:
“I could sing you a tune
And promise you the moon; But if that's what it takes to hold you I'd just as soon let you go”
Excuse my application of a secular song to matters of faith but I believe that is something Jesus may well sing to us. He does not promise us an easy life; He never has. He asked the sons of Zebedee in Matthew 20:22:
“You don't know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”
This, I believe, is the same cup He talks about six chapters later in the Garden of Gethsemane in Matthew 26:39:
“My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
He’s talking about the cup of suffering - whether or not, for us, it is a result of persecution as it was for Him. If we are to follow Him, we will suffer. It’s not going to be a perfect life that these preachers seem to think God intends for all of us to enjoy. Like the Lynn Anderson song says: if we only stay with Jesus believing that He will give us the moon, I believe He would just as soon let us go.
So, instead of cherry-picking verses from all over the Bible to slot into a neat message of prosperity and protection (against the Coronavirus in this case), let’s listen to Jesus’ own words. Like Him, we need to acknowledge that we will endure human suffering, and pray that if it is God’s will that we suffer, then may His will be done.
Let us not rock our fellow believers’ faith by insinuating that adversity has befallen them because of their lack of faith, but encourage them to seek God’s peace so they can face whatever trials lie ahead with strength and serenity.
Don’t for a minute think no virus can come near you and please behave sensibly and sensitively in these uncertain times. Beware of preachers who encourage misplaced faith that generates false hope.
Jesus never promised us a rose garden.
Joanne Lee Wong is a writer, wife and corgi mum. She’s not a bible scholar, teacher nor church leader - just a former journalist and member of a Methodist congregation who struggles reconciling her faith with everyday experiences. All views expressed are her own.