Tuesday, March 22, 2016

God Is not a Gumball Machine...

I wanted to share some things that I learned from Kate Bowler's book, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. She studied the Prosperity movement for 8 years and wrote her book for her doctoral dissertation. The book is good but because it is her dissertation, it's a bit dry in places and somewhat repetitive as she covers all bases with various groups in each chapter. But it's still surprisingly readable - I really enjoyed it.

The study, as she put it, was not just academic for her because she was chronically ill during the last years of her research. Then, after her book was published and her health had improved, she was suddenly diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. She is about 34; she and her husband have a toddler.

I learned about her through her blog entry called, "Death, the Prosperity Gospel, and Me." And I really respected her for her honesty in that article. It was short but had a huge impact on me.

One of the things that really stood out to me from her book was about how the Prosperity movement started. It apparently began as sort of a mish-mash of Eastern mysticism, positive thinking, and cherry-picked Scriptures, among other things.

What really caught my attention is that during its formative years, leaders began to delve into the names of God, delineating Hebrew names such as "Jehovah-Jireh", "Jehovah-Rapha", etc. There's nothing wrong with looking at the names of God in either Hebrew, Greek, English, or whatever. It's good to know and think about the attributes of God.

But they specifically wanted to know these names so that they would know what "buttons" (i.e., names) to push in order to get what they wanted. And that's why they began to search out the hyphenated Jehovah names.

Basically they taught that if you called on God as JEhovah-Rapha, then he had to heal you. IF you called on God as Jehovah-JIreh, then He had to fork over money or some type of material blessing. When put that way it sounds kind of crass. So I need to say that's not the terminology Kate used; it's mine....

The hard core prosperity preachers saw salvation as a legal contract that included forgiveness of sin, instantaneous sanctification, restored dominion over life and death (back to Adam and Eve before the Fall), physical healing, and material blessing.

They saw this contract as legally binding on God. If you were saved, then He HAD to heal you; He HAD to give you your requisite number of years on earth; He HAD to bless your socks off with material wealth; and He HAD to give you deliverance from any trials life might try to throw your way.

The power of positive thinking strand in all this eventually morphed into: if you say something negative such as "my cancer is not responding to treatment" or "I'm having a lot of pain" - then you lost your contractual right to healing. By your spoken words you are healed and vice versa.

She emphasized that there are a lot of variants on the prosperity Gospel movement - not everyone believes the same things. In looking for the good in the movement, she said that they do get people to work hard and they excel at having faith. The unpleasant secret within the movement is that people often feel isolated and judged when they are sick or in trouble. Essentially, when they experience their greatest need, the church is uncomfortable with them.

She said that the prosperity Gospel measures their faith and spirituality by external things which keeps the believers on a treadmill of "try harder." And that basically they are working from their desires backwards to God whereas, as a Christian, she feels we should start with God's desires and work backward to ourselves.

In her blog she said that she knew her friends and acquaintances in the prosperity Gospel would say that she lacked faith and that was why she was suddenly very ill. Some "hard" prosperity Gospel people would attribute her illness to some sin she had knowingly or unknowingly committed. Most would reason that it could never be God's will for a toddler to grow up without his mother - that the death of a mother of a young child would violate Romans 8:28 - therefore it was clearly not God's will for her to die young.

But since she was not God, she couldn't honestly say that it was best for her toddler to grow up with a mother. Because, unlike God, she could not see the end from the beginning.

I apologize for this being so long. Right after I read Kate's book, my study group started a book by an evangelical Bible teacher on the names of God. (Now my church is getting ready to start a similar study by a different evangelical Bible teacher.)

KNowing that the "names" studies - which have a lot of good in them- originated with not-so-good-scholars, some of whom lacked integrity - and was for the primary purpose of knowing how we could turn God into a gumball machine - that knowledge has kind of put a "brake" on my thinking as I've gone through this study.

It seems to me that studying the names of God - in any language - is like standing on a grassy plain that has a sudden drop off. As long as my motive is to know God's attributes so that I can worship Him better, it's all good. Even taking comfort as I call on God by different names and titles, reminding myself of what He can do, that is good too. Last night I fell asleep running the attributes of God through my mind and this morning I woke up with His names and titles still on my mind. It was a wonderful way to start the day.

But emphasizing His names (and/or how they are pronounced) so that I can demand blessings, favor, and rewards now and in the Millennium- to me that is when you have stepped off the grassy plain and will eventually find yourself struggling to get back on solid footing.

I think a lot about the ten Boom family. Corrie and Betsie were both ill in Ravensbruck. They both were severely underweight. Betsie had a heart condition; Corrie had edema. They were both healed.

Corrie spent some time in the camp infirmary before she was released - they wouldn't let her go until her swelling went down (because it made the camps look bad to release obviously ill people). Even though the infirmary was far from wonderful, she did get well enough to be released.

Betsie died in the camp. Her healing came in Heaven. Of the two women, Betsie had far more faith than Corrie did.

Finally, recently I heard an interview with Miss Hellen Roseveare, a missionary doctor to the Congo in the 1960's. For five months she and others were held prisoners by some very brutal rebel soldiers. She was severely beaten (her back teeth were kicked in) and she was raped twice during those months. AFter she was rescued and returned to the U.K.,sometimes people would come up to her and say, "Why did God rescue some of you but let this poor English boy die over there? Why wasn't He good to these others too? Why did He let them die???"

She said that she and others who had been rescued would look at people like that and think something along the lines of: are you serious?? The ones who were shot were the fortunate ones!! We are still living in pain!!

In fact, right before the first rape, a soldier put a gun to her forehead and told her to proclaim their patron saint as the savior of the world. She said she didn't even have to think about it; she knew that was not right and that Jesus was the only Savior the world has. So she just blurted out that she could not say that because it wasn't true and that man could only be saved by Jesus.

At that point, being a doctor, she hoped that the soldier would go ahead and shoot her in the head because it would be clean and quick and she knew that if he didn't, what would follow would be savage, humiliating, and hard to recover from. And it was.

God is not a gumball machine. We don't know the earthly end from the beginning in our individual stories and the stories of those around us. His names are wonderful ways of worshiping Him, reminding ourselves of His attributes. But they aren't buttons we can push on demand. Or say correctly with the certainty that we'll be rewarded for how we say it.