My Top Five Reads of 2015

 

Twenty-five books a year – roughly two a month – isn’t a lot of reading compared to some. I am part of a family of speed readers. My father devoured books. My brother turns the pages fast enough to burn his fingers. My wife reads faster than I can talk and my children appear to be following suit. I love to read, but it takes me a while to carve through the text. I usually put out a top ten list of my reading journey for the year, but in 2015 writing took as much of my attention (if not more) than reading. With two book projects, two blogs, weekly sermons, and reviewing some of my children’s writing I only managed to finish reading through seventeen books in 2015. I felt that the data set wasn’t large enough to warrant a top ten list and opted for a top five instead. Though I could easily list ten very good books, you deserve a true cream of the crop listing. So, without further ado, following are my top five reads of 2015 listed in the order I read them.

  1. hand in Hand: The Beauty of God’s Sovereignty and Meaningful Human Choice by Randy Alcorn. If you’ve never read any of Alcorn’s work, do yourself a favor and grab one – any one. Alcorn is a deep thinker who delves into the implications of the plain text of Scripture with a boldness I’ve seldom read elsewhere.[1] This book is his contribution to the Calvinism (God’s will saves and man has no choice in the matter) vs. Arminianism (God’s will saves and man has a choice in the matter) debate. Regardless of which theological camp you find yourself currently in, this book will challenge your presuppositions and give you some appreciation for the other side. Alcorn spent his first ten years in the faith as an Armenian and then slowly moved over to four-point Calvinism (which, to be fair, some would say is no Calvinism at all!). I found that much of my angst toward Calvinism was really a reaction to what could be more aptly termed hyper-Calvinism (which to me is nothing more than pagan fatalism wrapped in Christian terminology). After reading this book, I am still closer to Arminius than I am comfortable with Calvin. But the book helped me temper some of my hyper-Arminian assertions (which at times could be nothing more than secular humanism wrapped in Christian terminology). Alcorn’s book is a fine apologetic for two contrary views that remain orthodox. Not only is the text engaging and provocative, the book also includes great tables and informative diagrams. What’s not to like?
  1. The American House of Saud by Steven Emerson. Published in 1985, I consider this book a classic and a must read for anyone who really wants to understand our government’s response to 9/11, how we’ve prosecuted the War on Terror, and the real power of the petrodollar. My greatest regret in reading this book was that I hadn’t read it sooner – thirty years sooner! The influence of Saudi money in the US reaches beyond government to the business decisions that impact many middle class Americans living blissfully in fly-over country. If you’ve ever wondered why America went to war with Afghanistan and Iraq after 19 Saudi Arabian nationals killed nearly 3,000 US civilians, this book is for you.
  1. The Colder War: How the Global Energy Trade Slipped from America’s Grasp by Marin Katusa. I ran into this book while researching the petrodollar undergirding of our financial system. What I found was a treasure: a venture capitalist and energy expert whose telling of the stranger-than-fiction tale of the rise of Vladimir Putin puts Tom Clancy to shame. Great books have great beginnings and I wish I had come up with this one: “I’m going to tell you a story you’ll wish weren’t true.” And he delivers. Katusa is a specialist in his field – he’s made millions at it – but he makes the subject matter accessible to the layman. Making the complex concise and comprehendible is a great talent; which Katusa displays in spades. He doesn’t allow the text to get bogged down in jargon and the statistics are given in great infographics. Though he has skin in the game in the sense that he advises educated speculation in the energy market as a hedge against the impending implosion of the petrodollar[2], he doesn’t say “invest with me and I’ll make you rich” as other authors on this subject do. Katusa’s sense of humor is salted throughout the text in numerous insightful and funny quips. Here is his observation on the succession of the Saudi throne: “Whenever a throne room is crowded with would-be successors, it’s easy for a brawl to break out, which favors the most ruthless over the best qualified. The chance that Prince Right will emerge the winner is remote.”[3]
  1. A Time to Betray by Reza Kahlili. When I was a young teenager, I had a mentor who was a missionary living in Iran when the Islamic Revolution took place. She was a courageous woman and her eye-witness accounts of how demonstrations and riots broke out did much to help me see through what I was watching on the evening news. Some years after the American hostages were released from Iran, I read Ken Follett’s On Wings of Eagles, the story of the two EDS employees that Ross Perot made sure got home. Kahlili’s book rivals Follett’s on multiple fronts. While both are non-fiction, Kahlili lived his. As a member of the Revolutionary Guard from the early days of the revolution, he was a spy for the United States. In America, we incarcerate spies. In Iran, they arrest them and their families, friends, and loved ones. The captured endure untold torture while their wives and daughters are raped before them and their loved ones are executed. Only after extracting its ten pounds of flesh does the regime decide to execute the traitor. Kahlili knew this before he became an agent for the US in the hopes of saving the Iran that once was. True spycraft is the ultimate confidence game. Kahlili walked that tight rope for years while providing vital intelligence to our government. As I read it, I wondered how many hundreds – if not thousands – of foreign agents our government has been able to recruit because the assets really believed in the American ideals of truth, liberty, and justice for all. Kahlili’s belief and honesty are palpable throughout the text. The manner of his handling by the US in light of American foreign policy would certainly justify a fair level of cynicism on his part. But his narrative never falls into it. His hope for his people and his pain in their suffering shines above it all. Any who agree with the Iran Nuclear Deal should be made to read this book.
  1. Agnes Sanford and Her Companions by William L. De Arteaga. This is a complimentary and updating work to Quenching the Spirit by the same author and contains great perspectives on the Charismatic Renewal from the Catholic and Anglican perspectives. They laid the groundwork in many ways for the growth of modern Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement. His explanation of experimentation and his understanding of the graces in sacraments and the energies of God are enlightening and refreshing. I’ve been a fan of De Arteaga’s since reading Quenching the Spirit over a decade ago. Through a series of divine appointments, we wound up being Facebook buddies and I recently attended a healing workshop he held in an Anglican church in North Carolina. De Arteaga is the real deal. He doesn’t just study, write, and teach. He walks the walk and preaches a full Gospel, ministering not only the revelation of the Scriptures but the grace of healing through the power of the Holy Spirit. You owe it to yourself to read this book.

All these titles can be found on Amazon and would make a worthy addition to any library. I certainly enjoyed them and found them enlightening. I trust you will too.

[1] In his book Heaven, he makes 21 brief jaw-dropping observations on the nature of existence in the intermediate Heaven from just three verses (Rev 6:9-11).
[2] The short story: The Saudi’s only sell oil in US dollars. This arrangement causes a demand on US currency that keeps it valued beyond its real worth. For this hedge, we provide the Saudi’s with just about anything they ask for. Russian energy development threatens to upset this paradigm. Should the Saudi’s abandon the dollar, the US economy would suffer greatly.
[3] Marin Katusa, The Colder War: How the Global Energy Trade Slipped from America’s Grasp, (Hoboken: Wiley, Stowe: Casey Research, LLC 2015), 189. Since the publishing of the book, King Abdullah died and was succeeded by his half-brother, Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. One of his first reforms was to reduce cabinet level positions, consolidating power in fewer hands. Portents of things to come?

West African Journey

“Immunizations: Yellow Fever is mandatory.” For someone none too keen on the entire immunization industry, this notice alone in the information pack should have given me pause regarding my travel plans. Yellow fever is fairly tame when compared to the hemorrhagic fever known as Ebola, but this was long before the current outbreak. Regardless, I wouldn’t be allowed in country without the yellow fever certificate in my passport, so to the clinic I went. Had I know the troubles that Lariam[1] would give me, the yellow fever vaccine would have been the least of my worries.

I’ve flown over oceans, seen icebergs swimming in their natural environment, and gazed over the orderly squares that tamed the amber waves of grain. But nothing gives one that out-of-Kansas feeling quite like the expanse of the Saharan sands. The plane was pointed south and soon we would be in Mali. Our stop there was short and disconcerting. Once most of the passengers deplaned, the flight attendant took her post in the safety demonstration area. Only this time, there was no fake seat belt or unattached air mask. She held up two aerosol cans and shook them vigorously. With the nonchalance of experience, she cracked both foggers open and walked the length of the plane and back. It seems that the dangers posed by the mosquito far outweighed any comfort considerations for the remaining passengers. Definitely not Kansas.

Our next stop was in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso where we would meet up with the missionaries we had come to work with for the next two weeks. Our ultimate destination was the town of Wa in northwestern Ghana. But we would need our rest for that journey, a grueling 220 mile ride on the dirt highways of the interior that would take nearly eight hours. We awoke that morning refreshed and expectant, eager to commence our church planting mission in the upper west territory of Ghana. But first, our missionary guides had to renew their visas.

We stood outside the consulate taking in the sights, smells, and sounds while our hosts sorted out their visas inside. Six of us had come on this short-term mission trip: three women, two men, and one teenage boy. All of us were white except for Jackie, who was an African-American in Africa for the first time like most of us. One of our teammates was a veteran. This was her third or fourth foray into West Africa. And she was sure that French was the lingua franca necessary to successfully interact with natives in this part of the world.

She and I were involved in a heated debate over the usefulness of French over Spanish as we watched the sea of humanity ride by on a kaleidoscope of mopeds. She was right in her assumptions regarding the usefulness of French in West Africa. But I was stubborn and far from a Francophile. Spanish, I informed her, had gotten me by in most places that I had traveled. I felt no need to learn French. Just then, a moped peeled away from the flow of the avenue and steered straight for us. The gentleman dismounted, strode up to me, and asked “Se habla español?” I turned to my teammate and smiled.

We talked for nearly forty-five minutes. He was a Burkina native who had lived and studied in Mexico City for ten years. He hadn’t had any opportunities to practice his Spanish since returning home. The presence of white faces hanging out on the avenue gave him hope that perhaps today was his day. What are the odds? We talked about life in Mexico, the US, and Africa. And we talked about Jesus; how he came to save all and without whom all were doomed. We shook hands and he rode off. The mission had begun in earnest.

The following days were perhaps some of the most intense I’ve ever experienced in life or ministry. I’m not unaccustomed to culture shock, but I was unprepared for its sub-Saharan impact. I watched in amazement as women carried anything from water jugs to large bundles of branches on their heads; just one more on their long list of daily chores required for survival. A mother bathed her young boy in a wash tub outside set in the dirt lot in front of their shack. Fifty feet away, others defecated into the ditch that ran through this section of town. What litter wasn’t stuck in the mud was fair game for toilet paper. Singular encounters turned to thronging audiences without much notice. All music was beautiful and loud.

Regardless of what we told ourselves about our commitment or sacrifice to be there, the fact remained that as Westerners, we were pampered and soft. The Ghanaian workers that had come up from Accra in the south or had signed on from local congregations spent far more time evangelizing on the streets and trails than we did. While we rested in the comfort of the missionaries’ house, they rested on the cinderblock and wood plank pews set up on the dirt floor of the makeshift church. At night, under the single light of a naked bulb, the invited came to sing praises to Jesus, hear the Gospel, and receive salvation.

It was toward the end of our journey when Jackie shared her revelation with us. I remember her fiddling with her Nefertiti gold necklace as she worked to put words to her thoughts. She was old enough to remember the racial tensions of the late 1960s and early 1970s in America and black enough to have experienced any of the numerous slights suffered by her people that white folks are oblivious to. The insult of slavery still brought tears to her eyes. And yet, she confessed, if slavery is what her ancestors had to suffer for her to be born an American; she was grateful.

To deny that ethnic injustice persists in the US is to betray ignorance of the facts. To smash windows in Berkley, California because a cigar robber in Missouri got himself killed while assaulting a police officer is to abandon reason. As a society, we need to continue advancing toward the experiential reality that all men were created equal. We have made great strides in that direction. Let us pray that we may continue to do so and not slide into the darker side of West Africa’s journey.

[1] I took this trip in August of 2001. In 2003, this anti-malarial med was implicated in the psychotic episodes of some returning servicemen.

Fish Tales for the Faithless: Religious Demands and Righteous Responses

They had been followers of a fiery preacher from the wilderness with a proclivity for water. It was a time of revival. The man in the camel hair coat called them forward to receive the ritual bath of repentance in the river. And they came: brothers, partners, fishermen. Theirs was a simple and devout life filled with family, work, and the rhythms of Jewish worship. And then he came.

Andrew heard it first. He had seen the Nazarene baptized along with many others the day before. His teacher had hesitated when the man had asked for baptism, but finally complied. The following day, as the man walked by, Andrew heard John say, “Look, the Lamb of God!” The Lamb of God? The Baptizer had been preaching that the kingdom of heaven was at hand, but did he mean now? Andrew and another of John’s disciples followed the man. Sensing he was being pursued, the Nazarene turned and asked what they wanted. “Rabbi, we want to see where you live.” “Come and see,” he said and they spent the day with him.

One day with Jesus was all it took for Andrew to be convinced that he was the Messiah. He found his brother Simon and brought him to the rabbi. Jesus looked up and said “Simon, son of John?” Simon glanced at Andrew. Andrew smiled his I-told-you-so smile. “We’re going to call you Peter,” Jesus said. It should have been clear to Simon from this point on who had the initiative in their relationship, but he would have to be reminded over time.

Jesus was all the buzz among John’s disciples. He had been saying for a while that he was simply laying the ground for someone else. To many of his disciples, who that someone else was had become clear. And following Jesus had its perks. John didn’t take them to weddings. Jesus did. John didn’t drink wine. Jesus didn’t let it run out. The day he turned water to wine was the day his disciples became believers.[1]

Jesus walks in the wilderness for forty days. He preaches in his home town and slips through their hands as they try to throw him off a cliff. He moves to Capernaum and shakes up the synagogue with authoritative teaching and effective exorcism. He heads to Simon Peter’s house and heals his mother-in-law of a fever. He heals all the sick in town that come to Simon’s house. Then he leaves for a while.[2]

After a teaching tour of the Galilee, he came back to the Capernaum shoreline where people pressed upon him to share the word of God. Deciding it was better to float in a boat than be pushed into the water; Jesus got into Simon’s craft and asked him to thrust out from shore. Simon wasn’t overly excited about the idea. He, Andrew, and the Zebedee boys had been out all night fishing and had nothing to show for their labor but dirty nets. They were busy cleaning them when all the commotion started and he was past ready to be home. But it was Jesus asking, so he got in the boat and rowed out a bit.[3]

When the Master finished teaching, he looked over at Simon and said, “Take us out to the deep part of the lake and put your nets out for a haul of fish.” Simon eyed him. He looked to the shore at his brother rolling up their nets, James and John stowing theirs. “We’ve fished all night, Rabbi, and caught nothing,” he sighed, “But for you, I’ll put out a net.” Andrew wasn’t much happier than Simon when he got into the boat.

Far enough from shore to appear compliant, the brothers let the net out and began their drag. It was well past late morning. The sun was bright. The quicker they got this done, the sooner they would be home. They pulled in concert, hand over hand, expecting a speedy draw through the water as they had done a hundred times the night before. Only this time, the net fought back – hard. Simon’s expert hands felt the tremor of the net cords starting to give way. He bellowed toward shore and Zebedee’s rushed to the rescue. As the net came up out of the water, the fish poured into the hulls. It wasn’t until Simon realized that they were sinking under the weight of their catch that he came to himself. He fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Leave me, Lord. I’m a sinful man!”

His reaction is understandable, particularly in light of all that had transpired before. The man who had turned water to wine asked Simon to put his nets out for a catch of fish. Simon went out with one boat and one net and nearly lost it all. His actions showed his distrust and unbelief. Confronted with a miracle that more than made up for his morning’s labor and night’s loss in spite of his incredulity, Simon is appalled and ashamed and tells Jesus that he is not worthy of Him.

Have you ever been there? Has the Lord’s goodness ever appeared in your life just at the moment when you were tired and toiling and just going through the motions, not really expecting his grace and sure you were doing him a favor? I know it has happened to me. And my reaction was much like Peter’s: I am not worthy, best you leave now. After all, that’s what religion demands. Righteousness responds much differently.

“Don’t be afraid,” Jesus said. “From now on, you will be a fisher of men.”[4] In the face of faithlessness, Jesus responds with a promise of greater responsibilities. To a man who says, “Get away from me, I’m not worthy” Jesus says, “Come along and work with me.” It is not what most of us expect. But it is how Jesus acts.

Peter walks with Jesus for three and a half years. He sees multitudes baptized, taught, and feed. He watches his Master heal the sick, cleanse lepers, raise the dead, and cast out devils. Then he and his companions do the same.[5] He goes to a mountain top and sees Jesus transformed to the brilliance of lightning and hears God speak from the glory cloud. He walks on the water to meet Jesus in the storm and is saved by the same. He stares dumbfounded as Jesus heals the ear of the high priest’s servant that he cut off. He witnesses Jesus being beaten while he denies ever knowing him. He watches him die under a dark sky, his blood pouring out until none is left. He runs to find an empty tomb and is confronted by Jesus while locked in a room. He sees him repeatedly while in the company of others, truly alive and all he ever said he was. And then Simon said, “I’m going fishing.”[6]

Simon’s declaration as recorded in John 21:3 is more than a recreational invitation to his friends. It is a declaration of going back to his old profession. What else was he supposed to do? He had denied the Lord in the face of accusation. He doubted Mary Magdalene when she told them that she had seen Jesus alive. And Jesus appeared to be in no rush to reestablish the kingdom of Israel. It was time to fish. At least he was good at that.

They fished all night and caught nothing. As the sun rose, a man called out to them from the shore, “Hey kids, do you have any fish?”[7] “No,” they said, perturbed they couldn’t sell to their first customer. “Throw the net out on the right side of the ship; that’s where the fish are,” the man called out. As they hauled in the catch, John realized who they were dealing with. “It’s the Lord!” he said to Peter, who promptly threw on his coat and dove for shore.

For men who had decided to abandon the ministry of catching men for the simpler enterprise of netting schools, Jesus had made breakfast. “Come and eat,” he says and serves them. It’s not what we expect when we abandon him. Somehow, we think he is going to berate us, cut us off from supply, sit back and wait for our devotion. But that is not how Jesus is. He filled their boat, he filled their stomachs, he filled their hearts.

“Simon, son of John, do you love me?” How could we not?

 

[1] John 2:11. This narrative is a composite of the Gospel accounts. When the record of John is laid alongside the details given in Matthew, Mark, and Luke it becomes apparent that the wedding feast of Cana occurred prior to Jesus’ journey into the wilderness. I believe Matthew 4:11 happens after John 2:11. Mark’s “immediately” (Greek, euthus) in Mark 1:12 is a rhetorical signature of his writing. Of 56 uses of the Greek euthus in the New Testament, Mark uses it 42 times.

[2] See Luke 4

[3] The narrative is now squarely in Luke 5.

[4] This is the sense of the Greek and the phrasing of the Spanish. There is an exquisite near pun in the Reina Valera version (which I tend to think of as the Spanish equivalent to the King James) of Luke 5. Simon says he is a sinful man, hombre pecador in Spanish. Jesus says he’ll be a fisher of men, pescador de hombres.

[5] Matthew  10:1-8

[6] The narrative is now squarely in John 21.

[7] John 21:3 from the NIV – Nik’s Improvised Version.

Love and Tolerance: A Resurrection Post

I grew up in Europe of the late 1930s. Fascism was in power, Communists were evil, Laurel and Hardy were funny, Errol Flynn was an action star, the Generalísimo was in charge, school uniforms were the order of the day, and Jesus was safely affixed to his cross where he could do others no serious harm.

Early 1970s Spain was a time capsule, capped by the Pyrenees and held captive under the tricorn hat of the Guardia Civil. The Luftwaffe weren’t bombing the north country, but the Basques were still violently upset over the last time they had. Terrorist tension ratcheted up to the sound of ETA bombs while Belfast refugees lived in unsettled ease, hiding from their troubles in the heartland of the Inquisition. It was in this country — Franco’s Spain, the land of my first immigration — that culture shock and anachronism became the warp and woof of my life. It was here that I would learn to be a militant Protestant just shy of being Irish.

I still recall the warm waters of my uncle’s baptistery. I was no more than five when I first waded into my official declaration of Christian discipleship. And though as a Southern Baptist minister fighting the culture wars of the sixties and seventies in central California, he was both compassionate and combative; his was a gentler faith[1] than the Protestant stand I learned in the land of revered icons and idols. Saints, signs, and superstitions assaulted us from every corner and crosswalk. I remember the day my brother Timothy joined the queue of children charmed by the nun. As he grew closer to her breast, he was appalled to see that they had lined up to kiss her crucifix. He ran away in shock as she declared him anathema for breaking rank. But simple abstention wasn’t enough.

One day in third grade, we were all given an icon of Mary on cardstock. My Protestant friend, Juan David, and I rolled our eyes as our classmates happily kissed her face in adoration. Recess was called and as was custom, we made our way to the restroom before entering the playground. As Juan David and I stood facing the wall of the group urinal, we came to the same decision in silence. We both flicked our cards into the water trough while still in full stream, showing no mercy to Mary or the boys who fruitlessly tried to save her from our indignation. The next forty-five minutes marked the longest recess I ever experienced in school as he and I alternately ran and fought until the whistle blew and called all boys back into the classroom, Protestant (just he and me) and Catholic (everybody else) alike.

When we moved back to the USA, I was full of fight and argument against a Catholicism few here practiced. Despite the paucity of Catholics in the buckle of the Bible Belt that I now called home, I dove into serious study of the pagan origins of Christian traditions during my early teens which fanned the flames of my anti-papal fire to a degree that it threatened to singe even my Protestant brethren. Babies in the baptistery were thrown out with the water as I surged forward in search a purer truth and practice. Somewhere along that line, I began to forget about the Person and the people he had come to save. I fell in love with dogma and grew cold to Deity.

Christians are often accused of intolerance. We are, perhaps, most intolerant of each other. The history of Protestant persecution and retaliation is well documented. You’ve read some of its remnants in the scraps of my life detailed above. Any Christian that doesn’t meet my level of devotion is nominal. Any fanatic whose faith isn’t as rational as mine is a radical. But that is not the sort of intolerance that the current culture rails on us about. They are mostly incensed at our framework of salvation and assertions of morality.

Hardly any would argue that murder is moral, but many will debate whether abortion is murder. Assert that it is, and you are intolerant, ignorant, and misogynistic. Hardly any would defend the pedophile on the grounds of sexual orientation. But call homosexuality a perversion and you are intolerant, homophobic, and puritanical. Few enjoy being cheated on, but call adultery sin and you are an intolerant prig out of touch with the polyamorous reality of modern man who is subject to his evolutionary inheritance. None care for the company of bratty children. But discipline your child away from his harmful nature, and you are an intolerant, abusive ogre intent on contorting and controlling his life.

Christianity loses its soul without sin. When murder, fornication, adultery, and rebellion become behaviors with no moral consequence, love your neighbor as yourself loses all possibility of significance. Love isn’t simply an undefined bag of sentiment and jumbled emotions. Neither is it the “live and let live” of the worshippers of tolerance. Love involves the discipline of moral behavior, of not crossing my neighbor’s boundary to do him harm. Tolerance demands that when others do, I remain silent. Love also demands that if my neighbor is being harmed, I should rush to his aid. Tolerance demands that I mind my own business. After all, they are consenting adults, right? Perhaps? Maybe?

Sin is why Christianity has a Savior. When Christians proclaim with Jesus that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; our use of the definite article is seen as exclusionary. The central theme of our faith, salvation, brings light to its antithesis, damnation.  This is viewed as our greatest intolerance of all. How can you believe in a God who would condemn people to Hell, they ask. How could I not believe in a God who died and went there to save me from it, is my reply. Love isn’t tolerance. It is truth in action willing to save the perishing. It isn’t dogma, it is deeds. Its highest form isn’t human, it is Divine.

Nearly twenty years ago, a young lady in my church was getting married. She had been brought up Catholic and wanted a priest to officiate the wedding. She and her fiancée rented a small church and invited me to do the Gospel reading for the ceremony. And so it was that the priest and the house church pastor met in a Protestant church to marry a Charismatic couple. On rehearsal night, the priest ran me through the paces. At the appointed time, we would walk up; he to the altar, me to the podium. The music played and he nodded. We met in the aisle and walked forward, side by side. “Bet you never thought you would walk down the aisle with a priest?” Jesus said. For the second time in my life, I heard the Lord’s laughter.

 

[1] Glennon Culwell and my Aunt Jean brought Christ to the Larum clan. His autobiography, My Life in the Potter’s Hands is a candid retelling of the grace of God at work in all the messiness and trauma of life. If your view of Baptist ministers (or Baptists in general) is one of a bunch of stuffed, heartless shirts, you need to read this book.

The Idol of Faith

“I’m a cur dog of Christianity.” This used to be my standard answer to the question “What denomination do you belong to?” It was an upgrade from what had been my standard reply for years, which was “I’m a heretic.” After reading this, you might argue that I still am.

Is there an idol of faith vying for the affections of the children of God? If so, it would be truly troublesome. After all, salvation is by faith and faith in the Gospel must be had to join the assembly of – well – the faithful. And yet, I fear that many in the body of Christ may be burning incense to Faith.[1] I’ve lit several of the smelly sticks myself and reaped some the benefits that idol worship usually brings: self-righteousness, arrogance, disappointment, confusion, and alienation from God.

In case you might be thinking that when I say faith I mean a pretend faith or lip-service faith, let me be clear. I’m talking about the same kind of faith Jesus spoke of when he taught about moving mountains, a believing that makes all things possible.[2] I’m talking about the faith of “faith, hope, and love.”[3] If it helps you to see this as “positive thinking” or the spiritual endowment of “the gift of faith”, then we can throw those up on the altar as well. The principle is venerated as a Principality.

Have you ever doubted your faith? I don’t mean a classic crisis of faith that calls in question the validity of Jesus as the Messiah. I mean, have you ever doubted your faith. Have you had an illness, missed the rent, gone through a divorce, lost a job, or been passed over on a promotion and thought, “If I had just had more faith, it wouldn’t have happened?” If so, better check where you’re kneeling. Ever looked at your personal environment and thought, “I deserve better – better car, better house, better food, better pay” and then leveraged faith[4] to get it? Let me ask you, who was being worshipped in that moment? Ever thought that only faith pleases God? You may want to think again.[5]

As a cur dog of Christianity, I’ve spent time in several tributaries of the river of life. One of the main currents I have sailed on would be included in what many call the Word of Faith Movement. It is not my purpose here to examine the movement’s history, its critics, or its controversies. I am thankful for its heritage and perspective and agree with Joseph Mattera when he says, “I would much rather be with people attempting to walk in faith and victory than be hanging out with depressed saints filled with unbelief and doubt.”[6] That being said, swimming with saints who believe that miracles must happen has its own particular challenges.

In the assembly of saints who believe in miracles[7], there are several layers. There are those who believe that miracles have happened; they are historical and past and not to reoccur again now that we have the Bible and doctors. There are those who believe miracles could happen; they are theoretically possible and certainly within the power of God but happen seldom, if at all. There are those who believe miracles should happen; God’s supernatural intervention is promised and He is poised to suspend the laws of the universe in response to a faithful heart. And then there are those who believe miracles must happen; their failure to appear is proof positive of your lack of faith. I am sorry to say that the haves and coulds are much safer from sacrilege than the shoulds and musts.

The pitfall for the shoulds and musts is the temptation to have faith in faith. In other words, that faith in and of itself is what brings deliverance. But reliance on a principle is a far cry from trust in a Person. The faith-worshipper will jump with the presumption of angelic catchers.[8] The faithful are thrown into the furnace proclaiming that God is true regardless of what may burn.[9] The faith-worshipper declares and demands his rights to property and prosperity. The faithful are content and thankful in whatever state they are in.[10] The faith-worshipper seeks control over other people, certain that his positive confession will cause them to behave differently.[11] The faithful trust in God who alone can change hearts.

Faith is vital and important. But it isn’t the all in all. Scripture is clear that we must have faith in God. But it never says faith is God. Faith is only one ninth of the supernatural tools given to the saints[12] and of the criteria used for judging our fruit.[13] It features larger among the abiding principles, sharing the stage with only hope and love. But even there, it doesn’t take center. No, the greatest of these is love.

 

[1] It is possible that even more are bowing down before the altar of Fate through acts of pious passivity, but they are outside of the scope of this post.

[2] Matthew 17:20

[3] 1 Corinthians 13:13

[4] You may have called it prayer.

[5] I hope you are the type that reads footnotes. If you are, I bet you just ran Hebrews 11:6 through your mind. You might even be a little upset with me at this point. Sorry about that. Read the question again. Read the verse again. There is a difference.

[6] http://www.charismanews.com/opinion/41054-10-ways-the-word-of-faith-movement-went-wrong, accessed 3/30/14. Mattera details more issues than just faith in this article. A very worthy read.

[7] For the purposes of this discussion, miracles would be any supernatural supply or intervention in the life of the saint; from the dramatic instantaneous healing to the exquisitely timed supply of finances.

[8] Matthew 4:5-7

[9] Daniel 3:16-18, regardless the outcome – whether delivered from the flames or consumed by the fire – they knew they would be free of the king’s demand. Their trust was in God. They did not presume to tell God how He was supposed to work out His purposes in them.

[10] Philippians 4:10-13

[11] I’ve seen this displayed most prominently during marital breakups where one partner is “standing in faith for the marriage” and then is bewildered and confused when their spouse divorces them and actually marries another. One cannot control another’s freedom of will – not God’s or anyone else’s. Faith employed against another’s will only produces anxiety and frustration.

[12] 1 Corinthians 12:7-11

[13] Matthew 7:20; Galatians 5:22-23