That Pain Could Be Useful …

“If you just set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing” – Margaret Thatcher

I remember hearing a missionary speak one time about his work in Lebanon in the 70s. At the time, as I recall the story, missionaries could hardly transport the Bible across the border into Syria. (I don’t know the exact restrictions – for there have been Christians in Syria for some time.) Anyway, he recalled when the Syrian army invaded Lebanon and how disgruntled he was about the new military dictatorship and its antagonism toward Christians.

At one point though, he prayed to God about the issue and the Lord set him straight. The response he got (and I paraphrase): “You told me all these years that you wanted to take the Bible into Syria, so I brought the Syrian army to you.”

The point is obvious here – sometimes that difficult thing is accomplishing exactly what you want (even what you’ve prayed for). Sure, it doesn’t seem pleasant at the time … there’s a saying about eggs and omelets in there somewhere.

I had a great conversation this afternoon with my pastor about a number of things, one of them being the “prosperity gospel” – this notion that somehow the message of the gospel is one  in which Christians have all the money they could ever want; further, that this is somehow God’s will, and that to not be prosperous is to be outside of God’s will and/or otherwise lack the faith to walk fully in His will. Yeah, it’s crazy.

To get to this conclusion, prosperity gospelers will often use “proof-text” arguments, whereby a single verse of scripture is taken out of context to mean something all-encompassing about all people everywhere. For instance (and I borrow greatly here from Gordon Fee’s The Disease of the Health and Wealth Gospels) they will use 3 John 2, which says in the KJV “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.” See that “prosper and be in health” part? That, apparently, indicates God’s will for all Christians at all times, according to these guys.

This is clearly a problematic interpretation. First off, let us note that the NIV84 says it this way: “Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well.” Nothing about prosperity there, simply “all may go well.” Further, as Fee notes, this opening amounts to a standard greeting in a letter, and it is intended from John to Gaius. This is, as Fee notes, the “plain meaning” of the text.

Let it be understood that the plain meaning of the text is always the first rule, as well as the ultimate goal, of all valid interpretation. But “plain meaning” has first of all to do with the author’s original intent, it has to do with what would have been plain to those to whom the words were originally addressed. It has not to do with how someone from a suburbanized white American culture of the late 20th century reads his own cultural setting back into the text through the frequently distorted prism of the language of the early 17th century. [emphasis in original]

OK, this isn’t a post on hermeneutics (though I absolutely love Fee – his clean thinking is quite appealing to the mathematician).

On the prosperity gospel note though, I actually caught a great 10-minute youtube clip of a sermon from David Wilkerson just ripping these guys a new … interpretation, if you will. I won’t dive into Wilkerson’s predictions for the final outcome for these prosperity gospel adherents, other than to say “bankruptcy” was certainly on the list.

In his book, Fee echoes a dismissal that many of us have for the prosperity gospelers. Their message only makes sense in a time of peace and prosperity. It only makes sense to talk about being wealthy when you’re in the midst of lavish wealth and want some of it for yourself. If you happen to be a Christian today in an underground house church in China or Vietnam – the prosperity gospel is meaningless, nonexistent, tripe. For the little girls rescued for sexual slavery in India, or the street kids across the third world digging through garbage cans to find a bite, “God wants you to have money [so give to me]” is meaningless.

Now, I don’t have any special insight into what will happen tomorrow, but the threat of financial meltdown is real. This week, this month, year, decade? Who knows? But the game has gone on for sometime on a wing and a prayer. The deleveraging is on, the debt “super cycle” is over. I don’t exactly look forward to a crumbling and the last-ditch money grab by the wealthy (from the poor). But if such an event does come, I think we can rest assured that it will deal a serious blow to the charlatans and wolves prospering off the labors of others.

Sometimes that pain can be useful.

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