Karma, Abundance, and the Prosperity Gospel

“God is able to bless you abundantly so that …” – 2 Corinthians 9:8

Let’s start with a Kingdom definition of abundance.

Paul tells the Corinthians that God is able to bless us abundantly. I suspect Paul is saying not just that God is able, but that God wants to bless us abundantly. I lean for evidence on what Jesus teaches. He tells us we leave things on the table all the time because we don’t ask (John 11:22, John 14:13, John 15;7). He tells us we misunderstand the character of God, treating him for all practical purposes more like a cosmic zapper than a good father (Matthew 7:11).

Paul says, “God is able to bless you abundantly.” This is not just his ability but his desire and if this is our Creator’s desire, then this must be our created design. We are designed to operate out of a spirit of abundance. Our design yearns for an abundant (lavish, ample, full) connection with our Father, while our fallen nature tends toward scarcity. In other words, our design yearns to trust God, while the unsaved parts of us suspect that maybe God does not have our best interests at heart.

Meanwhile, Jesus says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” His teaching doesn’t square with our fallen tendencies. God’s great desire is to be faithful to us — a desire God can make good on because God is able. God has been … is … will be faithful, because that is who God is and what God promises. Jesus said so. “I came that you might have life and have it abundantly.”

That brings us to the two words that blow the lid off the prosperity gospel. Paul tells the Corinthians why God gives abundantly. It is not so people can be fat and happy; it isn’t about physical rewards at all. Paul couldn’t make it more clear when he tells the Corinthians, “God is able to bless you abundantly so that in all things at all times, having everything you need, you will abound in good works.” We are enriched so that we can participate more fully in the harvest, so that we can increase our participation in righteousness, so that we can experience abundance that way it is defined in the Kingdom of God.

Paul says we are enriched so that we can be generous. Pastor Alec Rowlands of Westgate Chapel says this, “The blessing of God always goes hand in hand with holiness.” Amen. Always.

The premise of the prosperity gospel — the idea that our giving results in material blessings — seems at every level like a gross misreading of the scripture, not to mention a conscious blindness to the lifestyle of Jesus himself. Let’s be clear: the biblical understanding of abundance has nothing to do with the prosperity gospel. We don’t believe that if you tithe, God is going to give you a Mercedes. That isn’t Christian; that is the Buddhist principle of karma and Christians don’t believe in karma. Faith for us is not a lever we pull to get Jesus to do as we please or a manipulation that requires God to give us things. That kind of thinking is sheer heresy.

Paul’s “so that” says nothing about making us rich for the sake of comfort. We are enriched so that we can be generous. “So that” is all about Kingdom advancement. It is for the purpose of fulfilling the work of Jesus’ own prayer: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.” Our sense of abundance is inextricably tied to Kingdom advancement.

We are enriched so that we can practice the art of holiness and participate in the coming Kingdom.

Does God give extravagantly? Absolutely. Why? So thatprayer in one hand, a shovel in the other — we can be gratefully positioned at the center of the next great move of God. What better pay-off could there be?

So here’s your sanctification question for the day: Does your access to abundance lead to an excess of generosity? If not, you are not only missing the biblical principle of sowing and reaping, you are missing out on God’s promise of abundance. When we give time, talent, gifts, service and witness to Kingdom projects — when we engage the world with Kingdom motives — we position ourselves at the center of Kingdom advancement and through our witness God is glorified. His glory is the fruit of abundance, and it is what we are after when we boldly talk about and enter into giving for Kingdom causes.

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The difference between faith and foolishness

If all eternity hangs in the balance, why faith? Let’s be real here. Faith doesn’t seem like the most efficient way to get a human race on board. Why doesn’t God show up in more tangible ways? 

Answering that question properly hinges on gaining a better definition than we usually give to the principle of faith.

In Hebrews 11:1, the writer tells us that “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Another version calls faith “substantive.” The Message version of the scripture gives this definition: “(faith) is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see.

Anyone who comes to God must believe he exists. There is no other option open to us. Of course, there is more to salvation than acknowledging his existence but belief is where it begins. We cannot reason his existence nor can we  feel it. Knowing God requires faith.

Faith, then, is spiritual intelligence. As a way of understanding, it is as relevant as mental or emotional intelligence. Faith is a way of expressing something we recognize as true but cannot describe in reasonable or natural ways. In answer to the question, “why faith?” the response is that faith is a higher form of knowing. It isn’t the “honorable mention” when nothing else works; it is the gold standard.

Faith is a higher form of knowing.

Jesus says as much in John 3 when he explains the kind of spiritual knowing that comes with a relationship to a spiritual being. He teaches that people born physically are born in water, from the womb. People born spiritually are born into the Spirit. Spirit-existence is not equivalent to physical existence. We get in trouble when we try to equate the two.

Jesus goes on to compare this Spirit-knowing to the wind. It is something we know to be real, even if we don’t see or control it. In the same way, we don’t have to see or control the Spirit to know it to be real. Claiming it as truth, Jesus goes on, births us into a different kind of reality. Faith, then, is about being brought into a spiritual life. Decisions begin from that place; wisdom begins there. We begin to know everything else only as it relates to what we know by faith. Faith, used well, orients us outward from a God-center, rather than inward (or upward) from the world. This is why it is a higher form of knowing.

If only we would use our faith as it is designed! Not as a default when nothing else works (“I’m miserable, but I guess I will hang on by faith.”), but as an orienting point that makes everything else make sense. The problem with too much contemporary Christianity is our perversion of good faith. We tend toward empty faith — using it almost like a shoulder shrug for things beyond our control. Or we manipulate the word as permission for all manner of treacherous and self-serving decisions. It doesn’t work, of course. God is not partial to manipulation. But that doesn’t prevent us from trying and from manipulating others in the process.

But that? That isn’t faith; that’s foolishness. Foolishness says, “I know I don’t need this thing I’m after, but I want it. And because I want what I want when I want it, I’m going to call this leap I’m about to make a leap of faith, even though Jesus probably isn’t within ten square miles of it. I’m going to call this faith, because it makes people think I heard from Jesus when I do that, so if Jesus doesn’t come running to save me from myself, maybe people will.”

That’s not faith. That is spiritual malpractice.

Faith is something else entirely, something with the flavor of wisdom, maturity and persistence. I’m thinking of a friend of my mother’s, who wanted a swimming pool in her back yard. She kept after her husband about it. He didn’t want an in-ground pool so try as she might to convince him otherwise, he didn’t budge. Eventually, she got tired of begging, bought a shovel, and started digging. One shovelful at a time, she dug most of a hole for an in-ground swimming pool. When she got in above her head, he got on board. I suspect faith looks more like this than like that of someone who claims to know the preferences of God for self-serving purposes.

Faith says, “If you want a swimming pool, you may have to invest in a shovel.” In other words, faithfulness embraces preparation and persistence, honors investment and counts the cost. Faith trusts the promises of God, but never manipulates them toward selfish ends.

It seems to me that the great moves of God tend to happen in the hands of those who practice a healthy faith, when people who love God invest themselves in partnership with his purposes and are oriented toward life from the Kingdom down. It happens not so much by lofty platitudes and grand-standing but by people who are willing to hold prayer in one hand and a shovel in the other.

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One story of how a missional church got its start

Most posts on this site are dedicated to practical theology, and this one is no different — though it is certainly more personal. For the last thirteen years I’ve been involved with an experiment in “missional church.” Together with some of the most beautifully faithful people on the planet (I won’t hide my bias), we have been figuring out what church might look like when its people are focused on building community partnerships and missional ventures that result in more intentional spiritual connections. We don’t major on the “weekend experience;” our focus is the spiritual formation of souls.

In this season, we’re planning an expansion of our building to include a community center in an area of our town that is lacking in social services. Our intent is not to become another non-profit but to advocate for the kind of healing that happens within a Christian community.

This is our story of getting started, and our vision for what comes next. If you are connected to Mosaic even through this blog, say a prayer for us. May the witness of God’s people welcome and advance His Kingdom on earth.

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The gift of justifying grace (or, why I still hum Tony Orlando tunes)

Back in the 1970s, there was a hit song by Tony Orlando (yeah, I know … “who?” or maybe, “Wow, you’re older than I thought.”) about a guy who spent years in jail paying for a crime. Over those years of his incarceration, he lost touch with his family. By the time of his release, he had no idea if his people still loved him or ever thought about him. Would they accept him if he went home? Or would they reject him and send him away?

He decided to write home before he was released to find out where he stood. “My time is up,” he wrote. “I’m coming home. I don’t know if you want me back or not, but I’ll be coming into town on the bus. When I ride into town, I’ll look up the hill toward our house. That big, old oak tree will be standing there as it has for generations. If I see a yellow ribbon tied around it, I’ll know you want me back and that it is okay for me to get off the bus. If there is no ribbon, I’ll understand. I’ll stay on the bus and just keep going.”

He sent the letter off, then prepared for his release. That day finally came. They sent him through the gate to freedom and put him on a bus. He was as nervous as he could be as he rode toward his home town and the family he’d be away from for so long. As he rolled into town and looked up the hill toward his house, there wasn’t one yellow ribbon. There was a field of yellow — yellow sheets hanging from the windows, yellow ribbons from every branch of that oak tree, yellow everywhere — all of it announcing the same thing: “Welcome home. All is forgiven.”

That’s the word of justifying grace. “Welcome home. All is forgiven.”

John Wesley knew the gift of this welcoming grace. He’d been an arrogant and naive young man when he decided to travel to America as a missionary to “save the natives.” He made it less than a year. Failing in his mission and floundering in his faith, he cried out to God. For the first time in his life, he sensed God calling back. Wesley wrote of that time, “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

Wesley had claimed salvation before that encounter, but it was in that moment that he came to understand what he’d been given. He discovered the rich and freeing gift of unmerited favor.

Justifying grace is that marvelous invention of God that enables us to be right with him, no matter what we’ve done. It is not God ignoring our sin; it is God forgiving our sin and helping us to live as new creatures. God’s justifying grace proclaims, “No matter what you have done and no matter who you have been, because you are walking through this door you are welcome in the Kingdom.”

That grace is the door to the good life. And the handle is on our side.

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Pastors, people, and social media

We’ve been on social media a long time now. We’ve watched it go through that “terrible twos” stage when people thought it reasonable to post personal disagreements with family members (thank goodness we’ve gotten past that). We watched the exodus from Facebook of the generation who made it famous, when their parents all jumped in. We weathered the election and discovered that not every opinion is for public consumption (some convictions are meant to be held, not yelled).

As a pastor, I value social media. I have a much better understanding by perusing their posts of how my own people live from day to day. I wish I’d had the benefit of social media when I was starting a church; I believe it would have made a significant difference.

Done well, social media builds relationships but here’s the thing: when the expectations get out of whack — when people use social media to send all their spoken and unspoken messages without ever having a real conversation, or when they assume too much of the reader — building online relationships can be confusing for a pastor.

It sometimes feels like we’re expected to read minds while ignoring dysfunction. Good pastors aren’t good at either.

Here are a few things I’ve discovered through my own experience that might help if your pastor is your friend online and you’d like to make the most of that relationship.

1. Don’t expect us to know what you’ve posted about your recent surgery or family loss. That might have worked when we all had one hundred friends, but now that we’ve all amassed far more people on our pages than we actually know, Facebook doesn’t automatically match up your pastoral need with your pastor. Further, you don’t really want your pastor to spend all his time online, trolling for how things are going with you. If you want us to know, call.

2.  The more you want us to see your post, the less likely we are to see it. Likewise, the less you want us to see your post, the more likely we are to see it. It is Murphy’s Law. Yes, we see your unkind comments and we love you any way (we’d appreciate it if you’d return the favor). No, we didn’t see that you lost a leg in a car accident (what makes you think we’d ignore something like that?). If you want us to know, call. If you don’t want us to know, you probably shouldn’t be posting it anyway.

3. Don’t unfriend us when you go to another church. That’s just mean. Seriously. We didn’t leave you. We didn’t reject you. And in fact, we probably still love and miss you. When you unfriend us just so we won’t see how awesome a time you’re having at another church, well … that just adds insult to injury. If you were hoping we’d still be your friend if we change jobs, then please return the favor. Treat us as adults. Call and talk to us about your decision to move, then foster a friendly, mature relationship and spare us both the awkwardness and injury.

4. Likewise, please don’t post how much better we are than the pastor you just left. We probably like that pastor (heck, we probably just had breakfast with him). Sheep-trading isn’t something we enjoy; don’t make it harder than it has to be. If you want us to know we’re awesome, pick up the phone and call. We’d love to have that conversation with you.

5. Do your church a favor. Please don’t post how much you love your church right after you’ve posted something no pastor would be proud to own. It is like having road rage with a fish on your car. No one is helped by that. Pastors are passionate about seeing people grow spiritually as followers of Jesus. Your posts are one way we know how we’re doing. When you cuss, rant, or talk publicly about your mother-in-law, it is understandably discouraging. When you link those behaviors to your whole church … well, that’s just frustrating.

6. If it is important, CALL. There is still no substitute for a personal phone call. Don’t tell us about a death in your family by facebook message or text. If you want us to know, call. If you don’t want us to know, please don’t be offended when we don’t show up when you need us. We’d be there, but we don’t read minds.

7. Live your faith well, then live it online. That is the best encouragement any person can give to their pastor — the recognition that all those sermons, all those small group meetings, all those counseling sessions, all those prayers are making a difference. Seeing you live a vibrant, healthy, personal relationship with Jesus both publicly and privately is a huge blessing to those who lead you spiritually. I can promise you that for a pastor, there is no greater gift.

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Wanna get rich?

Paul Piff is a psychologist who explores the affect of money on human nature. His team conducted an experiment using a rigged Monopoly game and two college students to whom Piff has given the names “T-shirt” and “Glasses.” When the game begins, T-shirt has $2000 in Monopoly money and collects $200 every time he passes “go,” while Glasses gets $1000 from the Monopoly bank and $100 for passing “go.” T-shirt can roll two dice but Glasses can only roll one. They are given fifteen minutes to play this rigged game while a team of psychologists watches on camera to analyze every facial tick and hand gesture.

T-Shirt has no choice but to win and at first, he acknowledges it. Soon, though, he is whizzing around the board, banging his Rolls Royce game piece as he counts out his turn (the game piece for Glasses is an elf). By the time the game is over, T-shirt is totally self-absorbed — counting moves, counting money, taking his opponent’s money without no sign of sympathy.

The experiment is designed to expose something about how money affects behavior. Piff discovered that “putting someone in a role where they’re more privileged and have more power in a game makes them behave like people who actually do have more power, more money, and more status.”

Money can create the sense of superiority. It has the power to make us influential and also selfish, courageous and also defensive. It has the potential for both blessing and curse, whether you have too much of it or too little.

Jesus tells a story very similar to Piff’s experiment. In his story, a wealthy man gives the equivalent of a hundred years’ wages to one man, forty years’ wages to another, and twenty years’ wages to a third. By any standard, any of those three men are holding great wealth but the comparison causes the third guy to shut down. While the first two invest their funds and produce a 100% return, the third guy buries his investment and has nothing to show for it.

Their story inspires me to think about the psychology, challenges and opportunities surrounding the “haves” and “have-nots.”

Five-talent People: Rejecting self-absorbed power

“I used to spend a lot of time thinking about my money,” a wealthy friend once told me. “I thought about it when I had none of it. I worried about it inordinately then. And when we finally made some money, I worried about losing it.”

For five-talent people, this is an interesting psychological shift. The danger is idolatry in one of two directions: 1) thinking “somehow I did this myself,” my friend says; or 2) thinking “money is what I can lean on and believe in, because money is easier to understand.”

So how do we reject self-absorbed power? The real trick is learning to hold money with an open hand. The answer seems to simplistic: Learn to give.  Those who do discover there is a freedom and joy in the stewardship of money that we simply can’t find in the “ownership” of it.

Two-talent People: Embracing creativity

Kevin Myers talks about the difference between the five-talent servant and the two-talent servant. He says five-talent leaders seem to live above the law of gravity. Things seem to come to them effortlessly. Most of us live under the law of gravity. In other words, Myers says, some people lead in leaps, but most people lead in layers.

Living in layers requires a kind of patience that breeds frustration. The day-in, day-out of making a living can sap the creativity out of life. The challenge for two-talent people is to embrace creative opportunities when they come our way. Maybe we don’t have a ton of resources, but what we thought was impossible might just be possible. This may mean letting go of things we can afford, like impulsive on-line buying and eating out and Starbucks, all of which may actually stifle the bigger dreams God has for us. It also means being more intentional about looking for creative opportunities to serve and give, to make the most of our investments.

One-talent People: Rejecting a spirit of poverty

The challenge of the one-talent person is to reject the spirit of poverty and fear-based habits. Living at the level of survival can keep us from trusting God to provide.

A friend says this: “The clenched fist around that $20 also prevents additional blessings from coming to you. There is a faithfulness that is scary, giving money especially when you don’t have it. Maybe it even brings bigger blessings. Like so much of the gospel that is a paradox, it is when it is hardest to step out that we exercise our faith most …”

The times in my life when I’ve clamped down on everything,” my friend continues, “I’ve suffered for it. When I think, maybe this isn’t a good time, maybe I shouldn’t now … that is exactly the time when I know I need to lean in. I don’t want to say there is such a thing as a prosperity gospel, but I can say that when I give, I am the one who benefits.”

Interesting isn’t it? — that the amount of money doesn’t really change the solution to our management of it. Whatever the level, giving is how we keep a healthy perspective. Giving is how we remember whose money it is and how we keep our imaginations nimble.

The point of giving isn’t that God wants you to send him a check so he can get things done. The point is that the Creator of your life knows how you’re wired and what it will take for you to make the most of this existence.

In a word: give. As with most things of the Kingdom, it isn’t logical but it is true: giving is how we get rich.


* Find Paul Piff’s TED talk here: https://www.ted.com/talks/paul_piff_does_money_make_you_mean?language=en

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Living A New Year Under the Leadership of the Holy Spirit

A version of this article appeared on Seedbed’s Church Planter Collective (to which I occasionally contribute) under the title “Planting Under the Leadership of the Holy Spirit.”  Find  it here.

To be a Methodist is to be disciplined. This is our great contribution to the Body of Christ. We believe spiritual disciplines work when we work them. As you plan for this new year, I want to encourage you to choose one or two spiritual disciplines and use them to move your spiritual life forward in 2017.

Spiritual inventory: In recovery, the real work begins when the inventory starts. This is a time to be honest with yourself about where you’ve been and where you are now in your spiritual journey. This tilling work can be an effective tool for anyone who is serious about going deeper. How often to you sit in quiet with the Lord? How often to you read the Bible? Who is challenging you spiritually? Confess to God and yourself where you are, so you can more productively pray into where you should be heading.

Examination of conscience: Honest self-examination will help to uncover unhealed wounds and character issues that can be dealt with in the presence of Jesus but it only works when we are willing to be brutally honest about how we are living. No excuses. No denial. Make a list of realities. What are your character flaws? What are your sins? This is like the spiritual inventory but it goes deeper, challenging us to honestly consider what we’re doing with our time, where we’re living in denial, where we’re wrapped up in unholy ambitions. An examination helps us to clarify God’s call on our lives so we’re living proactively instead of passively. It also helps us cleanse our days of mind-numbing escapes. What are you spending time on that you need to curb, for the sake of living your life with more integrity?

Devotional reading: Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest became a second Bible for me in my first year as a church planter. Chambers had the heart of a missionary, and his words seemed to resonate deeply day in and day out with the work of planting a new church. I recommend My Utmost for anyone who is on a journey with Jesus. If not that book, then find another wise devotional voice to speak into your life, who will remind you to stay in the deep end spiritually.

Bible study: I suggest you get a reading plan and a hunger for sticking with it daily. I will be working through the Life Journal Reading Plan found in the YouVersion app. Created by Wayne Cordeiro, this plan will take me through the whole Bible in 2017. But reading through the Bible isn’t the only option. It is also okay to focus. If you’re in leadership read Exodus and Nehemiah early on. If you’re new to Christ, read James and John. If you need to be recharged in your relationship with Jesus, get a red-letter Bible and read only the words of Jesus in all four gospels. It will change how you know him.

Sabbath: Keep one. This is your personal expression of faith in God’s ability to complete the work. If you want to read more on Sabbath-keeping, read here. Dr. Steve Seamands asks a challenging question that gets at the heart of Sabbath-keeping: “Who carries the burden of ministry in your life? You, or the Holy Spirit?” In other words, what is your starting point? Sabbath is about restoring the factory settings on my life, so that my default starting point is the Holy Spirit.

Fasting: Fasting has provided for me some of the most dramatic spiritual break-throughs over the years. I practice it especially when I have unanswered questions, as a sacramental way of expressing my hunger to God. I teach it to my leaders, and encourage them to fast regularly, with deeper seasons of fasting annually. Fasting humbles us. It is an act of obedience. It is proof that discipline matters to God. Bill Bright says fasting “enables the Holy Spirit to reveal your true spiritual condition, resulting in brokenness, repentance, and a transformed life.” And as we begin to cut through the agendas and see truth more clearly and as we honestly begin to repent of unconfessed sin, we experience more blessings from God. For more on fasting, read this.

Journaling: This has been a great source of healing for me, and a great way to hear from the Lord. I used to journal in a notebook. Now, I journal on my computer. I make it a conversation with the Lord, and have often received answers to prayer through this practice. I prefer to journal in two colors, writing my own thoughts and questions in black or blue ink, and what I sense may be Spirit-inspired thoughts in red. I don’t try to analyze it; I just listen for the voice of the Spirit and write what I hear. A week or so down the road, I may come back to that entry to see how it sounds with the benefit of a little time and perspective. When I come across a thought that seems profound (“smarter than I could have thought of myself,” as Asbury professor Dr. Bob Tuttle would say), I note that thought in red, too, just like the words of Jesus in my Bible.  Often, I am amazed at how helpful those entries can be to my journey with Jesus. I do believe He still speaks into our lives; I have encountered him in the practice of journaling.

The most important thing you can do to create a healthy congregation, family, or workplace is to live the gospel in front of people. A regular diet of spiritual disciplines will help you to do that. Make it your passion this year to live a disciplined life.

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