I was preparing this week to move on to 1 Corinthians chapter 5. However, I think the Lord suggested that I take an opportunity presented by the text in chapter 4. Verses 7-16 address an issue that has become more and more important in churches in the United States.
About 10 years ago some very dear friends of ours felt that the Lord was calling them to take a step of faith. He had a good job in the software industry, which allowed her to stay at home and raise the kids, and home-school them – something which they both felt was important. He quit his good job to launch out into a new career as a Realtor. He was positive that the Lord was calling him to do this. A year later, they were $30,000 in debt and on the brink of losing their home. She had to go back to work. He found a job painting houses, where he worked long hours at something he liked less, for less money.
Another couple we know had a dream farm in the country. He built this house on his own land, the land he grew up on. He has incredible skills – he can build or fix just about anything. But they felt the Lord calling them to start a home-school publishing business. To make a long story short, they lost their home, and ended up living in a campground in a 5th wheel trailer with five kids.
Now, what do you think when you hear these types of stories? I know what I thought – they must not have heard correctly. I came to this conclusion for two reasons. First, I thought they had made a mistake because things did not go well with them financially. Second, I thought they had made a mistake because they had no outward success in doing what they felt God had called them to do.
You see, I didn’t want to believe that God might deliberately call his people into a situation that was difficult. I didn’t want to believe that you could hear God correctly and follow him with your whole heart, and end up looking like a failure.
And then it happened to Kari and me. I can’t describe how much prayer went into our decision to leave our congregation in Minnesota. Our decision to move to Tennessee was drenched in prayer and godly counsel. And for three years it looked like one of the most stupid things either of us had done in our entire lives.
We were victims to what I call the American version of Liberation Theology. I personally know dozens of people who are influenced by this false teaching today. Liberation theology in other countries, maintains that the primary reason Jesus came was to bring political liberation to people who are oppressed. They don’t really emphasize the business of sin and forgiveness that much, or the fact that all humans seem born with a spiritual hole in their hearts. Instead, they point to various passages, most of them in the Old Testament. If you take these passages out of context, and apart from the rest of the Bible, you could make a case that their message is one of liberation from political and social oppression.
In America, we laugh at the foolishness of this, since we aren’t very oppressed (yet). But even so, we have a version of this, and it based on the same basic error. That error is to believe that God is primarily interested in making this earthly life comfortable for us. And so in America we either imply, or teach explicitly, that God wants to “bless” you. And we usually assume that the “blessing” means financial stability and growth, physical health, success in our efforts and a generally pleasant life. In case you wonder if many people really think this, let me share some words from a very popular “bible” teacher:
“Your faith will cause you to overflow in possessions, health, etc.”
“Having no [financial] increase renders you useless to the kingdom of God”
“The Word of God is the highway to the world of wealth”
These are not just quotes taken out of context. They are representative of the teaching of this man who has an extensive “ministry.” I know people from our town who attend his conferences. In addition, there is a widespread acceptance of the basic premise that faith is about God helping us get more comfortable. There is a little book called The Prayer of Jabez. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and it was basically about how we should expect God to bless us with outward success. There was another movement that started with a biblical approach. They were called “The Word of Faith” movement, and their basic idea was, that if God promised something, we ought to claim it, and believe that through faith, we have what is promised. So far so good. But gradually, that movement has gotten more and more focused on shallow, limited-situation promises that have to do only with this life.
Kari and I have attended church meetings here in Lebanon where the preachers said clearly that disease and trouble was a result of sin in our lives. They said if we lived as true Christians, we wouldn’t experience disease or financial hardship. The bible has a lot to say about this. It calls people who teach such things:
“…men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think godliness is a means to financial gain” (1 Timothy 6:5)
Even so, these teachings and teachers are very popular. They are popular precisely because they say what we are so eager to hear: that life is all about me and my personal comfort. Paul writes this to Timothy about such things:
Proclaim the message; persist in it whether convenient or not; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching. For the time will come when they will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear something new. They will turn away from hearing the truth and will turn aside to myths. (2 Timothy 4:2-4)
Now, it is true that following Jesus will bring you blessing. You will be blessed in that you were created for a relationship with God, and so through faith in Jesus, you enter into the very reason you exist. You were also created to do certain things in this world – to work with God and God’s purposes here and now. As you submit to that purpose and do those things you were made to do, you will experience a sense of fulfillment and joy. The Holy Spirit brings healing and wholeness to our Spirits, and that healing is meant to flow down into our psyches – to restore us each one as the unique person she or he was intended be.
It is also true that sometimes God bring physical healing. Sometimes he does other miracles that improve our lives here and now. But the Bible is clear that God’s purposes for us will only be truly fulfilled after the end of the world, when we inhabit resurrection bodies in the New Heavens and New Earth. In other words this life is not about this life.
This is exactly part of the message of 1 Corinthians 4:7-16. Paul takes the Corinthians to task for thinking they are like Kings, for thinking that they have already, in this life, achieved all that God has for them. Their attitude has been like that of many American prosperity preachers, or Liberation Theologians. In contrast, Paul shares a little bit about what his life has been like, following the Lord faithfully. So one popular teacher in our time says “Your degree of Soul Prosperity determines how well you prosper in other areas of life.” The apostle Paul says:
Up to the present hour we are both hungry and thirsty; we are poorly clothed, roughly treated, homeless; we labor, working with our own hands. When we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we respond graciously. Even now, we are like the world’s garbage, like the dirt everyone scrapes off their sandals.
Either the apostle Paul, who wrote half of the New Testament, did not have a good relationship with Jesus, or these teachers are wrong. Paul also said this:
If we have put our hope in Christ for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone. (1 Cor 15:19)
I understand that this life can get grindingly hard and crushingly depressing. I know there is grief here that cuts like broken glass. Sometimes, you can’t help caring deeply about the difficulties you face. The Lord does offer comfort here and now. Sometimes he brings objective relief into our circumstances. But we must never accept the idea that what we experience for 70 or 90 years here in this life matters more than the future of unbroken eternity that we face when life is over.
Paul suffered hardship, as he recorded here. His faith did not bring him riches. It did not even bring him physical healing (2 Corinthians 12:6-9). But it did bring him joy and comfort. And never forget this – Paul’s sufferings ended – completely – almost 2,000 years ago. Even if he lived for 100 years and suffered every day of it, he has been in the presence of God for twenty times that long already. And this is what life is like for Paul today:
Look! God’s dwelling is with humanity, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will no longer exist; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away.