The Dangers of Biblical Illiteracy: Inspiration or Interpretation?

I had just posted January 2016 Newsletter about the critical need to get back to basics. Almost immediately, a post appeared on Facebook to demonstrate and affirm this. Hence, I am writing this article to make an even clearer point about examining our foundations; and in particular, our knowledge and understanding of Scripture, or lack of.

Here is the Facebook post from Lakewood Church, with Pastor Joel Osteen’s ‘exhortation’ based on James 4:3…

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In case you are unable to make out the text, it reads, “The scripture says in James 4:3, “You ask and do not receive because you ask amiss…” When we ask to merely survive, to get by, to just endure, that’s a weak prayer. That’s asking amiss. God is saying, “I created the whole universe, I own it all. don’t come to me with a weak prayer asking me to help you live in mediocrity, endure the trouble, survive another month. No when you come to, ask big, knowing that I’m a more than enough God. Ask me for your dreams, ask me to do what looks impossible, ask me to heal you from that disease, ask me to accelerate your goals, ask me to show out in your life.” From Pastor Joel Osteen at Lakewood Church today.”

Let’s process this together.

At first glance, it sounds right, doesn’t it? Do we have a big God? YES! Can He do the impossible? AMEN! Does He want me to believe Him for more than just enough? INDEED! No wonder, this post attracted 10,829 likes and prompted 2,387 shares (as at the time of the screen shot)!

According to Pastor Joel, to ask amiss is to pray a wrong prayer or to pray beneath what God is able to do. And what Pastor Joel teaches must be right, right? After all, he is the leader of a mega church with an accompanying mega smile, not to mention the author of best-selling books. Even if he is a little off, let’s not split hairs because this is just so encouraging and uplifting, and it helps me trust God for all He has for me!

But wait! Is this what James 4:3 really means? To answer this question, the entire verse needs to be quoted and read in its context. We cannot infer anything from a verse in isolation, much less a truncated one! So, what does James 4:3 say? Here it is…

“You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.” James 4:3

Hmmmm, I don’t know about you but it sure sounds different, doesn’t it? – and you don’t even need to have attended a course on Hermeneutics to determine this. With due respect to Pastor Joel, what is amiss here is not our prayers but his interpretation of this verse! Clearly, to ask amiss is not to pray wrongly, weakly or conservatively but to pray with the wrong attitude or motive, as stated in the missing portion of the verse, “that you may spend it on your pleasures.”

As appealing and as inspirational as it sounds, Osteen’s misinterpretation is exactly what this verse warns against! Check out the next verse, James 4:4, where James rebukes (yes, rebukes!) believers, labelling them as adulterers and adulteresses because of their worldliness! That’s the difference between a true pastor-preacher and a motivational speaker.

I hope I have made a clear enough point through this exercise and illustration. There is a dire and critical need to get back to basics, and especially back to the Word of God. Biblical illiteracy does not only refer to Christians who do not know the Word. It also includes Christians who think they know the Word but actually don’t. In fact, these are most prone to deception because of a false sense of security! And if you are one who only underlines or highlights the nice stuff in the Bible, do yourself a big favour. By all means, love the blessings, but make sure you also heed the warnings!

Be careful, dear brother or sister. Be very aware of the dangers of not being able to rightly divide the word (2 Tim 2:15). Biblical illiteracy is easily satisfied with what sounds biblical and inspirational, but often at the expense of sound biblical interpretation. Get back to basics. Return to the Word.

“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” 2 Tim 2:15

SCOTUS & Same-Sex Marriage Ruling: When God is Reduced to a Penalty Shoot Out

5-4. By now, the entire world should know what this scoreline means.

Yes, the impression of a penalty shoot out was what I had when news of SCOTUS’ decision on the legalising of same-sex marriage flooded the social media. It sure looked like nine players having their chances at goal from the penalty spot. One by one, they took their shots and it was tied at 4-all. Finally, the last shot was taken and the deadlock was broken. 5-4! And same-sex marriage is now a legal right across all fifty states of the United States of America. By the system, it is described as a landmark decision by majority vote. In my opinion, one vote can hardly be regarded as majority; not when it concerns an issue as critical as marriage. Honestly, it is as if God was outvoted by these judges and His original design and intent for marriage was reduced to a penalty shoot out.

As I scrolled the news on my smartphone that night (26 June, Singapore time), I felt my stomach churn. It wasn’t exactly the kind of news you’d want to be reading after a long tiring day before going to sleep. The next morning, even more articles appeared, both for and against. I posted a few comments on my personal and ministry page, as well as shared a couple of these articles. This morning, I thought it’d be good to put down some observations and thoughts. These are done in a personal capacity as I wrestle and process what is happening around us in these times. I hope this helps you in your own processing too.

1. Christians are not united on this topic. This may be shocking to some but that’s the reality. And I am not just referring to the flurry of formal counter responses on the internet. To my surprise, some of my Facebook friends have used the online app to “celebrate pride” through their profile pictures. In other words, these Christians are supportive of same-sex marriages and are not shy to declare their position openly. You would think that believers of Jesus Christ would be standing together on this critical matter. Well, no. There is a need to have both wisdom and discernment that we may know how to respond, not just to the world out there, but also within the so-called Christian community.

2. Truth has been absolutely relativised. In the midst of post-modern culture and mindsets, the battle for Truth rages on. I cannot understand how Christians who claim to hold to God’s Word on the one hand can celebrate pride on the other hand! But let’s not be naive at all. The battle for Truth is really a battle of worldviews. Today, Scripture is being read, interpreted and processed with secular and humanistic worldviews. No wonder major denominations have changed their position about marriage and LGBTs. Make no mistake – God’s Word has not changed. However, Scripture has been adjusted to cater to culture when all along, it should be culture that is to be shaped by Scripture. Interestingly, the Church is to be the pillar and ground of the Truth (1 Tim 3:15) but sadly, I fear we are not doing too well in this aspect.

3. Some things cannot be prayed away. This is not a statement of little faith. On the contrary, this is a declaration of faith in the Word of God. We are told that lawlessness will increase in the last days and that is what we see happening all around us. This is prophetic fulfilment as in the days of Israel and Judah. The Old Testament prophets declared impending invasions from the enemies. At the same time, they prayed and pleaded with God, not desiring to see their own prophecies come to pass. They appealed to the mercy and grace of God, as well as His covenant love for His people. Yet, in God’s sovereignty and foreknowledge, He allowed Israel and Judah to be devastated and deported regardless of how hard or long the righteous prayed. In the same way, there are some things that just cannot be prayed away. These must take place for these have been prophesied and we are seeing the Word of God come to pass.

4. We must keep praying. I know this sounds as if I am contradicting the previous point but I assure you that I am not being fickle. Without doubt, we are called to pray, and pray we must. This is a battle that is spiritual and it is entirely beyond what we can do in the natural. We pray because we acknowledge our great need for the Great Judge to act in His way and in His time. We pray because we still believe that He is in control over the situation, however dire or hopeless it looks to us. We pray not only for ourselves but also for our children and our children’s children. Whatever the outcome, may we be found faithful as ones who stood in the gap, who offered the incense of prayer that rises to His throne.

5. Don’t miss the backdrop. In case you haven’t noticed, it is no longer business as usual. The most powerful nation on earth has set the tone and it’s not a pretty one at all. If you think this is largely a Western problem, I urge you to consider again. In this day and age, the threat is much closer than you think. It has been rightly pointed out that the LGBT Agenda is only a front to something that is more sinister. John Piper, in the article “So-Called Same-Sex Marriage“, reveals the “new calamity” of “normalisation and institutionalisation”. And this just might become a global phenomenon, and much sooner than you think.

6. This is not the time to be found in slumber. The alarm is sounding and it is getting louder. The signs are all around us if our eyes would be open to see and perceive. For sure, it cannot be church as usual. The question is, “Is the Church awake?” Or are many in the Body of Christ still found to be in slumber? And I am not talking about attendance in a building on any given weekend. The fact that Christians are generally unaware and apathetic is cause for concern. The Church in America is crying out for a Third Awakening and I am standing in agreement with them. But why only in USA? Let’s believe for an awakening in Singapore and throughout Asia too!

7.  There’s still work to be done. Whilst a major disappointment, the SCOTUS ruling is only one little setback in God’s greater scheme of things. The Church must not be distracted by this decoy and miss her mission. Even more so, the believer must not be derailed from his or her kingdom assignment (Archippus Awakening). There is work to be done and God is calling all hands to be on deck. In the face of great challenge and ridicule, Noah knew his assignment and kept on building the ark. Similarly, we must stay focussed to know and fulfil our assignments regardless of how difficult it may be.

For now, the scoreline remains 5-4. LGBT advocates and their supporters the world over are celebrating this victory. Needless to say, I am not in the least thrilled. In Singapore football jargon, I am almost tempted to shout “Referee kayu!!!” (useless referee). After all, how can such a predicament be allowed to happen? How can God’s institution of marriage be redefined through a penalty shoot out?

Even so, I am promptly reminded – the judges of SCOTUS may have ruled in favour of same-sex marriage but it is our God who has the final say as the Ultimate Judge. Indeed, God is still in control and the game is still in play. The Divine Referee waves ‘play on’ and that is what we must do, for it ain’t over until He says it is over … and Scripture reveals a very different scoreline.

Seven Misconceptions of Discipleship

Seven MisconceptionsIn offering scholarships to encourage school leaving youths to consider a career in the military, the recruitment office did not opt for the guts ‘n’ glory angle. Instead, they found that the following points proved more attractive and effective:

  • Academic Pursuit: get the paper and qualification you desire
  • Financial Perks: get paid to study when others borrow to pay their fees
  • Material Benefits: while your peers are begging their parents for more pocket money, get a car before they can even dream of it
  • Adventure & Exposure: get to experience extreme sports and life
  • Prestige: get honour and glory in serving the nation, plus your girl (who can resist a man in uniform?)

Catching up with a friend who signed on as a regular, we asked him if he was having a great time with all these promises. He answered, “Nonsense, la!” After all, no one said anything about being a soldier, tough training, and the possibility of dying in battle!

Is it not the same with Christianity? Very likely so, I’m afraid. Do we not advertise the good news, calling out to all, “Be a Christian and get your [fill in the blank]!”? Hardly, if anything is said about being a disciple of Jesus Christ. Little wonder then, that the Church has discovered a great disconnect between being a Christian and being a disciple.

As if a knee-jerk reaction (prompted by the Holy Spirit, I’m sure), there is now, of late, a sudden attention turned to discipleship. In the bookshops are so many titles and programmes on discipleship. Contained in every church mission statement is the word disciple or discipleship. Every church wants to be an intentional disciple-making church (IDMC). With the new buzzword of discipleship, another problem has arisen. Discipleship has become hip and cool; and in that, we have missed the mark again!

For sure, so much has been taught and written about discipleship. But why all the confusion still? What is a disciple? Who is a disciple? How is discipleship done? Why is discipleship so difficult a concept to grasp in our days?

In preparing for a series on discipleship, I asked the Lord to show me afresh. I knew what I had been told and taught about discipleship. But my desire was to approach the Word without any presupposition or preconceived notions about discipleship. And the Lord gladly obliged. When He opened my eyes with a fresh revelation and understanding, it rocked whatever I had previously held on to. Oh my! What have I been teaching the people?

That’s what this series of articles will be about – the SEVEN misconceptions of discipleship that are prevalent in the Church, in the hearts and minds of God’s people.

  1. Discipleship is a separate decision/event from believership: Part One & Part Two
  2. Believers must be called to be disciples
  3. Disciples are a special class of believers
  4. Discipleship is an optional add-on to salvation
  5. Discipleship is a ministry or programme in the Church
  6. Discipleship is one aspect of the spiritual walk
  7. Discipleship is about me

Of the seven misconceptions, the first two are the most controversial. You may or may not agree with me, and that’s fine. Since sharing these, I’ve had different responses and it’s been interesting. I’ve also found that people like to remain in their comfort zones. And Christians presume many things without ever checking the Scriptures.

Therefore, if you disagree with anything, don’t disagree just because it doesn’t sound nice to you, goes against what you have been taught, or rocks your cushy Christian walk. Be like the Bereans who “searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.” Finally, if we are still in disagreement, that is perfectly alright. My desire is not to win an argument about discipleship but that more would rise up to be faithful disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ! If this exercise provokes and spurs you towards this goal, I would have more than done my part.

A Positive Church Experience Is Nice But Not Enough

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This has become a concern as I interact more with various Christians facing challenges and difficulties in their situations and spiritual walk. In the course of our conversation, I would always ask them where they worshipped at. This would indicate at least three things to me: one, if they belonged to a local church; two, if they are regular in their attendance at this community; and, three, if they are actively involved in the life of this community.

Without prompting, these would proceed to describe their church experience, and it would usually sound like this: “Oh, I enjoy the fellowship. The worship (referring to the time of singing) is wonderful and touches my heart. The messages are really good and I am always blessed by the preaching of the Word. The pastor is very nice and friendly.” In other words, on the surface, everything sounds ok to me … you are blessed and having a great time in this church.

And so, I ask the next question, “Why aren’t you talking to your pastor or church community about this problem you are facing right now?” And almost always, the reasons given do not necessarily line up with the positive church experience described, ranging from “I don’t feel a connection or belonging,” to “I don’t think it would be right to discuss this with my church,” to “My church doesn’t teach us to handle such challenges.”

As I thought about this, I realised something about this rather common occurence: All these may have had a nice, positive church experience. But the main question that must be asked is, “Have these grown in the Lord at all?” Sadly, from what is shared and observed, I don’t think so. This may sound overly harsh, but it is the truth. The scary thing is that these can quite readily quote Scripture and spew Christian slogans as well as any other believer. But they go on living compromised lives, basking in the feel-good messages of God’s love and grace. They are deluded and deceived into thinking that as long as the church experience is positive, they are ok. NO, IT IS NOT!

I believe these are not isolated cases that I have come across in my limited sphere of ministry. Given today’s consumer culture that has crept into the Christian community, more and more are going to church for that feel-good factor. This explains the musical-church phenomenon that is so prevalent amongst believers as they scout for the best speaker, the message, the ambience, the experience, the goose bumps, the worship team, the children’s ministry, the youth ministry, and the menu for Sunday lunch. If they feel good about it, they stay. And if they don’t feel good, it’s time to be ‘led by the Spirit’ to look for another church.

In case anyone misunderstands me, or the point of this article (rant), I am not begrudging anyone of a great time in the community and fellowship of believers. As a pastor, I definitely do not wish for my congregation to be dragging their feet to church, or dreading another Sunday morning, or another sermon preached by yours truly (God forbid!). But more than just a positive church experience, my deepest desire is for each to grow and mature in Christ.

To this end, I am challenging and provoking us all to reflect and ponder more deeply what our faith is really about. Is it just about having a good time, being entertained and feeling good about ourselves? I think not! We have been saved from sin and judgment for a plan and a purpose! Hey, Jesus paid a high price for that! The spiritual journey is about growth and maturity towards the image of Christ. Along the way, we must be meaningfully engaged in the ministry and mission for the sake of Jesus and His Kingdom.

Don’t be fooled that everything is fine just because your church experience is fun and happy-clappy, or if bank accounts are full and life appears good. The Pharisees and the rich of Jesus’ day were all deceived into thinking they were the ones more favoured and blessed of God. We could as easily fall into the same trap.

All said, praise God if you are really enjoying church and Christian fellowship! But don’t stop there. Ponder the following questions, and allow the Holy Spirit to search deep to reveal what is truly in your heart …

  1. Is it primarily all about you, your emotions and your desires?
  2. Have you placed church experience above your relationship with God?
  3. Do you worship God for who He is, or only for what He can do for you?
  4. Is worship defined as a good song that brings tingles and tears, or a response to the awesomeness of God?
  5. Do you know and agree with the vision and mission of your church?
  6. Are you contributing, with God’s help, to the fulfilment of this vision and mission?
  7. Is it just between you and God, or are you connected with others who truly love Jesus?
  8. Are you willing to be held accountable, allowing others to speak the truth into your life?
  9. Is confession and repentance something you do regularly?
  10. Are you a taker or a giver?
  11. Do you ask “what’s in it for me?” or “who/what/where have you called me to serve, Lord?”
  12. Do you enjoy church only for yourself, or do you derive joy from serving God and others?
  13. Do you get upset and think of leaving when things don’t go your way in the church?
  14. Are you following the crowd, or truly being led by the Holy Spirit?
  15. Do you read your Bible? Do you know and abide in the Word?
  16. Are you a hearer and a doer of the Word? Are you applying all you are learning?
  17. Are you one who professes faith with no works to show for it?
  18. Do you only talk Christian but not live Christian?
  19. Are you growing and maturing spiritually?
  20. Are you pursuing a life of holiness by His grace, or presuming upon His grace with a life of compromises and excuses?
  21. Do you love Jesus as King and Lord of your life?
  22. Are you one of the multitude, or are you a disciple of Jesus Christ?
  23. Are you willing to surrender, to yield, to deny yourself, to take up your cross and to follow Jesus?