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Sunday, September 26, 2004

Lies We Have Bought Into #2

Last week, I was pondering on the issue of law and grace, and its implications. Today I want to think about this idea of "blessing". Actually I am not sure if I have ever believed this lie, but I hear about it all the time, hence, I have changed the series title to Lies We Have Bought Into. Something that I hear very often in Christian circles is the notion that God's blessings upon our lives equate to material success, a life of ease, comfort and joy. Often I hear testimonies from Christian people, and part way through their story, they will say something like, "The Lord blessed us and we have success in our business..."

When I was a little boy accompanying my mom to the Chinese temples, we had a very familiar ritual. We would go before the idols of the God of War, the Legendary General-God Kwan Kong with his fiery awesome face and impressive military regalia, burn incense and pray to Kwan Kong for protection and prosperity. We would go before the goddess of mercy Kwan Yin (no relation to the other Kwan or for that matter, to Michelle!) and ask for her protection and wisdom for my dad to run his business successfully. And my mom will take out a cup and roll pieces of paper on which are written numbers. She would hand me the cup and I would place the cup in my hands and with a praying motion ask the gods and goddesses to guide my motion, and then I would shake the cup with the pieces of paper rattling inside until one fell out. I would repeat the process until there are enough numbers for my mom to play the lottery game that week. You see, mom believed that the gods and goddesses would answer her prayer for wealth and prosperity by allowing her to win the lottery jackpot. Although it never happened, yet her faith would be unflagging. Every so often, usually, when she is ready to give up on a series of numbers, we would go through the same ritual and she would continue to believe that the numbers given were signs from on high for her windfall. Most times these rituals were accompanied by burning of incense and sacrifices of chickens and roast pork. The numbers almost always do not come out initially, but eventually one or two of the series would match, however, by then either there were just too many numbers for mom and dad to play, or they have given up with that series of numbers! That only validated their belief that the gods smiled on them, but it is their impatience (or lack of faith, or insufficient incense or pork or whatever) for not having steadfastly played the same numbers in the lottery. My point is, my mom believed in her gods (and so did I at the time), the gods of wood and stones, and that belief includes the provision of divine protection and material wealth and prosperity.

Now, it seems to me that most Christians approach their God in more or less the same manner. God is supposed to look after us, protect us from harm, help us in getting the right job, finding the misplaced key, healing from the latest bout of the flu, relieving us from the discomforts and suffering of life, and provide us with success and material wealth. We even ask God to help us win that war against those enemies of the nation. Oh, it is not so much explicitly taught as implicitly practiced. That is why we go about life praying for fine weather for the church picnic, blessing for the job interview, and praising him whenever little Johnny comes home with the straight-A report card. Just this morning, I heard someone making reference to how God blessed him in his business by giving him success. No wonder when the Western missionaries first entered China to preach their gospel, the Chinese did not see a difference between their gods and goddesses and the Western god. Both seemed to be doing the same thing, meeting the same needs. The only difference is that the Western God-followers claimed theirs to be the One True God. It is no wonder then that some Asians believed that this could be explained by cultural imperialism.

There are at least two reasons to believe why it is so easy to assume that God does bless us materially, and to believe that our physical well-being is a reflection of our relationship with God. One, it seems that this message can be found in the Old Testament. God does say that we will be prosperous and that He will bless us along the way, if we were to walk according to His law and obey Him. Doesn't it say as much in Psalm 1:3 that if we delight ourselves in the law of the Lord ...whatever we do we will prosper? Such promises abound, especially in the Psalms. Some may answer that the way of God in the Old Testament is contrary to the way of God in the New Testament, but if I were to accept that, then it would contradict my previous
complaint! Even in the New Testament, didn't Jesus Himself promised that He has come so that we might have abundant life? What does it mean to have abundant life but to live to the full, to enjoy all that this world has to offer, in short, to be successful, rich, prosperous, to blessed?

It is this underlying belief that God gets the blame so much when things don't exactly go according to our wishes, hopes or fantasies. We believe that good things are practically our birthright. When things don't work out, we accuse God of injustice. Or we blame our faith or lack of it. Like the disciples who saw the man who was blind from birth, we ask, "Is it our fault or our parents fault that this bad luck has befallen us?" In other words, things should have gone smoothly, and if it did not go smoothly, some one must have been at fault--someone needs to be blamed. The thing is, atheists also take this premise as a given in the argument from evil. Except that Christians believe that since we belonged to the Lord, He surely must look after his own?

Allied to this same view is the idea that "everything works for good" so we must "give thanks for everything" in our life.

A few years ago, I was driving a lemon of a car. It worked quite well until I took a trip outside of town. The longer distance coupled with the day's temperature (it was a hot Australian summer), strained the engine too much, and the head gasket blew. Since then I spent quite a lot of money repairing the dang thing. From then on, no matter how many mechanics worked on the car, there was always something wrong with the engine or the radiator. It would often heat up, especially during those long summer months. In hindsight, I should have given up on it, but I stuck with it, wasting much money in the process.

A very kind hearted and sincere sister in Christ one day recommended me to a mechanic she knew. She was taking me to see this new mechanic when she tried to explain to me why I was having so much problems with it.

"R, have you ever stopped to give thanks for this car?" she queried.

"What?" I was stumped.

"The Bible said to give thanks for everything, and you must give thanks for this car before your troubles can be lifted away."

I probably had such an incredulous look on my face, that it was a good thing it was quite dark in the car.

"No," I said softly, "that is something I cannot do. I don't believe I can give thanks to God for the problems I've had with this car. I can give thanks that it at least have been a reliable mode of transport for me for a little while, but I cannot sincerely give thanks to God for having had all these trouble with its radiator, its engine, and the money I have spent on it."

"Believe me, brother," continued the kind and patient sister, "this is the way for victory in the situation. You must give thanks for the car, and for everything you have experienced with it. Claim it by faith and you will see how God will work wonders and bring glory to His name."

"I believe the verse says in everything give thanks," I muttered, "which is quite different from for everything."

"There's no difference! You must give thanks in your situation about your car! If you do, you will find God will begin to release His power to work out your situation for the best. Taste and see the power of God, R!"

I didn't reply.

Somehow, I didn't buy that. For if I did, it would have been no different to what mom used to do for her gods. Only that, in my case, there is no need to burn any incense, sacrifice any chickens or roast pork, but merely to give thanks (No wonder they say grace is free!). It just sounded too suspiciously me-centered, although I could always rationalize it by giving thanks and asking for the miracle to be a demonstration of His glory!

Does this mean I do not believe that God works in our lives to bring about wealth, health, prosperity and other good things? I am not necessarily implying that God does not, although what I am saying is that He is more concerned with other virtues that He wants to develop in us, which may sometimes result in material success as a by-product. However, being short sighted as we are, we often take the shortcuts and focus only on the by-product. However, as a famous Australian ex-Prime Minister used to say, "There are no free lunches."

What do you think?