I've been chewing on this one for a while. Having friends/family that serve in areas hostile to the Gospel and teaching Acts on Sunday evenings has brought this to the forefront of my mind. Please pray for the Persecuted Church.
I have a bad habit. If I hear a discussion on religion, I squeeze my way into it. It doesn't matter how awkward I appear or how insensitive it may seem. It's an occupational hazard. I see an open door and I barge boldly through it.
One example of this boorish behavior occurred several years ago when we were living in Kentucky. My wife and I went out to eat at the local Dairy Queen and seated near us was a group of teenagers. Their Christian T-shirts, 'WWJD' bracelets and brightly colored Bibles told me they must have been getting ready to go to a youth group meeting at one of the local churches. As I munched on my fries, I could hear the door of opportunity creak open as they began discussing, quite animatedly, a theological conundrum that has given scholars much to write about for centuries: Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? The discussion started getting more lively and I looked up at my wife, who had the "you're-going-to-do-it-anyway-so-just-hurry-up-and-get-it-over-with" look on her face.
I put my french fries down and quickly assessed the group. The most dominant was a loud and brash girl who was maybe 16. She spoke with the cocksure confidence that comes with adolescence. So, like a gun-fighter approaching a posse, I chose to address her. She spoke of how her minister said as long as you had enough faith, bad things won't and can't happen to you, because you are under God's protection. She then went on to cite several television evangelists who spouted off the same message of prosperity and well-being for all God's faithful children. After she gave her side of the argument she crossed her arms and gave me a smirk that said, "I'm right. You know I'm right, so why don't you just go back to your fries and cold hamburger."
I politely asked her one simple question: What Scripture backs up this claim? Her response? Jeremiah 29:11- "'For I know the plans I that I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans for welfare, and not for calamity; plans to give you a future and a hope.'" I asked her about context and Biblical examples of suffering, including Jesus, but she was deeply rooted in her philosophy and would not yield. I knew when I was beat, and when discussing religion with a headstrong teen, reason would not prevail. I gave her my email address and excused myself from the table.
America is a tremendously prosperous nation. There can be no denying that God has blessed us materially. The majority of Americans live in the top 1% of wealth in the world! But all this wealth has had a side-effect that has seeped deep into the culture of the American church. Consider the following stats from the 2006 article 'Does God Want You to be Rich?' in Time magazine:
-17% of Christians claim to be a member of a church/denomination that teaches 'prosperity theology'
-31% of Christians believe that if you give God money, He will bless you with more money
-61% of Christians believe that God wants all Christians to be prosperous (although to be fair, the question did not specify spiritual or financial prosperity)
-The article goes on to claim that 3 out of the 4 largest congregations in America preach a message of 'prosperity theology.'
What the article does not say is that this theology is a phenomenon unique to the American church. In countries where the Church is persecuted, you won't hear a message of financial prosperity based on having enough faith. In cities stricken with disease and poverty, the 'health & wealth' gospel would be rightfully scorned. Every day Christians all over the world are arrested, imprisoned, tortured and executed for their beliefs. What do the prosperity preachers have to say to these martyrs? Was their faith, a faith that was fired in the kiln of persecution and purified in the crucible of humiliation, not enough to allow them to fulfill God's plan of financial well-being in their life? This doesn't include the Christians who die of cancer, who are suffering from debilitating diseases or who work hard every day to keep their head from drowning below the poverty line. The prosperity 'gospel' leaves way too many questions unanswered for my taste.
But what about Jeremiah 29:11? What about other passages where it clearly states that God desires to bless his children? How do we interpret these Scriptures in light of the reality we face?
1. Recognize that the World is Sick with Sin
Sin has consequences that reach far beyond our own personal lives. Because of sin death entered the world, and with it came every form of disease known to man. Because of sin governments are corrupt, depriving people of the ability to make a living or practice their faith openly. Because of sin natural disasters (a byproduct of the flood that destroyed the world in Noah's time. A world so sinful that God was forced to 'wash' it away and start anew) inflict terror that is felt acutely by countries so poor, they cannot properly prepare for them. Sin is what causes suffering. Not God, and definitely not a lack of faith in Him.
2. Recognize that God's Blessings are not Always Physical
Some of the blessings I have enjoyed from God are not physical in nature. Encouragement, the presence of His Spirit, the confidence of knowing He stands with me and the knowledge that this world of suffering is not my home are all things that pale in comparison to physical wealth. When we add suffering to the mix, the apostles open a whole new door on how to rejoice in God's blessing. They counted it as a blessing to share in Christ's suffering (Acts 6:40-41). Paul said that 'to live is Christ and to die is gain'. The greatest thing that can happen to a Christian is death. The early church understood this, and this leads us to one final point.
3. Recognize that God's People have a History of being Persecuted
Let's take Jeremiah as an example. Here is a guy who wore an ox-yoke while he preached, was imprisoned numerous times, was considered a heretic by the priests, a naysayer by the false prophets, and a traitor by the king. He was so hated that he was thrown into a cistern and left for dead. When his prophecies of defeat to Babylon came true, he was exiled to Egypt, and was hated by the exiles there as he warned against falling into idolatry. Jewish tradition teaches that while in Egypt he was assassinated and denied a proper burial. This is the guy that God delivered the message of "a future and a hope" to Israel. God's promise through Jeremiah was (a) specific to Israel and (b) a spiritual reality to His people. Today, nearly 20,000 Christians a year are martyred world-wide (according to Voice of the Martyrs). This persecution should not be ignored. Neither should it be grieved. These men and women gave their lives for the Gospel. As Tertullian said, their blood is the seed of the spread of Christianity. God placed upon them a burden that is perhaps to heavy for the American Church to bear. Their suffering blesses us with encouragement, edification and hope. If only our 'prosperity preachers' could be so worthy.