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Should I believe everything I am told?

Wed May 24th, 2017

In an age of cynicism how can we believe what we are told? As children, we are told not to trust all adults, and not to wander off with them (especially if they are offering you sweets!) In education, we are taught to be critical, to ask questions, to analyse texts, to work out what is written between the lines in a poem. Part of socialisation, learning how to relate to others in society, is trying to recognise who can be trusted and who is leading you on. We are not very good at this though, because so many people are scammed out of their money, promised relationships that end up only being about gratification, undergo emotional, physical or sexual abuse, or dare I say, even spiritual abuse!

There are many ways we could assess this question, but let’s talk about it entirely from the perspective of the community of the church, because I am sure that was how it was meant when it was passed to me.

Con-Men

When I was leading my first church, we had a visitor one Sunday from the USA, he seemed very genuine and engaged with us in worship. On the face of it he was destitute and while he wasn’t asking directly for help, I emptied my wallet into his hands (as I am sure a couple more people did). Three weeks later I got a call form a Pastor from 30 miles away to warn me that there was an American con-artist going around church in Yorkshire and they had just had him – I had to admit that we had also enjoyed a visit!

With this scenario, I wrote the experience off as a learning exercise and I told myself that we would all be fine because we had given generously out of a good heart, irrespective of the heart of the man who took our money. How can we defend ourselves from such people - especially when they are so subtle and they attack us on our weak areas, such as generosity and kindness?

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. (Heb 13:2)

What I never want to do is lead a church full of people who are so suspicious that they have become stunted in their generosity, cynical in their nature and unmoved by ‘need’. If we don’t know for sure I would rather we treated con-men like angels, then treat angels as con-men! The elders in the church are responsible for deflecting ‘wolves’ – those who sneak into the church to deceive, defraud or cause dissent. Let us make sure that we leave dodgy folk to the elders, and not obsess about them ourselves.

Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among whom the Holy Spirit has appointed you as overseers, to shepherd the church of God, which He purchased with His own blood. 29 I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 And men from among yourselves will rise up with deviant doctrines to lure the disciples into following them. 31 Therefore be on the alert Acts 20:28-31

However, there is another approach.

Holy Spirit

We should always ask God for guidance in these situations, seeking he Holy Spirit to show us what to do. If you like, it is a bit like giving our offering to the church. Some things are obvious – that our offering should go to the local church, the body of Christ, and that if we wish to support other ministries they should be in addition to giving to the local church rather than instead of. When we give to the church however, let us ask the Holy Spirit for guidance what we should give, rather than just grabbing the nearest £20 note.

If we ask for guidance about getting on board with people or offering them a gift or in any way making a commitment then we must seek the Holy Spirit’s help.

"Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves. 16 You'll recognize them by their fruit. Matt 7:15

We must be kind and generous but also not naive.

But I want you to be wise about what is good, yet innocent about what is evil. Rom 16:19-20

Look, I'm sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as serpents and as harmless as doves. Matt 10:16

My First Pastor

When I first started to follow Jesus, my Pastor was John Mosey (who lost his daughter in the Lockerbie plane). He always said, “don’t accept things I say on face value – but go home and study your Bible to check that what I have said is true”. I found that his words were true and that I could trust him, but I also checked things out for myself. Later on, I had a Pastor who had a lot of extra-Biblical views that I couldn’t check on, because they weren’t in the Bible, but he seemed to be such a lovely man and such a great preacher that for a while I was taken in (!)

Be slightly wary of the glowing guys with so much personal charisma you just want to be near them! Never put anyone or anyone’s ideas above your Bible. Trust God firstly, and then people. Remember that however many books they may have written or however many people listen to them on the internet or even on TV, that we are all capable of being wrong! (I say that as someone who has written a moderately successful book and whom lots of people listen to on the internet).

All that Glitters

When they tell you they have been to heaven and come back or they have raised three people from the dead, remember that it is not by what they say that you will recognise them as a teacher or a prophet or as a man/woman of God, but it is by their fruit. You have to see and taste their fruit – not just be told about it.

Just because I say I saw heaven once, it doesn’t make me to be a special person, it just tells you I was looking. Just because I have encountered angels a few times, it doesn’t make me someone you should listen to, but rather just someone who listens to God.

Always check out what you are told, not because you are cynical but because God doesn’t want you to be hoodwinked. Don’t be naive, but be harmless, don’t be cynical but hear people out and ask the Holy Spirit about them; if he says don’t get too enthusiastic then don’t throw your weight in with them.

Spiritual Abuse

Jim Jones was a charismatic Methodist Minister who was a treat to hear. He slowly moved away from orthodoxy and became the cult leader of the People’s Temple and in Guyana in November 1978 he encouraged more than 900 people to commit a mass suicide and then shot himself. (276 of them were children). He was quite believable when he started but crazy by the time he finished. No-one would have joined him in those end days, but 900 joined him before. Like a frog in a pan of water they didn’t die because they jumped into hot water and liked it, but because the temperature rose slowly and steadily until they cooked!

There are people who survive in toxic churches or are misled to great error. God expects us not to follow people who mislead us but recognises that sometimes we do. We must take care.

Sometimes leaders manipulate people (because they can) – such abusive behaviour when encountered in church is called spiritual abuse. Thank God there is not a lot of it, but we have to realise that it is real and without checks and balances it can happen. This is why at the Ark we believe in strong relational accountability through Ground Level, and locally through One Voice. Things usually go wrong in churches that withdraw from the world and the rest of the church too.

Occult Practice

It is only one step from spiritual abuse to engaging with demonic influences. Sometimes people will try to engage you in all types of spiritual experiences assuring you that they are safe, but check them out before you say ‘yes’. There are many ‘spiritual’ people that have nothing to do with the Spirit of God.

“Do not turn to mediums or consult spiritists, or you will be defiled by them; I am the Lord your God. Leviticus 19:31

We are warned not to engage in occult practice, be that Ouija, contacting the dead, or anything spiritual that doesn’t have the Spirit of God.

A man named Simon had previously practiced sorcery in that city and amazed the Samaritan people, while claiming to be somebody great. 10 They all paid attention to him, Acts 8:9-10

If a friend you work with assures you that this medium is safe because she told her everything she ever did then still avoid it, because we should associate with demons that impersonate but if we need something better then go to the man that the woman at Samaria met at the well.

Then the woman left her water jar, went into town, and told the men, "Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did! Could this be the Messiah?" John 4:28-29

Don’t be fooled or conned. Not everyone or everything that appears spiritual has anything to do with God. Don’t be fatalistic, thinking that because you have had the opportunity it must be from God, because the devil is like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour! Above all, don’t be naïve, but check everything out in your Bible and with the Holy Spirit. Talk to your Pastor too!

Don’t let life turn you into a cynic, but be kind and generous, just remember that there are a lot of great people out there and pray that you don’t meet the other kind!