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Rainbow Divider

What Does Deception Look Like? Part 5b

by Phil Enlow

Rainbow Divider

Many religious people are sign-seekers in that they want a God whose presence and activity they can detect with their natural senses. What they call “faith” is entirely dependent upon those senses. God and His presence are equated with such things as supernatural manifestations, strong emotions and even physical sensations.

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Christ dwells in his body, the church, by the Spirit and is literally her life. Apart from his abiding presence so-called churches are nothing but expressions of lifeless religion, counterfeits populated by all manner of religious demons who seek to blind people to the living Christ. These demons do whatever it takes to convince their victims that their religious counterfeits are actually of God.

The greatest stronghold that the devil has is not over a man who lives in open wickedness but rather over a man who has embraced a lie, yet who believes he has come into possession of truth. He feels no need. There is no blindness like religious blindness since that condition promotes the illusion that its victims not only can see, but that they are among the enlightened. John 9:39-41.

Religious spirits deal with all kinds of people in their efforts to deceive and so their tactics necessarily vary according to their targets. We have referred to two broad categories of people, typified by the Jews and Greeks of Paul’s day. 1 Cor. 1:22-24 says, “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

We have discussed the “Greek” type, those who rely on their intellects, and noted a few of the symptoms of the workings of spirits on such people. But many others are like the “Jews” in their emphasis upon the miraculous. They insist that God prove Himself by doing something they can detect with their earthly senses. This presents a wide range of opportunities for deception by the kingdom of darkness.

Light and darkness: that is the battle. 1 John 1:5 reminds us, “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” His very being enlightens, imparting knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. Darkness, on the other hand, is not merely the absence of light but a very real evil force that imprisons men’s minds, suppressing light and blinding them to it. Col. 1:13, John 1:5, Acts 26:18, 1 John 2:11, Matt. 6:23, John 12:35-40.

The demand for the miraculous itself takes two broad forms. In some, the “demand” is not sincere but is actually a defense against God and light. They don’t really want light and are looking for an excuse to reject Him. Others, blind to true divinely-enabled faith, demand instead that God meet them on their terms, as we have said, by proving Himself in some way that can be detected through earthly senses. They seek signs for reasons other than to fulfill God’s will and purpose.

A Wicked and Adulterous Generation

Many of the Jews of Jesus’ day were examples of the first type. Of them Jesus said, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign!” Matt. 12:39. Their true nature was described by Jesus’ words in John 3:19-20 — “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.”

God does indeed sometimes perform miraculous deeds in bearing witness to the gospel but it takes a lot more than a miracle to bring men to true faith. Many suppose that if only men could see God’s power in action in some way they would believe. Not so.

Think of all the wonders the Israelites saw in coming out of Egypt. Yet God rejected most of a whole generation. Of them He said, “Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.” Heb. 3:10. Another spirit held them in a prison house of darkness and unbelief. Their problem was not ignorance, but rebellion.

Some people who see signs and wonders might become religious out of fear but only those in whose hearts God’s Spirit has been at work will truly believe. Minds and emotions may sometimes be stirred but it is the heart that reflects our true condition. Proverbs 4:23.

Consider the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. Each one dies, the rich man finding himself in torment, and Lazarus, a beggar on earth, finding a place of rest at “Abraham’s side.” At first the rich man begs Abraham for help — even a little bit of water to cool his parched tongue, but finding this impossible, he begs that his still-living brothers be warned.

“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’” Verse 29.

The man continued, “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’”

Abraham’s response: “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

No sign would ever have been enough despite the demands of religious leaders for one. The truth is that they had many signs all around them of God’s power at work in His Son but they were blind. Like darkness, unbelief is an evil, demonic force that possesses men’s hearts and minds. It causes them — as Jesus said — to “love darkness rather than light.”

Why? What would cause a man to do such a thing? Their deeds are evil. Note that darkness is not even something they see as evil; they love it! As Isaiah prophesied: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil….” Isaiah 5:20.

They are prisoners of sin with no desire to change. Thus any demand for a sign springs not from a desire to be convinced and believe but from a desire for an excuse to continue as they are. Jesus recognized their condition and responded accordingly. No one has ever been lost for lack of a sign.

Sign-Seekers

But others can readily be described as “sign-seekers.” They want something to believe in but need something they consider to be evidence. We live in a sense-governed world: what we can see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. Many religious people are sign-seekers in that they want a God whose presence and activity they can detect with their natural senses. What they call “faith” is entirely dependent upon those senses. God and His presence are equated with such things as supernatural manifestations, strong emotions and even physical sensations.

This makes them very vulnerable to spirits who certainly have power to affect our senses. Jesus warned of this in Matt. 24:24 — “For false christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect — if that were possible.” (Thank God for that last part!) Paul referred to the same thing in 2 Thess. 2:9-10 where he spoke of the “work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing.”

People love miracles. Great crowds often followed Jesus, not because they were drawn to the message of salvation but because they were amazed at the miracles he performed. For example, John 6:1-2 says, “Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick.”

In this passage we find Jesus multiplying loaves and fishes to feed this great crowd. What was their response? Was it to repent of their sins and seek for eternal life? No! They wanted to take Jesus by force and make him king! With such a king they would never lack anything. How obvious is it that their motive was entirely earthly and selfish. They were blind as to who Jesus was and why he had come.

And it wasn’t long before the great crowds left when Jesus gave them, not miracles, but uncomfortable truth. John 6:60-66. Nothing will cause a sign-seeker to go his way like uncompromising gospel truth that shines a light on his heart’s need and seeks to bring about true repentance. He will run in search of the latest sign, miracle, or experience and believe himself to be spiritually superior for having done so.

What is it about signs, wonders, and spiritual experiences that people find so appealing? What are they seeking? Remember the description of what motivates people of the world in 1 John 2:16 — “the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does.” Such desires often seek their fulfillment in the realm of the miraculous.

Unquestionably the motivation in some is that people find such things entertaining. People love excitement, the “wow” factor. Where some are thrilled at musical or athletic performances, others are like those who followed Jesus. They want to be amazed and excited, and the idea that God is involved in some way is really a bonus. It makes their pursuit of supernatural entertainment seem OK and they bask in the atmosphere, expecting that God is pleased with their interest in “spiritual” things.

But the truth is that they are no more interested in the things of God than were those who stopped following Jesus that day. A God who entertains me with miracles — great! But a God who tells me truth I don’t want to hear — that’s another story. That can’t be God!

Such a view of God leaves one wide open to deception. Miracles become proof-positive of God’s presence and activity. A symptom of deception in this area is when there is an undue emphasis upon the miraculous. That kind of emphasis will surely draw a crowd — but to what? Is God’s priority to amaze people with miracles or to rescue lost helpless sinners through the gospel? Is His emphasis upon “power” or upon Christ and him crucified?

Many religious gatherings that emphasize miracles are essentially shows. The religious practitioner — often a healer — is the showman who hopes to amaze his followers with his ability to use “God’s power.” He basks in fame and fortune at the expense of those followers and justifies it all as “the work of God.” Yet how many like him will be among those to whom Jesus will one day say, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” Matt. 7:21-23. Some of them will claim to have cast out demons and performed many miracles!

Can you imagine Jesus putting on a show as so many do in our day? He helped people in real need, motivated by compassion, led by God, often privately, never majoring on the miracles. Drama and showmanship played no part. He didn’t need someone playing an organ to set the mood! His focus was always on imparting truth that would set his hearers free. John 8:31-32. He never sought to glorify himself but only the Father who had sent him. John 7:18. He only did what the Father showed him to do. John 5:19.

Glory Seekers

Of course, the same miracle power that entertains and amazes some begets in others an ambition to be miracle workers themselves. They follow, but motivated by a desire to learn the secret, to acquire the power to perform their own miracles. Despite their attempts to pass off their ambition as “spiritual,” it is typically nothing but pride and a desire to win the adulation of the crowds.

A scriptural example can be found in Acts 8 where we read about Philip carrying the gospel to Samaria. There was a man who lived there who had some kind of occult power by which he amazed the Samaritans and gained a reputation as “the Great Power.” Acts 8:9-11.

God used Philip to perform many genuine miracles — in order to bear witness to the gospel — and these miracles were such that even Simon was amazed and “believed.” After he and many others were baptized in water Peter and John were sent from Jerusalem and laid hands on the believers that they might receive the Holy Spirit.

As Simon observed this his true motivation was revealed. In verses 18 and 19 we see him offer the apostles money that he might likewise have the ability to impart the Holy Spirit.

“Peter answered: ‘May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.’” Acts 8:20-23. History seems to suggest that Simon never did repent or escape his addiction to pride and glory-seeking. He died an enemy to Christ and the gospel.

We children of Adam are proud creatures. At best pride is a problem even when God’s power is truly at work. Look what became necessary in 2 Cor. 12:7-10 to keep Paul humble. But when religious people pursue miracle power outside of the will and purpose of God there is nothing left but the working of demons. Any glorying will be in miracles and men, not in Christ and the cross.

Blessing Seekers

On one level miracles are very entertaining but on another we by nature love the idea of power that triumphs over the trials and difficulties of earthly life. No matter how hard we may try it is evident that we human beings are not in control. Life is full of uncertainty. Things happen that we don’t anticipate and for which we are unprepared. A man may become rich only to find out he has cancer. Someone unexpectedly dies. The idea of gaining access to supernatural power in these things is very appealing. This is what draws some to witchcraft.

Those fed miraculously by Jesus saw him as one who had such power and they desired it that they might meet life’s challenges. As we have said, their interest was not spiritual at all. Most people who flocked to Jesus simply wanted their problems fixed. And so, people chase signs and wonders, not only seeking entertainment or prideful recognition, but also power over earthly trials, whether related to health, prosperity, or other circumstances.

When you consider the matter honestly what many really seek is to make God their servant, a sort of heavenly “Mr. Fix-it.” They are looking for the secrets involved in “getting God to do what I want.” The idea that God has His own plan and purpose never enters their minds. They constantly seek the latest “formula,” or the “magic prayer.” If they hear of someone who seems to have some success in making things happen they run after them in hopes of learning the secret.

Witchcraft and Magic

This pursuit has far more in common with witchcraft and magic than most would like to admit. I have no doubt that many would highly resent this suggestion but it is true. The essence of man’s fall into sin is that he seeks to be in control, to assert his own will, to be his own god.

It probably sounds like a contradiction to say that trying to get God to do something for me can be seeking to be my own god but it is true. The real question is: whose will is paramount? Is it really God’s will and purpose we seek, or our own? Is He our servant, some magic genie who exists to do our bidding?

Those who practice witchcraft or magic usually do so as part of an elaborate belief system. They may see magical powers as simply part of the natural order of things, just as physical laws are. Or, they may believe in their own essential divinity and seek to tap into that. And, of course, some consciously seek to invoke the intervention of demons and heathen “gods.”

Regardless of the particular belief system some of the basic characteristics involved are ritual, incantation, and “faith.” These are seen as the means by which one is able to invoke or tap into supernatural power to achieve a certain result.

Rituals are simply carefully prescribed things to do. They could involve most anything. The key is to do the ritual correctly. Rituals involve such things as particular places, times, objects, and actions. Go to a special mountain or temple during the full moon; bring certain objects with you and arrange them a certain way, etc., etc. The key is that whatever the ritual involves, it is something the person or persons must DO.

Incantations are simply the precise words that must be said in connection with rituals. Once again, notice who is in charge! It is as though the power is just there waiting to be tapped if only one DOES and SAYS the right things. Magic is very formulaic. Employing the correct formula is just about everything.

The other ingredient is that one must believe in what one is doing. It is not enough to do everything mechanically. It is important that heart and mind be engaged. It is not hard to see these principles as powerful tools used by demon spirits to enslave people in darkness. Such simple things as Ouija boards have been used by demons to gain a stronghold. People may think they are just “playing,” but the devil isn’t.

As I observe the professing church world of today it seems to me that there is a lot of “magic” in the approach of many to the things of God. Some of this can even creep into the thinking of real believers but it is very evident in the many who are simply religious.

God surely does supernaturally intervene in the affairs of men — according to His own purposes. The Word of God gives us many examples of this. Such examples together with the many precious promises God has given us are meant to encourage us to seek Him and look to Him in every situation. But the key — again — is His purposes and not ours.

A Divine Vending Machine

However, it is an unfortunate tendency in man’s corrupted thinking to pervert the rich provisions of God’s grace into a resource for selfish, earthly purposes. It is almost as though God has provided us with a great heavenly “vending machine” and the Bible is a book of magic that shows us how to extract its blessings. Just put your “money” in the slot, press the right button and out pops the blessing!

There is in the minds of many a very simplistic view of life: God always wants people to be happy, healthy, and prosperous; the key to enjoying these things is our faith; if something bad happens in our lives it is caused by the devil and we have the right to make it “go away.”

A lot of people have been brought into great bondage through such teaching. Essentially, if they are not happy, healthy, and prosperous it is their fault for not having enough faith. And so they struggle along, trying to muster up faith, often attending emotionally-charged gatherings as though that would somehow help them to reach the right button on the vending machine, and often discouraged and condemned in their own minds that what they seek seems to remain out of reach.

And if someone they know about seems to be successful in their pursuit of blessings it becomes a “sign” that they are on the right track, both encouraging them that blessings are available and yet simultaneously discouraging them by reminding them of their own failure to obtain them.

On the other hand, if they do seemingly obtain a divine blessing then then there is the very human tendency to glory in the blessing and in the faith that obtained it. Their experience becomes yet another sign that is used to encourage other sign-seekers and to validate their own efforts.

What I have described happens in far too many places. It is like a religious “treadmill” on which people are encouraged to run faster, to try harder, yet no matter how fast they run or how hard they try they go nowhere. All they get for their efforts is tired and discouraged. Of course the devil knows just when and how to inject a note of encouragement and vain hope through someone’s experience.

What? Why? How?

Questions that need to be considered are these: What are you seeking? Why are you seeking it? How are you seeking it? Is it about God’s will or yours? Is it about eternal purposes or temporal earthly blessings? Is it about God’s glory or yours?

God is mindful of our earthly needs. We are encouraged by these words in Matt. 6:33 to “... seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” What things? Earthly necessities. The same passage warns in verse 24 that it is impossible to serve two masters. We cannot serve both God and money. Verse 21 reminds us that, “... where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

Does any of this mean that it’s not right or “spiritual” to seek God about earthly needs and trials? Of course not! We are told to “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:7. He wants us to bring every care to Him — but with an understanding heart and a submissive spirit.

He is focused on eternity while we tend to be focused on earthly things. We seek comfort, ease, and prosperity; He seeks Christlikeness and that His name might be glorified. Each person, each circumstance is unique and He has a purpose in it. Sometimes He indeed does something obviously supernatural and wonderful. Other times His plan involves such things as pain and suffering as well as other trials and difficulties.

Paul’s experience in 2 Cor. 12:1-10 is a perfect illustration. The great revelations given to Paul had left him vulnerable to a common human weakness: pride. To counter that the Lord allowed a demon to harass Paul. Surely Paul knew all the formulas and proof-texts for making devils go away but this time they didn’t work.

So he prayed. And he prayed. And he prayed. Did he do wrong in this? Of course not. But notice that he didn’t “claim” victory or assert his own will and “faith” in some way. He just persistently brought the need to God. Finally God answered him, but not by making the devil leave! He helped Paul to see the reason and so Paul humbled himself and grew spiritually.

His experience has been an encouragement to countless believers ever since. In some situations it is not God’s will to make the difficulty “go away,” rather, He gives grace to endure. Paul wanted to serve God effectively and initially thought that the harrassing demon was an obstacle. He came to see that the real obstacle to effective service was his own self and pride and that battling that demon in God’s strength kept self and pride in check.

Did he grumble about all this? No! Once he understood, he gloried in his own weakness and dependence upon the grace of God because through that Christ’s power rested upon him making his ministry truly effective.

A Way Out

A favorite scripture for a believer to quote in a time of trial is found in 1 Cor. 10:13 where we read, “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”

It is easy to focus on the words, “a way out” and miss the “so that you can stand up under it” part. God can make trials and difficulties disappear — if that is His purpose. However, much of the time, His purpose is fulfilled when we depend upon His strength to endure the trial.

Healing

One area of controversy and misunderstanding concerns healing. Everyone agrees that God can and does heal. But some teach that it is always His will to heal. This teaching effectively turns health and illness into signs! They become signs of faith or the lack thereof and this tends to divide people into two spiritual categories. Those who enjoy good health are in the superior category of those who have faith and those who are sick have a measure of condemnation added to their sickness due to their perceived lack of faith.

Such teaching has much bad fruit but one thing that comes to mind is that there is a great deal of focus on physical healing — and not so much on the things that really matter to God. Ok, so I’m sick. What do I need to do to get well? More faith? How do I get that? Maybe I need to run to the healing crusade and get so-and-so to lay hands on me. Ok, that didn’t work. What next? And on and on it goes with life becoming all about ME and getting well physically.

Just about anyone who struggles with ill health and seeks to serve God has experienced some of these things. They are natural to us. But I thank God for the many testimonies I’ve heard over the years of some who have been brought into a deep and wonderful relationship with God through their infirmity — and never been healed this side of eternity!

What believer has ever read the writings of Amy Carmichael and not been blessed and encouraged in their faith? Yet her writings came out of deep suffering as she was a bed-ridden invalid who experienced a lot of pain over many years. Do you think she is looking down from heaven and complaining that it wasn’t worth it and that God did wrong by not healing her? I don’t think so! Do you really think Jesus met her at heaven’s gate and said, “I’m glad to see you but you should have had more faith”?

A more current example is Joni Eareckson Tada who suffered a terrible diving accident at 17 in which she was permanently paralyzed. She went through some very deep spiritual waters coming to terms with her accident but her testimony today is that God has brought her into a deep and precious relationship with God through it all — so wonderful that if she could trade it all for perfect health she wouldn’t. In addition she has been given a ministry and a testimony that has reached around the world and brought much glory to God. She longs for heaven not so much that she might walk again but that she might see her Saviour face to face! Walking will be a bonus!

One way the Bible is sometimes used almost like a book of spells concerns drawing a formula for all time out of an experience recorded there. The underlying idea is that by doing a particular thing, God was revealing THE WAY He works, a pattern that can be repeated anytime by one who has the needed faith. It is one thing if God leads and imparts faith but apart from that we’re back to the “vending machine” approach to God.

One example that comes to mind concerns a certain prayer recorded in an obscure passage in the Old Testament that was widely promoted as “a prayer that God always answers.” That is quite a leap of logic and basically turns a prayer almost into a magic incantation. Building a doctrine based on an experience is not a good idea.

Tongues

Another example of an experience turned into a doctrine concerns Pentecost. On that occasion God did a wonderful and special thing to bear witness to Christ’s exaltation and the gospel. (By the way, just to show the power of tradition: they were in the temple, NOT in the upper room! They may have stayed in the upper room by night but they spent most of their “waiting for the promised Holy Spirit” time in the temple. Read Luke 24:53.)

As the disciples were there in the temple among the throngs gathered for the Jewish feast of Pentecost the Holy Spirit came upon them. There were individual tongues of fire that rested upon them and they were given the power to testify to the wonderful works of God in the languages of those present — a special miracle for the occasion.

There were a few other times when people were recorded as having spoken in tongues but in each case there was a particular reason. The Samaritans represented a departure from “Jews-only.” The household of Cornelius even more so. God bore a special witness to these unfolding stages in the outreach of His kingdom.

The Ephesian disciples in Acts 20 had been ministered an incomplete faith (the baptism of John) and God gave them a special manifestation of His Spirit that demonstrated the difference. Even then some apparently prophesied rather than speaking in tongues.

Speaking in tongues has become for many a major “sign” that believers are taught to seek (or least, go by). But when Peter was explaining his going to the household of Cornelius to share the gospel he said, “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning.” Acts 11:15. Why did Peter refer all the way back to “the beginning” if this experience happened regularly?

God can and does express Himself in many ways during experiences but so many have turned what happened at Pentecost into a specific pattern meant to apply to all believers since. That absolutely turns people into sign-seekers. As in the case of healing it produces the “haves” — who often feel superior — and the “have nots” who feel “less than” and condemned.

Awhile back a brother and I happened to attend a Pentecost celebration, a gathering of churches who believed that doctrine. One of the major objectives of the meeting, it quickly became apparent, was to get anyone who had not had that particular experience to enter into it. It was very apparent to me and several others that they were striving in themselves — striving to replicate the experience of Pentecost. If only they had managed to get those who came to the “altar” to utter a few nonsensical syllables they would have taken that as a sure sign that the meeting had been a great success.

Now I’m sure that there were some there who genuinely loved the Lord but that doctrine had become a spiritual side-track. Of course it would be equally wrong to say that God never does anything like that, that the gift of tongues, prophesying, and the like have all passed away. That’s not right either. The truth is that we need God, however He chooses to work.

But relying on a sign like speaking in tongues has surely given the devil a lot to work with. When people crave a particular sign more than they do the Lord Himself, they are liable to get one, but it won’t be from the Lord.

I remember a time in my own experience when the Lord dealt with me in this area. I was among those who spent a lot of time preaching about this other spiritual realm that God wanted us to enter. This was preached as something apart from “getting saved.” Tongues or no tongues I wanted to enter in but although people around me seemingly did, I sort of “hit a wall” one weekend and got mad at God for a few days! Why was He leaving me out?

About midweek, after I had pouted for several emotionally-flat days, I quietly came to a point of surrender in which I essentially told the Lord, “I’ll serve you even if I never have a feeling.” There was no wave of emotion, no great breakthrough — but way down deep — in my spirit — there was a measure of peace that let me know that the Lord was listening. I hadn’t been held by the strength of some experience but by something much deeper. Even without any emotions whatsoever I knew God was real and that there was no real choice but to trust Him. He graciously and lovingly waited me out!

The Christian life is a life of faith. It doesn’t depend upon what we see or feel in the sense realm. Many times we are called to walk through dry places in the spirit and stand fast in our faith nonetheless. But many people depend heavily upon their feelings or upon some experience they had once yet seemingly have little or no genuine faith. They are sign-seekers. God seeks those who want Him and trust His word with no conditions. A believer does not say, “I’ll believe you IF....” He simply believes, not just a bunch of religious doctrines and principles but in the PERSON of God. It is a heart of trust thing and not a sign thing.

Many other examples could be cited that would illustrate what Jesus meant when he warned of lying signs and wonders. Suppose you wanted to go to New York and you came to a sign that said, “Welcome to New York” — BUT you were actually entering Chicago! That would be a lying sign. The sign itself would be real but the MESSAGE conveyed by the sign would be a lie. That is what so often happens in spiritual matters. Many outward things are taken as proof-positive signs of God’s favor and Christ’s presence. Just a few examples will illustrate the principle.

Emotions

Whenever God has truly visited people with His manifest presence, people’s emotions have been deeply touched. His presence brings repentance and brokenness followed by worship that flows from the depths of one’s soul, all reflected in the emotions of those present.

However, just because God’s presence touches people emotionally, it does not follow that a religious gathering attended by great emotion is necessarily evidence of God’s presence! “Come to such-and-such a place where thousands will gather to worship God and have a blast” is something that can be produced on a purely human level. We are emotional beings and there are many things that can stir those emotions. But what is the “engine” behind them? When God is truly present, people are confronted at the heart level and either transformed — or they run! An expression of religiously-generated emotion is no substitute.

Loud, energetic, and sometimes emotional music, stirring speakers, the presence of large numbers of like-minded people, can produce a rich emotional experience for those in attendance. Such gatherings are very much part of our culture and not necessarily connected with God at all. We see them in the realm of business, politics, entertainment, social action groups, motivational meetings. I remember years ago being in Amway rallies that featured all of those things.

Religion has widely adopted these forms and often glories in large impressive gatherings where religious emotions are stirred, people are “excited,” and thousands worship God with uplifted hands. I don’t doubt that some of them do! Thank God! But there is far more “religious production” than divine presence in much of that.

What would happen if Jesus were to step onto the platform, silence the ear-deafening, flesh-arousing music, and, with genuine divine anointing, address the true heart needs of those present. How many of those present would say, “Yes! This is what I have been waiting for!”? I fear that most would wish he would simply go away and let them get back to their “blast.” They didn’t come for that, they came for a good time!

The Jews of Jesus’ day had their religious forms too, but when he brought the light of God’s presence and truth into their gatherings they were ready to kill him — and ultimately did. Never forget that religious form — any religious form — begets hatred for God and resists His presence. 2 Timothy 3:5. Of course that hatred is not apparent unless God actually shows up!

Where God is truly present and working there will surely be emotion, but self and sin will be seen in the light of that presence, heartfelt repentance and brokenness will result, and joyful worship and praise will flow out of that. You won’t need a deafening sound system! A humanly-engineered religious experience, no matter how sincerely done, is no substitute. Nor is deep emotion proof that God is present.

Revival

One particular area that typically involves emotion is that of “revival.” There are many accounts of both past and present movings of God in the earth attended by deep emotional responses. That understandably begets in some a hunger to see God move in revival power again. That is a wonderful desire — so long as we realize that it can’t be engineered by us nor do we have the right to dictate to God how or when He is to move!

One weakness that I have observed — and experienced! — is that those who hunger for “revival” are often the very ones most in need of it! They imagine that the hunger itself sets them spiritually above others and drives them to pray for those less spiritual than themselves that God would revive “them.” True revival never breaks out until those who seek it first experience their own genuine repentance, humility, and brokenness before God.

Two experiences come to mind. When I was in college I twice traveled with a gospel quartet for summer ministry. One of our stops was a Bible Conference at a campground. The special speaker for the conference had a particular emphasis in his ministry on “revival.” He spent his time recounting tales of how had God moved in the past, particularly in the famous Welsh Revival of the early 1900s.

As many have pointed out, that revival was preceded by a great deal of prayer by a group of ordinary men who devoted themselves to hours of earnest prayer daily over a long time. And so one thing the speaker did was to organize round-the-clock prayer for revival. Surely there is nothing wrong with encouraging people to seek God but it became sadly apparent that his effort was largely a human one, striving to replicate what happened in Wales, as though it could be engineered by humanly-organized means.

I remember being in other meetings where there was a great attempt at the end to engineer “revival” through extended “altar calls.” “Just one more song ....” “Come on, Christians, pray!” “Let’s wait a little longer.” “Okay, sing it once again.” And on and on until it became painfully evident that nothing was truly happening but a lot of human striving to try to make something happen.

I don’t for a minute doubt the sincerity of those involved in such meetings but we all need to learn more of God’s ways — and HIS times. He is in charge. When HE moves it won’t be because we strive and strive until we overcome His reluctance!

Other Signs

Other things that are often seen as signs of divine favor include: impressive buildings; big programs; large enthusiastic crowds; growth in organizations and movements; and the like. Do you really think Jesus is impressed with any of that? Much of the time all they are a “sign” of is human energy and ingenuity. And where the real engine is human energy and not Jesus building his church, demon energy and influence are not far behind.

Jesus wasn’t the least impressed with the beautiful temple in Jerusalem. He pronounced judgment upon the religious establishment and prophesied the destruction of the temple of which they were so proud. In his ministry he never sought “quantity” but “quality.” He sought only genuine believers, those to whom God had revealed who he was.

Do you think Jesus was distressed and upset when so many turned away in John 6? I don’t. He understood what was happening. He knew that many of those who followed were simply sign or blessing seekers who had no real interest in truth. He never saw the crowds as evidence validating his ministry.

But many today do. They glory in the many outwardly-impressive aspects of their religious group believing them to be “signs” of God’s favor. At the same time how many genuine followers of Jesus today gather at the risk of their lives in secret, meeting in caves, woods, and other remote places. What a contrast! There are going to be a lot of shocked people on judgment day.

Ministry Success

One area that merits particular comment concerns “success” in ministry and its evidence. Success in the minds of many is equated with “numbers,” that is, a steady increase in the number of those professing faith in Christ. A church that is growing in membership is held up as an example of successful ministry, enjoying divine favor. It should be noted that by that measure Jesus was a great failure!

The pressure upon ministers for “results” begets much compromise and human effort. A wide range of means of attracting people is rationalized: “Let’s get them in, then we’ll get them saved.” They are drawn in with entertainment, programs, groups catering to a wide range of interests, coffee bars, etc., etc.

Meanwhile the uncompromising message of the true gospel is “dumbed-down,” soft-pedaled until all that is left is a God who wants to be your friend and help you fulfill your dreams. Just admit that you are a sinner and “accept” Jesus. Then check out our church programs and become active in whatever appeals to you.

What I have just described, sadly, does not overstate the situation in many places today. It no doubt understates it in many. But I fear that in many places the gospel, though it is not compromised to the degree some do, is nonetheless compromised through method and human effort and so produces a lot of false fruit.

Decisionism

Perhaps the prime example is what has been called “decisionism.” Decisionism refers to the belief and practice of leading people through a simple “ABC” presentation of the gospel and then trying to get them to make a “decision” to “accept Jesus as their Savior.” “Successful” ministers are those who become adept at preaching sermons and giving “altar calls” designed to lead people to “make decisions.” Those who make such decisions are told that they are saved.

Does that mean that God has never saved people despite those methods? Of course not! But churches have been filled with lost church members by such methods despite appearances of success. One result is that many ministers today are far more “goat herders” than they are shepherds. Far too many of those that have been gathered are spiritual “goats.” In order to maintain their “success,” ministers feel great pressure to keep the goats from leaving and what few sheep there may be are starved in the process.

Where preachers employ such methods, and growth in membership and attendance results, that growth itself becomes a sign that confirms the methods used. Few there are who refuse to compromise, trusting God for genuine fruit in His time and way. Doing things God’s way brings reproach in the eyes of men, but reward in heaven.

Manufacturing Christians

It ought to be clear from the scriptures that salvation is God’s business and not something we can control. Many modern churches are essentially in the business of “manufacturing Christians”! It can’t be done. The Bible is not a book of magic spells by which we can do the work of God! The so-called “sinner’s prayer” is not a magic incantation that compels God to save anyone who says it.

I want to be very careful not to demean in any way those who may have been used of God to share the gospel in a way that has brought people to the feet of Jesus. But it is one thing for God to have prepared a heart, for Him to bring genuine conviction of sin and need, and for divinely-imparted faith to be exercised by a sinner in calling upon the name of Jesus for salvation. It is another for a person to be led by human effort to make a “decision.” The key, obviously, is simple: is God truly at work or is the effort purely human?

My wife reminded me of something she experienced during our college days. She, together with a group of young people, had been trained to use what amounted to a gospel “script” designed to lead people to make “decisions.” They went out one day on a beach to witness using that method. At the set time they all returned to count all the “decisions” they had obtained that day! I surely hope that in spite of it all, maybe God actually saved someone.

But the experience was an eye-opener for my wife. Something didn’t feel right at all. I’m sure there was a measure of sincerity in the effort but no matter how sincere it may have been, no formula we can administer will produce children of God. And counting converts or “decisions” is surely a mark of something being wrong. It encourages further human effort as well as pride. And it becomes a “sign” that seemingly confirms that effort.

I remember something else that I encountered very early in pastoral ministry. I came into possession of a soul-winning, church-building program written by a “successful” minister somewhere. For a time I flirted with it until something didn’t seem right. Church members were to be trained to go door-to-door to witness and invite people to church. Nothing wrong with that if God is in it.

But the program was constructed very much along the lines of a sales program, right down to a “gospel presentation” that was essentially a sales script designed to lead to a “sale.” It attempted to bring the essential truths of the gospel down to something just about anybody could supposedly use to produce Christians. The part that stands out in my memory was the statement in the program to the effect that when the script was sincerely presented, the work of the Holy Spirit was automatic!

Seriously?! Who is in charge? It is one thing to be a yielded vessel, an instrument for God’s purpose, trusting Him for genuine fruit. It is another to suppose that God has ceded control to us to push the right spiritual buttons and thereby invoke his automatic power. Does not the latter strongly resemble witchcraft?

Numbers?

What about numbers being a sign of spiritual success and blessing? I can’t help but recall having heard many accounts from various mission fields that go something like this: a pioneer missionary would go with great sacrifice to some new field of ministry; he would faithfully pray and minister for decades and finally pass off the scene with little outward results to show for all his sacrifice; then, sometimes decades later, there would be a great ingathering by younger missionaries.

What happened? Was there something wrong with the earlier missionary? Was the harvest reaped by the later missionaries a sign of greater divine favor? Surely you know that the answer is no. The very nature of God’s kingdom and man’s way of doing things and evaluating his efforts are very different. Judgment day will make that apparent.

In John 4 we see the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan “woman at the well.” When the disciples return from buying food they are surprised that he is talking with her. He tells them that his food is to do the Father’s will and that the “fields” are ready for harvest. Of course he was referring to a spiritual harvest.

In John 4:36-38 Jesus continued, “Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.”

Do you get the picture? The kingdom of God is not about “results” as we tend to measure them. It is about doing the Father’s will. There are seasons of planting and seasons of reaping. That is His business. Ours is just seeking and serving Him, not seeking “signs” or “results” that will impress others. I don’t want to be among the many who will be shocked and dismayed on judgment day. Do you?

The question at hand concerns the active presence of Christ in his church. How do we know? Many equate his presence with a variety of “signs” as we have noted. True believers have a growing and very personal relationship with Christ that enables them increasingly to discern the difference between Christ and religion. True faith does not seek, nor does it depend upon signs that register in the sense realm. It rests upon something much deeper, much stronger, a hope that serves as an anchor for the soul. Hebrews 6:19.

In John 6 the crowds abandoned Jesus — but a small group including the twelve disciples stayed. Why? What did they have to hold them? Signs? Feelings? A popular leader? Did they understand Jesus’ perplexing words? What then?

We find the answer in verse 65 where Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.” That is what enabled Peter to say, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Jesus had asked the disciples if they were going to leave too. Stripped of every natural thing that might have held them, he and the others were left with a simple, heaven-sent heart conviction of who Jesus was — and that was more than enough.

In John 10:14 Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me ....” In verse 27 he continued, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” He can make himself known to those who genuinely desire him. They know who he is!

Himself

I once remember hearing a minister — he happened to be of the Pentecostal variety — say, “You’ve got the doctrine; I’ve got the experience!” Of course there is some truth in that. Dead doctrine is no good. But there is something much better than “experience.” I am from time to time reminded of the great hymn by A.B. Simpson entitled, “Himself.” We may have, or think we have, many things, but when we truly have HIM, we have everything!

“Once it was the blessing, Now it is the Lord;
Once it was the feeling, Now it is His Word.
Once His gifts I wanted, Now the Giver own;
Once I sought for healing, Now Himself alone.

“Once ‘twas painful trying, Now ‘tis perfect trust;
Once a half salvation, Now the uttermost.
Once ‘twas ceaseless holding, Now He holds me fast;
Once ‘twas constant drifting, Now my anchor’s cast.

“Once ‘twas busy planning, Now ‘tis trustful prayer;
Once ‘twas anxious caring, Now He has the care.
Once ‘twas what I wanted, Now what Jesus says;
Once ‘twas constant asking, Now ‘tis ceaseless praise.

“Once it was my working, His it hence shall be;
Once I tried to use Him, Now He uses me.
Once the power I wanted, Now the Mighty One;
Once for self I labored, Now for Him alone.

“Once I hoped in Jesus, Now I know He’s mine;
Once my lamps were dying, Now they brightly shine.
Once for death I waited, Now His coming hail;
And my hopes are anchored, Safe within the vail.”

And the chorus:
“All in all forever,
Jesus will I sing;
Everything in Jesus,
And Jesus everything.”

Dr. Simpson has been gone from this earthly scene for nearly 100 years as I write this but never has this simple message been more needed by God’s people as it is today.

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