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Saturday, 26 March 2016

Is Our Westernised “Help” Actually Hurting Poor People?

I saw this book “When Helping Hurts; How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself” and just had to read it. With a dramatic title like this the book is bound to draw attention. It is screaming; “You are all doing things seriously wrong and need to change immediately or suffer serious consequences.”

My first thoughts were that the authors were very brave to write this book effectively criticising the way Christians have been operating for decades. They also must have been very confident in the “new” methods introduced as the book attempts to change not only the way Christians operate but also the way they think about giving. I would hesitate to write a book like this myself in case my efforts resulted in people giving up completely as “helping the poor” suddenly becomes too complicated! After all, people are always looking for excuses not to give and this could be the perfect reason with no guilt attached; A beggar asks you for food or money and instead of giving him the change in your hand or buying him a snack and drink whilst giving him a Gospel tract and offering a word or two from Scripture, you pause to consider chapter 11 paragraph 2 of “the book” which states that you should establish the background of and try to form a relationship with this person before giving him anything as it may make his situation worse…you walk away.....Becoming afraid of doing more harm than good and ending up paralysed in indecision was sadly the response of some readers when the book was initially published, although the newest edition addresses that and begs people to continue helping the poor.

After just a few years in the mission field, I agree with the basic principles in the book which are;

*The true hope of the Gospel is what people really need and this should always come first. (There is a good emphasis on the Gospel for transforming lives within the book)

*Money is not always the solution and in some cases can make situations worse. We should ask the people what they need before giving material gifts rather than assuming.

*Love, time, care, compassion and relationship building are foundational to helping people and must always be central whether or not material help is given

*Where possible we want to be conducting ministries that allow people to support themselves financially in the longer term so that they do not become
dependent on us removing the motivation to work

*Local church ministry to the poor is always better than foreigners sweeping in and taking over. Foreigners should work under the direction and supervision of existing local Christian ministries rather than taking the lead

Although I agreed with the basic principles I found myself irritated as I was reading the book as it reminded me of a rather lengthy police diversity textbook full of procedures, methods, charts and diagrams with this and that “experts” opinion and theories about the human mind and behaviour and how people in various different cultures view the world. There was an emphasis on building people’s self-esteem/self-confidence and talk about reconciling relationships with God, others, ourselves and the rest of creation. We are told that there is “goodness” to discover and celebrate even in a fallen world and that we are not “as bad” as we could be. The language used seems to me to be far beyond the abilities of the average Christian reader and the things described remarkably complex. I’m sure there were some good ideas and practical suggestions in there somewhere but a lot of it was lost in “management speak” and politically correct jargon about what is and isn’t “appropriate.”

When describing things we “should not do,” the examples given where things had gone wrong were often extreme e.g a group of farmers worshipping a foreign god who, when helped financially by Christians increased their giving to their god to demonstrate thankfulness, and another group who didn’t understand the order of creation that God had placed man over animals and so were allowing rats to over-run their farm destroying everything year after year even after receiving material help. I think the point the authors were making here was that when giving we also need to teach Scripture/educate people so that resources are not wasted.

Naturally when reading something like this we tend to think of our own experiences and wonder whether we have “helped” or “hurt” people in the past. I realised that the reason I could agree with the basic principles of the book is because I learned them through experience (and many mistakes) in just a few years of mission work. There were many occasions when I tried to help the solvent children( "They're Rugby Boys, Don't You Know?") in small material ways but all they really wanted was my time, attention and love.  Maybe others need to learn these things in the same way through experience and mistakes.

One of the main areas of the book concerns Short Term Missions (STM’s.) This was an area where I strongly agreed with the authors especially after some of my experiences on Logos Hope. When we were sent on teams to help people practically we were often asked for money to solve problems that should have been dealt with by local churches. If we helped we might have been undermining the local church and also causing the attention to be focused on us and not on God where it belongs. On the other hand I would not discourage someone from helping a fellow believer with whom they have an established relationship although it is important to ensure that the money is used for the intended purpose.

I have never really understood STM’s, especially where a lot of money is spent to send a person/team as it seems that it is often more about the experience for the person/team taking part in the “mission” rather than the people they are going to help. These “missions” often cost a lot of money and cannot really accomplish anything due to the short duration. It is not possible to establish meaningful relationships in order to share the Gospel in a few weeks especially in a foreign culture. Literature may break the barrier here as it can be left, studied and read long after the mission is complete, but is it really necessary to send people halfway round the world to do this or could we just use local churches/believers and send them the literature for distribution? Money often seems to be wasted in the area of STM’s and I agree with the authors that they can do more harm than good. I would suggest that people wanting a “mission experience” (unless they feel called to a particular country where they could go for a longer trip to begin with) should join a team in their own country at first to avoid the huge costs associated with unnecessary foreign travel.

The main problem I had with the book is that it reminded me of the “Purpose Driven” material; where one method is used for every situation and where people began studying the “Purpose Driven” books instead of Scripture. At the end of each chapter is a study guide for small groups with questions for reflection that the authors stated was a mandatory part of the “course.” (I skipped it) They do say that they are not teaching a one size fits all approach and that there will be exceptions to every rule but that is not how the book comes across. One of the subtle messages is that you shouldn’t even attempt to help the poor unless you know exactly what you are doing and/or are an expert in the field. I would agree that if you are heading into long term work in this area you should conduct proper research in advance but I would suggest that the authors should not have included the average person dealing with an individual on the street/in their community in their blanket ban on helping people. Although praying for discernment and being led by the Spirit (through the Word) are mentioned, in my view, they are not referenced enough. I believe a better way forward is to deal with people on a case by case basis as individuals as no person’s situation is exactly the same as someone else’s.

Of course, we can all do things in a more efficient and productive way and we shouldn’t waste resources but is that really what God is concerned about? All of our resources/money belong to God anyway and I have to believe that when a person makes a decision to give for the right reasons (cheerfully and not under duress) that God will use that for His glory regardless of the circumstances. There is always a risk that some people will exploit generosity but I don’t think the methods described by the authors will necessarily combat that.  They say that material/financial giving should always be “seldom, immediate and temporary” but where is this in Scripture? What the authors are really saying is that we need to check whether the people that are presenting themselves as “poor” are really poor or just lazy, but is that really our role or is it God's on Judgement Day?

The Bible uses all-encompassing words to encourage generosity in all situations without hesitation and with no qualifications or conditions. I have included some of these below, although I recognise that the authors are really seeking to address our methods of giving/help rather than the issue of whether or not we should give. There is no doubt that we should seek to be wise in our mission “giving, sending and going” for God’s glory but I would suggest that it is better to give and get it wrong than not to give at all.  This book is worth reading as it will make you think.

Relevant Bible verses

1. Luke 3:10-11 And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then? He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise.

2. Ephesians 4:27-28 for anger gives a foothold to the devil. If you are a thief, quit stealing. Instead, use your hands for good hard work, and then give generously to others in need.

3. Matthew 5:42 Give to everyone who asks you for something. Don’t turn anyone away who wants to borrow something from you.

4. Proverbs 19:17 The one who is gracious to the poor lends to the LORD, and the LORD will repay him for his good deed.

5. Luke 6:38 Give, and it will be given to you. A large quantity, pressed together, shaken down, and running over will be put into your lap, because you’ll be evaluated by the same standard with which you evaluate others.”

6. Psalm 112:5-7 Good comes to those who lend money generously and conduct their business fairly. Such people will not be overcome by evil. Those who are righteous will be long remembered. They do not fear bad news; they confidently trust the LORD to care for them.

7. Psalm 37:26 The godly always give generous loans to others, and their children are a blessing.

8. 2 Corinthians 9:7 Each of you must give what you have decided in your heart, not with regret or under compulsion, since God loves a cheerful giver. Besides, God is able to make every blessing of yours overflow for you, so that in every situation you will always have all you need for any good work.

9. Deuteronomy 15:10 Be sure to give to them without any hesitation. When you do this, the LORD your God will bless you in everything you work for and set out to do.

10. Romans 12:20-21 Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.

11. Proverbs 25:21 If your enemy is hungry, give him some food to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him some water to drink.

 12. Deuteronomy 15:7-8 If there should be a poor man among your relatives in one of the cities of the land that the Lord your God is about to give you, don’t be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your poor relative. Instead, be sure to open your hand to him and lend him enough to lessen his need.

13. Acts 2:44-26 And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity

Friday, 18 March 2016

Why I Don't Support Heavenly Tourism



Maybe this seems like an obscure topic but I hope you will see the reason this is important by the end of this post. I began hearing about the books published by various authors claiming that they had “been to heaven and back” a number of years ago. I immediately dismissed them from my mind believing that it was obviously a load of rubbish and that any sincere Christians would surely do the same.  I was shocked when I began hearing Christians talking about these experiences as if they might be genuine and when I saw people buying and reading the books. The interest in people’s stories about their personal experiences in “heaven”, whether real or not, seemed to be so intense that these books began hitting and remaining on Best-Seller lists worldwide. 

Did I develop a sudden personal interest and think that maybe I had been too hasty in my earlier judgement? Did I rush out and buy a copy of “The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven” or “90 Minutes In Heaven” to fill in the gaps that God had apparently left when He inspired the Bible? Um….no, actually I just forgot about all of this and assumed it was a fad that would die a quick death. I occasionally noticed the books in Christian Bookshops and on the internet, usually proudly displaying their “Best seller” status’ on the front cover along with their high rankings, but that was the extent of it.

However, the subject came up again this week when I overheard a conversation amongst some Christians in an American book warehouse. Whilst sorting books, one of them asked whether they should dispose of a vast quantity of paperback copies of one such “heavenly tourism” book and remove the title from sale. (I forget which exact title they referred to as there are so many of them now.) Before the person could reply I spoke without thinking (it happens sometimes,) and commented that I couldn’t understand why any Christian would believe the stories anyway and that I was glad they were removing it from sale as it was clearly unbiblical. Then followed a period of weighty silence where no one seemed inclined to agree with my comments (at least not out loud.) Then, the person to whom the question was addressed eventually stated that actually it was  a different title (and therefore a different person’s trip to heaven) that was no longer going to be sold but that the original title would still be available for sale. 

Later, and more privately, I asked the manager about this and was informed that the reason the title “The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven” was being removed was because the author’s son, who had claimed he had been to heaven, had now recanted his tale stating that he had fabricated the entire story as he knew it would gain him attention. To his credit he then sought to explain clearly and Biblically why his earlier experiences could not have been true…

The conversation bothered me for a while but I knew from past experience that there was no point in taking the matter any further as it is not within my sphere of influence. Then today whilst sorting books in the same warehouse I stumbled upon a book that I had never seen before, the title of which immediately caught my attention. “Visits to Heaven and Back; Are They Real?” by Mark Hitchcock.After reading the cover I borrowed the book and read it in one sitting. I read this book, not really to confirm what I already knew, that these claims could not possibly be true, but more to gain a Biblical basis for my instinctive response. I thought, not for the first time, how confusing it must be for non-believers when they see Christian Bookshops selling one group of books with Christian’s personal experiences in heaven, and hell now as it turns out, and then other books, including the Bible, probably occupying the same shelf space, stating how these experiences cannot be true! What a mess we get into when we don’t take the Bible seriously.

Hitchcock’s book is well-researched and I believe timely. He lists 40 of the most popular of these books by title. He then examines some of the very well-known titles in light of the Word of God. He documents error in each account proving from Scripture that these experiences cannot be valid. He gives a balanced review and highlights positive features where they exist, e.g. if a particular author has shared the Gospel correctly despite their erroneous claims. He further explains why these books are dangerous and why as Christians we should avoid and reject them, I have picked out some of the points he makes; 

a) They encourage people to search beyond the Bible for information that they are not at liberty to gain suggesting that the Bible/God are not sufficient. 

b) Many of the books indicate that everyone will go to heaven regardless their spiritual state

c) Removing the fear of the unknown about death may also remove the necessary fear of “judgement” and create a false assurance in non-believers

d) They encourage Christians to base their beliefs on personal experience and not on what Scripture says about that experience.

e) Many of the experiences are self-centred and trivialise the serious issue of eternal destinations.

f) The books and authors contradict each other in relation to what heaven/God/Jesus are like. 

g) Their descriptions of heaven do not compare with the Glory of Heaven described in Scripture.

I am not going to go into detail about the Biblical errors in each book as there are too many and sadly too many authors making these and similar claims.  I suggest you buy and read this book if you want specifics or preferably read your Bible before rushing to celebrate the latest crazy claim. The idea that a professing Christian can somehow end up on a “guided tour of hell” isn’t really worthy of further comment….but many people obviously thought that it was judging by the sales.

Hitchcock writes “God is sovereign, but that’s no excuse for promoting error. Professing Christians who write books- even books about very personal experiences- are responsible to make every effort to interpret Scripture accurately and at least not to directly contradict it…..the prevailing notion today is that it’s unloving and uncharitable to question someone else’s experience or private revelation from God….but we are all subject to God’s Word…it’s incumbent on believers to discern the truth of the claims being made and to think biblically about heaven and the afterlife” Pg 11

So, the real reason for my post, other than drawing attention to this phenomenon and giving those who are uncomfortable with it some moral support, is a call for Christians to have greater discernment before blindly, hastily and often foolishly accepting anything and everything that crosses their path in the name of Christ. It’s time to examine Scripture in context to see if our experiences are Biblical and not the other way around.

Revelation 21 vs 1-4

“Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

Saturday, 5 March 2016

The Danger of Labelling a Christian a "Legalist."

There is no doubt that Christian standards of holiness are lowering across the globe. We shouldn’t be surprised by this as the Bible tells us that there will be a progressive decline into worldliness. As individuals we can probably see that our “willingness to compromise” in some areas has grown stronger as we succumb to cultural influences and pressures over time. We eventually give in because we are fed up with standing alone on a particular issue or because we forget why we took a stand on that issue in the first place or because we wonder whether taking a stand is really that important. We become distracted and, like the Church at Ephesus, forget our “first love.”

But what will happen if Christians continue to “blend in” with those around them? When there is no visible difference between us and our non-believing neighbours, friends and colleagues, what happens to our message of HOPE in Jesus? It is nullified and becomes void and irrelevant. Unless our lives are visibly different, people will simply not be interested in hearing our message. How can we proclaim the life transforming power of God if our lives have not been transformed and if we are the same as our worldly counterparts?

I’m not speaking here of pretending to be people that we are not; pretending everything is fine when we are facing trials and struggles to create the illusion of happiness so that people won’t lose confidence in God. This is spiritual pride and a reason for a lot of loneliness in some churches where people feel they have to pretend they are okay as everyone else seems to be okay. So we all walk around telling each other we are okay when actually we are not. That is not Biblical Christianity. Being real and honest about our problems and showing vulnerability at difficult times shows humanity that makes our message more authentic to non-believers. It also helps them to trust and confide in us as they realise we can empathise with them when they are struggling. The point is that even in the midst of our trials we should be seeking to trust God as we know that He is faithful and will not leave or forsake us even when we fall into sin or other difficulties. Our hope is always in Him even when we face hardship or have a tough time understanding our circumstances. We believe that God is teaching us something through any and all troubles so they are not in vain. We are looking for the spiritual life lessons that we can learn.

Every day as Christians we make decisions that impact those around us, those who are still walking in darkness, whose spiritual eyes have not yet been opened to the truth of the Gospel. The reality is that these people are on a broad road to an eternity in hell. Do we really believe this? Do we have any care or concern for those people? Do we constantly remind ourselves “there but for the grace of God go I?” or do we sit in judgement over them and leave that conversation for another day?

Why are we allowing ourselves to compromise in areas that in the past would have been unthinkable? There is a danger that in trying to be more “relevant” and “progressive” we are wandering into sin and taking others with us. Have God’s standards of holiness changed? The obvious answer is “no” because God Himself does not change. Non-believers are closely watching us and our lifestyles to see whether our message is genuine. Subconsciously they are looking for an excuse to reject God and Christians who are not seeking to live holy lives can easily be used as that excuse. You may not even be aware that your conduct has resulted in a life-changing decision for another person, but God is aware as He cares for every soul. We are His representatives here on earth.

In a recent discussion a fellow believer commented that it would be good if we could have a “24 hour break” from being Christians. This person was struggling with the constant pressures of the Christian life; attempting to be different and to not conform to worldly standards. His comment will resonate with true believers as if we are striving for holiness in our Christian walk our lives will always be hard. The Christian life is a constant battle and “we are not wrestling against flesh and blood.” (Ephesians 6.) But the reality is that there is no break, certainly there are times of rest and reflection, but even during those we are still Christians and should still be seeking to trust and follow God.

Sometimes it seems that new believers have an advantage here as they see things with greater clarity than those who have become weary of the battle. Some relatively new Christians said to me recently that they didn’t understand why Christians were arguing about a certain topic in the Bible as God’s instructions on this topic were clear. Their faith has not yet been corrupted by worldliness so in their mind’s there was no debate, they accepted the Bible as the inspired and 100% accurate Word of God. How different would our churches be if we all did that? If we stopped listening to the enemy asking us “Did God really say?” to justify our sin, and returned to a simple belief in God’s Word.

Maybe as Christians we should examine our current standards and see whether we have lapsed into worldliness or conformed to our various cultural standards over time. What we eat, drink, listen to, watch, say, wear, read, write, think, and how and where we spend our time and who with, is important to God and does impact those around us often unintentionally. Sometimes not doing or saying something when we should is just as damaging and stops others being bold and speaking out.

We should then ask the question whether the changes in our behaviour/lifestyles are acceptable in light of God’s Word or whether we need to re-evaluate our standards.  This may involve swimming against the tide and standing alone for a time but this is what God calls us to do. Think of Paul, Daniel, Joseph and Job and the many other Scriptural examples of those who took a stand, or the more modern examples of the McArthur family in the Asher’s Bakery case and those individuals who have stood against Sunday trading. If more of us supported these individuals instead of hiding away or distancing ourselves then none of us would be forced to take the stand alone.

I will end with a word of caution as per my post title. Sadly it is often opposition from within our own ranks that does the most damage to a Christian seeking to live for God. How careful we must be before labelling a fellow believer as a “legalist.” Surely we should seek to encourage that believer and should not be doing something that might harm their conscience (Romans 14 vs 13-23.) In any case we should first make sure that whatever it is they are doing that has so offended us is not just our own sinful conscience seeking an excuse for our own sinful behaviour.

Let us pray that God will help us to humbly examine our behaviour in light of Scripture and seek ever increasing standards of holiness for His glory.