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by Jacob Ninan
Solomon gave a piece of advice to people that they should not be excessively righteous (Eccl.7:16). What does this mean except that we should not take righteousness to extremes? Isn’t it true that some well meaning people foolishly extend themselves beyond what God requires and, as a result, end up in an unnatural, unrealistic and impractical approach to righteousness or spirituality? Do you remember how Eve narrated to the devil how God had told Adam and Eve not to eat or touch the forbidden fruit? (Gen.3:2,3). There is no record of God having said anything about ‘not touching’ the fruit! (Gen.2:16,17). This may have been an extrapolation she made without thinking. She may have thought about herself that she was not the type to take God’s word casually and that she wanted to be quite radical about God’s commandments! Anyway, finally she not only touched the fruit, but she also ate it!
It seems that the original Pharisees, when they started as a group, were godly people who sincerely wanted to be pleasing to the Lord in every detail. But in seeking to be really godly, they went beyond what God wanted, and they got sidetracked with silly little issues (e.g., “not touching”), missing the main point (Matt.23:23-25).
A good intention is not a complete safeguard against error. Nor is a desire to be radical in following the Lord necessarily a protection against compromise. A ‘no compromise’ stance appeals to our ego, and it also seems to fetch us a great reputation. We like to think we are better and more spiritual than the others, and then we may go beyond the normal and the reasonable, and become somewhat crazy, spiritually. Once this happens we may think that anyone who tries to correct us or point out our error is blind and un-spiritual and has no revelation or understanding of the truth, or is trying to oppose or persecute us who are standing up for the truth. This is ‘spiritual psychosis’ - a disconnect with reality.
Unfortunately the Church has seen many cases of extreme spirituality. Let us look at a few of the typical ones of today, in order to get a general understanding of what it means. Let us also remember that it is not difficult for any of us to fall into such snares.
Refusing to use medicine
Does anyone doubt God’s ability to heal? Hardly any believer does. Has God promised to heal every sickness? Some people seem to believe that from verses like Isa.53:5 and Matt.8:17, even though there are other possible interpretations and examples in the New Testament of people not getting healed. Does God heal miraculously these days? He does. But does it mean that God heals every time we pray, and also that whenever He heals it is without the use of medicines? Does He always want us not to use medicines but to simply trust in Him?
While we recognise the fact that sometimes God does heal without medicines, the problem is in insisting that it should be the only way. Neither the history in the New Testament nor present experience supports such a claim. Unfortunately some people hold such a belief and suffer, and also cause others to suffer, even to the point of death, things which could have been dealt with medically. This seems to be a case of tempting God by jumping off from the pinnacle of the temple and expecting God to preserve them (Matt.4:5-7).
Refusing to use reason
The saying goes, “Reason is the enemy of faith.” There is some truth in this statement, and yet it is not the full truth. If we are willing to believe what God says only if we can first understand it by reasoning, that kind of reasoning is an enemy of faith. God wants us to believe His words because they are His words. If we believe in Him and also His words, then we can also begin to understand (Heb.11:3). If we hesitate to take some action which God clearly asks of us because we aren’t sure how it would turn out for us, that would be refusing to walk by faith (Prov.3:5). Certainly, God understands us if we are genuinely perplexed about what exactly His will is in any situation. Jesus Himself asked the Father three times if ‘drinking the cup’ was really what the Father wanted Him to do. But once it was clear, there was no hesitation at all.
Reason by itself is not wrong. It is a faculty that God Himself has given us. We find in the Bible a large number of times when God explains to people the reason why He was doing something. God says that we are not like the horse or the mule which have to physically directed (Psa.32:9). God expects us to understand, reason things out and make our own choices. It is wrong to question God as if we know better than He, but is it wrong trying to understand God better with a questioning mind? Is it wrong to analyse different choices with reference to God’s ways before we finally decide? Is it wrong to look back and try to understand where others or we have gone wrong? What about examining different possibilities of interpretation when we read the Bible before accepting the truth? If general experience doesn’t fit with our interpretation, shall we not re-examine our interpretation? Perhaps we have not understood things rightly.
If we stop using our reason, we are in danger of getting into various forms of error, based on our own lack of knowledge or ‘simply trusting’ what some ‘great’ man has said. We seem to be scared of even examining what some ‘prophet’ says because we have been taught ‘not to touch the Lord’s anointed’ in spite of the Bible telling us to judge and sift whatever prophets speak (1Cor.14:29;1Thess.5:19-21).
Isn’t leaning on God the same as making ourselves subject to Him, and letting Him have the control over our life? Even when we are analysing various options or possibilities by using our reasoning power, when we do that recognising His lordship over us and we are willing to let Him guide us to our final choice, isn’t that leaning on Him?
Some people think that only our spiritual life is important, and neglect the physical part of life. But we are not spirits. Our spirit dwells within our bodies. Some other people think our life is all about our will and what we do, and that we should not give heed to our feelings. People who don’t show any emotions are considered to be mature, strong and spiritual. As a result feelings are neglected and looked down upon as a sign of spiritual weakness. It is a fact that our feelings can be very unreliable by themselves as a guide to lead our actions. But to ignore our feelings altogether is foolishness!
Feelings are things God has created us with. Good feelings are part of what helps us to enjoy life. For example good feelings are involved when we sing praises to God from our heart and worship Him, or when we are in the company of friends.
But just as pain in the body indicates that something is wrong physically, bad feelings are also good indicators of something being wrong in our thinking. When God asked Cain why his face was fallen, His implication was that getting upset was an indication that there was something within Cain’s mind that needed to be set right (Gen.4:6). Things may be wrong in themselves or we may be responding to things in a wrong way, and either way we feel bad. If we take note of these bad feelings we can then do something to set things right. But what happens if we deny or repress our feelings?
Extreme spirituality that negates feelings, and looks down on anyone who shows feelings is so unnatural and artificial! Do we forget that Jesus was angry many times, He wept, spoke sarcastically at times, spoke in humour, etc.? Didn’t He withdraw and try to be alone when He heard that His cousin John the Baptist had been killed? Didn’t He recognise that His soul was greatly troubled when He thought about what was going to happen to Him? (Jn.12:27). Wasn’t it with feeling that He cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
Of course we cannot afford to let our emotions control us, or lead us. But we do need to pay attention to them and keep them in their proper place. We must be aware of our feelings as well as those of people we deal with, and we must also know how to deal with them.
What about the effect our words or actions may have on other people’s feelings? Can we afford to just go ahead and do what we think is right without bothering about others? It may look as though we are free from the opinion of men. But what would happen to our relationships? How many people can we win for Christ in this way? Should we not rather take care not to offend the least of our brothers or sisters? (Mt.18:6;1Cor.10:32;2Cor.6:3). Of course there will be people who get upset with us no matter what we do. But that does not mean that we need not be careful how we conduct ourselves.
Thinking all human wisdom is foolishness
The Bible says that the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God (1Cor.3:19). This is enough for extremists to denounce all wisdom that unbelieving man has as being foolishness in the sight of God. When worldly wisdom leads a man to make himself independent of God or leads him away from God, that becomes foolishness (Rom.1:21,22). Many ‘great’ men of this world think that God doesn’t exist, they don’t need God, they don’t like Him the way He is, they know better than God, etc. But to react to this and think that any opinion or idea that an unbelieving man has must be foolish is to go berserk.
There are some Christians who tear many servants of God to pieces with criticism because these people think that if a preacher or writer mentions anything outside of the Bible or gives his own opinion he is relying on ‘human wisdom.’ If he uses anything from psychology or quotes from some management guru he is gone astray! The assumption seems to be that anything that is not explicitly taught in the Bible cannot be right.
Generally speaking, people who hold to a “Bible only” view have no problem using wisdom and knowledge related to the earthly life such as science, engineering, medicine, etc., because they feel that this will not interfere with their spiritual life. But when it comes to matters related to human behaviour, such as philosophy and psychology, they tend to outright classify all such things as foolishness. Of course there is need for utmost caution in looking at worldly viewpoints, values and approaches, because Satan is the prince of this world (John.14:13), and he achieves his deception by cleverly mixing error with truth. At the same time, if we sift through things and accept what is acceptable to God and in conformity with the principles revealed in the Bible, we stand to gain.
“God spoke to me”
God does speak to us. But someone has said that while we have the best Teacher in the Holy Spirit, we are hardly the best of students ourselves. We have limitations about how clearly we are able to hear and understand, how much we are able to distinguish the voice of the Holy Spirit from other voices, how willing we are to deny ourselves and obey Him, etc.
While we are learning to listen to the Holy Spirit, we do make mistakes, thinking that our own ideas or even the ideas that Satan places in our mind have come from God. If we are aware of this possibility, we would not be adamantly confident about the so-called leading of the Holy Spirit, or simply trust every dream or vision that we have, but we would check it with the revealed truths in the Bible. The Holy Spirit can certainly guide us into new directions in which we have not travelled before. But if we are going to go into new areas it is all the more necessary to make sure that what we have heard is from the Holy Spirit. Isn’t it also helpful if we can listen with an open mind to more mature people who point out our errors?
Not recognising human relationships
When we recognise that God has caused us to be born again and become children of God, some have a tendency to go to an extreme and relate only with other “brothers and sisters” in Christ, especially in the local church. Their own kith and kin are relegated to the earthly realm and their relationship with them boils down to witnessing to them, praying for them, warning them, etc. This, of course, puts them off from coming anywhere near a church, or at least their brand of the church. And then they wonder about how blind the others are, etc.! Some even go to the extent of relinquishing their marriage partners or live with them as though they were not married, because they imagine that this is the way to become a part of the bride of Christ (Rev.14:4)!
Like in all similar cases, we can find verses to support our stand. Doesn’t Paul tell us that we should recognise no man after the flesh? (2Cor.5:16). What he meant was that whatever position a man had on earth was immaterial to his new status in the kingdom of God. A man of prominence or of lowly position in the world should not receive any distinction in the church.
But it is not that when we become children of God we cease to be children of men! We are still on the earth, doing earthly things and relating to people in earthly ways. We still get married, have children, and have many other earthly relationships. The need for us to honour our father and mother does not change even if we are born again and they are not! A husband needs to love his wife even if she is an unbeliever, or vice versa. If we do not provide for our loved ones we become worse than unbelievers! (1Tim.5:8). If we love our earthly brothers and sisters less because we now have brothers and sisters in Christ, we need to go and learn from the Good Samaritan story that a despised outcaste may be actually be more ‘spiritual’ than some so-called spiritual brothers and sisters! Even though we are not of the world we still are in the world (John.15:19;17:11). To imagine otherwise would be unrealistic in the least and spiritual fanaticism in the worst case.
Having nothing to do with the world
What do we do when we read the verse that tells us that all that is in the world is not from the Father but from the world? (1John.2:16). First of all we must note that ‘all’ is not literally referring to everything that is in the world because it was God who created the world and everything in it, but to ‘the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life.’ It is a mistake if we extend this to mean all things of this world. As a result of this type of approach, we can withdraw from the world and its activities. This is unrealistic, not to mention impossible.
Because our values and goals are higher than those of the world, we are different from people of the world. But we are still in this world, and we have to live here just like all the other people in this world, caring for our bodies, working for our living, bringing up our children, etc. What we need to avoid is not contact with the world or association with the people of the world, but allowing ourselves to be moulded into the world’s values and practices.
Earlier in church history those who wanted to live close to God used to withdraw from the world into monasteries. Nowadays such people draw back from the different activities of the world into a life of ‘Not permitted.’ They try to avoid compromise by shunning things altogether without making efforts to understand the principles behind the compromise. They avoid movies because there are many bad movies, give up TV because there are many bad programmes, avoid the internet because there are many dangers out there, avoid contemporary music because it could be from the devil, don’t read worldly novels or magazines, don’t go to parties or special occasions, etc. Their activities are only Bible studies, prayer meetings, conventions, evangelistic campaigns, worship concerts, etc. The ‘advantage’ of this approach is that it is easier to distinguish between black and white rather than among shades of grey. But the problem is that such people become naïve with respect to earthly matters, unable to connect with people (especially teenagers), and derided by the people around (justifiably!).
Just as salt cannot give taste to food if it will not come into contact with food, our witness to the world cannot be effective if we keep ourselves outside of the world. To be inside the world without becoming defiled by the worldly values or becoming a part of the world needs a finer level of discernment that comes only through an exercise of our spiritual senses (Heb.5:14).
Not saving anything for the future
There have been people whom God has called with a special calling, in order to make them examples of some lesson He wanted to teach the rest of us. Some of them have demonstrated how God is able to provide for all their earthly needs as they simply depended on Him. But to extend this as a doctrine to the point that it is considered a lack of faith to save anything for the future is ridiculous, especially when the Bible teaches us to learn from the ants how they save up their grain during the harvest in order to have something to eat during the winter! (Prov.6:6-8). Let us also not make this ‘faith’ an excuse for lack of discipline and carefulness in the use of money.
Equating fun with sin
I suppose it is as a reaction to the predominance of sinful pleasures that are enjoyed in the world that some Christians have learned to associate all pleasures with sin. In an apparent attempt to keep away from anything that is sinful, they have become allergic to any form of fun. This is a mistake among some believers, whose lives are so full of don’ts that they are scared of enjoying anything. Their view of God is as a hard taskmaster who jumps with glee every time He catches them slipping up somewhere, such as when they are enjoying themselves. They don’t realise that God supplies us richly with all things for us to enjoy! (1Tim.6:17). It is when our pleasure is derived from activities that are outside God-given boundaries that they become wrong.
Considering wealth as being contrary to godliness
Following up on the truth that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil (1Tim.6:10), and that we cannot serve God and mammon (Matt.6:24), some Christians conclude that to have money or wealth is wrong. But money in itself is not wrong, but only craving it in such a way that it becomes a strong driving factor in life. Why did Jesus refer to mammon as ‘unrighteous’? Perhaps because wealth has a tendency to corrupt. Jesus said that we need to learn to be faithful in the use of mammon (Lk.16:11). He also said that the rich find it difficult to enter the kingdom of God (Matt.19:24), because they tend to put their trust in their wealth and all that money can buy than in God. But He never asked rich men in general to give up their wealth. Paul did not tell rich people not to be rich, but only to place their trust in God instead of money, and to be generous in good deeds (1Tim.6:17,18).
Expecting all people to be prosperous and healthy
This is the opposite error to the one above. It is good to be prosperous and healthy too, and it is all right to ask God for these. But it is wrong to proclaim that God will prosper everyone on this sin-corrupted earth and downright callous to insist if believers are not prosperous or free from sickness that it must be due to lack of faith or some secret sin. This is unrealistic, and it is also not warranted from Scriptures. Jesus and His disciples were not all wealthy, and some of the believers were sick (Php.2:26,27;2Tim.4:20). Freedom from pain and sorrow is something that is promised only in heaven, even though we might get a taste of heaven even on earth (Rev.7:16,17).
Equating humility with self-abasement
In an attempt to avoid pride, people go to the extreme of considering themselves as being of no worth, allow themselves to be trodden down, tell themselves that they deserve all the insults and unjust treatment that come their way, deny every desire connected with ‘self’, take on a ‘humble’ posture, give up all attention to personal appearance and dressing, avoid going for ‘higher’ studies or well-paying jobs, etc. To talk of self-respect or dignity is like heresy to these people. The most humble Man who lived on earth never behaved in any such way. There was a self-respect and dignity about Him that even Pilate had to recognise. To be humble is to have a sober estimate of oneself first of all before God and also in relation to people (Rom.12:3;Jas.4:10;Php.2:3).
“We are the Body of Christ”
While the Church in general needs to recognise more clearly in practical terms that it is the body of Christ and we are individually its members, some churches proclaim and act as if they were exclusively the body of Christ. This is mostly based on the some special doctrine, which makes them feel that they are a cut above the others. If someone wants to be a part of the body of Christ, he has to join this church. Apart from thoroughly deceiving themselves, they also cut themselves off from the other parts of the real body of Christ and lose the blessings they could have had.
“Touch not the Lord’s anointed”
This is a common teaching among churches where the leaders are prominent because of their gifts or personality. They make themselves beyond questioning or correction by providing such veiled threats of calamities if anyone dared to question them. In this way they not only protect themselves and their position, but they also wield such authority over the people that they simply obey whatever these leaders tell them. Unfortunately neither they nor the people realise that ‘anointed’ in 1Chron.16:21,22 was referring to the people of Israel and not their leaders! They also don’t realise that only those who serve, and not those who lord it over others are the real leaders in God’s eyes.
Like Paul said, all these types of foolish ways look as though they will make us godly (Col.2:23). But they are deceptive. Generally speaking they make us feel superior to others around us. When we begin to go in these directions it does not look as though we are making a mistake. We think we have found a secret of godliness. But even though the deviation may be small in the beginning, ultimately it leads us far away from the goal.
-- Published in the Light of Life magazine, August and September 2007
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