An old friend of mine called. We were in the same primary and secondary schools. Then we went to the same polytechnic and now we live in the same HDB estate. And so we met and sat at a quiet corner in a food-court and she began to talk about her impending tribulation because her two girls are sitting for A and O levels examinations this year. Thankfully she does not have a third child sitting for PSLE or else her tribulation would have reached apocalyptic scale. According to her, the younger one is a slow but diligent learner and mom worries for her health because of her faithful burning of themidnight oil. The older is a wait till theeleventh hour type and mom worries that she may wait too long. And so she talked and I listened. She wasn’t expecting any miracles from the pastor other than to ask that I remember her and her daughters in prayers.
Well, I suppose she is not alone. Responsible parents are naturally concerned for their children, however good or bad, diligent or not, intelligent or otherwise, and would do whatever possible to help them do well in their studies so that they may succeed later in life. So in the midst of all the stresses and busyness, I guess it helps that they also talk about it. And it helps that there are friends around who can spare the time just to listen to them and pray with them even if they are not able to help in any practical ways so that they may bring their worries and concerns to God.
And so we continued talking and she commented on how successful I am in life. She lost me! So when I gave her the puzzled look, she said the same thing of my brothers and how fortunate my parents are to have successful children. And so I had to ask to understand where she was coming from. Well, I learned that my brothers and I are successful because we have proper degrees from recognized institutions, which she and her husband do not have. So I told her that she isn’t necessarily less successful than my brothers or I just because of that. But she insisted and said that we did not have to repeat school nor had been retrenched before and we also chose to move on with other job opportunities or change our vocation altogether. Her husband, however, lost his job a year ago and has to take on additional part-time work to provide for the family. Therefore she considered us more successful. Agree?
I believe those days when having a university education was deemed a success were long gone. In our time and generation today, a non-graduate running a profitable business and earning more than a graduate slaving away as a teacher would probably be deemed more successful. Who cares if the business should fail later and plunge him into debt while the teacher may be nurturing future politicians, doctors and lawyers? Anyhow, I suppose gross earning has become a common measure for success by our society today. What about failures? I guess I may have yet to experience the kinds of failures that my friend mentioned but it does not mean that I am therefore more successful than a fellow pastor who had failed in school or had been convicted before. Anyhow, I suppose that could be another way to measure success, i.e. by not having failures. To put it simply, success is measured by what one has and has not!
Now I believe what I have shared here is nothing new to you and we can name other ways by which our society measures success. The question we need to ask is whether it is also true for the church? I guess we heard enough of the prosperity gospel. To put it simply in our context, success is measured by what one has, i.e. bountiful wealth, and has not, i.e. poor health. A Christian is deemed blessed by God when he measures up to it. Prosperity gospel can also take on a more subtle form, like how we should claim God’s promises for our children so that they will become successful Christians, i.e. politicians, lawyers, doctors, and so on, because it is his purpose for us all. I agree that this is not evil or wrong by itself but when it replaces the call to discipleship as the heart of the gospel message, then I believe it has become another prosperity message.
Let me get back to the conversation with my friend. She did not quite buy my explanation and thought that I was only trying to be humble. I suspect it is because her experiences in life show otherwise and so she believes she is not wrong. And I guess this is also true of preachers who sincerely believe that it is God’s purpose to bless Christians and their children richly on earth because of some personal encounters with God and experiences in life that convicted them so strongly. I do not doubt that God had intervened in their lives but the challenge comes when they allowed their experiences to determine Scriptures than for Scriptures to explain their experiences. And in doing so, some allow their experiences to become authoritative for life such that they may teach and preach it over and above the Word. I agree that there are people who are ministered by them just as thousands of people are ministered by prosperity preachers. But we need to ask if the message is faithful to the Word. If not, I fear that what we have heard is nothing more than just another motivational talk backed up by some scriptural verses here and there.
Therefore a proper understanding of basic doctrines is important for our spiritual formation. It is not about stockpiling head knowledge but building a strong foundation so that all our experiences in life, whether good or bad, happy or sad, successful or otherwise, can be properly understood in the light of Scriptures. And when we share it with others, we may then encourage them for the glory of the kingdom or admonish them in the fear of God. And so the church is preparing our own catechism for worshippers, beginning first with basic doctrines of faith, and looking to implement it effectively so that many may learn and help one another grow together. And when we do so, I believe we will be able to discern spiritual truths and fallacies from the things we read or hear. And if I may say, this is one sure way of measuring Christian success, i.e. not by health or wealth but by spiritual maturity. But are you keen to learn?
November 17, 2013