Triumphalism, Prayer, and the Will of God, Part Two

In light of the theological framework developed in Part One of this article, I want to flesh this out in some practical specifics, looking at the everyday Christian life in more detail. How are we to understand things like faith, healing, and God’s will in the light of all this?

The Word of Faith movement and others seem to err on the side of a form of unbiblical triumphalism where victory is always assured and there is no place for failure or defeat. In many ways this teaching seems to put man in the driver’s seat. He calls the shots. He determines his future. The danger is God may become of secondary importance in such a scheme.

Charles Farah puts it this way: “Easy ‘triumphalism’ is a man-centered, not a God-centered theology. The emphasis here is on what God can do for man; what the believer can demand and get; what is in it for the Christian. In his limited sense it represents a truly liberal theology centering on man – his desires, his ambitions and ultimately his world – rather than on God and His demands upon man.”

Indeed, the claim that all our prayers and requests will be answered positively seems to minimize God while elevating man. Man becomes the master for whom God must do the bidding. But as Millard Erickson reminds us, “the essential issue here is that God is really God and we are his servants. We exist to love and serve and glorify him, not vice versa.”

Interestingly, D.A. Carson calls his exposition of 2 Corinthians 10-13, From Triumphalism to Maturity. In his introduction he takes on the Word of Faith movement directly and forcefully:

“Modern ‘Christian’ success formulas, too frequently developed by hucksters of glamor marketed by Madison Avenue techniques, pandering to personal comfort and aggrandizement, and formulated to mesh smoothly with our pagan society’s ideas of the heroic, reveal more about triumphalism than the way of the cross. . . . God is no man’s debtor; but frequently his ‘reward’ is the grace that endures opposition and hardship, and grows in character, depth, godliness, and understanding – not the glib promise of temporal power, health and wealth. To such issues, 2 Corinthians 10-13 speaks trenchantly, and offers a way of looking at triumphalism that is disturbingly Christian, profoundly moving, and utterly demanding.”

Indeed, as that portion of 2 Corinthians makes clear, while Scripture does give us great promises about God’s ability and desire to hear and answer our prayers, it also affirms that not all prayers are answered, at least in the way we would like. Certainly Scripture recognizes that our prayers can be hindered by various things. Here is one clear example: “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers” (1 Pet. 3:7).

The way we treat one another is just one way in which our prayers may be hampered. As Norman Hillyer puts it, commenting on this passage, “For prayer to reach the throne of God means that those who pray must be right with others (Matt. 5:24; 18:15).”

Or take the issue of healing. Can anyone pray for healing anytime, and always expect to be healed? What if one’s relationship with God is out of joint? What if a person is living in known sin? While some of these issues have been covered in the section on healing, they are relevant here.

Michael Brown, discussing healing in the OT, and how often it is the result of God’s hand of judgment, notes that “sickness incurred by divine wrath could only be cured by repentance, thereby reversing God’s anger and the condition that ensued. There was no ‘cure’ or ‘remedy’ for those who rejected the Healer. . . . Healing was for the repentant, the obedient, and the contrite.”

Thus one’s spiritual condition is an important element on whether or not healing can take place. Simply to demand instant healing, with no consideration for one’s relationship with God, is naïve at best. Generally speaking – with some welcome exceptions – the positive confession people seem to minimize these truths.

Moreover, prayer not asked in accordance with God’s perfect will may also appear unanswered. The problem of unanswered prayer, in other words, lies with us, not God. As Dennis Okholm puts it, “Any solution must begin with the reminder that answers to prayer are grounded in God’s graciousness and faithfulness to his promises, not in petitioner’s rights” Or as Norman Geisler and Ron Rhodes put it, “Prayer is not a means by which we get our will done in heaven, but a means by which God gets his will done on earth.”

The eleventh chapter of Hebrews makes an important point, summarized in v.39: “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised”. All the great heroes of the faith were given great promises. All undoubtedly prayed to see these promises fulfilled. Yet none of these heroes, in their lifetimes, saw that final, ultimate fulfillment. And these were the great heroes of faith.

This should teach us something. Having a lot of faith and making a lot of prayers are not the key. The key is God’s sovereign purpose. As William Lane comments, “The failure of the exemplars of faith to obtain the promised eternal inheritance can be traced to no fault of their own. It was because of the gracious providence of God.”

Moreover, it should be noted that any theology which guarantees results, but fails to deliver (always, or at least consistently), is bound to disappoint many. While many people see answers to prayer, many do not. While many see positive confessions realized, many do not. What becomes of those who do not get the promised results?

Of course the answer given by the faith camp will be something like: You did not exercise enough faith. You have sin in your life. You are harboring negative thoughts and words. But what if a person meets all these ‘tests’ and still sees nothing? How many people have their faith shattered, or lost forever, because of their expectations not being met?

As Walker, Wright and Smail ask, “Will we ever know how many people gambled on the lottery of positive confession and ended up bankrupt?” After the faith teacher leaves town, or the televangelist’s broadcast finishes, and the hoopla dies down, how many Christian pastors, counselors and even secular psychiatrists have to pick up the pieces of broken, disappointed and discouraged believers?

The stories of people leaving healing crusades unchanged are too numerous to recount. It may well be that for as many people that are healed at such a meeting, a dozen leave unhealed. What do we tell such people? In many ways this is the greatest danger of the positive confession message. How many lives have gone shipwrecked because of this teaching? How many have lost their faith as a result?

As but one example, see the moving story related by Philip Yancey in his important volume, Where Is God When It Hurts? In the book he devotes two whole chapters to two individuals. Both went through horrific injuries, and neither one has experienced the healing they have been looking for. But their testimonies to the glory of God are quite incredible, and they contrast with so many whose lack of healing has meant a rejection of the faith.

In addition, in the more extreme cases, actual death can be the result. That is, for those who follow the teachings of the more extreme faith teachers, and abandon medicine altogether, the results can be fatal. As but one example, there is the tragic story of how the parents of a boy with diabetes withheld his insulin, relying instead on positive confession. The boy, however, went into a diabetic coma and eventually died. This heart-wrenching story is found in We Let Our Son Die. Much like the Jehovah’s Witness who refuses blood transfusions, or the ardent Christian Scientist who puts mind over matter, sincerely held beliefs can have deadly consequences.

Another thing that could be pointed out but cannot here be explored is the whole emphasis many of the faith teachers and tele-evangelists place on the buying of prayer. That is, so many appeal to funds when they ask for believer’s prayer requests, as if the more money sent along with the request, the more likely the answer will be.

However, as Magliato has noted, “This is the Wall Street gospel, geared for bringing in more dollars and getting more work done. But God’s blessings and answers to prayer are not for sale. Simon discovered this when he offered Peter money for a gift (Acts 8:9-24). My gift or your gift to any religious organization will not twist God’s arm to get you added blessings. That is not good Christian doctrine, but pagan theology. Prayer is not a gadget that we plug in for instant results. Money won’t speed God’s answers.”

Of course to say all of this is not to deny that God wants to act mightily on behalf of his people. All of this is not to deny the miraculous, nor to deny the Spirit’s empowerment in believers’ lives. If over-emphasizing the ‘now’ is a danger of the health and wealth gospel, over-emphasizing the ‘not yet’ is a danger of much non-charismatic Christianity. Too much powerless Christianity seems to be the norm today. Thus we owe the health and wealth gospellers credit for a revitalized interest in faith and the Spirit’s work in our lives. A balance, in other words, is what is needed. Thus we need to avoid both an under-realized and an over-realized eschatology.

As Fee puts it, on the one side, there is “a strong tendency to leave God’s people to ‘slug it out in the trenches’ more or less on their own, with some lip service paid to the Spirit but with little of the Pauline experience of the Spirit as the empowering presence of God. On the other side lie some equally strong tendencies toward triumphalism, especially in a culture like late-twentieth America, where pain of any kind is rejected as a form of evil and where suffering is to be avoided at all costs. . . . The result on this side is something of an ‘over-realized’ eschatological perspective, with an unPauline view of the Spirit as present in power which negates weakness in the present as something dishonoring to God.”

Carson is worth quoting at length here in this regard: “To put the matter another way, to have no theology of the power of the gospel in our contemporary world is to relegate virtually all kingdom blessings to the return of Jesus – that is, it is to have an overemphasis on futurist eschatology. On the other hand, to place too much stress on the transforming power of the kingdom today, divorced from other competing and qualifying themes, is to depreciate what we are still waiting for, what the entire created order still groans for, the final redemption. It is to have an overemphasis on realized eschatology. After the cross and the resurrection, New Testament writers can say, in various words, that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved; they do not say that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be healed from every physical illness. The church will remain in tension over how much power and how much weakness should characterize her until the consummation of all things.”

We need to learn to live with this tension, and seek to find the biblical balance. If we don’t, all sorts of problems can and will arise.

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