It has often been noted that the most liked people in the Old Testament were the false prophets. How come? Simply because the false prophets told the people what they wanted to hear. Did the masses want to hear about prosperity and wealth? Then the false prophets spoke about prosperity and wealth. Did the masses want to hear about peace and safety. Then the false prophets spoke about peace and safety.
It is easy to be welcomed and well-loved, if you tell people what they most want to hear. However, if you tell people what they need to hear, instead of what they want to hear, then you will not be so well-received. In fact, it is unlikely that you will be invited back.
Consider some of the Old Testament passages that speak of this problem:
“These are rebellious people, deceitful children, children unwilling to listen to the Lord’s instruction. They say to the seers, ‘See no more visions!’ and to the prophets, ‘Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions’.” (Is. 30:9-10)
“The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way. But what will you do in the end?” (Jer. 5:31)
“From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit. They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace. ( Jer. 6:13-14)
“They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. “Peace, peace,” they say, when there is no peace.” (Jer. 8:11)
“Then the LORD said unto me, The prophets prophesy lies in my name: I sent them not, neither have I commanded them, neither spake unto them: they prophesy unto you a false vision and divination, and a thing of nought, and the deceit of their heart. Therefore thus saith the LORD concerning the prophets that prophesy in my name, and I sent them not, yet they say, Sword and famine shall not be in this land; By sword and famine shall those prophets be consumed.” (Jer. 14:14-15)
“This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD. They keep saying to those who despise me, “The LORD says: You will have peace.” And to all who follow the stubbornness’.” (Jer. 23:16-17)
Jesus also warned of this tendency:
“Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets. Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.” (Luke 6:22, 23, 26)
That is the dilemma which contemporary Christian pastors and teachers face. Will they be true to the word of God, even if it makes them unpopular, or will they compromise and dilute the word, to stay in the good graces of their congregations?
One needs to not overstate the case, but there is some truth to the idea that if no one ever complains about your message, no one ever criticises your talks, then perhaps you need to re-examine the content.
We can all think of obvious candidates for false prophecy. Think of John Shelby Spong, for example, who pulls in large crowds, telling people not to worry about the controversial parts of the Bible. Don’t worry about the deity of Christ, or of hell, or of prohibitions against homosexuality, etc. No wonder he’s so popular.
But there are more subtle ways that even good evangelical Christians can soften their message or withhold some of the truth. In the desire not to offend or appear intolerant or a wowser, do we omit certain themes or subjects in our preaching and teaching? Do we fear to speak out on homosexuality, or abortion, or other ethical hot potatoes, for fear of alienating or offending someone?
Of course we do not want to deliberately be offensive or insensitive, We must speak the truth in love, and treat everyone with respect and courtesy. But we must also proclaim all of God’s truth, not just those parts that are easily palatable. As Paul told the elders of the church at Ephesus, Acts 20:27 “I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God” (Acts 20:27) We too must proclaim the whole counsel of God, no matter how unpopular it may be.