I was watching some sermons yesterday. The first one was by Joel Osteen. The second was by Kenneth Copeland. And the third was by Charles Stanley.
I liked the first two sermons. The third, however, troubled me immensely. Charles Stanley’s sermon was about solving problems through prayer, and Stanley said at least three times that prayer will not work for those who have not accepted Jesus Christ. Yes, God is unconditionally loving, Stanley was saying, but God will not overlook sin, pride, and rebellion. The promises of God are for the children of God, Stanley affirmed. How can one call God “Father,” while rejecting God’s very own son?
I am not sure what to say about this. It has a ring of truth to it. Yeah, I have a hard time envisioning God overlooking my sins. And, if Jesus is God’s son, God would love and value him and presumably would not honor the prayers of those who reject him. Or would he? I can also picture God meeting people where they are, even if they have not quite crossed the threshold into Christianity. But is God in the business of maintaining long-standing relationships with non-Christians? If so, why believe in Jesus Christ, if one can have a relationship with God apart from him?
But there is a part of me that does not think that what Charles Stanley is saying is true. For one, how do I know that Jesus is God’s son? He could have been an apocalyptic prophet who was wrong about the imminence of the apocalypse! Even if Christian apologetic arguments that Jesus rose from the dead hold water, I don’t think that solves everything, for there is still so much subjectivity in how people portray, conceptualize, and see Jesus. “Jesus is authoritative because he rose from the dead,” a Christian apologist might say. Okay, but which Jesus are we talking about? In my experience, even conservative Christians downplay or ignore the parts of Scripture that do not agree with their image of Jesus.
Second, it seems to me that people can experience the supernatural outside of a Christian context. Non-Christians in AA say that they do. A professor once told me of God’s answers to the prayers of a devout Jewish person. There are Muslims who have a similar testimony about themselves. People seek guidance from tarot cards and get messages that sound as wise and reasonable as the answers that Christians claim to receive from God through prayer. A conservative Christian may attribute that to Satan. But do we really want to go down that route? If Satan can do positive spiritual things for people, then how can Christians argue for Christianity by appealing to their positive spiritual experiences? Could not a Jewish person attribute Christianity to God sending a deceptive false prophet to test his people’s faithfulness, as some Jews argue (Deuteronomy 13:1-3)?
I’ve made these sorts of points before on this blog, and they have been in my mind over the past seven years, or so. Still, I am not satisfied. Granted, I can say that God works in the lives of non-Christians. But that is me looking at others. What I wonder is if God listens to my prayers. To be honest, I do not know. I have long felt that God does not know my address. Conservative Christians can easily prey on that. They may say that God does not hear my prayers because I do not fit their definition of a Christian. They may tell me that I should accept Christ as my Savior and/or Lord (depending on if they believe in Lordship salvation), then I will feel God. Then I will see results.
For one, will I necessarily? Charles Stanley was encouraging and advising Christians who believe that God was not listening to them. Granted, he said that we want to know Jesus beyond Jesus being our Lord and Savior—-that we want to experience God in our day-to-day lives. But my impression is that there are a number of Christians who do not think that they are doing so, and that is one reason that Charles Stanley preached that sermon. A number of Christians do, but a number don’t.
Second, I said the sinner’s prayer years ago. I was baptized. People who act as if the sinner’s prayer is the end-all-be-all should address how people can say it, yet see no spiritual results. Did these people say the sinner’s prayer and not truly mean it? How can one get to the point where he or she means it? I’ve been watching Christian movies, and Christian characters say that all people have to do to have God in their lives is to ask God. Really? Is that all? Why, then, are there people who push the Jesus button, and nothing happens? Why are there people who say the sinner’s prayer and later drift away from the faith, or even deliberately walk away from it? Some Christians say those people did not experience God. If that is the case, why didn’t they experience God?
I felt alienated from God when I was a conservative Christian, and also today. I drank a lot when I was a conservative Christian, some of it for spiritual and religious reasons, and some of it for other reasons. In any case, I was self-medicating to feel at peace, for I was not feeling that peace through Christianity. I cannot say that I feel completely at peace today, but at least today I do not feel that I am ignoring or contorting facts to fit a preconceived theology. I wish that I could say that I am more tolerant today than I was as a conservative Christian, but that is not exactly the case: now I demonize conservative Christians rather than liberals!
I can look back at my time as a conservative Christian and say that there were times when I felt emotional ecstasy as I prayed and read my Bible. I felt that the Holy Spirit was illuminating the Bible for me. Nowadays, I look back at the interpretations of Scripture that I believed were Spirit-led, and I am very reluctant to say that they were God’s authoritative interpretation of the biblical text. They look to me in retrospect like my own biased readings. I can say the same about some of the “Spirit-led” interpretations of Scripture by other Christians. Some of them base their interpretations on an English translation, and their interpretations disagree with the Greek. Are their interpretations from God? Well, I cannot thoroughly dismiss that—-the Christian God, after all, supposedly used the Septuagint, which disagrees with the Hebrew text in places. But I also would not bet money on it.
Anyway, those are my ramblings for the day. Trollish comments will not be published. I will define what is trollish. I also probably will not get to the comments until tomorrow morning. On my blogger blog, that means that they will not be published until then. On my WordPress blog, that means that they will appear on my blog if you have commented here before, but, if this is your first time commenting, you will have to wait to see your comment appear.
James, you address a LOT of good questions in this post. I agree with the side of you that says Stanley is wrong about how God relates to those who don’t fit Stanley’s definition of a child of God.
Good job on the entire post!
I think that you are so full of courage James. You are also wonderfully human. 🙂
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