In the late 1990s, I was living in the US and will never forget one sunny Sunday afternoon when I had the opportunity to chat to a lovely pastor who was full of grace and Godly wisdom. He also happened to be building a bunker in his backyard and was gradually transferring his life savings into gold coins so that he and his family could be prepared for the Armageddon which would inevitably follow the year 2000 and the Y2K bug.
I remember listening intently to all that he said and part of it resonated with me. After all, wasn’t the book of Revelation a graphic picture of the end of the world? And didn’t Jesus promise that a difficult time would come, when trouble and trials would cover the Earth?
Growing up in a Christian home, I was all too aware of these likely end-of-the-world scenarios. Anyone remember the rather terrifying apocalyptic movie series, ‘Left Behind’? (The ones from the 70s, not the ones starring Nicholas Cage). They told the story of a group of non-believers who were stranded on earth following the rapture. Little by little, as they became believers and refused to bow to the newly installed one world government, they were rounded up and executed on a gullotine which was housed in the backyard of a former church. Cheery stuff!
We watched these films in youth group and one day, I distinctly remember coming home from school, finding the house empty and being utterly convinced I’d been ‘left behind’. For what it’s worth, my mum turned out to be outside in the garden!
Fast forward to today, where the world has effectively been put ‘on pause’ due to the spread of an unseen viral enemy. We’ve been in lockdown for weeks; globally, many people have tragically died, church buildings are shut and, running equally virally, is the spread of all kinds of ideas.
Was this virus released on purpose? Is it caused by the introduction of new phone masts? Is this a plot to overthrow democracy as we know it and push us toward a one world government where religion and personal freedoms are rigidly controlled by the self-appointed State?
In short, right now, we are bombarded by messages, not just from official bodies and governments but also from pastors and preachers and self-styled prophets who are broadcasting on Social Media, all with their own unique take on what it really means.
Just like my acquaintance in the US, who was seemingly a wise and credible man of God, many of these online preachers take a key verse of Scripture, expand on it and because we as believers, trust the Word of God, we also trust what then follows.
But does that make them right? Does it mean their words are truthful? Is there a way to truly sort ‘fact’ from ‘fiction’ in all of this? How can we know, really know when we are being told the truth?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last few weeks, after I was sent a link to a very credible-sounding speaker, sharing his view that the world economy was about to collapse and that we needed to invest in alternative crypto currencies. The info he shared was all linked to scripture and I have to admit, as I listened, I could feel this level of fear and anxiety rising.
Before I knew it, I’d mentally cleaned out a cupboard at home and was considering it might be prudent to start stockpiling tinned goods. One simple link from a person I did not even know, had somehow created this strange response in me. How was that even possible? A day or so later, I discovered this speaker also happened to run an extremely successful crypto-currency business. A coincidence?
I was concerned about my reaction though and it eventually led me back to Scripture and the words of Jesus when he warned us to look out for ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’ (Matthew 7:15).
This is a verse which has always intrigued me. I think there’s a prevalent belief among some Christians that we’ll be able to spot a ‘wolf’ when one shows up.
But this is why Jesus said the wolf would be in sheep’s clothing. In other words, they’d look like a sheep and talk like a sheep but underneath all of that, their hearts were not truly turned to God, their motivations were not pure and there was a dubious agenda afoot.
The lesson I take from this is simple. We can ALL be fooled. Let’s not think for a minute that we’re above being taken in by someone who quotes scripture and behaves and acts ‘just like one of us’.
So, when it comes to the many theories out there, how can we know the difference? How can we get the balance right between extracting any nuggets of truth they may be sharing, while avoiding travelling down a twisty, dangerous path, which doesn’t lead to any place good?
1. The Bible is our ‘true North’. Think of yourself (for a minute) as being a compass. Put the Bible next to your life and you have direction and purpose.
But do you know what happens to a compass when you put it next to a magnet?
All of a sudden, the compass which was once pointing securely in the right direction, now goes a bit haywire. It spins round madly and becomes useless at showing us where to go.
It’s for that reason that I believe we have to be incredibly careful about what we allow to ‘sit beside’ our Bible reading. It’s too easy to believe that listening to a YouTube preacher tell you what the Bible says, is the same as reading it for yourself.
And if we’re spending more time listening to what people tell us the Bible says, rather than reading it for ourselves, we’re in murky territory. I also think we have a responsibility to ‘weigh up’ the teaching that we absorb and see if it actually lines up in context with what the Bible actually says. If we know our Bible, through personal study, we won’t be so easily led astray.
2. What kind of fruit do these theories produce? If, like me, you found yourself starting to feel fearful, to want to selfishly stockpile, to worry or to start feeling incredibly angry, none of that is ‘good fruit’.
A member of my family admitted some time ago that he had got ‘sucked in’ to constantly listening to overseas radio stations from Christian survivalists.
The ‘fruit’? Sleepless nights, anxious thoughts, inexplicable rage, isolation, fear and worry.
The truth is, the Word of God absolutely brings life. Its fruit in our lives is exactly as it’s described in Galatians; peace, love, joy, self-control, kindness and more besides.
If instead, you’re finding yourself hunkering down, suspiciously viewing the world around you, shaking a fist at shadowy elites, isolating yourself from church, declining to listen to anyone who thinks differently (you just KNOW you’re right and everyone else is wrong!) these are worrying symptoms.
This is not what happens when we absorb, the living, life-giving Word of God. The Word of God doesn’t give us a one-size-fits-all answer to the world’s problems, but it does point us toward hope, toward peace, toward understanding the beauty of eternity.
3. Are you a listener or a crusader? A few years back, I attended a great training course on ‘dealing with difficult people’. One of the hallmarks of a ‘difficult person’, according to the trainer, can be their inability to listen and their need to convince everyone else of the rightness of their opinion.
Crusaders make pretty bad church members! They are always right and their role on Earth is to put the pastor right too. They’ve lost the ability to listen, to serve, to be open to the fact that they might be wrong. We’ve probably all met a person just like that?! Maybe, we’re in danger of becoming one (ouch!) ourselves? The need to be right outweighs the need to listen.
The Bible, from Hosea to the Gospels, reminds us in multiple ways to always have a teachable spirit. In times like today, while it’s easy to get entrenched in ‘new ideas’, let’s also be open to the possibility of challenge. What does God’s Word say? What do the wise and Godly people around us say? We might not always agree, but exposing ourselves to different opinions, is hugely important.
There’s no doubt that we’re living in strange and uncomfortable times, but that’s why we need the direction of the Bible and the Holy Spirit guiding us daily. When we’ve got his presence sitting in our lives and hearts and minds, spotting the lies actually becomes easier. When we’re guided by his word, our compass points to true north and our ‘radar’ for false teaching is clear and loud.
Lies make us feel anxious and afraid and angry. The truth points us to peace, to hope, to an incredible eternity.
In difficult times, I know how I would rather be feeling.