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029  Lie to God, Fall Over Dead

I've been talking for a few issues about God judging His Church, with an eye toward making us holy so that we can stand when God judges the wicked. Last time I counseled running to God for safety and empowerment. The issue before, I recommended running to God for scrubbing and refining.

This week, I had the Holy Spirit draw my attention to an event in Church history to which I've heretofore paid little attention. It occurs in Acts chapter 5, and concerns an event that frightened the believers in the newly-established Jerusalem church pretty badly.

Starting in Acts 4:34:

"...there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need...

"But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and kept back some of the price for himself, with his wife’s full knowledge, and bringing a portion of it, he laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, 'Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back some of the price of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control? Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.'

"And as he heard these words, Ananias fell down and breathed his last; and great fear came over all who heard of it. The young men got up and covered him up, and after carrying him out, they buried him."

The story continues with Sapphira, Ananias' wife, likewise lying to Peter about the proceeds from the sale of the land, and likewise falling over dead.

It's been a little while since events like this have occurred in the Church, and that's probably a good thing. I've heard preachers joke about this, observing that we might lose half of the church in a single day if God still did this sort of thing.

In fact, it would be more than half. It's not unusual for us to hide our brokenness from God as though He didn't know it was there. It's likewise not unusual for us to hide our dishonesty from ourselves, and to imagine ourselves to be more honest with God than we really are. And it's certainly not unusual for us to present ourselves to the church as holier than we are.

The holy facade toward the church arises from our insecurity. In lots of churches, it is not safe to admit weakness except in the most general sense: "We're all sinners before God." Acknowledging specific weakness--"this is how I sinned this week"--makes everybody around us uncomfortable. Some people will immediately try to fix us, as though we were broken and they were not. If the sin is something bad enough, it earns us immediate second-class status, as we get subjected to a process of "restoration" and made to report regularly to some overseer.

So when people ask us how we are, we smile and reply, often dishonestly, "Fine. How are you?" It's not an answer, it's a scripted game. It's also a deflection. Our guard is up. We're keeping our masks firmly in place. That's the only safe option.

It might not seem so safe if the pretense of holiness caused us to fall over dead, now, would it? 

Can you see why God intervened to prevent the early church from allowing such pretense? And can you see why candor in the church is truly necessary? Real fellowship, real intimacy, happens in no other way. And intimacy is the essence of heaven.

In the standard pattern of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, individuals are encouraged to speak candidly about what they are experiencing. Other members are encouraged to listen but are not permitted to attempt to "fix" the person speaking, nor are they permitted to repeat what they've heard in meetings. If the speaker is doing well, they are encouraged. If they have fallen short, they are understood. Everybody falls sometimes, but all are encouraged to continue to work the program.

Churches ought to operate as Sinaholics Anonymous meetings, in which we who are attempting the long road of recovery from estrangement from God interact with each other over our recovery. "Falling off the wagon" should be recognized as a common event. The response to it should be the same as in AA: we should be encouraged to continue to work the program. We ought to be able to talk about our imperfect sobriety freely, and not have to suffer being "fixed" by others. And we should treat sobriety--freedom from sin--as an achievement, not an expected normality. It's a goal, not necessarily a present reality.

Times are changing. We may be coming into a time when God is turning up the heat on the Church, with an eye toward making us into the people we were supposed to be. If that's true, we may all need to start identifying our facades and deliberately laying them down. We may have to start being more candid with selected fellow-believers, and coming out of hiding.

Do that for a while and churches may become known as places where people love and provide for one another.

I don't know whether God is ever going to shock the Church again by causing an insincere brother to fall over dead. He might; who knows? But whether He does or not, let's each find some people with whom the facade is not necessary, and let's start our own Sinaholics Anonymous chapters where we can relax and tell the truth about who we are. That might require taking a few risks, but as John Wimber, the founder of the Vineyard churches, used to say, "Faith is spelled 'R, I, S, K.'"

Practice telling the truth, and I'll see you in a couple of weeks.

Phil Weingart


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