Prosperity: Part Seven of My Life Inside the Narrowgate Cult at Messiah College
Sometimes, when the spirit moves me, I can do many wondrous things. I want to know when the spirit moves you – Did ye get healed? (Van Morrison)
At this time, many people in Narrowgate were in significant debt. As a result, the teaching of financial prosperity gained more prominence. We were taught that it was God’s will for His children to have no need, and that His true believers – the church – were to be totally taken care of by our sugar daddy in the sky. This teaching of prosperity, which is very common within more affluent Western Christianity, is actually the ice that grows over another very similar topic that I don’t think I’ve brought up yet in this blog series. Teachings such as Prosperity and Healing are actually the logical byproducts of a more central teaching which goes by several names, though it is most commonly called Word of Faith teaching.
Word of Faith teaching revolves around the power of our words. We were taught that we can use our words as containers for faith, and in so doing, can enact changes into the world around us. The two most common changes were of healing someone of a sickness through faith, or by making someone financially prosperous through faith. How these changes occur is by declaring the desired circumstance (ie. healing or prosperity) in faith, without doubting that it will happen. This “confession of faith” was to be adhered to without any doubt, as doubt was from the devil and would nullify our faith.
Certain passages of scripture were used as bellows to fan the flame of faith – passages that declared what God had done in the past became authoritative as to what God will do in all circumstances for a believer, at all times. As an example, let’s look at the passage in Isaiah 53:5 (I can hear all the fans of the band Stryper yelling AWW YEAH!).
This passage, commonly believed to refer to the Messiah, states that by His stripes (or wounds) we are healed. This is frequently used as an authoritative declaration of faith that every illness or malady (every stripe) has already been healed by Christ – and that declaring that truth (through a declaration of faith) will make it a reality in our current circumstance. In the second (and if we’re honest, the greatest) Star Wars movie The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker is learning the ways of the Force from Jedi Master Yoda. When his ship sinks into the swamp, he tries to levitate it out of the muck but cannot, because he believes that it’s too big to lift. Yoda chastises him that labeling something as being too large or small is of no real importance because “size matters not.” Likewise In the Word of Faith framework, any affliction is the same as any other whether it be a headache or cancer, sniffle or smallpox. All are to submit to complete healing, by faith. All were paid for by the stripes of the Messiah, on the cross.
Spread your wings as you go
And when God takes you back we’ll say Hallelujah
You’re home (Ed Sheeran)
If someone is NOT healed within this paradigm, there are usually two logical conclusions: the person (or persons) declaring the truth do not have enough faith to “birth” the healing into reality, or they have some secret sin that prevents God from hearing their prayer. I have personally witnessed this on several occasions throughout my life – both within the Narrowgate group, as well as at a nondenominational charismatic church we attended after fleeing Narrowgate. I have seen and felt the condemnation and shame that are heaped onto people as a result of this teaching. And as I’ve said before, using spiritual concepts to shame, manipulate or harm others is Spiritual Abuse. Recently in the news, Bethel Church had been standing with the parents of a child who tragically passed away. This belief was communicated from their pastor Bill Johnson that through faith, God would resurrect that child from the dead:
“How can God choose not to heal someone when He already purchased their healing? Was His blood enough for all sin, or just certain sins? Were the stripes He bore only for certain illnesses, or certain seasons of time? When He bore stripes in His body He made a payment for our miracle. He already decided to heal. You can’t decide not to buy something after you’ve already bought it. There are no deficiencies on His end – neither the covenant is deficient, nor His compassion or promises. All lack is on our end of the equation.”Is it Always God’s will to heal someone? Bill Johnson’s website
“Resurrection is at the heart of Jesus’ behavior but it is also in His command to those who follow Him,” the pastor said, referencing Matthew 10:8, where Jesus sends out the 12 apostles and tells them: “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.”Bill Johnson elaborates on why they prayed for resurrection of dead; mother calls it ‘victory story’ by Brandon Showalter in the Christian Post
Within the Word-of-Faith belief system, entertaining the possibility that the child would NOT be resurrected from the dead is to guarantee its failure, and so the faithful at Bethel church stood in faith… and stood… and stood for an entire week. At the end of the week, the child was not resurrected. And now the questions begin for those people – why was she NOT resurrected? Did the parents or pastor or church congregation not have enough faith? Or did they perhaps have some secret sin that prevented God from acting? Either choice is spiritually abusive to those who are already suffering. Either choice adds a heavy burden of shame to those left behind to deal with this theology.
Now let me be crystal clear on this – the death of a child is a horrible tragedy. My heart goes out to the parents of Olive, I cannot fathom the depths of pain and loss this family must have experienced. And now, on the tail end of no miraculous resurrection, there is pain on top of pain – the weight of guilt that God did not resurrect that child because of their lack of faith. This is abuse of a sort that leaves deep scars and shipwrecks faith. What is the effect from this teaching on the siblings of this deceased child? What of the parents? What of the cousins and uncles and family members and all of the concentric circles of friends, family and acquaintances around the child? The affects of this theology reach far and wide, like tossing a boulder into a calm pool.
Once again I am in a situation where my theological prowess is woefully limited. I do not profess to understand how God operates through grief and death and pain and suffering. Nor do I grasp how (or when) divine healing works. My view has changed much since the days of Narrowgate, and will change even further still until I draw my last breath.
Ultimately, I now believe this Word of Faith theology limits God’s ability to do anything – in this paradigm, God is reduced to an impotent creature that is subject to our level of faith. And His divine will is reduced to whatever we believe His will is, at any given time. I’ve seen this very individualistic approach to God’s will being abused more times than I can count in my own life, and know I’m not alone. This has been used to abuse countless people throughout all time. And the pressure to have enough faith (so miracles happen) and to be good / sinless enough (so God hears us) is a very heavy burden – one I’ve unfortunately carried on more than one occasion. We certainly carried this weight in Narrowgate to the extent that I remember Pooky and I kept it a secret when either of us was sick, out of fear of condemnation from others.
Standing on the promises I now can see
Perfect, present cleansing in the blood for me;
Standing in the liberty where Christ makes free,
Standing on the promises of God. (Russell Kelso Carter)
In Narrowgate, we were to walk in faith, as though we were without financial fears and burdens, and have faith that God would supernaturally bail us out. That was what we believed faith was – believing and not doubting. And so we believed that as long as we believed and did not doubt, God would provide all of our physical, financial and emotional needs. We were, as a group, mostly young and healthy. The concept of healing was a topic we learned about, but seldom had to walk through in a tangible fashion. There were occasional bouts of colds and flu, which tended to run its course in a few days after declaring healing over it, I remember keeping them quiet so as to avoid the shame that came with not having enough faith. I am not aware of any serious illnesses like cancer within the group, which would have potentially been more challenging to fit within our very narrow paradigm of faith. But financial security was a challenge that I think we all had – and our faith couldn’t fix our financial problems.
We were all in our late teens / early twenties, starting out in the working world. Many of us had student loans and credit card debt, which we tried managing with a “starter job” fresh out of college. I think we all yearned for a lasting solution to the debt and worry of scraping to get by each month. Prosperity was the succulent worm on the hook that I think we saw as the cure to our most tangible problems, and Word of Faith teaching became the method to get at that prosperity. Subsequently, I recall Pooky and I both struggling to have complete faith in God and live without fear, in spite of mounting debt and bills and loans. Patriarchy was the brutal tag-team partner of Prosperity, and both combined to crush me down – because I was the “head of the home” and “provider for my family”, all the financial burden was on me. And as the “spiritual leader of the home”, it was all on me to have enough faith to shake the wallet of almighty God over our budget and finances. I could not stand up to this monstrous burden – but I had to act as though I could, to keep up with the group’s theology.
During this time, Liam went out and bought a car, in faith that God would provide money supernaturally for the car payments. Monkey see, monkey do – several others in the group followed suit and also got new cars, I recall Ava & James did, as did Mia. To my recollection, at that time only Mia had a fairly decent job with computers that could handle the car payments. Overall, we all spent money foolishly during this time, but the bills always came due. We were taught that if we sowed willingly and gave generously, we would receive much more back than we gave – but the reality was that this did not work.
I recall at one point, the entire group was taken out to dinner by Noah, who picked up the tab. The bill was stupendous, and Noah had faith that God would provide the money. That dinner bill, if I recall correctly, went onto a credit card. Many of us in Narrowgate – myself included – became burdened with debt as a direct result. For us, my student loans came due much sooner than I could have imagined – and they were crippling to an already limited budget. Pooky and I were fortunate in that I had a fully paid for car (my small white Ford Festiva, the best car in the entire galaxy) and Pooky used a yellow station wagon that belonged to her Mom. We didn’t need a new car, and were happy with the vehicles we had.
It is perhaps as a result of debt that Liam got a job at a local insurance agency which helped pay his bills. As an added bonus, Liam’s job provided medical insurance, so they were prepared for the delivery of their baby. Emma went to the doctor for the checkups, and we were all delighted that insurance covered it all. It was God’s miraculous provision!
This new arrangement of Liam working lasted for most of the pregnancy, until about a month before Emma had the baby when Liam quit his job and they lost their medical insurance. They decided to walk in faith and believe God to provide money for the delivery. He got a part time job working at Ruby Tuesdays, a local restaurant. I recall hearing that the money he received from tips was more than his desk job at the insurance company, though I don’t know if it provided health insurance. The baby shower came and went, I found the invitation while sorting through some old papers during that time. Obviously the true names and numbers have been tweaked, though you are more than welcome to call Jenny or Ghostbusters.
Well I don’t know if I’m ready to be the man I have to be. I’ll take a breath, I’ll take her by my side. We stand in awe, we’ve created life. (Creed)
Emma had the baby, a little girl named Peanut (obviously not her real name). Liam was the proud papa, and perhaps as a nod to the infamous men’s ministry event passed out pink cigars to the group. The bills mounted and the delivery bill alone was staggering, as I don’t believe that they had insurance with his job at Ruby Tuesday. Perhaps as a result, they lost their car and had to borrow cars from other members of the group whenever they needed to go somewhere. Since we had an extra car we volunteered our car on occasion whenever they needed it. They kept it for days at a time, and we were worried about the insurance if there was an accident, as the car did not belong to us and was under Pooky’s mother’s name. When we mentioned to her one day that Liam was borrowing the car she was very unhappy about it, and we decided that we should not lend it out anymore. We felt very guilty to ask for the car back but we did. Because parents were not viewed in high esteem within the group, we felt some level of shame that we were letting someone outside the group control our actions. Others in the group filled in the hole by loaning their cars occasionally. When they were without a car, Liam walked about 2 miles to work.
As they had a newborn at home, we could no longer meet in Liam and Emma’s apartment. Narrowgate started up small groups where Liam split us up into smaller groups and we met weekly at other peoples’ homes. This was for us to become better friends with others. This perhaps explained why Liam had been encouraging others within the group to take on more of a leadership role – some of the junior members became small group leaders over each small group. Pooky and I wound up in a small group with Olivia & Noah, Sophia and Mia. We met at Sophia and Mia’s apartment out in the middle of the woods, near the Messiah College campus. Throughout my history of attending Small Groups at different churches, the recipe has remained pretty much unchanged: food, fellowship, and deep discussion. In the Narrowgate small group, we would sit around and talk about what God was doing in our lives, and afterward have cookies and cocoa. We met a few times, maybe 3 or 4, and sometimes members of other small groups would visit ours.
One night at this meeting Noah wanted to talk to the guys alone outside. Noah and I were obviously there, and the brothers Benjamin and James were visiting that night, too. Once outside, Noah shared with us about how he was having such a hard time with worrying about money. He shared a lot about it and we all listened intently. When he finished, I wanted so much to encourage him, as I also worried about finances (though I was ashamed to admit it because it revealed my “lack of faith”). I told him that I understood, that I felt there was so much pressure on the Man of the house to provide for his family and make sure things financially worked out (remember, we were deeply influenced by the theology of patriarchy). He looked at me for a long second, then started yelling that I didn’t have a clue what he meant, that I didn’t understand at all. I was very taken back by his outburst and said nothing more. I worried that I had been insensitive in saying anything, though I wanted him to not feel alone in his fears. The awkwardness of this moment was broken when a car drove up the driveway past us, then parked. Emma and Liam got out of the car, and said that they had a major breakthrough they had to share with the group. It was so important that it could not wait…
Liam had discovered The Answer to all of our problems.
(to be continued)
Narrowgate Blog Series: Part One; Part Two; Part Three; Part Four; Part Five; Part Six; Part Seven; Part Eight; Part Nine; Part Ten; Part Eleven; Part Twelve; Part Thirteen; Part Fourteen; Part Fifteen; Part Sixteen; Part Seventeen