If this were a catchy, click-bait-y post, the title would be Five Ways to Tell If You’re Believing Heresy.
Except there’s really only one foolproof sign you need: you’re a human. (And not Jesus, which is technically a second sign, but so oddly specific that I didn’t count it.)
Here’s what I mean: maybe you have perfectly orthodox beliefs, prioritized in just the right order with the essentials at the core and the interesting doctrinal potpourri on the fringes. Maybe your pastor is careful to interpret the Bible well, maybe you pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, maybe you compare everything you hear to Scripture.
Even with all that, there will still be days where you believe the wrong gospel. On paper you may say you believe one thing, but what you do reveals where your heart is.
That’s extremely vague and mysterious-sounding, like I’m some sort of spiritual fortune cookie dispenser. To de-guru myself, here are a few examples from my life that I’ve noticed recently.
The Prosperity Gospel
“God wants you to be happy. If you’re experiencing suffering, it must be your lack of faith, because God is waiting for you to call down blessings, live your best life now, ask and receive health, wealth, and a mega-T.V. ministry.”
It’s practically self-satirizing—sites like Babylon Bee don’t even need to do anything to parody this message. You can basically quote the major leaders and it looks like something that no one who read the actual New Testament or examined the life of even one early church leader could possibly come up with.
Joel Osteen and his shiny smile is, in my circles, the universal punching bag for heresy jokes. Kind of like a reverse Chuck Norris. We understand that the Bible tells us we will suffer, in no uncertain terms. (Multiple times.)
On the other hand…when things do go wrong in my life, my first reaction is, “Why me? What did I do to deserve this?” Even trivial problems and delays provoke my whining, as if God somehow owes me sunny weather or a non-snoring neighbor on the plane or the return of Aldi’s limited edition Mint Moose Tracks ice cream.
It gets more serious, of course, when the suffering is real—sickness, broken relationships, death. It can be harder to remember, then, that shouting at God for letting this happen is basically saying Osteen was right all along. I deserve a perfect life in a fallen world, and when I don’t get it, I have a right to be angry.
The Legalistic Gospel
“God plays favorites. Maybe grace saves you, but after that, it’s all on you. If you do what’s right, God loves you more. And if you do what’s wrong, better watch out! Someone’s up there keeping score.”
Written out like that, it looks ridiculous. But if you’re one of the rule-followers out there (why, hello, oldest children and perfectionists, nice to see you), you know legalism can be sneakier.
It’s the compulsion you feel to pray out loud in your small group when everyone else has because you don’t want them to think you’re not spiritual enough. It’s guilt when you skip a day or a week or a month of Bible reading and refuse to confess it to God because maybe if you don’t bring it up, he won’t either. It’s both the feeling of shame that some sins can’t be forgiven and the feeling of pride that you’re doing so much better than so-and-so.
For me, it’s wrong motives in serving others. I have to stop and check myself often. Why am I doing this? To somehow impress God and people around me? Didn’t Jesus say something about that in the Sermon on the Mount (he totally did—I taught it in kids’ ministry while feeling proud of myself for teaching in kids’ ministry…oops).
Rejecting legalism in practice means a heart check: taking a look at why you’re doing what you’re doing. Refusing to believe that you can make God love you less…or more. Doing the hard things, the unnoticed things, and doing them to the glory of God.
The Self-Esteem Gospel
“God made you special. Responding to the gospel is about living in harmony and doing good things. The church should be a safe space, accepting of all. You are valuable and loved just the way you are.”
This one is a little trickier. There are books and ministries (especially, I’ve seen, directed toward women) whose whole purpose seems to be to give us warm-fuzzies about ourselves, our community, and our walk with God. It’s not that bad, we think, just unbalanced.
And then we wonder why it’s so hard for people in the church to admit to struggling with mental illness. We watch teens leave the church because they’re tired of hypocrisy. We wince uncomfortably when unbelieving friends ask about God’s judgment and awkwardly change the subject. Because wouldn’t it be better to talk about something more…nice?
For me, the realization that I’d bought into the self-esteem gospel came a while ago when I decided I couldn’t be part of the problem. Here, I’m specifically talking about racial inequality, but you can insert any systemic evil here—poverty, corrupt government, apathy in the church.
Orthodox doctrine tells me that I am a sinner, struggling against the evil in my heart. So does, like, five minutes spent in my presence when I’m tired, cranky, or faced with a mountain of crusted-on dishes left in the sink. I should have all the reason in the world to believe that I’m capable of contributing to a broken system, that I have unconscious biases, that I am ignoring small chances to speak up and make a difference when it comes to race relations.
Do you know why I don’t want to admit that? Because it means that I am not perfect. It means ditching the feel-good messages that assure me I’m already doing fine and seriously asking myself what God wants to shake up in me. It means really believing that I am a sinner who can’t become like Jesus by working harder and smiling wider.
I am part of the problem. So are you, probably. Rejecting the self-esteem gospel means admitting that…and praying for the grace to change.
Those are just a few of the false gospels I’ve been thinking about lately, the Christian Nice Girl heresies I live out without meaning to.
I want to replace these lies with the truth. I want to listen to God more and Satan and the world and my own fears less. I want to preach the real gospel to myself every day instead of leaving it shut up in the Wordless Book.
The gospel isn’t just for your spiritual birthday, it’s for every single day after that until you die or Jesus comes back. Then we won’t need to remind ourselves of the good news, because it will be living among us, and there will be no more lies.