Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Deadly Lies

Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received?”
--Acts 5.3

Pitching In

When I enter one of the world’s great cathedrals—Notre Dame in Paris, for example—I sometimes wonder what I’d hear if one of the first Christians were beside me. Frankly, I don’t think they’d recognize where they were. Early Christianity wasn’t a religion, but a left-wing sect of Judaism. It had no hierarchy, no governmental structure, no real plan or objectives. And it had no money to operate. According to Acts 4.32, “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.” Early Christianity was about more than giving a few dollars in the weekly collection or tithing 10% of one’s income. Early Christians made pitching in everything the cost of entry—selling all one owned and donating the entire proceeds from the sale to the common good. In this respect, the first Christians predated Karl Marx by nearly 1800 years.

Why did the early Church demand so much from its constituents? First, remember that the apostles all left their professions to shepherd the flock of early believers. But, second, I also think requiring such severe sacrifice was a test—of character, commitment, and obedience. Imagine how many hangers-on lost interest when they heard, “Welcome to Christianity! Now, before we get you situated, you’ll need to auction off your possessions, contribute all your earnings to the kitty, and spend all of your time working for the growth and success of this tiny band of believers in Jesus!” Like the rich young ruler, who walked away in disappointment after Christ told him to sell his holdings and donate the revenue to poor people, one imagines many wannabe believers couldn’t bank that curve. Others, like Ananais and his wife, Sapphira, thought they saw an opportunity to get over on the naïve, idealistic believers.

Holding Back
In Acts 5, Ananais shows up with his gifts and lays them before Peter. Prior to this, he and Sapphira have schemed to hold back a certain percentage for themselves. (One might think of this as their personal “nest egg” or “bonus.”) His action implies that he’s giving his all, however, and it’s here that Ananais falls into trouble. Why have you lied to God, Peter asks. And before he can stammer and stutter his way through some kind of weak-kneed explanation, Ananais falls over dead. Next, here comes Sapphira, not knowing what fate befell her husband. When asked about their donation, she upholds his story. Down she goes—and they drag her away to be buried beside her husband.

The modern mind has problems processing this story. Sure, Ananais and Sapphira were con artists. Sure, they schemed to cheat God’s people by claiming to have made less than their transactions actually profited. Sure, they lied. But were these crimes so grave to merit death? If we think things through, we discover there’s more to the story. Why were Ananais and Sapphira holding back? The Bible doesn’t say. But any answer one arrives at isn’t good. Perhaps they feared this Christianity business wouldn’t last—they were afraid of giving up everything for a losing cause. Perhaps they wanted to ensure their financial security through tough times; they weren’t convinced of God’s daily provision. Perhaps they wanted to maintain a social/financial edge over the other believers—to stay a cut above their brothers and sisters; they hadn’t yet outgrown their proud urges. Whatever compelled them to lie to Peter and cheat God’s people, it was a bigger issue than just misrepresenting truth. It was deadly and thereby made the lies told to support it deadly.

To Tell the Truth

It’s hard to resist the urge to look at these two shysters and go off on a rant about all the con artists and unregulated investment bankers currently in our news. Yet there’s a much larger truth here that we all should internalize. When we come to God, it’s essential to tell the truth. “Couching” reality, being “discreet,” or glossing over aspects of our lives we’d prefer not to mention are pointless, because God sees all, hears all, and knows all. In 2 Kings 19.27, God says, “I know where you stay and when you come and go,” and in 1 Corinthians 4.5, Paul writes, the Lord “will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts.” When we deal with our Maker, there’s nothing we can reveal. There’s no need to hide anything about us—because it’s pointless. And thinking we can lie to Him about ourselves is as foolish as it is deadly serious.

During this season of repentance, humility, and prayer, it’s important to come clean in our confession. We bring Jesus all we are, as we are, without shame or reservation or pretense. There’s nothing to hide because nothing can be hidden. But more than that, given that He knows everything, why should we ever resist giving God all we have. Jesus told the Samaritan woman, “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” (John 4.24) Lying is sinful. Lying about sin can be deadly. True worship begins with truth.

Ananais falls after he deals dishonestly with God.

(Tomorrow: Unworldly Peace)


Annette said...


Thank you as always for this piece. One question I think about and perhaps some of your readers do, is in regards to confession to another person--i.e. a priest, pastor, etc. Many religions require this for the "sinner" to be forgiven.

How do you see this? Is confession just to God? Is it to a religious/spiritual leader of a church?

Thank you for your thoughts!


(You don't have to post this if you'd rather address this privately --and of course, at your convenience, I know you are slammed).

Tim said...

Annette, thank you for this thoughtful--and often perplexing--question. I have no problem answering you here with one caveat. These are my thoughts, based on large part on the tradition I grew up in.

Authentic confession of sin starts and ends with our sincere longing to be forgiven. That is the sole criterion that validates whatever rite of confession each of ascribes to.

Some believers confess their sins directly to God in private without any human intermediary. (That's how I was raised.) Others confess their sins to a priest in keeping with the Judaic tradition that he/she fulfills the role of the intercessor between God and man. These confessions are likewise private, sealed by confessional's confidentiality. Then there are other traditions that teach repentance must happen openly in the presence of ministers and fellow believers to reinforce the "sinner's" humility and regret by demanding a public pledge to turn from future sin.

None of these is wrong--in an unscriptural sense, as precedents for all three exist in the Bible. Yet none of them is right if the rite of confession is reduced to ritualized compliance to tradition. In other words, the Pentecostal who confesses directly to God, the Catholic who does the same in the confessional to a priest, and the Primitive Baptist who confesses his/her wrongdoing before the entire congregation without sincerely believing God will forgive him/her and truly regretting his/her sins are no different. All three are like Ananias and Sapphira--they're dishonest before God. Going through motions instead of coming to God in total candor and penitence is what keeps us true and ensures our forgiveness.

No New Testament writer (in my opinion, anyway) does a better job of teaching the power and principle of confession than John in his first epistle. Here are two gems:

"If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1.9)

"My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense--Jesus Christ, the Righteous One." (1 John 2.1)

These and other verses (not only in 1 John, but throughout the New Testament) consistently stress that purity of motive is what counts--not methodology. This suggests to me that one's comfort or discomfort with one method--i.e., how he/she was taught originally--is not the issue. If one method doesn't jibe with how he/she now believes, another method that better reflects his/her current faith is equally powerful... provided it enables him/her to confess and repent sincerely, and believe by faith in God's forgiveness.

Getting hung up by the process defeats the purpose. It also draws attention away from a crystal-clear condition that Jesus Himself attaches to asking forgiveness for sins. In Matthew 6, He teaches to ask God to forgive our sins "as we also have forgiven" those who sin against us. In verse 15, He says, "If you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."

What does this mean in terms of how we confess? If we're at ease with the confessional tradition we've always known, it's fairly straightforward. Before we kneel in private, enter the confessional, or stand before the congregation, we rid our hearts of any malice or judgment of anyone who's wronged us.

But I think there's a very important added layer if, say, we leave the Pentecostal tradition to embrace the Catholic one because we feel the one we were taught to practice was wrong--either theologically or personally. We can't enter our chosen manner of confession with resentment or condemnation for those who taught us a different way. We must forgive them for the imperfections we find in them, the hurts and fears their approach visited on us, and the doubts about God's mercy it engendered. And, as part of our confession, we should be honest with ourselves and our God about this.

I apologize if this sounds like I'm running circles around your question. In a nutshell, honest confession and sincere repentance are all that matters in the end. God hears and forgives all His children--His love isn't predicated on protocol or tradition. Confession, however it's expressed, stands entirely on our faith that God loves us and wants to remove sin's detriments from our lives. Forgiveness, however it's experienced, stands entirely on His grace, which transcends all human knowledge, behavior, and understanding.

At the bottom line, whether I kneel by my bed and confess my sins silently to God, if I itemize them to my parish priest, or if I disclose my errors to a body of believers, confessing my sins is important because it encourages me to think and articulate what I've done wrong--so I'll be all the more aware of it and can avoid perpetuating attitudes and behaviors that displease my Maker.

I encourage all of us to confess and repent in the manner that allows it to take place in the most meaningful, honest, and faith-driven way possible.

Blessings always, my beloved sister in Christ!