Friday, May 22, 2015

A Christian Perspective: The Online Pyramid Scheme

There's a new craze going on sweeping the internet that causes firestorm on social media in particular: the so-called Emgoldex investment scheme that promises too-good-to-be-true easy money, and bulks of it, that one finds hard to resist if he is diligent enough to find people to get on the bandwagon. Though staunch defenders of it claim it's not a pyramid scheme, its nature and dynamics say otherwise. Of late, even the Philippine government has issued warnings to its citizens (as it is a huge draw among OFWs) of the legal implications and unsustainability of the said scheme, yet this does not deter them from joining in and take risks with their hard-earned money.

This Emgoldex online company that purportedly sells gold to its clients uses some effective approach to make its "clientele" feel a sense of self-aggrandizement by referring to them, among others, "clients", "online entrepreneurs", or "investors" in order to get a psychological boost and affirm the legitimacy and legality of the so-called partnership, thus the confidence in the business relationship.

Convenient money who can resist it?

Why this particular online investment scheme became an overnight hit to so many Filipinos can only be attributed to its easy strategy: a client needs to find only two recruits, and voila, it  takes only a fortnight before he receives his gold or its equivalent, in this case most investors prefer to receive its cash equivalent amounting to 3,500 euro. Essentially, the cash prize (or return of investment) an investor receives comes from the investment money that his recruits had entrusted to him (or what they term it as "upline"). So, it is in every sense a pyramiding scheme, though I do not insinuate here that it is illegal, the fact that many personalities I personally know have already benefited from it. As a Christian, I have of the opinion that this lure of prosperity is a trap to so many Christians who unwittingly took the bait that will lead to a Christian's spiritual demise.

The Merriam - Webster dictionary describes pyramid scheme as "a usually illegal operation in which participants pay to join and profit mainly from payments made by subsequent participants". Wikipedia adds, "it's an unsustainable business model that involves promising participants payment or services, primarily for enrolling other people into the scheme, rather than supplying any real investment or sale of products or services to the public."

There are lots of pyramid schemes out there, famous of which and popular to Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) are the likes of AIM Global, SWA, Royale and ultimately Emgoldex. I myself as an OFW have been tagged and inundated with invites to join in one of these, specifically Emgoldex. Not only we OFWs become the most convenient targets for recruiters but our immediate family members as well due to the notion that we have the capabilities to invest in these said schemes.

This would have not been surprising considering that pyramid schemes have been in existent since time immemorial, and still people continually gravitate towards the lure of quick and exponential profits from their investment. Due to its nature of long-term unsustainability, many pyramiding businesses in the past have crumbled, along with the lives of those who put their trust and hope in them. From the mistakes of the past, pyramiding business has somehow evolved and perfected its strategy to counter the stigma of "unsustainability" appended to it, thus the emergence of highly successful so-called online investment scheme of which Emgoldex is at the forefront. But what is surprising and saddening is that a lot of Christians such as pastors, worship leaders, elders and legions of church members have joined the fray in the hope of experiencing huge windfalls they believe to be God's way of showering his blessings to his children.

Emgoldex frenzy in Christian churches a real cause of alarm

Had I not joined the conversation in one of the Christian groups on Facebook about a specific post on Emgoldex, I would have not realized the extent of its deep-seated impact among many 'believers' -  some of whom are my personal friends. When I posted Bible verses about contentment and Jesus urging believers to lay up treasures in heaven not on earth, I was immediately overwhelmed by a barrage of negative comments as if the whole Christian community was ganging up on me for my supposed wrong perception of God's favor for His children. That in itself was a shocking revelation knowing the lure of prosperity can create a mobster mentality in people who ironically flaunt themselves as Christians.

One commenter even boasted of their pastor who was able to build a new church because he invested in Emgoldex, and that the pastor's family do not starve anymore, all because of Emgoldex (i was seeing a golden calf in such a proud testimony). And that goes without saying the said pastor is a hard-working guy who uses his gift of gab to find new recruits as evidenced by their new church building and his family not going hungry anymore. This commenter's testimony of how Emgoldex changed the lives of so many Christians she knows including pastors even turned into boasting by saying "faith without action is dead", and that reading their bibles will not do them any good if they don't work up on their faith, in this case, Emgoldex saved the day for them. She continued, "thank you Lord for giving us Emgoldex" and "please stop giving us your nonsense" in shooing me away the next, that elicited a chorus of amens from other commenters who proudly outed themselves to be Emgoldex investors also. Needless to say, I retreated from the mob and said blessings to them.

If anything, what was revealed to me is the current sad state of what some Christian churches have become, spiritually. These pastors who lack discernment and have no desire for it, may be smiling ear to ear for an unprecedented meteoric increase in tithes, have the belief that God is well-pleased at his brand of service in the ministry. That facebook episode did not only serve as an eye-opener to me to the emerging trend, that is earthly prosperity, sweeping across evangelical churches in the Philippines and abroad.

 Church leaders as indirect complicit to the trap of prosperity

A few months back, the Lord led me out of a church whose aggressive stance on matters about tithing is such that you come out feeling like a criminal if you have not yet committed yourself to tithing. Obviously, judging from the delivery of exhortation, there is that sense of arrogance knowing that you belong to the tithers' club, and a sense of guilt and condemnation when you do not; the sad thing is, not everyone, including new attendees, pretty much understands this doctrine, yet being subjected to the same level of admonition. Their kind of exhortation conclusively conveys that if you give your full tithes, God will bless you tremendously, as if God's mercy and grace solely depend on your ability to give your tithes.

Fast forward to present, this same church has now its music director, praise and worship members, dance ministry leader, elders and other members, into the business of Emgoldex. These same people you would find on Facebook posting videos or photos of themselves waving bulks of cash as if to shame their detractors. One of them even goes as far as sticking his tongue out to the bulks of cash he is holding as if to tease his skeptics. The next, they post photos of themselves with their pastors and other members eating out at their favorite restaurant with captions: "katas ng Emgoldex" or loosely translated as "benefits from Emgoldex". What follows are photos of them waving their new iphone 6, huge plasma tv, and even shouting out their plans to buy a new car - for all the world to see.

Romans 12:15 says "rejoice with them that do rejoice and weep with them that weep". Or it can be understood as "to be happy for those who are happy". But when you see your brethren acting and sounding like the world and displaying their love of the world, I think there is no reason at all to be happy with them. What we are seeing here is the deification of material prosperity under the guise of God's favor - and that what truly is upsetting. As sad as it gets, a lot of church people today come to church, not for their need of the Savior but what they can get from the Savior.

Why a born-again believer should shun activities like this

I am in no way against a Christian brother or a sister who wants to uplift their families' economic status as everyone of us strives to do the same, but the following are obvious reasons why a Christian should stay away from pyramiding schemes, and this practice should not be tolerated inside the church the way it has become prevalent in so many of them today:

It causes Christians to be worldly and materialistic. Although we are in this world, we need to remember that we are not of this world, and should not be living the way the world lives. 1 John 2:15 says, "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. First, he gets to achieve what his initial goals were, then the next, and higher, and so on, until sky is the limit. The obsession and preoccupation to the  limitless goals he has set for himself will ultimately lead to his spiritual demise. And this is the area where most Christians are perfectly vulnerable.

It causes Christians to covet. The example being, a Christian brother who sees his fellow Christian in the ministry who has recruited other church members to invest into the scheme and is now able to buy a lot of things and testifies behind pulpit that God has honored the works of his hands (and mouth, through the scheme) will now be encouraged to join the fray so that he too will be blessed by God. Envy and jealousy will take root, and that will lead to self-pity if he fails to achieve the same. Jesus says, And he said to them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man's life consists not in the abundance of the things which he possesses (Luke 12:15).

It sends out a wrong message to other Christians most especially the new believers that could derail their walk with Christ. What impression will it give other Christians and new believers alike when after Bible studies or worship service they find church workers in a huddle on every corner talking to new prospects and convincing them to get on board their scheme? What spiritual benefit does it contribute to other believers if the encouraging verses they used to share on facebook suddenly disappeared in lieu of the ubiquitous and aggressive sales pitch that go with photos fanning themselves with bulks of cash? Has greed overwhelmed the church while pastors sit idly by in perfect complicit to the pervasive materialism and worldliness that has gripped their congregation?

It increases the tendencies for them to associate with the wrong people for the wrong reason. Normally, a true Christian would not hesitate to make his faith known to unbelievers, rather he finds it as an opportunity to share the gospel to them. But in the case of a Christian winning over new recruits into the scheme, he tends to never bother mentioning the name of Jesus to them, in fact he is most likely to compromise his faith for fear of losing his prospect. He tends to agree with them, join in the kind of conversation they are comfortable with, and ultimately surprises them as though they are clueless that he goes to a Christian church as he does not sound like one. Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians, "Be you not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship has righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion has light with darkness?" (2 Corinthians 6:14)

It steals away their precious time with God. All they have to do is to keep abreast of all the inquiries on their Facebook accounts, emails and other platforms where interested parties insist on knowing the dynamics of the business before they take the risk. This is pretty much the routine of Christians who use the internet (some are known to have skipped regular sleep) as their means to win over more recruits - the more recruits the more chances of fat cold cash rushing in. Sometimes, in their status they apologize to not being able to entertain questions as they are sitting in a pew, but admits to being tempted to reply to prospects so as not to lose prospective "clients". So, what else is left for God, much less quiet time, anyone?

It changes their priority. Now, it's more important for them to get more people to join in the scheme instead of witnessing for Christ. Witnessing as a command that every Christian must heed now takes a convenient backseat. "Witnessing will have its proper time and place and a suitable forum, but not now, I might get dissed knowing people find religion a polarizing subject, and besides how can I pitch my business proposal if I have a gospel in tow, so it must be one over the other, for now." In quest for prosperity, there is no such thing as "I've reached my bounds, time to get back to my roots" moments - it is an unending quest for more. It's just how the world operates, and some Christians are willing participants on that stage.

God wants us to prosper to the extent that our souls prosper

Again, I want to emphasize I am not against a brother or a sister who aspires for prosperity, in fact it is God's desire that His people prosper. The apostle John who was known for his closeness with the Lord, wrote to Gaius, "Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prosper" (3 John 1:2). He then went on to recognize some of the good works Gaius was doing for his fellow workers in the Lord. Gaius certainly could not have done much here had he been homeless, or poverty-stricken. Now this verse shows that God wants us to prosper in all things. John would not pray for something that was not the will of God. He prayed for Gaius because it was God's will that he prosper, and not Gaius only, for it is written that, "the Lord takes pleasure in the prosperity of his servant" (Psalm 35:27). But it is not the kind of prosperity that most of us would conveniently interpret - for the key to real prosperity is the state of our soul. God wants us to "renew our minds" (Romans 12:2); but if our minds are carnal, our desires wicked, then earthly prosperity would not do us much good. If our minds are sufficiently renewed then it is definitely in God's interest to prosper us in all things, including material things.

I love the prayer of a wise man in Proverbs that says, "give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only may daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, 'Who is the Lord?' Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God." (Proverbs 30: 8,9) This is the prayer that glorifies God; for this wise man knew in his heart that for as long as he is obedient to the commands and precepts of God, he will surely lack nothing because God will never forget him nor abandon him. In his letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul had this to say,

"But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs." ~ (1 Timothy 6: 6-10)

The best investment, better than any other scheme

Can God trust you with money? He can't trust all that many people. The reason is, many Christians, whether they are rich or poor, trust in the money they have now more than in God's ability to provide for them. We are told not to trust in riches. Paul instructed Timothy. "Command those are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy." (1 Timothy 6:17). No matter how much we have accumulated in this world, there is always an encompassing threat that we cannot hold onto the fruits of our hands, for as long as we want.  

Jesus has warned, "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Matthew 6:19-21). The same is true for property, gold, shares, or any other assets we may have. They are "uncertain riches". God would like us to invest in something certain, something eternal. Does that sound like a good investment plan or not?

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Persecution And Prosperity: A 'Christian' Dilemma

From random stories of unimaginable atrocities committed against Christians in the Middle East - to the advent of ISIS where Christians become automatic target for beheading because of their faith- all these seem to amount to nothing - if the sound of preaching in many Christian churches today is anything to go by. Even before ISIS came into the scene, there was Boko Haram that randomly torched Christian churches in Nigeria - along with their congregants - and sometimes spraying bullets on them while they worship God inside their churches. Pastors and their families have been soft targets for these evil Islamists and the repercussions for being Christian in the wake of persecutions are beyond despicable. Of late, those over 200 Christian girls abducted by this group - were known to have been made sex slaves or murdered - and some were forced to become human bombs targeting public places so as to maximize casualties.

In Egypt, Christians have their own share of indescribable persecutions from Islamists that you do not see often reported in media. Churches pelted with rocks and vandalized by Muslim mobs are a daily occurrence mainstream media think so trivial enough to be given little of their attention. Rape of Christian girls by their Muslim neighbors commonly do not get reported for fear of repercussion from the Muslim majority that has the stranglehold of virtually every government office - from police, military to the judiciary. And not even the highly-publicized beachfront beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians by the ISIS can deter Muslim mobs from inflicting more persecution upon the relatives of those beheaded - when they surrounded the homes of those in mourning and threw stones at them - upon hearing that a monument will be built in honor of those 21.

Nowadays, cases of Christian persecutions worldwide are rising exponentially in a level unprecedented in history. Christians in the Middle East and some parts of Africa certainly have plenty to say - and some have vouched through photos of their severed heads on top of their chests - why it is never easy to be a Christian. These Christian beheadings that have of late become a mundane scenario with its gruesomeness easily accessible in the internet - surprisingly do not surprise the world anymore.

Nowadays, Christian persecutions come in varying forms and degrees but fueled by the same evil force that hates the truth. It's only a matter of geography that gives new definition to it. While Christians in the US and most part of the West are not imminently subjected to threats of beheadings, persecution nonetheless can come in myriad other forms, such as losing your livelihood because you refused to bake wedding cake for same-sex couples as a matter of faith principle, or getting terminated from your teaching job because you gave your student a Bible when she asked for it, and getting bullied or taunted because you prayed and gave glory to God when you scored a touchdown at a football game - and the list goes on and on.

Deception in the last days

When the disciples asked Jesus what will be the signs of His coming and of the end of the age, He said to them "watch out that no one deceives you" (Matthew 24:4). In verse 9 to 13, He continues to say, "Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of many will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved."

Jesus spoke very clearly of what is to come and what should befall those who would follow Him. The apostle Paul in his letter to Timothy concurred when he said "In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." (2 Timothy 3:12). The apostle Peter on the other hand reminds us believers to rejoice amid all our sufferings and trials because it is to purposely test the genuineness of our faith (1 Peter 1:6,7), and if we pass the test, the end result of it is the salvation of our souls (1 Peter 1:9)

I have been to a lot of evangelical churches before and seldom this topic is mentioned in their pulpit. You speak of trials and sufferings in your exhortation and you get perplexed audience in quiet discomfort staring back at you - and the usual 'amens' heard in unison suddenly get obsoleted. If anything, this sort of reaction is understandable given the monotone feel-good messages that you usually hear behind pulpit and compounded by the prolific positive quotes from Joel Osteen or Joyce Meyer that proved popular on social media.

So, what does this say of the spiritual condition of the present day church? When you have the most popular mainstream preachers such as Joel Osteen (who never preaches sin, hell and repentance let alone judgment day and second coming), Joyce Meyer (whose entire family sits at the board of his multi-million dollar ministry and lives off at it grandiosely), and the formidable duo Benny and Kenny (Hinn and Copeland) of the little-gods doctrine; plus the ultra-rich jetsetting Creflo Dollar - who as a bunch has hijacked the true gospel of Jesus Christ into their own brand of gospel - what else do we expect to see around so many churches that do not pray for discernment but only have their sights on earthly blessings?

The teaching that God wants His children to prosper in all aspects of their lives has been the single most indispensable subject everyone loves to talk about. And the increasingly strong desire by congregants to obtain these blessings propels them to even faithfully give their tithes because the usual sermon they habitually hear - either promises of a tremendous blessings - or otherwise a threat of a litany of curses - and that's the last thing the congregants want to hear.

Paul Washer in one of his sermons spoke with full conviction that "False teachers are God's judgment on people who don't want God, but in the name of religion plan on getting everything their carnal heart desires. That's why a Joel Osteen is raised up. Those people who sit under him are not victims of him, he is the judgment of God upon them because they want exactly what he wants, and it is not God."

Even during Jesus' earthly ministry, He already taught substantially on His return that reflected on the numerous parables admonishing believers to be ready (Matthew 25). The apostle Paul in his epistles constantly reminded believers to be patient and to keep themselves worthy as the Day of the Lord is drawing near (1 Thessalonians 4, Hebrews 10). Even at the earliest church age, the believers had hoped that they were going to witness the return of Jesus. Such earnest longing for Jesus' return inspired early believers to preach the gospel of salvation to every place they could reach - calling all people to repent from their sins. That very same message reverberated across the earth after so many generations till today that predisposes ungodly people to mock Christians for Jesus' impending return that never took place. The apostle Peter had in fact long predicted that and had this to say to believers:

Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, "where is this coming he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation." (2 Peter 3:3,4)

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. ~ (2 Peter 3:9,10)

The high-jacking of the true Gospel by wolves in sheep's clothing

When I was a kid growing up in a rural area in the central Philippines, the only medium by which we get to know what the world is up to is by transistor radio because there was no electricity available. I would always hear pastors warning people of the imminent coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. At that time,  even people living in the mountains had been reached by the gospel and somehow had heard of the signs leading to Jesus' return. Recently, as I was listening to a podcast from Stand Up For The Truth, the hosts and their guests have echoed similar observation that during their early years they used to hear preachings left and right about the return of the Lord Jesus Christ but now the usual talk-about from mainstream preachers is how a Christian can live a life of favor, abundance and happiness. And who can resist such message when in fact it was the Lord Jesus Christ himself who promised that "He came so that we may have life and have it to the full?" In one of his sermons, Paul Washer had famously quoted: "...twist not Scripture lest you be like Satan!"

Few would argue that the advent of the so-called prosperity gospel, its lure, its comforting message, has paved the way for the true gospel to cunningly evolve into the gospel of demons - where believers are made to believe that they can have all they want in this life for being co-heirs to the wealth of the Great Provider. Today, the world at-large has grown numb to hearing scandal-after-scandal involving so-called mega pastors who make no apologies for living the high-life, whose sprawling estates, fleets of private jets and palatial mansions in tight security fit for royals - are a picture of total contrast to the life of humility of the Man they preach about - who did not even have a proper place to lay his head (Luke 9:58).

Of course, a gullible Christian would never think deceptions could come from within the church. For as long as he comes and sits at his favorite spot on Sundays, does his assigned ministry , and gives his tithes, then there is every chance that he is on the right track and his place in heaven secured. He doesn't see any wrong in his pastor using Rick Warren's unbiblical teaching materials, (in fact that is what they have been implementing in church recently); the words 'tribulation' and 'rapture' are strange to him - he has been to this church for two years but hasn't heard of them. He has been an ardent fan of Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer, in fact he loves to share their quotes on facebook and draws inspiration from them. "These are great men and women of God and I have been tremendously blessed by their teachings!", he would argue. When you post encouraging verses on facebook, he is one of the first to hit like, and you get tons of it thereafter; but when you post verses pertaining to hell, holiness and judgment, you would get convinced spontaneous boycott from facebook friends does really happen - and that solely depends on what you post.

The sidestepping of the gospel for prosperity's sake

It is the belief that when you act on your faith God will bless your every endeavor. Such is the driving force behind Christians who have been heavily involved in online networking that have plagued local churches that I know. The proliferation of online investment schemes that attract recruits to invest for an incredibly huge profits have now crept up in these churches that you will see worship leaders, elders and deacons, and even an ordained prophetess and some pastors in a race to find recruits to invest in the schemes. Those Bible verses that you usually see in their facebook walls have been dislodged in favor of video materials and testimonies from successful investors. And no one, not even one has dared rebuke them and stood up to them. They even have the temerity to use Jeremiah 29:11(NIV) in their slogan to validate their claims that God desires to "prosper them, give them hope and a better future".

Lack of knowledge and discernment is what thrusts Christians into a dilemma of the supposed incompatibility of scriptures when embracing one doctrine without forsaking another. They reluctantly admit that trials and sufferings are fixtures in the lives of Christians but their hearts vacillate when confronted with biblical promises of wealth, health and success - which their mentors have twisted and taken out of context to suit their needs - because it is what they primarily want to hear.

It is a Christian's reluctance to grow in the knowledge of the Word that puts him in a situation where the scriptures albeit plain and simple seem conflicting to him. The state of many churches today is such that deception is hardly noticed because leaders are deceived and in turn deceiving the flocks. The lure of prosperity, endless favor and good life advocated and being practiced by the so-called megapastors -  has in turn influenced local church leaders to pass on the teachings to their flocks who are now attributing their success and new-found financial breakthrough to God's favor. When you have "prophets and pastors" in church whose mentors they list as Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, T.D. Jakes, Benny Hinn and Creflo Dollar, that says it all of the spiritual condition of the church.

"For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry." ~ (2 Timothy 4:3-5)

The true prosperity 

As for those Christians who are being systematically slaughtered, raped and torched, starved to death, falsely accused and imprisoned without trial, losing their jobs and businesses - all because of their faith - surely God did not fail them and did not forget His promises to them of a hope and a better future. A Christian who truly desires to obey the Lord Jesus Christ and is willing to take up his own cross daily and follow Him understands and finds the true meaning of prosperity: the joy, godly contentment and peace that emanates from our hope of redemption when Christ is revealed to us in His glory.

A lot of Christians around the world have been experiencing untold sufferings and tribulations because of their faith, and they willingly embrace their fate - to them they share with the sufferings of Christ - to them the glory that will be revealed on the last day and the crown of righteousness and the crown of life that await them - is the true prosperity. The apostle Paul had this to say: "For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight of faith, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day - and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing." ~ (2 timothy 4:6-8)

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