A headline on The Atlantic caught my attention Wednesday morning: “The Seven Signs You’re in a Cult.” At first, I skimmed the content, then did a double-take when I saw a name from the slightly charismatic practices of my college years: Mike Bickle and the International House of Prayer (IHOP) ministry.
I started re-reading the article, and read closer this time. As the author wove his story, I felt the connections, faint though they may be, with my college years. The timing was the same, the prophetic and evangelical leaders the same, and the heady emotional connection to authentic religious experiences the same. Peers graduated from college and headed for IHOP U from the campus ministry in which I was involved.
College, though one of the most fruitful times of my life spiritually, was difficult for me. I transferred my way through several schools, and struggled with feeling like an outsider once I transferred into my final college – everyone already had their friends and didn’t need more. For the first time in life, I didn’t have a built-in group of friends to share life with. Very shortly after the start of my first semester at the new school, I attended a weekly worship service for a campus ministry that would become home. The freedom found in worship was new to me, being very different from my Southern Baptist upbringing, and yet a very welcomed change. I became much more involved with this ministry over the years, and met wonderful, caring, godly people throughout the next three years as a result.
On the edge of this God-centered group, though, lurked something alluring yet dark. I glimpsed it more in the latter years, as new faces came into the group and the charismatic fervor grew, even though the charismatic practices themselves remained unchanged. The balance I’d long loved between “come as you are” and “prophesy over all” hedged further toward “prophesy over all” and felt less authentic, more forced, and more human-centric than in previous years.
Life moved on, naturally, for me, and my ties to the campus ministry lessened after graduation. A few tough years for the ministry followed where a shifting of student leadership and cleaning of house occurred, and all has seemed a bit more smooth in the years following.
Reading the Atlantic article today, I remembered these years, and finally found a framework of understanding for the uncertainty that lived in my heart around the things on the fringe – the excessive charismatic practices, the pressure (from only a few) to forsake all and engage in the ministry only, and the “it” club of super-spiritual Christians.
It’s a framework of understanding that where there is great godliness, great evil also lurks.
What I sensed on a very small scale within the campus ministry existed in the same manner within IHOP U and this particular group of men and women. As the Bible teaches, the road to destruction, even in the midst of great godliness, is wide and paved with destruction. The same evil exists in our churches, ministries, and God-centered schools today. Eternal victory is the Lord’s, yet we walk beside darkness as deep as the full evil of Satan each day.
This thought lends itself neatly to an admonition to ensure we, as Christians, continue to remain involved in the social communities around us so that we may be the hands and feet of Christ. And that thought is a good thought.
However, the lesson, for me, was the reality and depth of God’s forgiveness. The young men in the article committed horrid, disgusting, vile, sinful acts in a number of avenues. They took someone’s life and dignity. They lied. They should pay, significantly, for the sins they committed.
And yet, before they’d ever committed the first sin, God forgave them. Christ died on the cross for those sins. They are pardoned. Yes, God is a righteous God that is angered by the depravity of man. I’ve no doubt God grieved, deeply, for the loss of the young woman’s life and the outpouring of sin in the young men. And I’ve also no doubt God burned with anger at the same actions. That God can forgive, forever, the sins of mankind is incomprehensible to me. That He can continue to love, grant mercy, and cherish someone committing such a sin against another of his creation is incomprehensible.
But my incomprehension doesn’t lessen God’s character one tiny bit. God is God, and His way is forgiveness, love, mercy, faithfulness, and so forth. I see myself as unforgivable, but that doesn’t change the fact that God forgives me. I see myself as unloveable, but that doesn’t stop God from loving me. I see myself as deserving of any and all consequence that may come my way, yet God shows mercy.
So the lesson, today and always, is on God’s character. On His righteousness, His love, and His mercy. On His unrelenting pursuit of our hearts. On His forgiveness that casts sin as far from us as the east is from the west. It’s beautiful, and it’s incomprehensible, and it’s unchanging.
Note: the leaders of the campus ministry in which I was involved were godly men and women that governed with eyes and ears on the Lord. The Board of Directors worked diligently to maintain balance, perspective, and sound theological principals within the ministry. I am not, in the least, likening the campus ministry in which I was involved to the cult discussed in the article.