I was at a bookshop recently looking for some intellectual sustenance when a book written by a local pastor caught my eye. I took it and randomly flipped it and was greeted with the chapter's epigram: "God loves it when you ask big." He went on to write this, "Don't just ask God for small things. Ask Him for big things." The chapter then introduces the concept of abundant life as one marked not by lack but by abundance and the "fullness of His love, joy and peace".
The author further urges his readers to ask boldly for good health, freedom from fear, guilt and addiction, and blessing in every way for one's marriage and children. The believer is also taught not just to ask for a job but a position of influence. To top it all off, the author challenges the believer with this question, which very much answers itself, "What would you ask God for if you know beyond the shadow of a doubt that He is good and that His love for you endures forever." Wow, that's a whole lot of blessings, prosperity and heavenly goodness to digest all in the first two pages!
Now here’s my self-intro before I comment further. I have been a Christian for the last 25 years or more, married with three kids during the whole stretch, and is currently in a career that provides sufficiently for my family of five. I have been through the ups and downs of faith, sometimes doubting in the face of inexplicable circumstances, and sometimes emboldened by scriptures and sermons, and yet I can't say in all honesty that I have led a life of abundance the way the author had promised it, in particular, that part about asking big because god loves it! (maybe I did not ask big enough?)
Sure, there were moments of peace and joy in the Lord, a quiet surge of confidence and a stirring hope for the future, but I guess that is way below what the author had in mind about soaring like eagle, achieving great things, having the full blessings in marriage, parenting and career, and living a life marked by abundance and not by lack. It feels like heaven on earth already.
Of course, there is this nagging concern about what the author actually meant by a "life of abundance" and "blessings in every way" as against a “life of lack.” But it can be safely presumed that what the author had in mind can't stray too far from what his god had in mind. That is, the best of the best because his god is a god of abundance right? I gather this from his eye-catching subtitle: "God loves it when you ask big." This is further supported by this question posed, "What would you ask God for if you know beyond the shadow of a doubt that He is good and that His love for you endures forever." (God forbid that it should be taken not to apply to those living in poverty or on $2 dollars a day; which more than 2 billion of the world's population are surviving on...or maybe the majority of them who are believers forgot to ask big?).
If you put asking "big" together with "God loves it" and "knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt", then the sum of these faith confessions can only yield a life of great spiritual and material successes that thrive on a whole new level of what is humanly conceivable on earth.
Here I wonder what the author actually meant by asking big? I would imagine asking big involves asking with no limitations. So in the sphere of marriage, it is asking for a relationship free from conflicts, misunderstanding and disappointments. In the sphere of parenting, it is praying for obedient, responsible and academically excellent children. In the sphere of one's career, it is petitioning for a job that is free from stress and pays top dollars. And lastly, in the sphere of health, it is asking for a robust body free from sicknesses and one that ages gracefully.
Now I can imagine the author's god smiling from cheek to cheek as I write those mountain- moving faith confessions. I can also imagine that if all of that were to be realized, without condition, unmitigated and coming fully unhinged, the recipient would be living the definitive life of unimaginable success and wealth that many can only dream of.
I further wonder whether the author himself had achieved that kind of abundant life himself? Maybe he has. Maybe he is amongst the rare few who has made it to the top. Maybe he is living by example like a city on the hill. Maybe. Or maybe not. Even if he is, I wonder whether it would work equally well for his thousands-strong congregation? How about his ten-of-thousands-strong readers? Would they also achieve the same unbridled success that is truly out of this world if they had slavishly applied the rosy teachings in the passage that reads "God loves it when we ask big?”
From here, I wonder with nail-biting curiosity how a congregation of thousands, who have collectively achieved what the author had in mind, look like. There is no doubt of course that they would be deeply and greatly loved by their god for believing in the impossible and achieving all of it by headstrong believing. And whether there is any direct scriptural basis for it or not, they somehow serve a god who loves it when they ask big, and ultimately, the bigger the better I guess. And by sheer association, one cannot avoid the conclusion that this divine love would grow deeper in love in direct proportion to the bigness of their request. God forbid that they should ask small and then end up dampening the pleasure or affection of their divine provider.
So, if we put two petitioners side by side and eavesdrop on their prayer requests, and this is just an example, I would expect there to be more divine affection showered upon a request for a 5-room private suite as compared to a request for a 3-room HDB flat. And this would work likewise with the one who prays for a CEO position as compared to one who merely asks for a CFO post.
This may sound silly and the author may disagree with the way I have interpreted his words. Further, I have no doubt that the author meant well when he wrote what he wrote. But making such precariously distortion-prone statements about faith and God is like taking the whole church with you to cross a raging river of kerosene in pitch darkness and you are armed only with an Olympic-like torch to light the way. And all it takes is for a runaway spark from the torch and that would be enough to fire up the congregation into wild and unanchored confessing and believing.
Notwithstanding the above, I may expect the author to argue that there is a spiritual aspect of his teaching that acts as a counterweight against taking his material-abundance aspect of it too far. And this spiritual aspect comes in the manifest form of a heart that is so transformed by the love and generosity of God that one acts with purpose-driven restraint and spirit-guided discernment.
Even so, my worry here is not unwarranted because this may work well for those who have attained a certain level of maturity and discernment through engaging in years of enduring spiritual disciplines. But then, how many of those who have read what the author has written can say that they are not more seduced by the side promising material-abundance blessing than the side concerning spiritual disciplines and maturity?
It should be noted that one is about blessings by oral confession and the other is spiritual maturity by the demanding process of sanctification. One is merely asking and expecting and the other is committing and mostly persevering. Now which is more attractive is really a no brainer. If we are honest enough, our real motivation is more often misguided than is properly directed. And this is where many will be led by the nose with the promises of material blessings rather than by the heart in favor of spiritual disciplines. And this is where asking big can easily be misinterpreted or misleading.
But, come to think about it, I really can't blame the believer if his motivation is misaligned or inclined on the wrong side of the faith when the author so cavalierly throws up such lines like "God loves it when you ask big" and "don't just ask God for small things. Ask Him for big things." I always believe that pastoral responsibility is better achieved when he errs on the side of caution.
Somehow, and with apology, these saccharine-like catchphrases, aimed to caricature faith as a Disney-esque venture of jolly-goodness, are reminiscent of a snake-oil peddler travelling from one town to another touting the potency of his product even when most of his claims are either grossly exaggerated or too good to be true.
Now, when the dust has finally settled and the lenses come to full focus, I think it is safe to say that there is really nothing new under this ideological side of the sun. Many preachers have come forward before the author to make such portentous faith-bending promises for the purpose of firing up the audience with helium-raising confidence and hope.
The truth is, hope sells. It has always been that way and it shall always remain that way. Hope is both the oil that greases the wheel of civilization forward and the drug that spin civilization round in endless delusionary circles. We are a people who would throw our entire fortune on the hope of gaining an even greater fortune. The massive financial ruins in stock market clashes, billion-dollars Ponzi schemes and the other equally dastardly scams are all the evidence we need to show how naive, gullible and vulnerable we all can be. None is exempted.
Alas, the author will not be the first to tout his over-reaching faith-flashy promises to the blessings-hungry masses and neither will he be the last. History I believe is the never-ending recycling of hope-inflated but empty ideological promises. And as long as there is a mass market for it, there will be a ready supply of spiritual mambo-jumbo to go around for all to cheerily and blissfully partake. Cheerz.