Whether it is dogmatic, or an errant interpretation and internalization of a spiritual practice or norm, toxic “faith” emanates from a variety of sources. Rogue religion, and spurious spirituality, having multiplied through the ages are still virulent today. We can trace the resultant strains of mutated faith back to the ancient text.
Annanias and Sapphira (Acts 4:32-5:11) sold some property as part of an early church drive to fund the ministry and support the community of believers. Many believers did the same, bringing all the proceeds to the apostles, church, and community. What a selfless and progressive organization, right? Except for Annanias and Sapphira. When they separately arrived to report to the leaders that they were surrendering all, they concealed the fact that they withheld some; they lied to the community; they lied to the Spirit, and suffered sudden death because of it. People were terrified. So great was the bond among early members then, that the early terminology evinces their offense akin to embezzlement. They held back, when others were giving with abandon. They had every right not to give, not to surrender all the proceeds, not to participate in that way, but they chose, in the moment, to lie about their commitment.
This was an early, memorable, and deadly rebuke against the fake religious experience. It reverberates among each community leader who is self-dealing, while professing to be down with the cause. Pretending to be in the Spirit, yet, calculating the “show” for human eyes. What would one’s God experience become if we operated in transparency and truth?
Cain offers God what he wants to offer, in the Genesis account (Genesis 4:3-16). He brings the offering of his choice, and a sacrifice that he determines worthy. God doesn’t like it and doesn’t accept it. Rather than owning his choice, and God’s response, Cain then broils in a fretful stew as the blessings, favor and acceptance come to Abel for his obedience. Unable to manage his own resentment, Cain commits the first murder in history by killing his own brother.
“To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken [listen] better than the fat of lambs,” Samuel reminded Israel’s King Saul, (1 Samuel 15:22). Yet, consciously reinterpreting God’s word for your convenience, is the opposite of a healthy, helpful, faith experience. It’s also strangely toxic, as this combination in the Bible resulted in a treacherous profile for both Cain and Saul. Wondering why someone wants to stab you in the back as you walk your walk?
Ahab took the idea of following your heart to his own detriment. We often remind the kids not to run with the wrong crowd, but Ahab, as an adult, chose a woman diametrically opposed to his faith and his God. The simple choice was far from being a “light thing,” according to 1 Kings 16:31. He took the whole country down with him.
Jesus told this parable, which seemed to push the bounds of that which is true-to-life, too embarrassingly self-righteous to be true: “Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess,” (Luke 18:10-12).
Yet, Jesus has His finger on the pulse of His people, and knows that in our moments self- reflection, we tend toward the disastrous distraction of comparison. Self-assessment is good; self-righteousness, not so much. Comparison is death to our spiritual focus, foolishly trusts ourselves with an accurate spiritual self-evaluation, and uses the wrong “scale,” currency, and metric. Better off pleading the fifth, and asking for mercy, Jesus says. “I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (v. 14).