15 November 2010
How to Identify False Prophets
The Gospel passage this Sunday was a message of reassurance to the persecuted members of the early Christian communities. Jesus' prediction of wars, insurrection and persecution was already a real life experience for them. Even the prophesied destruction of the magnificent Temple of Jerusalem might be taken literally for it did happen in 70 AD during the seige of Jerusalem by the Romans.
Yet there is also a timeless relevance to its message, especially for us today. After making a reference to the passing nature of worldly things, Jesus was asked by the disciples to give them a sign. Instead He prophesied various events that would happen before the end comes. The end here apparently refers not just to the seige of Jerusalem but to a universal end times.
However, amidst the gloom and doom, comes the assurance: God is with us. Be not afraid. He will even take care of our defense. He also puts a word of caution: beware of false prophets. "See that you not be deceived, for many will come in my name, saying, 'I am he,’ and 'The time has come.’ Do not follow them!"
It is easy to identify false prophets when they make preposterous claims like knowing the exact date of the end of the world. Human history is not wanting with charismatic cult leaders who have prophesied the same. Obviously they have been proven false.
But many are far more skillful and subtle. Remember they are described to appear as wolves in sheep's clothing. And they have led many astray. I would like to propose a few things by which we can identify them.
1. False prophets spread a message of hopelessness. They tell us that our situation is hopeless, or that our sins make us irredeemable, or that our personal, family or societal conditions will have no chance of changing for the better.
By subscribing to despair and hopelessness, we are led to conlude that God is powerless over our problems and bad situations. Or worse, that God doesn't really care about us, that God doesn't love us.
2. False prophets sow seeds of doubt first on the teaching authority of the Church, then on the truth of the bible, then finally on the wisdom of God and His very existence.
People who would not recognize the mission of the Church to teach about right and wrong eventually end up denying the truths of the bible. How many times have you heard this condition from secularists in the public square: "Yes, I would like to engage in a dialogue with you, provided you don't quote the bible in your arguments"? When the bible is treated not as divinely inspired but as a mere human construct, a product of peculiar cultural and historical forces, it won't be long when the existence of God Himself will be doubted.
3. False prophets train you to get used to the easy way, to prefer the convenient and the path of less resistance. By succumbing to their enticements, we let our resolve go weak, we tend to avoid any difficulties, we think only in short term. Thus, we develop a fear of commitment and fidelity, with all the sacrifices they entail.
The problem with a culture that has grown cynical of the human capacity for faithfulness and transcendence is that it will also start doubting the faithfulness of God and lose concern over things eternal.
4. False prophets want you always to feel good about yourself and by, extension, to be nice to others too. A healthy self-esteem is important but when the pursuit of personal happiness becomes the primary consideration, it becomes a stumbling block to growth and development.
How do we know we are already following the gospel of self-affirmation? A good indicator would be when we find ourselves resenting any preaching that bothers, disturbs or challenges us. When we do so, we end up replacing God with ourselves as the center of our life.
Here is another word of caution: the false prophets could be ourselves. When we tell others that we might as well accept that our sinful situations won't ever change, we are being false prophets. When we stop considering the teachings of the Church and the bible in making moral decisions, and convince others to do the same, we are being false prophets. When we lead others to prefer what is convenient and "practical" over what is right and just, or think that being self-satisfied and a little bit nice are all that matters in life, we turn into false prophets. The devil is only too happy to see the seeds of doubt and confusion he has sown in us grow and bear fruit.
The objective of these false prophets is to sever our relationship with God that when we are faced with difficulties in living our faith, we easily give up. Take care not to be deceived by them.
Remember: God is with us. Jesus ended the Gospel passage with a parting shot: "By your perseverance you will secure your lives".