By Dan Schaeffer
He waited his turn, practicing what he'd rehearsed with his wife, anxious to experience the adulation he knew was coming. Soon, he would be drowning in praise for their "selfless" act of generosity. Little did he know they were making history as the first documented church fakers.
The account of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11 is a disturbing one. They both fell down dead at the end of the story, and "great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events" (v. 11 NIV). It began subtly enough. The couple had witnessed the generosity of others in the Jerusalem church who sold their personal land and gave the entire proceeds for distribution among the needy. (4:32-37) What Ananias and Sapphira noticed most was not the selflessness but the spiritual prestige such an act produced.
The couple sold a piece of property they owned. But when they brought the proceeds, they gave only half to the cause. So far, so good. Any act of generosity would have been welcomed. The problem was the deception in their hearts. They claimed they were contributing the entire amount of their gross profit. One can imagine Ananias handing the money over to the apostles with a self-satisfied smile. He'd figured out how to gain a lofty reputation for half price, the ultimate spiritual bargain.
People often question why the Holy Spirit chose to illuminate this couples' sin in such a drastic way. Death seems a bit harsh to us. While we don't know all the intricate workings of what was going on that day, we can know one thing for sure: the holiness of God within His church was at stake. He wanted to remind His people of this early on. In the Kingdom of God, purity of motive trumps self-serving ministry or philanthropy every time.
We're taught to loathe their example. But I'm afraid we've simply copied it, albeit to a lesser degree. I've discovered there's a great deal more of Ananias and Sapphira in me than I care to admit. I've often received (and yes, even cultivated) a spiritual reputation I didn't deserve. And, I know I'm not the only one. Why did "great fear" seize the whole church when they heard about the death of these two "fakers"? They probably were scared of what might lie in their own hearts. Because in truth, there was a little Ananias and Sapphira in the best of them, too.
This is healthy "fear" because it causes us to examine our hearts and turn our eyes back toward God. Without this consciousness, we begin to deceive ourselves about our spiritual motives. And, that's only a small step from believing we can deceive the Lord.
I've spent many years as a recovering church faker. I've been a pastor, author, and speaker for many years, and I have struggled with a tendency to "fake church" the entire time. And now, I know why.
An Appearance of Godliness
As children, most of us loved to play "pretend." We could indulge our deepest desires to be something we're not for a time—and do it guilt-free, since it was just a game. But one day, we graduated from childhood, possibly realizing (with some chagrin) that we still want to be something we're not. These desires follow us into adulthood, out of the world of make-believe, fun, and games. Life soon educates us in a process of deception. We learn we can sometimes make others believe in our false image—and that it often pays off.
Becoming a Christian doesn't immediately tame this monster within our "flesh." In fact, it often gives the monster a new outlet for tempting us. This is probably what happened to Ananias and Sapphira. Once we learn the correct spiritual jargon and appropriately pious body language, we can appear and sound very godly. Pride, bitterness, lust, jealousy and a host of other sins can continue to rage within us, safely hidden behind a sanctified façade.
Years ago, as a young pastor-in-training, I tried to become what I thought every pastor should be. I spoke with an air of excitement, confidence, and "joy"—even when I couldn't have been further from possessing those qualities. Ironically, I even received "The Joy Award" from our children's ministry, who gave out awards corresponding to the fruit of the Spirit! It was a plastic award for a plastic Christian. As writer Paul Eldredge aptly noted, "We mold our faces to fit our masks." I was not only faking it. I was being rewarded for my actions. Scary isn't it?
As I've grown in my faith over the years, I've begun to understand how deeply my mind and heart have been stained with sin. Some of my sins are easily visible to me. But, there are others which take years to identify. Pride, for instance, runs far deeper in my life than I ever thought, flowing freely in the subterranean caverns of my soul. While I have kept it hidden for a long time, it's still there. And then, like a geyser, it suddenly erupts with incredible, unexpected power.
What Are Your Motives?
"Faking church" is a subtle defection from the truth about our real spiritual condition and motivations. If left untreated, it can eventually result in a physical defection from the church itself as our façade becomes too hard to maintain.
I don't believe we really start out intentionally wanting to deceive. We don't stop serving Christ all at once. But over time, our motives for service gradually become more diluted. Convincing ourselves that all we want is "God's glory," we often serve for good "scriptural" reasons. But, they are no longer the primary reasons we serve.
At some point, we pass a threshold invisible to most but clearly detected by God. We begin to minister, help, lead, organize, plan, bake, teach, preach, sing, visit, and give, primarily (though not exclusively) for the satisfaction of feeling spiritual and receiving accolades from others. Soon, the slightest trace of sincerity is enough to define our motives as pure.
When I'm asked to speak at a conference, I can easily convince myself this will be a great ministry opportunity, gamely ignoring the fact that the excitement my ego is feeling has little to do with actually serving Christ. And once again, the story of Ananias and Sapphira is played out. When we forget who we serve, we lose sight of why we serve, and we end up serving only ourselves. If we truly desire to glorify God alone, He must be the one to define our service. And, more than likely, our service won't look a bit like we want it to. When we have some part in it, merely filling and frosting our own purposes with spiritual elements, He will not be fully glorified. But if we have the courage to face the truth of our mixed motives, God will give us the power to change.
Do we want to change? Will we admit it when we're faking it? Therein lies the greatest struggle. But changing our course is a move into the authenticity, freedom, and peace Christ promised us. The greatest joy we can have is learning to live and minister to an audience of One. The first Christians learned the hard way the lesson Ananias and Sapphira never did. Maybe it's time we learned as well.