Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Playing the Numbers Game

The Myth of Numerical Supremacy

"The Bigger the Number, Something must be right. Right?"
Wrong. The bigger the number, the greater the temptation. The higher one climbs, the harder the potential fall.

It is often argued that when an organization is growing in numbers and in profits, something must be going right. These people point to the receipts each month, and justify the collection as something truthful and in the right direction. While it may be true that things are more pleasant when the numbers are beating forecasts and the wildest expectations, to develop that into a doctrine is another matter altogether. In 1998, Citigroup became the world's largest financial conglomerate with assets of over 300 billion US dollars. In Mar 2009, even the humble Bumiputra-Commerce bank of Malaysia has a larger market capitalization than Citigroup. The higher one climbs, the harder one falls. Citigroup is currently in deep trouble, requiring the US government to bail them out.

Look at what happened to the former National Kidney Foundation (NKF) in Singapore. It was the largest charity at that time, with numbers so huge that they can afford to organize their own branded charity show called the NKF charity fund. In June 2001, they raised $11.6 million which broke the fundraising record for the country. True enough, in 2003, they raised a record $15.7 million for their charity show. Record setting proved to be an annual affair until the scandal. If records are being set, and the money continues to pile up, does this mean that they have done something right? What happened in June 2005? The CEO, TT Durai and some key board members were convicted of fraud and financial mismanagement. They were growing in numbers but have they done things right? Not really.

Fast forward to our current economic downturn. He founded Madoff Investment Securities in 1960, which had an initial investment of $5000. By 2000, it became one of the top securities trading company in the US. As of March 12th, 2009 the numbers reached in excess of $65 billion. Swindled, that is. His company investment holdings grew to humongous proportions, but what happened? Does numerical superiority equals rightful management? Madoff became the symbol of our modern recession which has since affected the global markets. Madoff was said to have been 'compelled' to make more money after hyping up expectations of his fund capabilities. The way to sustain his corporation and current clients is simple: Bigger and richer investments to assure a rich payback to his existing customers. However, there is a major risk. What if he cannot attract newer and bigger investors?

Numbers Cannot Quantify Everything
I am not trying to speak all things negative about 'numbers' per se. I am simply adding a more critical component. A number is merely an indicator, but it can be used two ways. Firstly as a possible marker of what is working. Secondly, as an warning that subtle deceptions can be actively at work. Discerning which is which is important. It is great to see growth in terms of numbers. Likewise, it is encouraging for a church to have increase in numbers. Numbers excite. Numbers affirm to some extent the work of any organization. However, they can also deceive and distract people from their actual purposes. Most crucial of all, the higher the climb, the greater the temptations. Now, you my reader may be perplexed about it all. What's wrong with growth in numbers? Isn't that a common measurement of life? True. The society we live in thrives on the economics of numbers. Almost everything can be quantified. From the amount of bean sprouts we buy at the supermarkets, to the number of options and rights we exercise at the close of a corporate stock offer. I am not against these things. What I am concerned with is the uncritical use of numbers to quantify even our basic living.
  • Can we quantify love for a girl by the number of flowers we buy?
  • Can we quantify the quality of our transportation comfort by the number of cars we own?
  • Can we quantify the vitality of a church by how many members registered?
  • Can we quantify success by the number of companies we own?
  • Can we quantify ethical behaviour?
  • Can we justify sacrificing one person in the name of helping 10 other persons?
The answer will be no. There are many things in life that cannot be measured by quantity alone. Quantity carries not much meaning outside the domain of time, relationships and things unseen. Ask Jesus, who reminds us that a man's life does not comprise of abundant material things.
"Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." (Luke 12:15)
Life examples abound. The National Kidney Foundation in Singapore (NKFS) was expected to grow their financial base, with each successive record-breaking collection adding an additional layer of expectation. The Madoff scheme was dependent on increasing his investor portfolio. When the numbers rise each year, his scheme works like a champ. When it falls, the whole pyramid collapses, bringing everyone down with it. The higher one climbs, the greater the temptations. It is easy to live with more, but not so easy to climb down from a high portfolio pedestal, especially if it is tainted by scandals. Ask Ted Haggard or Jim Baker.

The science of numbers is not restricted to the kidney charity or the Madoff financial scandal. In the gospel circles, there have been probes into at least six ministries (Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Eddie Long, Joyce Meyer, Paula & Randy White) in the US. ChristianityToday reports that many of them are also in financial trouble. There are many video clips on the prosperity gospel preachers on Youtube, one of them here.

The Parable of the Talents
This parable in Matthew 25 is sometimes used as a parable to teach the prosperity side of the gospel. Time Magazine in its September 2006 issue had the front cover: "Does God Want You to be Rich?" In it, references were made to the parable of the talents, and sermons were preached in terms of monetary growth and investment gains as the mark of a true believer. Prosperity preaching essentially believes that God wanted people to be rich. It is for their inherent 'right' to receive 'blessings' and 'success.' Those who are poor need not be. People with a low income can have more. Those who are rich can be richer! The logic is simple. Christians no longer need to be living under the law, but under grace. Since they are living under grace, and God is the generous 'Daddy,' should not Christians receive the full blessings which include material goods? They then go on to demonstrate the goodness of God in terms of their multiple 'blessings,' like a brand new car, new house, exceptional money earned, and so on. Using numerical means, they claim that God is 'blessing' them because they dared to name the blessing and to claim it in faith.

Using this parable, it is easy to assume that Jesus is telling us that if we invest more, more will be given to us. Is this what the parable is teaching us? Well, if we were to take a pair of scissors, cut out Matthew 25:14-30 and say that it is the gospel, perhaps one can draw this conclusion. Unfortunately, taking a text out of its context is what we call a 'pretext.' 'Pretext' is a word (related to pretense) that describes a sly way to hide the original intent of the passage. Here is what I can read. Without going too far back, the parable of the talents is a warning that directs us to be aware of a coming judgment. Matthew 23 parades the seven woes against those who insist on their Pharisaic brand of the law. Matthew 24 warns us of signs that the end is coming. The parable of the talents is sandwiched between two other judgment parables, Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) and the Sheep & the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46). The judgment within the parable of the talents is not so much of wisely investing of one's talents. Rather, it is a rebuke on anyone seeking to live less than what he is called to do. What a person is called to do cannot be primarily measured in terms of numbers, even though numbers is a popular way of measuring progress. The parable of the talents tells us why. Both the 5-talent man and the 2-talent man invested their talents and were praised by the Master. The rewarding compliment in Matthew 25:21, 23 is remarkably identical. Every word, every punctuation and language inflection is exactly the same for both the 5-talent man and the 2-talent man. Only the 1-talent man was rebuked sharply and punished accordingly. I believe that if the 1-talent man have faithfully stewarded his 1 talent, he too will receive a similar compliment from his Master. My point is, it is not much quantity that we have or eventually earn, it is the attitude of the heart that demonstrates our love for God. The key is: Be Faithful. Much is given, much is also required, but the rewards are the same. Thus, one should not feel guilty about not having enough talents to start with. He ought to be ashamed when he is not actively engaged in putting to good use with what he has. This is different from a Name-It-Claim-It scenario, which in the sight of greedy hearts comes across as a spiritual form of gambling. When one is too pre-occupied with the numbers, how can one stay focused on seeing Christ for who he is? When a person is infatuated with the need to see 'blessings upon blessings,' what is there to prevent one from using God as a means to his material gains?

Worse, it abuses the Name of our good Lord, and undermines God by measuring the faithfulness of God by using the tools of Mammon. The kingdom of heaven is not to be equated with a spiritual domain that is full of material things. Instead, it is to be understood as the manifestation of the goodness of God that is far BEYOND material things. The moment we 'materialize' God or the 'blessings' of God, we form within ourselves an idol to worship. Jesus's main point before the parable of the talents has been to prepare us to expect the coming Judgment.

I am not saying that God does not give us good gifts for our present existence. He does, and continues to do so in many different ways. However, that is strictly a secondary or a third or fourth-degree consideration. Our primary call is to love God, REGARDLESS of material increase or decrease. In fact, material things should not even be in the picture. After-all, did not Jesus say that . It is not simply to love God because he gives us so many things. It is to love God because He has already given fully of Himself at the Cross. So whether one receives or not receives any blessings within our own timeframe is immaterial. What matters is that God has already given us, and is preparing much greater blessings for us. Equating material blessings with God's blessings can misrepresent God. After all, we know that the evil ones can duplicate material increase with much ease. The deceiver will use anything that can distract us from God. Jesus warns us in the parable of the Sower, that only one out of four will survive and become fruitful. The third kind of soil is that of riches of the world which deceives and prevents growth toward maturity. Scripture thoroughly warns us against any form of materialistic spirituality (Luke 8:14). This is the primary weakness of prosperity theology, which focuses so much on material riches in the name of blessings, that the line between "Worshipping God for who He is" and "Worshipping God for what He can give" becomes increasingly blurred and diminished. Of course, there are encouraging signs within the prosperity gospel camp. People are reinvigorated with a spiritual thirst for God. They are energized to evangelize the world for the kingdom. They are experiencing a kind of spiritual vitality never encountered before in their traditional churches. These are wonderful results of the movement. Unless one matures right to the very end. Unless one perseveres to know God more, regardless of the things and blessings one can receive. Unless we learn to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow the Risen Christ, we cannot call ourselves disciples of Christ. The grace of God is given to all, whether one claims it or not. If God sends rain on both believers and unbelievers, will he not do the same for people who Name-It-Claim-It as well as those who don't?

The Apostle Paul warns us:
"Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. (1 Tim 6:17)
Proverbs teach us to be careful of riches, something that threatens the rich more than the poor.
"A man’s riches may ransom his life,
but a poor man hears no threat.
" (Prov 13:8)
As Christians, our receipt of salvation is Jesus Christ. We cannot enter the kingdom on our own merit or possessions. Our desire to enter heaven is not merely to buy a membership fee in Christ. We want to enter heaven as joyous people, seeking to honour God and tell him how much we love God for all he has done. We give of our own possessions to all who have need. In doing so, when we present our receipts of goodness and charity, God will say to us,

"Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!"
Let us not play the numbers game, lest the evil one deceives us. Let us not be distracted by numbers, for it is the Lord who gives the increase in his own quantity and according to his own perfect timing. Let us look beyond the numbers to hold on to the cross of Christ, recognizing that whether in good times or in bad, God still loves us. It does not matter if we are a 5-talent conglomerate, a 2-talent church or a 1-talent individual. All are called to be faithful according to what God has given. Much is given, much is also required.

The French novelist, Victor Hugo, famous for Les Miserables, said:

“There is no such thing as a little country. The greatness of a people is no more determined by their numbers than the greatness of a man is by his height”
In the epic Battle of Thermopylae in ancient Greece, a small rag-tag army of 300 Spartans was able to hold back a million soldiers of the great Persian army. In the Old Testament, a puny sized David was able to overcome the giant Goliath. If God is for us, who can be against us? Don't play the numbers game. Whether your church is small or large, all belong to Christ. One soul that comes to Christ is as important as hundreds who come to the faith. There is no reason to boast about numbers. Numbers are silly things to trumpet about. Not only will such actions annoy others, they invite temptations of the highest order. I used to ask the question: "How can anyone ever move Mount Everest? How is it humanly possible to build the Great Wall of China?" The answer: one bucket of sand at a time. One brick of the wall at a time. In the Name of the Kingdom of heaven, it is one soul at a time.

What can we make of the $19 Million raised in 24 hours?
Pray. If you are a member of New Creation Church, continue to bless others as much as you have been blessed, but do not be deceived by numbers of plenty. Instead, watch out for any forms of temptations that can make you arrogant or prideful. If you are not a member of NCC, also pray. Pray that you will examine what you are doing in your own churches, whether there is anything you can learn biblically from them. You too must NOT play the numbers game. If you see yourself as a member of the church universal, in solidarity with churches around the world, pray too for your brothers and sisters in NCC. The greater problem they have is not the criticisms from the other churches or from the public. The bigger problem is to beware of the insidious nature of temptations that lurks behind attractive numbers and fashionable style. Don't play the numbers game, for numbers can lie. Ask any accountant, about window dressing and statisticians about how people can lie with 'facts.' Pray in the Lord's Name, to be humble, be gentle and be full of love for God in good works.

Much is given, much is also required.

There is a Hasidic story of a very rich but miserly man who died and was awaiting final judgment. He watched anxiously as the people in front of him submitted their acts of charity at the judgment gate. It so happens that the heavenly Judge gave each of them a welcome smile as the charitable acts were read out. When his turn came, he brought out his cheque books and various financial credit instruments and said that he is willing to write a cheque for any amount asked of him. The Judge replied: "We do not take credit cards. Neither do we take cheques. We only accept receipts."

In heaven, only receipts are accepted. It is not how much we gain in possessions but how well we USE these possessions for the benefit of the kingdom of God. Beware of the numbers game, for where the numbers are, there the temptations will be also. Be faithful with what we have, and let the Lord decide on the results according to his good time. The 5-talent man produced a receipt. The 2-talent man produced a receipt. The 1-talent man had no receipt. Much is given, much is expected. In Christ, we shall enter the Kingdom. In Christ we honour God. In Christ, we give our all, on earth as well as in heaven.


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