Be wary of spiritual predators seeking gain from desperation

Some of the bodies that were exhumed by police officers at Shakahola in Malindi, Kilifi County. [Marion Kithi,Standard]

The story of Pastor Paul Mackenzie in Kilifi has brought to the fore several critical issues about spirituality.

The Pastor of Good News International Church brought nothing but bad news as he led his faithfuls to their graves in an apparent pursuit of spiritual purity. Mackenzie is accused of manipulating his followers to believe that they could see Jesus if they participated in extreme fasting. The consequence is that several succumbed to pangs of hunger and dehydration, while many became frail and emaciated.

This is a sad and most unfortunate story about yet another incident of abuse of a noble faith practice. It is a case of a cultic leader taking advantage of perhaps desperate individuals. It is most likely the consequence of religious extremism that demands extraordinary measures to experience God's favour.

History is replete with such incidences in which worshipers are required to make drastic sacrifices to please a god. In ancient history, some religions required adherents to offer human sacrifices to attract blessings of deity. Molech, the god of the Moabites was portrayed as demanding the sacrifice of one's child in fire for appeasement or blessings. The Baals required the cutting of bodies to show seriousness. In recent times, several cults have forced their adherents to take drastic measures to receive God's blessings. In perhaps one of the worst cultic murders, an American preacher and political activist, Jim Jonnes of the Peoples Temple, led his members to drink poison in an End Time teaching gone awry.

In what he called "revolutionary suicide", Jones orchestrated a mass murder-suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, on November 18, 1978. More than 900 people, including about 200 children died.

Other less drastic incidences abound around the world. Suicide bombers that have attacked people and facilities around the world are reported to have been brainwashed into believing their actions will earn them special places in the next life.

Easy victims

Whereas sometimes it is portrayed as if it is the poor and ignorant who get caught up in such cultic practices, there are many situations where highly educated people are brainwashed into believing the lie.

Wealthy individuals have similarly been deceived into cultic practices. In many cases, cult leaders prey on the natural human desire for connection with the divine. Such connection is often portrayed as the key to success, peace, or escape from the vicissitudes of life. Hence those in dire need for expedient results become easy victims.

The truth must however be said that fasting has its place in many religions. Indeed, Muslims have just closed Ramadhan in which they observed prayer and fasting. In Christianity, fasting is at the core of the faith. Many Biblical leaders, including Jesus, fasted often. Jesus taught and practised the power of prayer and fasting, explaining that there are certain issues that can only be resolved through prayer and fasting.

Unfortunately, this teaching has led some to think or believe that the more difficult the issues, the longer or the more severe the fast. There is almost an unspoken belief that fasting is a way of getting God to do what He would otherwise not do for us.

That is why many take extreme measures in this noble practice. Some even boast about the number of days and how extreme they can fast. They believe in so doing, they attract special favour and blessing from God. This is a terrible fallacy.

The teaching of Scripture is that God blesses or answers our prayers out of His love and mercy. His favour cannot be purchased through any of our human sacrifices. Instead, fasting is a sacrificial way through which we lay aside a critical component of life in order to humble ourselves before God. It is the taming of our bodies in order to reflect and meditate on our relationship with God.

Sadly, in difficult times, such as we find ourselves, the poor and desperate are easy prey for unscrupulous spiritual leaders - pastors, sects, and even witchdoctors. They promise instant breakthroughs to those who can take extreme actions such as long fasting or generous giving.

It behoves every one of us to be vigilant and stay away from such predators.