The year was 1906, and explorers were rapidly “discovering” Alaska and other Arctic regions as some of the last unexplored places on earth. Robert Peary was one such explorer, and as he traveled, he observed a massive landform northwest’s of Ellesmere Island. He named it, “Crocker Land” after his patron, George Crocker.
The only problem with Peary’s new land discovery? The “massive landform” didn’t exist.
A few years after Peary’s discovery, fellow American explorer, Donal MacMillan took his crew and they traveled laboriously over the frozen ocean toward what appeared to be the snow-capped peaks of Crocker Land. Strangely, as they “got closer” the land seemed to change its form, and after a few more days of exploration, MacMillan and his men realized they were seeing what is called, “A Superior Mirage.” The same mirage Peary didn’t realize he was seeing many years before.
Ever heard of the phrase, “That’s a bunch of crock!”? Well it comes from Peary’s false discovery! (Ok, totally joking about that, but it seems like a better story if that were true!)
Mirages and other optical illusions are communion in the Arctic because of unique atmospheric conditions that alter what a person sees. It’s super cool science, where a temperature inversion keeps cold air closer to the ground with warm air above it. The colder air literally “bends light” towards the eyes of someone standing on the ground so that distant objects are viewed differently. For example, distant objects can appear to float high above their actual position (like a boat that suddenly appears to be flying), or objects below the horizon can become visible.
Peary most likely experienced what is called a “Fata Morgana.” This is a complex mirage in which distant objects are distorted and elongated vertically. For example, a relatively flat shoreline may appear to have tall cliffs. A famous “Fata Morgana” mirage occurred in Muskegon, Michigan in May of 2011. People on the shores of the Lake Michigan town thought they could see the lights of Milwaukee Wisconsin as though they were just looking 8-10 miles across the lake. The problem? Milwaukee, Wisconsin is over 80 miles away from Muskegon! The vision of the lights was caused by the cold air inversion, the same conditions that produced Peary’s mountains.
Mirages generally don’t have a significant impact on a person’s life. A few explorers spent years looking for something that didn’t really exist, but by nature of the job, isn’t that something explorers can experience? A few people in Muskegon thought they saw the lights of Milwaukee, or maybe some “ghost city” on Lake Michigan, but after a small lesson in sight and science, an explanation debunks the mystery and for the most part, the aftermath is pretty minor.
Unfortunately, there are other kinds of myths and mirages that have significant, far-reaching implications.
I was speaking at a church recently, talking about the challenges of generous living. While speaking on 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, I referenced a group of TV preachers whose teachings on these matters is completely out of sorts with clear biblical instruction. One man in particular used the platform to say, “Do you need a new car? Then give! Does your house need an upgrade? Then give!” He went on and on and the implication was, if you needed financial blessing and earthly reward, give to God and He will “hook you up” (especially if you give to God by giving to his/her particular ministry)!
Don’t we all wish the answer to poverty was as simple as putting money in the offering plate on Sunday? Don’t get me wrong, if you read 2 Corinthians 9:6-15 you will find out that God loves to bless generosity and He does so in extraordinary ways. But what you won’t find in that passage is that the primary purpose of the blessing is for the giver. In other words, God doesn’t say, “Give away your money and I’ll reward you with more stuff for you,” but rather, “Give away your money and I will bless you with more opportunities to be generous.” Because the ultimately goal of generosity is stated so plainly in the passage: that others will give thanks, praise and glory to God!
My TV preaching pals frequently seem to omit that aspect of their plea for generous sponsorships, making the giving about the giver, not about the one from whom all resources flow. That theological mirage has hurt a lot of people.
A few months back I was doing some research about an African country that boasts many of the richest preachers in the world. It’s a country where the average wage is $.70/hour and these preachers offer health, wealth and financial freedom, proclaiming this hope from mansions, gaudy cathedrals and even the cabin of their private jets. I recently heard one of these men speak live and I noted two things about his message: First, he never once mentioned Jesus Christ or the Gospel. It wasn’t that Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection changed peoples’ lives, it was that a person’s generosity could. According to his message, the life change you and I need to experience is discovered when we trust God with our money.
Without a doubt, a great deal of personal growth can be experienced through acts of generosity. Again, look back at 2 Corinthians 9:6-15 and count all of the blessings of being generous. I counted at least 12! But eternal life change cannot be experienced through generosity, it can only be experienced through faith in the work of Jesus Christ on my behalf. Early in 2 Corinthians Paul reminds me that I was made a “new creation” in Jesus (not in giving), and Romans tells me that I was spiritually dead without Jesus, and new life is found when I put my faith in His death, burial and resurrection as payment for my sins. Generosity is good, but it reveals my heart of obedience, not a pathway to salvation.
The second thing I noticed was how frequently he referred to the “fact” that God doesn’t want people to suffer, and that suffering is always the result of not having enough faith in God’s provision. I think of God’s words to Paul, a few chapters later in 2 Corinthians, when Paul was experiencing such great suffering and he begged God to take away the pain: “My grace is sufficient for you!” Notice that God didn’t tell Paul to have more faith, or to give more in the next offering. God told Paul that grace was going to be given to him to help him endure the trial he was experiencing, because apparently, God did want Paul to walk thru this painful trial. Isaiah the prophet tells us that God often does His work in our lives by taking us through “the furnace of affliction.”
As I watched this man speak, I was amazed at how easily he preached these errors and how subtle the message was. I watched many people in the room (some Christ followers and some not) nodding their heads in agreement and taking down notes, and I realized that he was proclaiming a mirage as truth, an optical illusion as reality. I wonder how many times I’ve followed a theological mirage?
The good news is that we have a serious myth-debunking resource at our disposal: the precious truths found in God’s Word. So often these mirages and half-truths preached from the pulpit can be busted by a simple review of what the Bible actually teaches. We’ve become such a soundbite culture (and I know how tempting it is to try and be a soundbite preacher!) that we take catchy little statements and clever social media memes as solid teaching, whereas a few minutes of reading can reveal what is actually true.
If you want to live the Overboard Life, you have to fill yourself with the truths of God’s Word. You can’t be content to have a passive connection with God and His Word, rather, you have to be a student, eager to learn and apply what His Word teaches. Knowing the truth is our greatest tool in debunking spiritual myths and cleverly disguised mirages that will put you back in the boat. Are you filling up today?
Go ahead and take the plunge, life is always better on the water!