Monday, February 27, 2012

If You Don't Understand God...

A dear friend recently posted material on Facebook mocking Christianity. While I don't think the attacks were directed at me, it's hard not to take it personal. After all, he was insulting my heavenly Father and my spiritual family, bonds stronger than flesh and blood. Plus the hurt goes deeper because he's a friend whom I've loved and accepted despite our differences.

He does have plenty of company. Christians are a popular target of ridicule these days. While our nation has a rich Christian heritage, we are now for all practical purposes a maligned minority. Our culture's influence makers—media, academia, politicians—seem largely agreed that traditional faith and morality are not only outdated, but a threat to society.

Sadly, they are responding more to a distorted caricature of Christianity than the real thing. They highlight examples of apparent believers behaving badly and paint all of us with the same broad brush. The demagoguery obscures the overwhelmingly positive impact that Christianity has had around the globe and across history. That's unfortunate for us, but but even more so for those like my friend who believe the inaccurate portrayal.

The mischaracterization prompts me to respond to you, my friend (hoping you will read this), and others inclined to disparage our faith. Everyone's entitled to an opinion, but I would urge you to have at least an informed opinion on such a weighty matter. So I'm asking you to give consideration to the following:

If you don't understand God...well, he is God. Doesn't it seem a bit illogical to dismiss God because he doesn't always make sense? I mean, what kind of God were you expecting—one no wiser than you? If he is all-powerful, all-knowing, and omnipresent, does it not follow that he would be beyond our comprehending?

"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the Lord, "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8-9).

"Oh the depth of the riches, the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?" (Romans 11:33-34). Yet there are apparently many who would lecture God on how things should be.

It's been aptly said, "Any God small enough for me to wrap my head around would not be big enough to be God." But many seem to prefer a man-sized God, one they can figure out and even control. Here's one point I think we can agree on, my friend: If that's what God is like, he's not worth our devotion.

But thankfully God did not leave it up to us to create him in our image, but the other way around. And I'll gladly take a morsel of his power and wisdom over a full course of what humankind has to offer.

If you don't understand don't know him. Although God's power is evident in creation, he would be a mystery had he not chosen to reveal himself to us. Yes, there are things about him that remain mysterious, but we can know what we need to know about him through his revelation: "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and our children forever" (Deuteronomy 29:29).

Yet an important point that you and other skeptics miss is that being Christian is not simply claiming to know about God; it's about knowing him. He reveals himself not to satisfy our intellectual curiosity, but to draw us into relationship with him. Growing up in a church-going family, I knew about God long before I knew him. There is a gargantuan difference!

As in any relationship, it's necessary to know something about the other party. But that knowledge alone doesn't define the relationship. It is what is done and experienced together that makes the relationship. God is alive to me, not just because of what he wrote in scripture, but because of what he has done in my life.

He has been my provider, my counselor, my strength, my inspiration, my comforter. God has carried me through the darkest times. He has guided me through tough decisions. He has come through in remarkable fashion when there was nowhere else to turn. While I've not personally witnessed what would technically qualify as a miracle, I have seen God work in ways that defy chance or mathematical probabilities.

The primary differences between Christians and unbelievers are not philosophical or doctrinal, or even moral; they're relational and experiential. God's word comes to life through his interaction with us. So we Christians worship the one we know, while you belittle the one you don't know. And we're the irrational ones?

That's like the flat-earther who clings to his belief despite compelling evidence to the contrary, including the testimony of those who have sailed around the world or viewed the globe from a spaceship. "From what I can see," he confidently proclaims, looking out across the ocean, "the earth is unmistakably flat!" Of course, you're no flat-earther because you trusted others who have seen the evidence first hand.

If you don't understand're listening to the wrong people. If you wanted to learn more on the sport of curling, to pick an illustration, wouldn't it be best to consult someone who actually knew something about it? To the uninitiated it probably looks silly and boring. But the sport is gaining popularity here in the U.S. and elsewhere because more people are playing it. Even NFL tough guy Vernon Davis is a big fan.

By contrast, many people draw their conclusions about God and Christianity from a distance, turning a deaf ear to the real experts and listening to others who know little about the subject. Christians, including Bible scholars and teachers, are routinely dismissed as naive and anti-intellectual. The more trusted sources are those who—in a bit of twisted logic—claim greater "objectivity" because they summarily reject biblical teaching (or cherry-pick it to their own liking).

Unbelievers place great faith in science, which among other things has supposedly disproved the necessity for a Creator. Science is the foremost source of "objective" truth for most people—well, at least if it produces the results they want. When Christian scientists find evidence favoring creation, they are discredited by the masses. Same for those whose research does not support global warming or a genetic predisposition for homosexuality, or any number of popular causes. If any truth were unpopular, do you really believe that mainstream science would ever discover it?

The fact is that science is not the objective arbiter of truth that many would like to believe. It is a human activity, and whenever people are involved, some bias is inevitable. There's even a scientific term for this: "confirmation bias." That's the natural tendency to favor information that supports one's hypothesis or beliefs. Add to that billions of dollars committed to specific research outcomes and the difficulty of getting minority viewpoints published in popular scientific journals, and it's hard to make the case that science is infallible.

Nor is there any basis for the charge that Christian doctrine is anti-science. On the contrary, there is abundant scientific evidence supporting the biblical narrative, drawn from diverse fields such as archeology, biology, physics, geology, astronomy, chemistry, and medicine. Yes, I know that most scientists will disagree. But that begs the question: Is modern science engaged in an uncompromised search for truth? Don't forget that most of the greatest scientific discoveries in history broke with conventional wisdom and were often harshly condemned by the majority. Sounds familiar.

If you were actually interested in investigating the claims of Christianity, you might be surprised at the wealth of scientific, historical, linguistic, philosophical, and apologetical research and exposition that validates what we believe. Indeed, you'll not find as much scholarly support for any other religion or worldview. That's why many accomplished skeptics over the years (C.S. Lewis being a notable example) have set out to disprove Christianity only to become convinced it is true. On the other hand, many prefer fault finding over truth finding.

If you don't understand probably don't want to. By far, the primary reason people reject God is not a lack of evidence or lack of understanding; it's a lack of desire. Most unbelievers have already found their god—themselves.

The quest for self-rule is as old as the human race. The serpent (Satan) appealed to this bent in our nature when he tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, "God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God" (Genesis 3:5). She couldn't resist, nor could her husband. And humankind has mostly followed the same path ever since.

The results have been devastating. The world is full of broken, hurting people, many who redirect their pain towards hurting others. When skeptics ask, "How can a loving God allow all the suffering in the world?" they misplace the blame. There is suffering because people chose their own way instead of God's.

Yet most persist in pursuing self-rule despite the consequences. No, surrendering your life to God doesn't remove you from a corrupt, dangerous world. But it places you under his special care. It gives context and purpose for the trials you face, and the strength to endure. And ultimately it provides a way of escape, an eternal rest in his presence.

I don't expect you to find these benefits persuasive at this point. You'd have to look closer to see them. I suspect you more readily notice when we fail to live up to God's perfect standard. But you miss the fact that we have been perfected in God's sight, not because of our own righteousness, but his. If you think we've surrendered our freedom to enjoy forgiveness, you don't understand real freedom.

I once was much like you. I had no use for God. I wanted to be in control...until I realized I wasn't. And when the burden of living life my way became too much to bear, I yielded to Jesus' invitation: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:28-30). My prayer is that you someday come to the same realization as I did.

There's an old axiom that goes: "It's not how much you know that matters, but what you know." There's much about God and his word that remains a mystery to me. But what I do know about him—and of him—far exceeds what I don't in significance. To think that there are some who pass up and even denigrate this treasure I hold—well, that's something that's really hard to understand!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Works of Faith

True faith is evidenced by good works. It is lived, not merely exercised in the mind. James describes workless faith as "dead," "useless," and incomplete (Jas. 2:14-26). Jesus sends us into the world to make disciples (Matt. 28:19-20), and portrays discipleship as total surrender of self for his sake (Luke 14:25-33). The apostolic letters instruct us to obediently keep his commands (I John 2:3-4).

On the other hand, the Bible says that we are saved by faith apart from works (Rom. 3:28). It is by grace, a gift of God, not by man's efforts (Eph. 2:8-9). The work of our reconciliation to God was completed on the cross (Gal. 3:11-14); there is nothing we can add. Then why does the New Testament speak so fervently of our need to live godly, devoted lives? Is it merely because this is a better way to live, or are our works in some way essential?

According to Scripture, costless, passive faith is not saving faith. That seems abundantly clear in the teaching of both Jesus and the apostles. Yet it is also true that you cannot in any way earn salvation by your works. But while one is not saved by works, his salvation is evidenced by his works. How is this so?

Consider the words Jesus spoke to his disciples on the way to Gethsemane the night he was betrayed and arrested:
  • "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful ... Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me ... I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing ... This is my Father's glory that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples (John 15:1-2, 4-5, 8).
It is clear that Jesus expects his disciples to bear fruit. And our fruit-bearing serves as evidence that we are truly his disciples. Non-fruit-bearing branches are cut off or wither and are thrown into the fire (v. 6), not because they don't bear enough fruit, but because they are separated from the True Vine. For Christians, if we don't produce enough fruit, he "prunes" us to make us more fruitful.

Jesus uses a similar analogy in the Parable of the Sower, where the "good soil"--the true believer--"bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty" (Matt. 13:23). But what is this fruit and where does it come from?

Jesus is almost certainly referring to the fruit of the Holy Spirit. He speaks of the coming "Counselor" both just before and after the passage on the vine and the branches. He says, "Remain in me and I will remain in you," an apparent reference to the coming indwelling Spirit. Of the Spirit, Jesus earlier said, "he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans" (John 14:17-18).

Later Paul would write: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness. goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (Gal. 5:22-23). Thus the fruit is not good deeds, per se, but traits that shape the life of the disciple. They are the end products of the Spirit's consecrating power, where we "are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit" (2 Cor. 3:18).

We know that the Spirit is given to every true believer: "Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance" (Eph. 1:14). "He annointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come" (2 Cor. 1:22). "We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit" (1 John 4:13).

So what if I claim to be a believer but see no evidence of the Spirit at work in my life? Can such faith save me? James says that faith without works is no faith at all. It is a counterfeit, devoid of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is given to all who are being saved, as a deposit, a guarantee, a proof. His presence is evidenced by the fruit he produces in our lives. That fruit, in turn, manifests itself in action.

Thus Jesus says, "You did not choose me [in other words, it was not of our doing], but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit--fruit that will last" (John 15:16). The Apostle John writes of how we can know for sure that we are true disciples: "because he has given us of his Spirit," but also "if we obey his commands" (1 John 2:3). The latter is evidence of the former.

The identifying fruit of the disciple is not the product of simply our own efforts, but of the Holy Spirit working through us. The fruit is a not a condition for salvation, but evidence of it. Thus our good deeds are essential, not to merit God's favor, but to confirm that we have been saved by his grace. If works are lacking, we should question whether our faith is genuine.

This understanding is central to our study of Life Stewardship. Of course, we are saved by grace through faith, not by works (Eph. 2:8-9). But we also acknowledge that "we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" (v. 10). Such fruitful living is a natural and necessary outgrowth of being connected to the True Vine.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Disciple or Believer Only?

There's a popular notion in the church today that there are two types of Christians--believers and disciples. Believers are those who accept as true the facts of the gospel and desire to enjoy its eternal promises. Disciples are those believers who commit to a personal relationship with the Savior and seek to obediently follow him.

The claim is often made that you only need to be a believer to be saved; discipleship is optional. The favorite prooftext for this position is Ephesians 2:8-9:
  • For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God--not by works, so that no one can boast.
This verse is widely regarded as one of the foundational truths of the gospel. But is Paul teaching that simple mental ascent to the truth is all that is required to be saved? The critical question, it would appear, is: What is saving faith?

James deals with this matter at some length in the second chapter of his letter: "What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such a faith save him?" (Jas. 2:14). He answers this crucial question plainly:

  • In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (v. 17)
  • You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? (v. 20)

  • You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. (v. 24)

  • As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead. (v. 26)
James dispels the idea that saving faith is simply a matter of the mind (belief only). True faith is expressed in action. He drives this point home in v. 19: "You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that--and shudder."

It strikes me that many "believers" seem to share the faith of demons (mere agreement with the facts of the gospel), but without the shudder! Why do the demons shake with fear? Because they understand the emptiness of their facts-only faith and the horror of their impending judgment.

At first glance, what James writes here would appear to come into sharp conflict with Paul's gospel of grace. We are saved by grace, through faith, not works (Eph. 2:8-9). Man is justified by faith apart from observing law (Rom. 3:28). Legalism--the teaching that salvation depends on how well we keep God's commandments--is strongly condemned (Gal. 1:8).

So how do we reconcile Paul's doctrine with that of James? By recognizing that both defined saving faith in the same way. True faith is evidenced by our obedience. How do I know that? Because that is what Jesus taught.

Just before his ascension, Jesus commissioned his apostles to, "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:19). While many modern-day evangelists seem committed primarily to making believers (with "discipling programs" sometimes available for the really committed), Jesus called people to an uncompromising standard of discipleship.
  • If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. (Luke 9:23-24)

  • If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters [i.e., put no one ahead of his devotion to Christ]--yes, even his own life--he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)

  • And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. (v. 27)

  • In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple. (v. 33)
Wow, surely Jesus intended these instructions only for his most devoted followers. No. Look at v. 25: "Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said..." This was his evangelistic message! You can imagine how some modern-day preachers might advise Jesus: "Emphasize how easy it is to become a Christian, Lord. Don't offend them! Simply ask them to pray you into their heart. We want as many as possible to respond to the invitation."

Indeed, Jesus did offend some with his unfiltered message. And many stopped following him saying, "This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?" (John 6:60).

Perhaps it shouldn't surprise us that studies of some of the most respected evangelistic campaigns found that less than 10% of those who responded to the gospel invitation attended church or participated in Bible studies months later. Most apparently were willing to become believers, but not disciples.

So can the non-disciples slip past heaven's gates? Jesus said, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 7:21).

Does that mean we have to work our way into heaven? No, the Bible is clear on that. So why does our faith have to be expressed in our deeds? Why does Jesus demand that we become his devoted disciples?

I think everyone can agree that biblical faith involves sincere trust in the Lord. Let me ask this question: Can you trust the Lord for eternal life and not trust him for this life? Is that not where many believers find themselves? They trust Jesus as Savior, but not as Lord. They are unwilling to "lose their lives" for his sake. This is a simple matter of lack of trust, of incomplete faith.

In this context, it all makes sense to me. We are saved through faith alone. But saving faith is not mere mental ascent; it is a wholesale dependence upon the Lord as savior, provider, guide. I follow him obediently because he is perfectly trustworthy. Therefore I trust him not only with my eternal welfare, but with my mortal life. How can anything less be considered real faith in an all-powerful, all-loving God?

In my next post, I'll explore further why true faith must be evidenced by our actions. Hint: It's not the work we do, but God's working in our lives.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Stuck In Haran?

You're undoubtedly familiar with God's historic call of Abraham (Abram) to leave his home and family and "go to the land I will show you" (Gen. 12:1). Abraham obeyed and followed God into Canaan, where he would become father of the nation Israel. He also established the ancestral line of Jesus. Not bad for a man whose wife was considered barren.

But you may have overlooked a little detail that proceeded Abraham's departure for Canaan (I had until recently). In Genesis 11:31 we read:
  • Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there.
Interesting. Did they set out from Ur with the intent of going to Canaan? Or does the writer add the destination after the fact, since the text says that God did not reveal where he was leading them. Stephen said that "the God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran. 'Leave your country and your people,' God said, 'and go to the land I will show you'" (Acts 7:2).

For whatever reason, the family decided to settle in Haran instead. Apparently they stayed there until the death of Terah (although this is not entirely clear). It does appear they were there for an extended period of time because the text refers to "all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran" (Gen. 12:5).

So was the stopover in Haran a departure from God's plan for Abraham? Maybe. We know from events later in his story that Abraham was not a perfect man. He was at times fearful. Sometimes impatient. Perhaps even presumptuous. In other words, much like you and me. But he ultimately was a man of great faith. He trusted God's faithfulness.

Can we learn something from Abraham's stay in Haran? There's no way of knowing why he stopped there, or even if it diverged from God's plan. But if you allow me to make a few assumptions, there are some valuable lessons to draw from this story. You see, most of us have lingered at some point in our own version of Haran--a place short of the destination that God has in mind for us. Whether it is by God's design or our own, we often find ourselves distracted, discouraged, or deceived. Let's consider some of the possibilities:

We prefer what's comfortable. Haran was an important place of commerce, strategically located on the river Balih along a major trade route between Nineveh and Aleppo. As noted above, Abraham accumulated wealth there. He had family there, as we later learn when he sends Isaac back there to acquire a wife (Gen. 24:4). In Canaan, by contrast, he would live in tents, be displaced by famine, roam about trying to find adequate pasture and water, be attacked by enemies.

Similarly God often calls us out of our comfort zone and into the spiritual battlefield. We fear change, uncertainty, risk, failure, embarrassment. How can we overcome our reticence? In the same way that Abraham did, by trusting a God who is infinitely loving, merciful, and powerful.

We're drawn to other "gods." Terah was an idolater (Jos. 24:2). Rabbinical tradition says that he was an idol maker by trade. Haran was home to a major temple for the worship of Sin, the moon-god. Even though God's call came to Abraham, Terah was the patriarch of the family and appeared to have initially led them on their journey (Gen. 11:31).

Could it be that it was Terah who preferred Haran? Perhaps he was a worshipper of Sin, or maybe the city proved a lucrative market for his wares. It's possible that Abraham stayed primarily out of respect for his father, leaving only after his father died.

Regardless of the real story, we know that we too are prone to follow other "gods," not as deliberate idolaters but as foils for the temptation of material wealth and comfort. Perhaps we resist the call to give up our career, give a substantial portion of our money to help others, or simply to surrender our time to serve.

The first commandment is to have no other gods before the Lord (Ex. 20:3). The greatest commandment is to love the Lord with everything we have (Matt. 22:37-38). How then can we let ourselves be ensnared? Lord, free us from our worldly passions and rejuvenate our first love!

We wait when we should go. Waiting on the Lord is clearly biblical. How often do we find ourselves running ahead of him? Usually when the target in view matches our desires. But what about those times when we're unsure where God is leading us? Or more to the point: We're not sure we like where we think he's leading us.

God instructed Abraham to go to a land he would show him. Perhaps he waited in Haran until the way was revealed. Or maybe he stayed because the way was starting to become evident. I will assume the best of Abraham, but I know I am inclined at times to "wait for God" when it is probably more an excuse to avoid stepping out in faith, particularly in a direction I'm not crazy about.

I've long been intrigued by Isaiah 30:21: "Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, 'This is the way; walk in it.'" Notice that here God is not out in front saying, "Follow me to the right." Rather he seems to be encouraging us to "walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Cor. 5:7), and he will affirm us when we choose rightly. As someone has said, "Waiting on the Lord doesn't necessarily imply standing still."

Yet we are prone to be impatient. Here's another take on Abraham's stay in Haran: Maybe it was by God's design. Perhaps he wanted to equip Abraham and his family with the goods, livestock, and servants they would need for their vagabond existence in Canaan. That's the interpretation I prefer, at least, in light of what we know of Abraham's faithfulness.

We speak of the patience of Job, but I don't think he bested Abraham in this regard. Abraham leaves his home and ends up stalled in Haran, apparently for several years. He finally arrives in Canaan only to be confronted by severe famine, so he must detour to Egypt. He is promised a son, but has to wait over 25 years for that to be fulfilled.

There have been times when I sensed the call of God and attempted to follow him, only to find myself seemingly stuck in neutral. Can you relate? In such situations, I've been too quick to declare the effort a failure or a misinterpretation of God's will because things didn't proceed as I expected. Of course, such a response betrays what we know from Scripture. God's ways are not our ways, and his timing is set to an eternal clock.

We can't know why Abraham and his family spent extended time in Haran. Yet whether it was by their initiative or by God's, the story eventually unfolded according to his will. He is sovereign. So why do we still find ourselves lingering in our own self-made Harans, distracted, discouraged, or deceived? We're human, flawed. Which is what makes this redemption story all the more remarkable. Heaven forbid that we would stay in the margins instead of plunging right in.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Running the Race

I was doing my regular morning run today when I came upon the cross country coach from our local high school. He was standing beside the road encouraging his team as they ran past. Instinctively, I pulled back my shoulders, stuck out my chest, smoothed my stride, and picked up the pace. I offered a cheery greeting as I passed, temporarily pushing back the discomfort I was feeling in the pervasive heat and humidity. I kept up this act until the coach faded from view.

Then it struck me: Who was I trying to impress? I don't even know this man and he doesn't know me. What difference did it really make how I looked? Yet aren't we all prone to wanting to impress others, even when it doesn't matter?

Then I had another thought: What if God was watching me run? Would I want to impress him too? You know where I'm heading: God is always watching. "For a man's ways are in full view of the Lord, and he examines all his paths" (Prov. 5:21). Yet do I strive to show him my best? I'm ashamed to say that I generally work harder for the approval of others than I do for God.

I've never been a talented runner, but it is one discipline I've stuck with since my teenage years. So drawing analogies from running comes easily for me. When I started my business, I named it The Business Edge and put the image of a runner in my logo. On my business card, you'll also find reference to 1 Corinthians 9:24. It reflects my business philosophy:

  • Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.
Of course, the verse is not referring to business but to the Christian life. We are called to run the race of life as winners. Notice that we're not told that we need to win the race--Jesus has already secured our victory on the cross--but to run "in such a way as to get the prize." In other words, to give it our best.

Unfortunately, God often sees much less than my best. He sees when I'm slumped over and laboring to keep going. He sees when I give up. He sees when I go off course. He sees when I run for a "crown of laurel that will not last" rather than for a "crown that will last forever" (1 Cor. 9:25).

One such fading prize is the approval of others. This is a temptation both in our worldly pursuits and in our Christian ministry. Jesus warned us to "be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them" (Matt. 6:1). Those who do so, he said, have "received their reward in full" (v. 2). In other words, if your service is chiefly motivated by wanting others' approval, that is all you'll receive, forfeiting the approval of God (v. 1).

In my own experience, seeking recognition from others is a very poor substitute for seeking God's favor. I have served as a preacher, teacher, church leader, ministry leader, and worship leader over the years. In all honesty, I must confess that I often craved praise and honor in those roles. And I was often disappointed in how little I received.

Perhaps it shouldn't be that way. The Bible instructs us to encourage and build up one another. Church leaders are to receive particular honor. But I suspect there is also grace in the fact that the church falls short in this area. If praise from others was more prevalent, how much more might we covet it in our Christian service? By contrast, Jesus says that ministry offered for God's sake and without pretense of gaining public honor will be acknowledged and rewarded by him (Matt. 6:4).

That lesson hits home with this blog. You may have noticed that I haven't posted anything in over a month. That wasn't a conscious choice, but I suspect a hidden motive. I've been admittedly a little disappointed that my blog hasn't attracted more readers or more feedback. Despite my busy schedule--a convenient excuse for not posting here recently--I have managed to continue to post weekly in my business blog. That blog, you might guess, attracts a much larger audience.

This revelation forces me to question why I'm doing this. Am I trying to serve others or serve myself? I don't think I like the answer. But maybe there's something of value for others to take from my own foibles. Can you relate? Do you find yourself--at least occasionally--desiring the approval of others more than God's approval? Do you only run your best when others are watching?

The race of life is largely a private affair. Sure, we run with others and posture for the many onlookers along the way. But only God knows our true standing. Ultimately we run for an audience of One. What a shame if we only show our best for others, then switch to cruise control for the Author and Perfecter of the race itself. He has called us to run like winners. Not to earn his approval, but because he deserves nothing less.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Stewarding Our...No, His Stuff

Odd, isn't it? The more God provides us, the less dependent on his provision we become. The more he shares with us, the more we come to think it's ours. The more he blesses our labor, the more credit we take for the outcome. We want more from God rather than more of him.

Agur wisely prayed, "give me neither poverty or riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, 'Who is the Lord?' Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God" (Prov. 30:8-9).

Interesting, isn't it, that Jesus taught his disciples to pray, "give us today our daily bread" (Matt. 6:11). Could it be that he had Agur's prayer in mind?

So how much is "our daily bread" in modern-day American terms? Is it a big-enough house? A reliable car? Savings for our kids' education? An adequate retirement account? I don't know. But I do know that the threshold of my discontent is much higher than not having enough to eat (which I've never experienced, of course).

What's the solution? I imagine a good starting place is to embrace the first principle of stewardship. Remember? Divestment--nothing I have is mine; it all belongs to God. I have no rights of ownership, only the responsibilities of stewardship.

Let's try to put this into perspective: Imagine a friend loaned you his car because yours was in the repair shop for several days. Would you bemoan the fact that it wasn't nicer? Would you disregard his instructions about how to take care of it? Would you start to think that it was your car instead of his? Of course not. But how often do we treat God's provision that way?

We need to grasp divestment not merely in philosophical terms, but in practical measures. What would that look like? A few suggestions:

Surrender all financial decisions to God. In the church, we tend to focus only on one financial activity--giving. But giving cannot be done properly in a vacuum. Our giving is dependent on other decisions we make about earning, borrowing, spending, saving, and investing. They must be taken together.

I suspect that many Christians believe they are giving generously because they look at it as a proportion of their disposable income. Basically they give out of the surplus left after they've spent most of it. Sound financial stewardship must integrate all financial activities, not just giving.

Track all financial transactions. Most of us don't really know how we spend our money. Most don't have a budget. It's difficult to manage our finances if we don't understand where the money's going and where it needs to go. A budget also helps clarify our choices: "Am I using this in a way that would glorify God? That acknowledges that it is ultimately his, not mine?"

Devote your firstfruits to God. This is a biblical principle from the dawn of creation, that the firstfruits, the best of the flock or harvest--or the first of our income--should be reserved for God. "Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the Lord your God" (Ex. 23:19). Unfortunately, many Christians give God only from what's left over. So when the money is tight, his portion is often the first to be cut. That's in sharp contrast to the biblical teaching of giving one's first and best to the Lord.

Share your possessions with others. This was the practice of the early church and clearly follows biblical instruction. "All believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own [divestment], but they shared everything they had" (Acts 4:32). That hardly seems the normal practice in the church today. Surely we can find ways to better share what God has given us.

Learn the secret of contentment. Jesus warned, "Be on your guard against all kinds of covetousness, for a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions" (Luke 12:15). To "covet" means literally to want more. This sin is probably best understood when contrasted with its opposite--contentment.

"Keep your lives free from the love of money," the author of Hebrews wrote, "and be content with what you have, because God has said, 'Never will I leave you; never will I foresake you'" (Heb. 13:5). Paul understood this: "I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances" (Phil. 4:11).

What about you and I? Are we content whatever the circumstances? Or are we constantly wanting more than we have? God determines what we have; do we begrudge his choices? Again, I am reminded of the Parable of the Talents. Jesus said that the master distributed the talents among his servants "each according to his ability" (Matt. 25:15). Could it be that the reason God hasn't given us more is that he knows we couldn't handle it? Perhaps he knows that it would draw us further away from him.

Perhaps God has answered Agur's prayer for us. What greater gift could he give us than more of himself? Let's not let our love of stuff rob us of the greatest of riches.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Curse of Riches

The nation of Israel was making final preparations for their long-awaited entrance into the Promised Land. The aged Moses, their leader for 40-plus years but soon to depart from this world, gave them his last instructions from God.
  • "Hear O Israel," he shouted, "The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up" (Deut. 6:4-7).

Jesus would later call this imperative to love God with everything we have as the greatest of all commandments (Matt. 22:37-38). It was critically important to the future welfare of Israel that they not only keep this precept in their hearts, but pass it along to their children.

Yet later we read, "After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel" (Judges 2:10). Obviously those who listened to Moses that day failed to pass along the word of God to their children. Their faithfulness lasted only a single generation, while under the leadership of Joshua.

There was another factor besides bad parenting that appears to have contributed to their undoing. Right after Moses instructed them to teach their children about God's commands he warned them:

  • "When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give you--a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant--then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" (Deut. 6:10-12).

This past weekend we celebrated the founding of our nation, the most prosperous nation the world has ever known. No doubt about it, we live in the modern-day Promised Land, a "land flowing with milk and honey." God has poured out his blessings upon this country in abundance. Of course, we should be thankful.

But our prosperity comes with a price. And for many that price is no less than their eternal souls. As with the Israelites, our riches can become a snare. Our lack of material want can make it easy to forget the very one who provides for our every need and more. In fact, that is not just a possibility; it is a high probability. Jesus said so himself:
  • "No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and riches" (Matt. 6:24).

  • "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Matt. 19:23-24).
Why so hard? Because riches so easily become our master, our god, our security. It's difficult to hunger for God when we are full of material wealth. He fully understands the temptation. That's why he gives us over 2,300 verses dealing with money and possessions in the Bible. That's more than twice the number of verses on faith and prayer combined. These 2,300 verses include many warning us of the inherent dangers of riches.

If they pose such a threat to our spiritual well-being, why then does God bless us with riches? Or does he? We read in Scripture that he blessed some, like Solomon and Abraham, with wealth. But is all wealth a gift from God? Probably not. James writes that God never tempts us (v. 1:13) but that "every good and perfect gift is from above" (v. 1:17). Riches hardly seem like the perfect gift when they possess such corrosive power for most of us.

Thus Jesus warned us, "Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth...For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matt. 6:19, 21). And Paul later added, "People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs" (1Tim. 6:9-10).

One illustration of those kind of people were members of the church of Laodicea. Of them, Jesus said:

  • "I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other. So because you are lukewarm--neither hot nor cold--I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked" (Rev. 3:15-17).

When we become rich in our own eyes, our need for God often fades. It may not be all that obvious to us. We can go through the motions of living the Christian life. But we have become lukewarm. It may pass the eye test of others we're trying to impress. But not Jesus. He is obviously repulsed by such diluted faith, and he uses strong language to make the point: "I am about to spit (literally, vomit) you out of my mouth."

Is it time to take another look at our fascination with riches? Dare we place ourselves at such eternal risk? If you want to be really challenged on this subject, watch the video of Francis Chan below. The sermon "Lukewarm and Loving It" lasts about 40 minutes, time I promise you will be well spent. When you're done, you'll have some compelling questions to take before God in prayer. "Have my riches helped me become lukewarm? And is all this stuff I have really a blessing, or a curse?"