Tuesday, June 28, 2011

An Abundance for Every Good Deed

I've been thinking a lot about fear and provision the past few weeks (see the previous two posts). One consistent lesson I've been learning is that fear reveals our answers to these related questions: Whose kingdom am I living in? Whom am I trying to exalt? Who is calling the shots around here?

I know that might sound weird, but hear me out. When it comes to fear in this life--fear of death and the next life might be something different--aren't we often afraid of the loss of something because we think we need that thing to live a happy, fulfilled life? My latest snags have been a fear of how we could live on a low income, and a fear (or perhaps frustration) that I'll never be good enough at my job to earn some kind of positive recognition and accolades. In other words, what I really want is to have our own home, to be able to pursue graduate school or seminary (to feel knowledgeable and competent?), and to have some tangible affirmation that I'm not just some mediocre teacher and coach good enough to hang onto his job, but someone who excels. If these things don't come my way, or something threatens their arrival, then I start fearing failure and all the question marks of what life is going to look like down the road. What would it be like to rent my whole life long? Will I be ineffective in serving the church without more education?

The real problem, I think, is that I'm viewing my own desires and wants as what I really need. Without knowing it, I confuse "God's will for my life" with my own picture of how I think things should work. Then when my picture of life is threatened or doesn't come about, I'll twist that into believing God isn't really meeting my needs or isn't able or doesn't listen to me, so then I feel like life is out of (my) control. When God is at my beck and call, life is great. But when he's not, that turns into either grumbling or panic.

This is just what the Israelites did in the wilderness. They longed for meat, fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic--their own idea of real provision from God--when they were oblivious to the manna God faithfully sent them every day. "There is nothing but this manna to look at!" (Num. 11:4-6). They wanted "the good life" now when in fact they hadn't yet entered the Promised Land. They wanted rest and prosperity when they were still sojourners and pilgrims. Believing then that the Lord was against them (read: he wasn't their servant), they concluded that God had ditched them to die in the wilderness (14:1-4), when in fact God was giving them all they needed. However, it was according to his own terms, with the purpose of testing their hearts and refining their trust in him (Deut. 8:1-3). This is why the godly men Caleb and Joshua equated fear of failure with rebellion against the Lord (Num. 14:9, 11-12).

Our fear doesn't come because life is actually out of control. It's simply shows that it's out of our control. It's not enough for us to know that whatever we have or don't have, it's because God ordained it to be so. We want to have it our own way, on our terms. So we accuse God of being unjust, or playing favorites, or hiding himself, or whatever. Fear is just God knocking out our throne from under us so that we can rest on the infinitely more expansive and solid foundation of his throne.

The fact is, God will never fail to provide for us what we need to obey him and to do his will. "Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man" (Eccles. 12:13). Our fear is transformed to trust only once we recognize that our purpose in life isn't to reign over our own little kingdoms, but to live as servants of our heavenly King. "And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed" (2 Cor. 9:8 NASB). Notice that word sufficiency. God gives us what we need. And he gives it abundantly for doing good deeds that result in his praise (vv. 11-15). "God is faithful, and will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you maybe able to endure it" (1 Cor. 10:13). God will provide what we need for doing his will and obeying him in the moment he calls us to do it. But if we have other desires for life on our terms apart from what God says is necessary, why should we expect him to open his wallet and shell out for those? He isn't into funding his rivals' campaigns.

This is why Jesus teaches us to pray first, "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Only when we have subordinated our desires to his can we then pray rightly, "Give us this day our daily bread" (Matt. 6:9-10).

So if in the end our finances only allow us to rent, then it's because God wants us to rent, and we'll be able to do whatever he asks us to do from our meager apartment. If I can't afford seminary, then he's simply calling me to be faithful in serving others with the knowledge and skills I already have, and I need to be content with that. If I don't receive accolades at work, then he's not calling me to live in the limelight; he's just calling me to be faithful and do my best and receive my praise from him alone. If our children don't end up being athletic, good-looking, intelligent, and popular, that's fine. Even if they're brace-faced Trekkies on the robotics team, God's calling me to recognize that what matters is their character and their love for him, and that I love these kids with all my heart and not some out-there ideal.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Mammon Cannot Serve You

On Saturday morning I was praying through Psalm 27, asking God to give me confidence in him so that I'd trust him alone when fears and worries arise. What I didn't expect was that God would, during that time, bring me face to face with one of those worries! Someday if/when Olivia and I have children, we'd ideally like to have her stay home to raise the kids. But whenever I think about the extra cost of children on half the income, all I think about is how this is impossible. How difficult it would be to afford appropriate housing, medical care, food, education, and the like! (And I can kiss graduate school goodbye, too, or so my mental logic tells me.)

But as I prayed, it dawned upon me (through the Spirit of God, no doubt) that if I fretted over how difficult it would be to have such provisions due to a lack of money, I wasn't trusting or looking to God to be our provider. I was hoping in Money itself to provide all these things. And money isn't the living God. It's simply a piece of woven fabric and paper, or a nugget of metal, or a series of binary ones and zeroes in an electronic file in cyberspace. Of course I had reason to worry! Since when could a hundred-dollar bill ever hear my prayers or make dinner or otherwise act on my behalf?

Jesus says, "You cannot serve both God and Money [Greek Mammon, a personification of wealth as a deity]" (Matt. 6:24). But it's also true that Mammon cannot serve you, either. It is a worthless, lifeless, vain thing--made by human hands and obtained only through hours of hard labor! "You will always be running scared," warns Ed Welch, "if you worship other gods, because idols can't deliver on their promises" (Running Scared, p. 176).

Even long before this, the prophet Jeremiah explained to the people of Judah the errors of trusting in anything other than God for their provision (Jer. 9:23-10:16).

Thus says the LORD: "Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD."

Riches or wisdom or power aren't living, active things to trust in for blessing and security. Only knowing the living, almighty God as Father, Shepherd, King, who relates to you in his constant "steadfast love, justice, and righteousness" is a source of rest and boasting. Trusting in anything else is a foolish form of idolatry. Idols (such as money) are simply products of human craft , and as such, they are impotent (Jer. 10:1-5, 8-9, 15). "Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good" (v. 5). Despite what our everyday experiences tell us, money is absolutely powerless on its own to bring us any good. So why worry about how much of it you have?

What matters is whether or not, through faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, we have God on our side.

But the LORD is the true God;
he is the living God and the everlasting King.
At his wrath the earth quakes,
and the nations cannot endure his indignation.

It is he who made the earth by his power,
who established the world by his wisdom,
and by his understanding stretched out the heavens. (Jeremiah 10:10, 12)

It is not an inanimate object, but a Person, who secures your future, someone you can know and who relates to you in love and concern. If such a God is your God through faith in Jesus, you have a God who hears your prayers and knows your every need. You have a God who speaks to you (Jer. 10:1). You have a God who is wise enough to order and direct the entire cosmos, your life included. You have a God who can count every star in the sky and every hair on your head. You have a God mighty enough to stretch out the heavens and to also carry your burdens (Isaiah 46:3-4). And you have a God who "practices steadfast love" (Jer. 9:24) on your behalf. This is the great hope of those in Christ.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Seek First His Kingdom

Over the past few years, the Holy Spirit has shown me I'm a fearful person--and that means an idolatrous person too. First it was the fear of moving to Chicago. Then once I got there, I feared that if Olivia and I broke up, I'd be stuck alone in some new place where I didn't know anyone. This year I went through all kinds of unrest over my supervisor's disapproval of me and whether or not I'd have a job next year. So why is that idolatry? Because it means I'm ascribing to something or someone else the power and value in my life that only God Most High deserves.

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 Money.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. . . . But seek first [your heavenly Father's] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:24-25, 33)

It wasn't until reading Running Scared by Ed Welch that I realized how verses 24 and 33, which frame Jesus' teaching about God's daily provision meeting our worries and anxieties, really fit the whole teaching. Jesus says that the solution to worry is to seek God's kingdom and his righteousness. But what exactly does this mean?

Like the father of the ancient Near East, the king's task was to love, protect, and bless his subjects so that the kingdom--his kingdom--prospered. Subjects of the realm, for their part, acknowledged their allegiance to the king and demonstrated that allegiance by living according to his laws.

In the kingdom of God, the King has made extravagant promises to us--promises of protection, liberation, and peace. We respond with our allegiance, which we typically call faith or trust. The essence of faith is not that we trust without evidence but that we choose sides: In whom do we trust? (p. 120)

This was mind-blowing to me. In essence, if we have fears about financial loss, it's not because our bank account is too small or our employment is unstable. We have anxieties because we've set up Money as a god who can provide peace, security, food, shelter, comfort, health, and the like. Hence Jesus says that Money (Greek Mammon) is a master we often choose to serve opposed to God (v. 24). Because we cannot serve two masters, and should serve God alone, "Therefore, I tell you, do not worry . . . ."

Or perhaps it's not money itself we hope in, but rather it might be the very comfort, peace, friends, or self-image that money can provide for us that have become our gods, the things we value more than God himself. When potential for their loss looms and we grow anxious, that shows we're valuing and hoping for something else more than God. "Worry, therefore, is not simply an emotion that erodes our quality of life or a pain to be alleviated. It is a misdirected love that should be confessed. It is trying to manage our world apart from God. It is making life about our needs, desires, and wants" (p. 163).

Seeking God's kingdom, then, is about acknowledging his reign over your life. It's his purposes and plans that must prevail, not your own. But while this might sound like cringing before some Machiavellian overlord, we need to remember that it is our heavenly Father whom we are serving as King (v. 32). If we doubt God's goodness, Jesus comforts us with this corrective: "If you, then, though you are evil [in comparison to God's pure and generous love], know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!" (Matt. 7:11). "Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom" (Luke 12:32).

God-the-King's faithful, generous, gracious provision and protection is what the Old Testament often means by describing his righteousness. It's his just and good reign over his people, exercising his delivering power in loyal love toward those who've entrusted their welfare to him (see Psalms 4, 5, 96-98). When Jesus encourages us to seek God's kingdom and righteousness above all else, he calls us to acknowledge first God's glad benevolence toward his people and his power to carry out his good intentions for them.

O King, you are mighty to save! Forgive us all the times we've exalted good gifts from you to a place of desire and status above you, the Giver. And forgive us the ways we trust in bosses, paychecks, and the economy for our future, rather than praying for eyes to see your open hands. Help us in our unbelief to know that you have not withheld your only Son, but delivered him up to death for our sake; how will you then withhold any lesser thing that is for our good (Romans 8:32)? In Jesus' name, Amen.