Even though Facebook does its best these days to compete with television for the title of “vast wasteland”, one occasionally encounters a gem on it that—hopefully—justifies reading through all the rest. For example, the other day, a friend of mine posted this description of his grandmother:
What my grandmother lacked in money she made up for in love.
She was proud to say that no one came to her home hungry and left the same way. Her first words were always, “Want something to eat?”, and her last, “Want something to take with you to eat on?”
Many of us have been blessed by knowing godly women of a similar temperament. My own mother was that way. My sister still likes to tell the story of how she and her husband were leaving my parents’ house, and my mother kept trying to give her something.
“Would you like this?”
“No, Mom, we don’t need that.”
“How about this?”
“No, thank you. Don’t need that either.”
And so forth. Finally, in desperation, my mother picked up one of her potted plants off the front porch, held it out to my sister, and asked, “Well, would you like a pansy?”
Some find joy in accumulating. Others find it in giving. It’s no secret, I don’t think, which of these attitudes is godlier.
Indeed, the spirit of giving is the spirit of Christ. As Paul observes in 2 Corinthians 8:9, He gave everything He had so that we might become rich. He sacrificed Himself so that He could fill our deepest needs.
As disciples, we could do far worse than taking the words of my friend’s grandmother for our own. We ought to go through our lives doing our best to make sure that no one leaves us hungry. Sometimes, this occurs without metaphor, through a literal filling of bellies. I know I appreciate it when brethren share their food with me!
However, it ought to be much broader than that. Thankfully, we live in a country where physical hunger is rare. However, the hunger pangs of the American soul seem more piercing today than ever before. So many feel lonely, isolated, depressed, overlooked, and worthless. Doctors prescribe antidepressants by the bushel, yet the epidemic of misery continues.
Perhaps the problem is that we have become so affluent that we have forgotten the value of the things that money can’t buy. I recall reading some years ago that the average American only invites someone else into their home once a year. It is far worse to live in a mansion that is empty of human contact than to live in a cottage that is filled with love and laughter and friends.
None of us can change our society singlehandedly, but we can change the lives of the people around us. We can make sure that they don’t leave us hungry. We can show them that they matter by the way we speak and the way we listen. We can expand an everyday contact into a meaningful one. We can leave a life a little brighter than it was five minutes ago, not through any special skill or talent, but simply through love.
This manner of living doesn’t lead to any earthly recognition, though a surprisingly large number of people may show up for your funeral. It will not attract the attention of the miserably self-centered world, though it will attract the Lord’s attention. Nonetheless, not letting anyone leave hungry is one of the few things that we can do with our lives that will make an eternal difference in the lives of others.
Do not despise the day of small things. In the end, the small things are the ones that matter.
Along with all the other clichés used to describe 2020, it has become commonplace to call it a “difficult” year. We all know this to be the case. It seems like everything we do now has become just a little bit harder. If you go to the store and forget your mask, you have to go back to the car and get your mask before going in the store.
I know that’s a trivial example, but even trivial burdens add up. Because life is harder, I think it’s fair to say that most of us feel like we’re in survival mode rather than flourishing mode. This is true in every area of our lives, but I think it’s particularly true in our spiritual lives. Instead of striving to bear fruit for Christ, many of us have fallen into the rut of existing.
This is a problem. Indeed, in Galatians 6, Paul warns us about growing weary in doing good. Other such warnings abound throughout the New Testament. Rather than focusing on the negative, though, this evening I want to look at the positive. I want to look at some reasons why, even in this difficult time, we should cowboy up and be tireless in doing good.
First, we should do so because IT ENCOURAGES OTHERS. Look at Paul’s self-description in 1 Thessalonians 3:6-8. I find this fascinating. We think of Paul as this titan of the first-century church, as indeed he was. By contrast, we don’t even know the names of most of the brethren in Thessalonica.
Nonetheless, the encouragement that those nameless Christians gave to the famous apostle was a life-and-death matter to him. Simply by staying faithful, they brought him through a dark time and gave him the strength he needed to continue his work. Indeed, throughout Paul’s epistles, the encouragement he gains from the faithfulness and labor of other Christians is a constant theme.
Today, things are no different. All Christians need encouragement from one another, and that’s true of even the most prominent leaders in the church. Every member of this congregation matters to the elders here. Every one of you matters to Clay and me, and when we see you working for the Lord or even simply remaining faithful, it brings us great joy.
Of course, the opposite is true too, and there’s something that I want all of you to think about. It’s no secret that since the COVID outbreak, our attendance has been way down, especially on Sunday and Wednesday evenings. I’ve said repeatedly, and I’ll say it again, that Christians need to do whatever is necessary to protect their safety. Nobody is going to judge anybody; nobody is going to start getting phone calls from the elders about forsaking the assembly.
Nonetheless, if you’ve been among the non-attendees, I want each of you to ask yourself a question. Why is that? Is it because you’re concerned about your safety, or is it because 2020 is a hard year, and you’re tired, and it’s easier to stay home?
Again, no judgment. I completely get that. Think for a moment, though, about the effect that you have on your brothers and sisters here simply by the choice to assemble or not. It’s hard to push through, but if we assemble, even if we’re tired, even if school just started, we will bring joy and blessing into the lives of people we love. Think about these things, and what you do with that, I leave to you.
Second, if we are tireless in doing good, WE WILL BEAR FRUIT. Consider the way Jesus ends His explanation of the parable of the sower in Luke 8:14-15. I think both of these explanations are relevant to us. First, we see the problem with being an existence-level Christian. If we allow the coronavirus to choke out the word in us, we will defeat God’s purpose in our salvation, just like crops that don’t bear fruit defeat the purpose of the farmer.
On the other hand, when we bear fruit, the harvest can be many times more significant than we are. However, Jesus here uses a key word to describe what we have to do if we want to bear fruit. We have to endure. We have to persevere. We have to press on through difficulty. If we don’t, there won’t be fruit.
I find this so encouraging because it reminds me that if I do keep going, even when it’s hard, there will be fruit that I can see. This is true in every area of our spiritual lives. If we persevere as godly parents, godly workers, godly friends, and godly neighbors, there will be fruit. It won’t be wasted effort.
I think, though, that most of all, this is relevant with respect to evangelism. There are lots of things that Christians think you have to have in order to be effective at winning souls. They think you have to be eloquent, charismatic, and a Bible expert. None of that is true.
Instead, we only need two things. We have to love people enough to share the truth with them, and we have to be persevering enough to keep doing it. Maybe this person we invite doesn’t come to church. Maybe this other person we invite comes but doesn’t come back. However, if we keep on working through discouragement, sooner or later, someone will be saved because of what we said.
Finally, if we are tireless in doing good, OUR WORK WILL NOT BE VAIN. Look at Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:56-58. Even though if you only look at v. 58, it sounds like this is making the same point as the parable of the sower, a look at the context reveals something different. We can be sure that our toil is not in vain in the Lord not because God will bless our efforts. Instead, Paul says our toil is not in vain because God through Christ has given us victory over sin and death. This isn’t about earthly success. It’s about eternal success.
It is certainly true that the ceaseless toil that God expects from us as Christians can get to us. I spent last week writing and preaching sermons, but I know that for as long as I remain a gospel preacher, I’ll be spending most weeks that way. I work to save souls and keep brethren from falling away, and that won’t change for as long as my life in Christ continues. There always will be people in need to be cared for, ruffled feathers to smooth, and special events to plan. Like Solomon says in Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun. We keep doing the same thing until we die.
What’s the point, then? Why do it? Why keep trying to roll that boulder up the hill? The real reason is not the earthly effect of our labors. It’s the spiritual effect.
If you think you have a hard life, consider the life of Jeremiah. He spent his whole life prophesying, and hardly anybody ever listened to him. He told people the truth, and they hated and persecuted him for his pains.
And yet, Jeremiah’s labor was not in vain because it found favor with God. No matter what, we can be sure that He will regard our labor for Him in the same way, and nobody who inherits eternal life ever says it wasn’t worth it!
Luke 14:15-23 is commonly known as “The Parable of the Banquet”, but it might equally well be called “The Parable of Excuses”. In the parable, a man gives a banquet and invites a number of people. However, the invitees all have excuses for why they will not come. In response, the host becomes angry, instructs his servants to find absolutely anybody to fill the places at the table, and vows that none of the original invitees will be allowed in.
In the context of Jesus’ ministry, this obviously is a parable about the Jews and the Gentiles. The Jews were the ones originally invited to the spiritual feast of fellowship with God, but for various reasons, they declined the invitation. Consequently, God invited the Gentiles into His kingdom in their place.
However, it’s also valuable for us to apply the parable to ourselves today in a more direct sense. It is sad but true that people will lose their souls because of the excuses they used to justify their disobedience.
These excuses begin with respect to obeying the gospel in the first place. Some say that they would be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins, except that their family always has held to a denominational tradition. Others say that they’re too wicked to become a Christian, so they need to get their lives straightened out first. Still others say that they are “not ready yet” for unspecified reasons. All of these excuses, though, allow the sinner to put off their salvation indefinitely, to their ultimate ruin.
The same applies to the justifications that Christians offer for prolonged disobedience to one of God’s commandments. Yes, they know that Christian husbands are commanded to love their wives as Christ loved the church, and that Christian wives are commanded to submit to their husbands as to the Lord.
However, they tell themselves that these commandments were written with a generic inoffensive spouse in mind, not with their particular obnoxious spouse. “I know what I’m supposed to do, but my wife is a shrew!” “I know what I’m supposed to do, but my husband is an idiot!” Thus, they feel free to return evil for evil rather than obeying the commandment. Their lives are marked by decade after decade of disobedience in a dysfunctional marriage.
Excuses also often emerge when a Christian fails to assemble regularly. Of course, there are legitimate reasons not to assemble—illness, work (though the Christian whose work schedule often keeps them from assembling is well advised to look for another job), or, these days, vulnerability to COVID-19. Other excuses (the preacher is boring, nobody there likes me, etc.) are less legitimate.
It is worth asking, though, whether the obstacles that keep us from assembling also keep us from worldly activities we enjoy. Work schedules can be frustrating, but one wonders about the man who never is able to assemble on Sunday morning but somehow manages to reserve his Saturday mornings for fishing trips. Likewise, if we avoid worship services because we’re afraid of the coronavirus, but we don’t seem to be afraid of vacationing in crowded tourist traps, perhaps it is time to examine our motivations more closely.
Whatever our excuses, we must acknowledge that we have far less reason to disobey than Jesus did. In heaven, He was equal with God. He was guiltless and did not deserve to die, and we were guilty and did not deserve to be saved. Nonetheless, rather than offering excuses, He offered Himself in obedience to His Father. As His disciples, is our call to do anything less?
Living in Tennessee is a very different cultural experience from living in Illinois. One of the contrasts I have noticed is the frequent appearance of “Lord willing” in conversation. When you’re talking with some folks, every expression of intent or hope for the future is punctuated with “Lord willing”.
This comes from James 4:15, where James urges us to frame our plans with the statement, “if the Lord wills”. However, the context is not about saying magic words to make sure bad things don’t happen to us. It’s about having the right spirit. In fact, people who use “Lord willing” can become entrapped in many of the same pitfalls that await people who say, “O my God!”
Of course, there is nothing wrong with uttering those three words. They appear in the Psalms and in many hymns that we sing. However, problems arise when we say, “O my God!” flippantly or thoughtlessly. I am not among those who believe that saying it constitutes taking the Lord’s name in vain as per Exodus 20:7 (which I believe is about swearing false oaths), but that doesn’t make it acceptable.
Invoking the name of the Holy One of Israel is a solemn thing. One of the greatest privileges we have, one purchased with the blood of Christ, is the right to call upon the name of the LORD. When we do so carelessly, we display irreverence toward the One whom we are commanded to revere. It is dangerous to treat the Almighty in such a cavalier fashion!
So too, we must make sure that we speak reverently of the purposes of God. In James 4:13-16, James condemns the arrogance of those who make confident plans about the future. He points out that none of us can guarantee that we will survive even tomorrow. Before the awesome, unchanging God, all of us are nothing more than a passing vapor.
“Lord willing,” then, is supposed to be more than a verbal good-luck charm. Instead, James is urging us, every time we talk about the future, to think long and hard about how uncertain our place in that future is.
We don’t like doing that. We want to believe that we are the ones in control, that everything will shape up according to our desires. If nothing else, 2020 should have highlighted the foolishness of that conviction. When we believe we’re in the driver’s seat of our own lives and speak accordingly, we’re boasting, whether the phrase “Lord willing” passes our lips or not.
Instead, we should use “Lord willing” as an opportunity to humble ourselves before our Maker. We should remind ourselves of how foolish and feeble we are, especially when compared to the wisdom and power of God. We also should view it as an acknowledgment of our subjection before His will. Someone who says “Lord willing” and then goes out and sins clearly does not mean it!
We must mean it, whether we say it or not. “Lord willing” ought to call us to fix our minds upon the sovereignty of God, each day and each hour. May we live accordingly!
People do things for reasons. Well, unless they’re morons, they do. As a rule, the larger the change is, the more compelling the reason behind it.
As Proverbs 4:23 observes, these reasons proceed from the heart. This is not the Western heart, as in “the seat of the emotions”, but rather the Eastern mind-and-heart, the place where reason and emotion intersect. In fact, I think that one of the great weaknesses of Western thought is its failure to acknowledge the interplay of the two in the human mind.
In consequence, whenever I hear someone announce that they have changed their mind about something purely through disinterested logical consideration, I become suspicious. This is particularly true when something else in their lives is providing powerful motivation for them to change their minds.
Here, consider the man who “restudies” Matthew 19 after his daughter gets divorced and—surprise!—reaches a different conclusion on the text, or the church that “reconsiders” 1 Timothy 2 in a feminist age and decides that women in the pulpit are OK after all. In both cases, the restudiers will loudly insist that they were motivated only by the love of truth, despite the circumstances that make their new beliefs convenient. Nonetheless, I raise a skeptical eyebrow.
I will confess that I feel a similar upward tugging in my forehead whenever a Christian, typically a young Christian, proclaims that they have become an atheist. In such cases, the rhetoric doesn’t vary much. The newly minted unbeliever will talk at length about how hard this was for them, how they are acting against their own interests, and how only their determination to follow reason wherever it goes has led them to this point. At times I wonder if there’s a “How to Come Out as an Atheist” script online.
Again, my time on planet Earth leads me to believe people act because they want to, not because they don’t want to. The problem is, though, that atheism itself doesn’t offer much intrinsic motivation. Christianity does. If you buy into the Christian belief system, you get God, absolute right and wrong, meaning, people who care about you, and the promise of eternal life. I think even atheists would acknowledge that it’s a powerfully attractive set of ideas!
Atheism, though, offers no absolute morality, no meaning, and no hope. Life is a small span of suffering before the universe squishes you into oblivion. Admittedly, atheism might give you the satisfaction of believing that you’re smarter than the believers, but feelings of intellectual superiority only get us so far. You only can join Mensa once.
Instead, in my experience, if you probe a little bit, underneath the intellectual superstructure of atheism, there lurk powerful (if reluctantly acknowledged) motivations behind such a dramatic life change. I’ve seen them include:
- Grief at the loss of a loved one.
- Objection to the moral teaching of the Bible, particularly about homosexuality.
- Resentment of bad treatment by Christians.
- Distaste for the perceived connection between Christianity and political conservatism.
- An unbelieving spouse.
I have no trouble understanding how any of those things would move someone to leave the church and the Lord. The problem is, though, that they don’t provide intellectual cover for such a change. You might not like the God who does such rotten-to-you things, has such rotten-to-you followers, or makes your personal life so inconvenient. However, none of those things justify the conclusion that God doesn’t exist.
They do, though, leave you very receptive to the possibility that He might not exist. If you are of a mind to do so, you can evaluate both creation and the Bible in such a way as to lead to the conclusion that God is not real. In fact, Romans 1 and 2 Thessalonians 2 promise that if you want to reject God, He will give you the rope you need to hang yourself. It is hardly surprising, then, when people who want to leave the faith find the justification they’re seeking.
This process is, to say the least, intensely frustrating to watch. Often, concerned brethren try to restore the atheist to fellowship by attacking their intellectual conclusions. Sadly, that’s about as effective as trying to kill a dandelion by pulling the leaves off. As long as the roots are there, the leaves will be back soon, and somebody who doesn’t want to believe in God never will have any trouble manufacturing reasons not to.
Instead, we must reckon with the underlying motivations. We need to be able to have those discussions about theodicy and to critically examine our society’s conviction that sexual autonomy is the preeminent human value. We need to make sure that our behavior isn’t alienating others.
Sometimes, we simply must acknowledge that the motivation isn’t susceptible to reason. Somebody who goes atheist because of their spouse probably will stay atheist as long as they’re married. Indeed, even attempts to address the reasoned component of a motivation are not certain to succeed. However, atheism that starts with want-to must end there too.