Sunday, September 18, 2016

A Cheerful Giver

On February 24, an F3 tornado came through Appomattox, Virginia, doing massive damage and killing one person. Among other volunteers, my denomination’s state convention contributed money, materials, and manpower in order to help rebuild. Disaster relief is something that our Virginia state convention does well. Even when I went to Mississippi to do relief work after Katrina, people recognized my denomination for its great contribution to the effort. This month, my church is collecting a special offering to fund our Virginia ministries, and I’m encouraging my people to give generously. Because of our denomination’s giving program, when I place my dollars in the plate at my local church, I know I’m helping with anything from disaster relief and prison ministry, to church planting and poverty relief. If you attend a church, then it’s likely that your congregation has some similar system in place to help those in need.

From the very beginning of the church, giving was part of the way God’s people worshiped. Still today, God calls believers to give in order to support your church’s local and distant missions. In 2 Corinthians 9, Paul was taking up an offering for those in Jerusalem who were suffering from famine. While God calls all believers to contribute their time and their talents, in this case, the apostle encouraged them to give of their treasures. He sent messengers to the church in Corinth to prepare the offering so that he could receive the voluntary gift it when he arrived. In the same way, your church takes up a collection to meet its own budgetary needs like electric bills and salaries, office supplies and building maintenance. But your church also needs your contributions to help with the evangelism and mission needs of people a world away.

In verses 6-7, Paul tells believers how they should give. Instead of holding back from God or giving grudgingly, he reminds them that there is a proper attitude for giving. “The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Notice that Paul doesn’t enforce legalistic rules like tithing ten percent, but simply leaves it up to conscience and an appeal to joyful generosity.

Paul then reminds Christians why we are able to give at all. In verses 8-11, he says:

And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. As it is written,
“He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.”
He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us;

The only reason we are able to give at all is because God has provided us with blessing. Because God has planted seed in our lives, He expects us to then be like Him and sow seeds into the lives of others. We do this by giving of our love, our selves, and our resources. The result of such generous giving is that many people will give thanks to God.

When Paul took up his collection, he wanted the people to know where their money was going. He said the offering was “for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God (verse 12).” He wanted givers to know that their money was going to care for fellow believers. Your church probably provides a detailed accounting so that every giver can know where their money is being used. When you can see your offering at work, you can give thanks for the good work that’s done.

Paul finishes this section of his letter by reminding his readers not to give out of false motives or for self-glorification. In verses 13-15 he says, “Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” While people do the giving, it’s God who gets the glory and the thanks, because without God there would be nothing to give in the first place.

Paul knew how important giving was, because he knew the teachings of Christ who said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal (Matthew 6:19-20).” Instead of keeping all their blessings for themselves, he encouraged believers to invest in heavenly things by sharing.

For a long time, just like everybody else, I kept family pictures in these old things called picture albums. Just like everybody else, I also kept them in shoeboxes and old suit cases and the like. These would keep my pictures safe, I told myself. Until the basement flooded and the albums and boxes filled with Lydia’s baby pictures got ruined. Now, I can’t think of the last time I actually printed out a picture. It’s all stored digitally, so it’s safe. “But couldn’t something happen to your disk?” you may ask. Sure it could—that’s why the best, most important pictures are on in Cloud storage like Dropbox and Google Drive and Facebook. First, it makes it easier to share those pictures than they would be if they were printed on paper and in an album in my house. This way, countless people can see my pictures whereas before only a few could see them. Second, when I share them, they’re also kept from the possibility of damage, because if something happens, I know other people have them. So it is with all our treasures: the more we hoard them, the more vulnerable they are. The more we share them, the more they bless others and the more they are kept safe. So the next time the plate passes at your church, I hope you’ll remember to share your treasure just like you share your pictures on Facebook, so that everyone can enjoy. I pray you’ll give cheerfully, “for God loves a cheerful giver.”

Tuesday, September 6, 2016


One of my favorite children’s books when I was growing up was Frog and Toad Together, by Arnold Lobel[i]. In this book series, Frog and Toad are best friends, and have many adventures together. In a story called “Cookies,” Toad baked some cookies and took them to Frog’s house to share them. They enjoyed them so much that Frog decided they should stop because if they don’t, they will soon be sick. They decided to have one more and then stop. Then they decided to have one very last one and then stop.

“We must stop eating!” cried Toad as he ate another.
“Yes,” said Frog, reaching for a cookie, “we need will power.”
“What is will power?” asked Toad.
“Will power is trying hard not to do something that really want to do,” said Frog.
“You mean like trying not to eat all of these cookies?” asked Toad.
“Right,” said Frog.

In order to exercise will power, Frog and Toad put the cookies in a box. But they decided that they could always open the box and eat the cookies, so they tied a string around the box. But, since they could always untie the string and open the box and eat the cookies, they put the box on a high shelf. But, since they could always climb up on ladder and get them down, they came up with another solution.

He cut the string and opened the box. Frog took the box outside. He shouted in a loud voice,
Birds came from everywhere. They picked up all the cookies in their beaks and flew away.
“Now we have no more cookies to eat,” said Toad sadly.
“Not even one,”
“Yes,” said Frog, “but we have lots of will power.”
“You may keep it all, Frog,” said Toad.
“I am going home now to bake a cake.”

While “Cookies” is a cute story, I’m not sure that it does a lot of good in teaching children about how to exercise willpower. However, it certainly does a good job illustrating to adults just how powerless willpower can be. The problem is, growing up, I think that’s how my church taught us how to resist temptation. “Just resist!” our Sunday school teachers would tell us. And if they wanted to give us lots of advice, they’d say, “Put up safeguards so that you don’t even come close to sinning.” Yet that kind of exercise of willpower ends up like a Frog and Toad story. You end up putting your temptation in a box, tying a string around it, and putting it on a shelf where you can still reach it. Then, not only do we become moralistic about not eating the cookies—we begin to feel guilty about morally neutral things like climbing a ladder or untying string. As Richard Rohr says, “Will power creates a well-disguised bad. Jesus was a master and genius at recognizing this problem.”[ii] Jesus knew that there has to be a better way.

The first thing we need to do is to understand where temptation comes from. The Gospels tell us the story of Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness.[iii] The devil tempted Jesus’ desire for pleasure, pride fulfillment, and power. Temptation can come from the devil, who wants to see you stumble just like he wanted to see Jesus fall.

But temptation can also come from the world. It’s not helpful to imagine all temptation as emerging from a demonic shadow under a rock. Sometimes temptation comes from the cares of life which crowd out the things of God. Distractions become temptations when they take away our commitment to church, Bible reading, prayer, or the service of others. Entertainment and wholesome hobbies can become idols to us if we allow them to. So the world can be just as dangerous a source of temptation as the devil—if not more so.

James 1:14-15[iv] shows that temptation comes not just from the world and the devil, but also from the flesh—or, more specifically, the sinful nature. “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” In other words, nobody can say, like Flip Wilson, “The devil made me do it.” Each person must take responsibility for his or her own actions and own up to the fact that we still have a fallen nature. While Jesus healed us of the crippling disease of Sin that separates us from God, we still suffer the after-effects of the disease. Spiritually speaking, we still all walk with a limp that comes from wrestling with God. It’s that limp in our flesh that causes us to fall to temptation—not that we’re bad people, but just that we’re people.

So temptation comes from the world, the flesh, and the devil. But how do we overcome temptation? Rather than just saying, “Resist!” is there something practical that we can do? Fortunately, there is.

First, take the advice of an old comedian. Raising his arm at a funny angle, Henny Youngman joked, “I said, ‘Doctor, it hurts when I do that.’ He said, ‘Don’t do that.’” We tend to repeat behaviors that we know put us at risk. Knowing that cookies are a temptation for us, we bake and share a batch. Or we think we can walk past that box on the shelf and not be tempted. If it hurts when you do that, don’t do that. Don’t let yourself be around the source of temptation.

Next, know the Word of God. Every time Jesus was tempted, He quoted scripture. In order to quote it, he had to know it. In order to know it, He had to read it. Are you availing yourself of the Word of God? Are you spending regular time in devotional reading and prayer? To overcome temptation, it’s not enough to simply resist using willpower. Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” When you feel tempted, let the Word of God be your defense.

Then, be transformed. Romans 12:2 says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” With all this study, don’t just settle for the Bible as a trivia category on Jeopardy. Let it transform your mind. Let the mind of Christ that lives within you revolutionize your life. That way you won’t be walking past the box saying, “I really like cookies but I’m not going to have any.” Instead, when God changes you, you’ll say, “I remember cookies—they were great, but I don’t really want them anymore.”

Finally, know that you’re not alone. 1 Corinthians 10:30 says, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” Because every temptation you experience is something that others have gone through as well, you can know that there are other people who can be resources to you. Other people are one way out that God provides. Find a support group or friends who can help you and encourage you along the way. Not only do you have other people who support you—but Hebrews 4:15 says that Jesus was tempted in every way just as we are, so you have an advocate with God who knows what you’re going through. The other way out is Jesus’ strength to endure, that He gives to all who ask. With this kind of strength, you don’t need will power; you have God-power. And God is faithful. God always makes a way.

[i] Lobel, Arnold.  Frog and Toad Together.  Harper and Row.  1972.  ISBN 9780060239602.
[ii] Rohr, Richard.  Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation: The Spirituality of Letting Go.  “The World”.  August 31, 2016.
[iii] Mk 1:12-13; Mt 4:1-11; Lk 4:1-13
[iv] All scripture quotations taken from the ESV.

Sin & Salvation # 5 - "The Assurance"

A few years ago, I went to court as a character reference for a church member who had gotten himself in trouble. At the same time that my defendant was arrested, his best friend had also been detained. They received the same charges because they had committed the same crimes together. The friend’s parents had plenty of money, hired an excellent defense attorney, and by the time my young man got to court, his friend was already enjoying a life of freedom. But my defendant, on the other hand, wasn’t quite so confident. You’d think his friend’s good fortune would boost his sense of assurance, but his own family did not have the same kind of money. They couldn’t afford a good attorney, but instead had to settle for an inexperienced public defender. As it turns out, my young man’s concern was well-founded. While the wealthy family’s son got off with only parole, my guy received five years forth same crimes.

Stories like this often give people very little confidence in the legal system. It’s disheartening to know that if you were in trouble, your future could rest in the hands of someone who may or may not be able to help. When faced with such a trial, you might say with confidence, “I’m sure that I’ll be okay,” or “I hope that I’ll be okay.” But in the end, the truth of it depends on the skill of lawyer you’ve hired.

A lot of people feel the same way when it comes to salvation. When asked how they feel about their own eternal security, many Christians answer with a little less than confidence. I know a pastor who says, “I don’t know I’m saved, but I sure hope I am.” To me, that seems depressing, especially since 1 John 5:12-13[i] says, “He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” If you’ve received Jesus as your Savior and Lord, then salvation isn’t something you should HOPE you have; it is something that should give you full confidence in eternal life.

Think about it. Salvation isn’t because you’re good enough or deserve it or have earned it. It is a free gift from Jesus. Romans 6:23 says, “…the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If salvation were something that you could earn, then it wouldn’t be a gift. What we earn is death, but Jesus gives eternal life. Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life (John 5:24).” If you could lose your salvation, that would mean that either God would give a gift and then renig on that promise, or that you were more powerful than God and could undo the salvation so freely given. Since it is impossible for God to lie, and since nothing is stronger than God, it is impossible to lose your salvation, once God gives it.

In Too Busy Not to Pray, Bill Hybels writes about the importance of being confident in your salvation:

Sometime when you're in an airport, observe the difference between passengers who hold confirmed tickets and those who are on standby. The ones with confirmed tickets read newspapers, chat with their friends or sleep. The ones on standby hang around the ticket counter, pace and smoke, smoke and pace. The difference is caused by the confidence factor.[ii]

If you’ve accepted Jesus’ free gift of eternal life, and given your soul into His keeping, and yet you’re feeling insecure, something’s wrong. Like a standby flyer, are you unsure that heaven will have a seat available? Are you concerned that, once you get to the terminal, the TSA will block you for some reason? In John 6:37, Jesus promises, "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.” Jesus also says, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand (John 10:27-29).” For the Christian, knowing you have been saved ought to give you amazing confidence! Recently, I came across a story from DL Moody that illustrates the kind of confidence a Christian ought to have:

It is said of Napoleon that while he was reviewing his army one day, his horse became frightened at something, and the Emperor lost his rein, and the horse went away at full speed, and the Emperor's life was in danger. He could not get hold of the rein, and a private in the ranks saw it, and sprang out of the ranks towards the horse, and was successful in getting hold of the horse's head at the peril of his own life. The Emperor was very much pleased. Touching his hat, he said to him, "I make you Captain of my Guard." The soldier didn't take his gun and walk up there. He threw it away, stepped out of the ranks of the soldiers, and went up to where the body-guard stood. The captain of the body-guard ordered him back into the ranks, but he said "No! I won't go!" "Why not?" "Because I am Captain of the Guard." "You Captain of the Guard?" "Yes," replied the soldier. "Who said it?" and the man, pointing to the Emperor, said, "He said it." That was enough. Nothing more could be said. He took the Emperor at his word. My friends, if God says anything, let us take Him at His word. "He that believeth on the Lord Jesus Christ shall not perish, but have everlasting life." Don't you believe it? Don't you believe you have got everlasting life? It can be the privilege of every child of God to believe and then know that you have got it.[iii]

Today, I pray that you will place your trust in Jesus as your Savior. And more than that, I pray you will have full assurance in the salvation Jesus gives. Because the One who saves, saves completely.

[i] All scriptures are taken from the NASB.
[iii]  August 18, 2016.