Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Uncomfortable Blessings

A pastor friend recently told me that he experienced intense criticism from his church about a recent sermon on giving. Of course, criticism is part of the role. What pastor doesn't receive nitpicking and grumbling on a weekly basis? But this criticism was different, as it was coming mainly from his deacons and elders.

He had preached a sermon on giving and the blessings that come from the Lord when we give generously. He titled his message, "Give more, get more".

That's when the accusations started flowing: "This is no different than the Prosperity Gospel", "I was disgusted by this message which condoned greed", "When did Joel Olsteen become our pastor?"

But this message comes directly from the pages of Scripture, and even the lips of Jesus Christ. Throughout the Old Testament we are told that God rewards faith that expresses itself in generosity. In Deut 15:10, which speaks about taking financial care of your disadvantaged brother in the Lord, Scripture tells us to "give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart." But it is the next phrase that should catch our attention, "...then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to."

Did you catch that? God promised to bless the common, average Israelite citizen with material blessing and success at their employment, investments, and endeavors if they lived a lifestyle of generosity.

Malachi 3:10 goes even further, with God even urging the Israelites to test out this blessing principle for themselves to see if it really worked. "'Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this', says the Lord Almighty, 'and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.'" The LORD goes on to promise that the crops of a generous person will be protected from pests and bad weather.

These are not the only passages, as we find this principle throughout the Old and New Testaments. Jesus directly tied our blessings from the Father to our level of generosity. He said, "give and it will be given to you...for with the measure you use, it will be measured to you" (Luke 6:38). In other words, 'give more, get more.'

So why are Bible-loving Christians ignoring, or in many cases, denying this message? It's a classic case of over-reaction...wishing so much to do away with the Health-n-Wealth madness that we are willing to jettison entire sections of Scripture to accomplish our goal. One recent article online even rebuked the Christian community for referring to success at work or the ability to purchase a new car as "blessings". The author boldly stated, "calling myself blessed because of material wealth is just plain wrong" (emphasis his). As 'proof', the author cites the hundreds of millions of Christians throughout the world who are living in poverty. Is God not blessing them?

The author of that article, just like the elders at my friend's church, have put their finger on a real issue. What they have recognized, and what the Prosperity Gospel seems to deny, is that God also sends difficulty to believers. We are promised the certainly of persecution (2 Tim 3:12) and that this suffering is "according to God's will" (1 Pet 4:19). Paul says the he and the believers in his day were "afflicted in every way" (2 Cor 4:8). He would go on to declare that instead of desiring greater wealth, he was "content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities" (2 Cor 12:10).

But how can both principles be biblical? One seems to promise us material blessings if we follow the Lord faithfully and give generously to those in need and other ministries. The other principle promises, and even promotes, suffering and hardship as the mark of a true believer. Who then do we side with?

Let me suggest that the author of the article I cited above, as well as the elders/deacons at my friend's church, have committed the same error as the adherents of the Prosperity Gospel. Both sides have chosen to set aside one set of Bible passages in favor of another. As a general rule of thumb, when your particle theology forces you to ignore or deny certain parts of the Bible, you have a bad theology.

Much better is the theology of Job. He was a man of great faith who strove to live his life in righteousness. For this, he was rewarded greatly by God, owning thousands of cattle, many properties, and had a large, healthy family. But then he was also tested greatly by God, experiencing financial ruin, the tragic loss of his children, and personal physical suffering. It was during this moment that his wife came to him and offered him horrible advice, "curse God and die" (Job 2:9). Job's response shows us his theology: "shall we accept the good from God but not the trouble."

Good comes from God. It is his blessing. Praise him for it. Did you receive a raise at work as the result of a work ethic based on pleasing God in all you do? Then praise him. Were you wise with your finances last year and able to set aside enough money to buy that new car? Then praise God, for it is His blessing. Have you tithed faithfully and given to the work of the Lord sacrificially, and still have enough money to pay your bills and get away for a week during the Summer with the family? Then praise the Lord, for this is from the Lord.

But so is trouble, and therefore it is also a reason to praise him. Of course, trouble & suffering only mean that the blessings has been temporarily postponed. To Job, as well as Paul, God always blesses. Often that blessing comes partly in the here-and-now, but at times that blessing is postponed until heaven. This is why present suffering doesn't worry the Christian. Jesus told the disciples that the poor and the persecuted (who had faith in Christ) would one day receive God's kingdom as a reward (cf Luke 6:20; Matt 5:10).

Those who hold to the Prosperity Gospel fail to realize that suffering & poverty are often part of God's design for his people. They forget, or rather deny, that the same passage in Deuteronomy that promised material wealth to God's people (Deut 15:10) is followed by a verse which promises that many of God's faithful people will always remain poor (Deut 15:11).

Other believers, reacting against the Prosperity Gospel, seem to forget that all good things comes from the Lord.

For my part, I know my God blesses me and I often receive those blessings now. Currently my family is in good health, we live in a beautiful home, and I make an average salary that provides for our needs. We are even able to take an occasional vacation and somehow manage to pay for all the kid's various extra-curricular involvements. For this I praise God.

But there have also been times when we lived on staples from a local food bank, received government assistance to buy baby formula and peanut butter, and needed financial help from God's people. At some point in the future it is very possible one or more of my family members will develop a serious health issue or perhaps we will come to financial ruin.

Doesn't matter. I'm only asked to be faithful and generous. If he chooses to give me a portion of my reward now, or save it all for eternity, what do I care? My God is good and he can be fully trusted.

After all, the blessings are only a secondary benefit, kind of like balloons at a party. The real benefit is that I know God and have a relationship with Him.

This is why both a new car and martyrdom are utterly insignificant and shouldn't concern us in the least. I don't obsess about getting the former or avoiding the latter. I just accept what my loving Father sends my way.

I know who I am. I know where my eternal home is. I know what, and who, waits for me there.

In the meantime, I just going to be generous because my Father is generous. I don't have to worry about being selfish or greedy. I don't have to hoard, and I am free to give generously. Why? Because I can't out-give God. The more I give, the more he gives me.

That's what Father's do.





3 comments:

  1. Jim, I hope it fosters good conversation. I have all but stopped visiting Sharper Iron...too much bickering and lack of grace by too many commentors (true of all social websites), but I concede there are many wonderful brothers who comment regularly on that site too.

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  2. Well written article. Balanced and written with discernment. Thank you for taking the time.

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