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Defining true Christian fellowship – Philemon 1-7, Part 4

22 Aug
Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash

What is fellowship? How does it look in your life, in your church? How do you know if you are doing it right? As we have seen in our study through Philemon verses 1-7, Paul has been giving his friend Philemon feedback on what Philemon has done with his life. Paul has many nice compliments for Philemon (see Parts 1, 2, and 3 for what we have covered previously). We’ve arrived at verse 6, and Paul is far from the end of his encouragement to Philemon. Is Philemon fellowshipping right?

In verse 6 we face a problem, though, as scholars tell us it is difficult to translate.  Here’s how the NIV 1984 translates it:

I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.

Paul, to Philemon (Philemon 6, NIV 1984)

When you read the words, “sharing your faith,” what comes to mind? Evangelism, right? Sharing the Gospel. Some kind of proclamation of the content of the good news of Jesus. But most scholars believe that is not what Paul is talking about. 

For the word “sharing,” Paul uses the word koinonia.  It is a Greek word that carries the idea of sharing.  But more commonly it is translated in the New Testament using the English word: “fellowship”.  Paul, therefore, is talking about the fellowship of our faith.

What is fellowship?  Churches are sometimes called fellowships.  Faith Church has a room in our building called a fellowship hall, and we also have a Fellowship Serve Team, which is responsible for, among many other things, administration of our kitchen and meals. So there seems to be a connection between fellowship and food.  Fellowship is not equal with food, but the two concepts are connected because of what so often happens around a table of food.  People talk.  People open up.  They share life.  Fellowship is about close relationship.

There are also times in the New Testament when this word is translated as “participation.”  In other words, there is no way we can truly have a fellowship of faith by just meeting together on Sunday mornings.  Sunday mornings are important, and they should launch us into a life of worship and fellowship.  This is why I really encourage you to participate in groups.  Place yourself in settings like Sunday School classes, and small groups, and ministry teams where you can develop deeper relationships.  But fellowship doesn’t stop there.  Fellowship means you invite people in your home, take them out to coffee or lunch, and going deep.  It is one reason why I love our informal runner’s group at Faith Church.  We train together, talk about how race prep is going, hang out, run races, and more than that, we share life. 

So if that is what fellowship is, sharing life together, what is Paul trying to say in verse 6?  One bible commentator, NT Wright explains this a lot more clearly. He points us to Paul’s mention of Jesus in verse 6:

“Paul uses ‘Christ’ here, as in some other passages, as a shorthand for the full and mature life of those ‘in Christ’, so that ‘unto Christ’ refers to the growth of the church towards that goal. Paul’s desire is that the fact of mutual participation, enjoyed by Philemon and his fellow Christians, will result in the full blessing of being ‘in Christ’, i.e. the full unity of the body of Christ.”[1] 

N. T. Wright

What a wonderful picture of what the fellowship of faith can accomplish!  Our fellowship motivates us toward discipleship. Again, Paul is setting a stage.  He wants Philemon to agree with him that all Christians can enjoy the mutual participation of being in Christ, just like Philemon and the other Christians in Colosse enjoy.  Paul is nearly ready to explain why he is talking about this.  He is building toward the “therefore” in verse 8.  For now, we simply need to see what Paul is saying as really important.  Churches should have as their goal that the people in the church grow a more and more mature life in Christ, such that all can mutually participate together in the blessing of being in Christ.  Paul is talking about the strong bond of a church family. 

How can you strengthen the bonds of your church family? Are you participating in a group? What will it look like for you to be more like Philemon?


[1] N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 12, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 183.

One important way Jesus wants you to live in the world – Titus 3:1-8, Part 5

9 Aug
Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

Why are you here on earth? Do you ever wonder if you have a purpose, a role? Sometimes people say that there is one thing you can do better than anyone else on earth. What do you think about that? I tend to think there is a better way to look at our purpose on earth. And as we conclude our series of posts on Titus 3:1-8, Paul gets to that. He has just taught about the amazing, life-shaping work that God wants to do in our lives. God wants us to be a part of his family! But does God’s purpose for us stop there? Just to get us in the door? Paul has an answer for us, so let’s follow his thinking.

Paul concludes his teaching in Titus 3:1-8 telling Titus “it is a trustworthy saying!  I want you to stress these things.”  That means what we have been looking into in this series of posts on Titus 3:1-8 is important!  Paul is essentially saying, “Titus, you should teach this.  Remind the Christians in Crete of these things.  Make sure this doesn’t get lost.” 

As he continues, notice at how Paul sees this good news in action.  He says, those who trusted in God must be careful to “devote themselves to doing good.” 

I think what Paul is saying is fascinating.  When you have been transformed, when God’s Spirit is poured out on you, when you have become a part of his family, when you have hope for eternal life, you are so filled with God’s goodness that you devote yourself to doing what is good. 

It’s like he’s wrapped back around to verses 1-2, repeating what he said there about how to live Christianly in the world.  Now that he has taught through the good news that God wants to change our lives, Paul has given us a strong reason to be good.  We’ve been transformed by God.  God’s Spirit now energizes and enlivens us to do good in the world.

Does anyone feel déjà vu at this point?  If you read the posts in the previous series on Titus 2:11-15, starting here, you might be sensing some familiarity.  I felt that as I was studying these passages.  Why?  Because Paul’s teaching is chapter 3:1-8 is very similar to what he said in 2:11-15.  And when someone repeats themselves, that means we would do well to pay extra attention.  We don’t want to miss this.  Instead we should shape our lives around this.  God has lavished us with his grace to save us, yes to give us hope of eternal life, but more importantly for the here and now, to transform us into a people who are devoted to doing good.

Believe it or not, some Christians push back against the idea of doing good in the world.  They believe that God is one day going to destroy the world and therefore all Christians needs to do now is focus on eternal life.  I’m not going to debate that in this post. Instead, look again at verse 3.  In the out of control society in Crete, where the Christians to whom Paul was writing lived, there were certainly behaviors that Paul was saying, “You are not to do that.  You are to be different.”

With that desire to be godly, in Titus’ day in Crete, and in our own American Christian history, we can make an error of believing that Christians need to “come out and be separate.” Christians can get the idea that society is so powerfully evil that it will destroy us, and therefore Christians need to remove themselves.  But that is not what Paul is saying. Instead, Paul says, Christians are the ones who have already been transformed by God, with his Holy Spirit poured out on us, made a part of his family, with the hope of eternal life, and thus we are to be eager to do good in society.  We are called to live out a different kind of life in the midst of society.  Not remove ourselves from it, and not just focus people’s attention on life after death.   That’s why Paul says “be good” in the midst of it. 

Remember the story I started this series of posts with? Check it out here.  some people believe that what God really cares about is our life after we die. But in Titus 3:1-8, Paul is saying that Christians have an important mission in the here and now, to be good for the purpose of helping more people become followers of Jesus and for helping our societies embrace the goodness that God wants for all people.

For example, notice what Paul doesn’t say here.  Paul could say “Christians in Crete, evacuate! Crete is awful. Move to Jerusalem where the mother church is.”  But he doesn’t.  He says, “You’ve been changed by Jesus, so you are to be different, and thus you are to do good in the midst of your crazy Cretan society.  That will likely make you stand out.”

Christians in society should be clearly demonstrating the changed life of Christ by their goodness.  How about you and me?

Younger people, what will it look like for you to do good in your neighborhood and school? 

Those of you who work, what will it look like for you to do good in your employment, at your office, with your coworkers, no matter what kind of job you have?

Children, what will it look like for you to do good with your parents?

Parents, what will it look like for you to do good with your kids?

All of us, what ways can we live out the transformed life of Jesus to do good in our community?

How to live Christianly in the world – Titus 3:1-8, Part 2

6 Aug

In the first post in this series on Titus 3:1-8, I introduced the series saying that so often we Christians talk about the good news of Jesus by focusing on its implications for life after death. While it does apply to the eternal realm for sure, what we notice in a letter like Titus, is that God cares greatly about how we live. In fact in Titus 3:1-2, Paul lists six ways that God wants Christians to live in the world.

First, we saw that God is concerned that Christians be subject to rulers and authorities. You can read that post here. Now Paul continues this line of thinking about God’s desires for how his people live, with what Paul says next about how Christians should live in in relation to all people.  Remember what I have been saying in this study through Titus about the reputation of the people on the Island of Crete?  They are wild and out of control.  Time and time again in Titus we have seen that Paul wants the Christians to be different.  In this post we are going to look at the next five ways Paul describes in Titus 3:1-2 that Christians are live God’s way in the world.

Next he says that Christians are to be obedient. 

Obedient to who or what?  Certainly to the rulers and authorities as he already said.  But there are plenty of other ways to be obedient.  First and foremost, we obey God.  And as long as what we are being asked to do is in line with God’s ways, we obey in other situations as well.  Children obey parents.  Employees obey employers.  Students obey your teachers.  Athletes obey your coaches.  Christians are known for being obedient.

After obedience, Paul says Titus is to remind the Cretan Christians to be ready to do what is good.  Are you seeing a thread here?  Christians are to be subject to authorities, obedient, ready to do what is good.  Christians will be very easy to spot, if they follow what Paul is teaching in the middle of a society that is unruly.

Often when I preach these messages at Faith Church, I use PowerPoint to illustrate them. As I was trying to find a picture to depict “doing good”, I learned that there is such a thing as International Good Deeds Day.  People all over the world give time to clean parks, plant trees and gardens, visit the elderly, or feed the hungry.  I thought that was amazing, something that we Christians should be participating in. But you know what? For Christians, every day should be Good Deeds Day. 

It is very easy to be self-focused in this world.  The busyness.  All the hours at work.  Just keeping up with dirty dishes and the laundry, keeping vehicles going, and then, those of you that have kids and all they have going on, all school, sports, and extra-curricular activities, and more!  We come to the end of most days exhausted.  When that happens, we can think we have no time for doing anything extra.  Doing good?  Many of us have house projects or yard work that we’d love to have time for, letting alone serving our community, volunteering, or reaching out to neighbors.  But Paul is saying that Christians are people who are ready to do what is good.  They will make a difference in society.   This is why we are so concerned about the concerns of social justice in our society.  Feeding the poor, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner, housing the homeless, and finding the roots of injustice that may be causing these problems.  Roots of greed, racism, and so on, and we work to bring justice to them.  The work of mercy and justice is doing good.

Next Paul goes on and says that we slander no one.  Speak with kindness and gentleness and truth, and do not gossip.  Be committed to radical confidentiality.  It seems to me that this is an area that many Christians could dwell on.  Whether it is on social media, or face-to-face, it can be hard to control our tongues.  Christians should be known as people who have control over our tongues, even when we are hurt and offended, or even when we disagree with something. 

Very much related to that, Paul next says Christians are peaceable and considerate.  Christians should be peaceful, peace-loving, peace-making, people.  Our Anabaptist brothers and sisters, like the Mennonites, are really focused on this, and for good reason.  We can learn from them, because generally-speaking they have done deep study into peace-making and are much farther along than others.  We strive to make peace between genders, ethnicities, and generations. 

Finally, Christians show true humility to all.  This means not thinking more highly of yourself than you ought.  Look to the humility of Jesus.  His willingness to associate with people of low position, to be friends with sinners, not to be judgmental, but forgiving.  So in summary, in verses 1-2, Paul is saying, Christians, you will be so different in society because you will be so good.  You’ll be living like Jesus did.  Not exactly like he did, of course.  But you’ll stand out, in a good way.  Sure some people get grumpy at people who are trying to be good.  You’ll have that.  Kind, peaceable, humble people expect that, don’t let it get under their skin, and love those people anyway.  Not easy, I grant you, especially when the difficult people are from within your own family, friends or even church family.  But still we follow the example of Jesus in practicing kindness and humility to all.

When to subject ourselves to the authorities, and when not to – Titus 3:1-8, Part 1

5 Aug
Photo by Jacob Morch on Unsplash

I recently heard what is reported to be a true story from a Sunday school teacher in Dublin, Ireland.  She writes, “I was testing the children in my Sunday school class to see if they understood the concept of getting into Heaven. I asked them, ‘If I sold my house and my car and had a big garage sale and gave all my money to the church, would that get me into Heaven?’ ‘No’, the children answered.

‘If I cleaned the church every day, mowed the lawn and kept everything tidy, would that get me into Heaven?’ Again the answer was ‘NO!’

‘If I gave candy to all the children and loved my husband, would that get me into Heaven?’ Again they all answered, ‘NO!’

I was just bursting with pride for them. I continued, ‘Then how can I get into Heaven?’ A little boy shouted out, ‘You’ve got to be DEAD!’ **

It’s funny to hear things from a youthful perspective, isn’t it?  Yet when we tell the Gospel story, we can make it seem like what God really wants is for us to be dead.  You might think, “What?  How can you say that, Joel?”  What I mean is that we often start telling the good news of Jesus with, “When you die,” or “After you die.”   Have you ever heard the method of sharing the story of Jesus that starts like this: “Do you know where you’ll go when you die?” 

Is God only concerned with what happens when we die?  As we continue studying the letter Paul wrote to Titus, Paul will speak about this. Turn to Titus 3:1-8, which we’ll be studying in this series of posts.

In verse 1 Paul says to Titus, “Remind the people.”  Why do they need to be reminded?   Remember that Paul and Titus had been on Crete previous to Titus’ current trip.  They had seen people become believers in and followers of Jesus, and thus Paul and Titus had grouped these new Christians into house churches in various towns on the island.  During that initial trip, Paul and Titus had already taught the people what it means to know and follow Jesus.  Now Paul senses that the people need to be reminded.  So Paul is saying Titus, you need to remind the people in Crete of some stuff, and by extension you and I in 2019 need to be reminded of it as well. As we’ll see throughout this series of posts, God is definitely interested in what happens to humans after we die, but he is also very concerned with how we live in the here and now.

What do we need to be reminded of?  Paul has a list of six things in verses 1-2, and they all relate to how Christians live now.  In this post we’ll look at the first one in which he reminds them to be subject to rulers and authorities.  Paul was talking to a very different cultural and political context than our own.  Crete was a part of the Roman Empire in the first century.  Roman emperors would claim that they, the emperors, had become gods.  Thus the people should worship the emperor as their savior.  So in the Roman Empire there was a religion of emperor worship. 

Into that culture, Paul has been clear in teaching that Jesus is God, the true savior of the world. Just glance back at chapter 2, verse 13, where Paul says, “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”  From there you can keep going back and see it in 2:10, and even at the very beginning of the letter in 1:4.  Jesus is God and he is the savior.  Not an emperor in Rome. 

One potential result of this teaching is that the new Christians on Crete could get the idea that they are free from having to obey Caesar or any ruler.  Caesar is no longer their lord.  Jesus is their Lord.  But that freedom in Christ could have disastrous consequences if not handled well.  Christians could believe they were above the law of the land, which could bring them into conflict with rulers, and that could be disastrous.  So Paul says the people need to be subject to rulers and authorities.  

I think it is best to see Paul as teaching that in the vast majority of situations it is right and good to follow the law.  Pay your taxes.  Obey traffic laws.  In a society that is attempting to base its legal system on justice, we can and should be subject to and obey rulers and authorities. 

But what about societies that are unjust?  Or what if one particular law is unjust?  That happens, right? It has happened many times in the history of the USA, and still happens today on the federal, state and local levels.  Thankfully we have a justice system to address this.  But justice doesn’t happen automatically.  It usually starts with individuals speaking up, and often practicing what is called civil disobedience to unjust laws.

The civil rights movement for example broke a ton of laws, but those laws were unjust.  Think of Rosa Parks, refusing to give up her seat on a bus.  What a wonderful Christian example of practicing civil disobedience to unjust laws.  In her case, the law of segregation, was unjust, based on racism and prejudice, and she was right to break it. 

We must remember that we are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven first, and if human government creates unjust laws, we practice civil disobedience seeking to move our government and laws in the direction of justice.  In some places around the world, Christians have an exceptionally difficult time with this because in their countries it is illegal to practice Christianity!  We need to pray for the persecuted church.  Here in America, while our nation is far from perfect, there is still, enshrined in our Constitution, the pursuit of justice for all. So, Christians, let us be subject to authorities when they pursue justice, and let us practice civil disobedience when the authorities promote injustice.

**Thanks to Jim Ohlson for sharing this story with me.

Appoint or Elect? How should we select leaders in the church? Titus 1:5-9, Part 1

17 Jun

I recently heard the story of a pastor who got in a predicament.  The story goes like this: “A minister parked his car in a no-parking zone in a large city because he was short on time and couldn’t find a space with a meter. Then he put a note under his windshield wiper that read: ‘I have circled the block 10 times. If I don’t park here, I’ll miss my appointment. ‘Forgive us our trespasses’.’ When he returned, he found a citation from a police officer along with this note: ‘I’ve circled this block for 10 years. If I don’t give you a ticket I’ll lose my job. ‘Lead us not into temptation’.”

Maybe you know the feeling.  It is a human condition to be tempted and fall into it.  Yet we followers of Jesus are called to live differently. Therefore in this series of posts on Titus 1:5-9, we’re going to try to answer the question: Is it possible to be blameless?

In this blog series we are reading other people’s mail. Ancient mail, yes, but it’s still mail! Last we looked at the beginning of a letter from one of the earliest Christians, a guy named Paul, who was writing to his friend Titus.  Today we continue studying that letter.  If you’d like, you can read Titus 1:5-9, which will be our focus this week.

Let me review a bit of the background to this letter that we studied last week. We need to remember that Paul invested in Titus, discipling him, helping Titus become a leader in the fledgling Christian movement.  Titus had even traveled with Paul to the Island of Crete, which is right in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.  There they spent time talking with people about Jesus and starting churches in towns across the island.  When I refer to “churches,” don’t think of buildings.  Instead they were groups of people who believed the message of the good news about Jesus, and gathered together.  Think of house churches.  Paul knows there is still much work to be done among these new Christians on Crete, and he has a plan.  Paul’s plan is a mission to send Titus back to Crete with a very specific goal.  I encourage you to pause reading this post, and read Titus 1:5-9 to see if you can discern the mission that Paul has for Titus.

Think about these brand new Christians on Crete. They have no Christian history like most Christians do around the globe in 2019. In America, for example, we are used to centuries and upon centuries of Christianity being the major religion in our nation.  But for the Cretans Paul is writing to, Christianity was totally new.  They had no Bibles to read.  They had no leaders to guide them.  All they had was maybe a few weeks or months with Paul and Titus.  They were far from established. 

And what’s more, they were in Crete.

The Cretans were, well, Cretans.  Peek ahead to verse 12 and we get a taste of why the word “Cretan” is still used today to describe people that are out-of-control.  Their own poet, Epimenedes, said that they were liars, evil brutes and lazy gluttons.  We get the idea that Crete is Mardi Gras all the time.  OK, maybe that is an exaggeration, but life in Crete was wild. Contrast that to the fact that when Paul and Titus were on Crete, they had preached a whole new way of living life.  That new way of living was the way of Jesus.  Paul knows that these very new Christians are in the middle of a Cretan society filled with opportunity for them to turn away from the way of Jesus.  Cretan Christians were going to be faced with difficult life choices.  How could Cretans live the new way of Jesus?  Would they be able to live a new way?  Would they be tempted to live the old Cretan way?  Sure they would.  Paul is very concerned about this.

To make matters worse, there were Christians who were causing lots of trouble in the churches already.  We’re going to talk about them further next week.  For now, look at verse 10, where Paul calls them the “circumcision group”.  Scan through verses 10-12 and you can see how destructive these people were to the church, and Paul is not reserved in his feelings about them. 

Suffice it to say, society and culture in Crete could be tough for the new Christians there, and Paul is rightly concerned.  There is some serious work to be done, or this young church could fall apart. 

What is Paul’s response to this very tricky situation?  He sends in Titus.  Look at verse 5.  He writes that is he is sending Titus to deal with what was left unfinished.  Paul and Titus had started the churches together, got them off the ground, and then had to move on.  So these young churches are in a precarious position, and Paul wants to strengthen them by sending Titus back to them.  Now Paul has a very specific mission for Titus.

See how he describes Titus’ mission in verse 5?  Titus’ main objective is to appoint leaders in every town. This tells us that church leadership is very important to Paul.  He talks about godly leaders in many places in his various letters.  In this week’s posts, then, we are going to study Paul’s teaching about Titus’ mission to appoint leaders in the churches in Crete.

First of all, Paul uses the word “appoint.” It is not a vote.  Titus is to do the choosing.  Titus is making the picks.  It is not up to the Christians in Crete.  This is not a democratic process.  At this juncture it is important to note that this letter was to be read in public to the churches.  Paul wants all the Christians in Crete to know that they don’t get a say in who their leaders will be.  Titus is choosing. 

That means that we don’t need to elect our leaders in our church.  Many American Christians think that we should always vote for leaders in the church, that somehow God works through elections.  I think, though, that we have very good reason to doubt that idea. Yet we Americans especially are use the method of elections in the church.  You won’t, however, find elections and voting in the Bible.  You also don’t find elections and voting condemned in the Bible.  So I think we would do well to approach this with caution and wisdom.  At Faith Church, this teaching from Paul is the foundation for why our Leadership Team selection is not just a vote, but a process where we try hard to only have candidates on the ballot whom we are okay with being on the Leadership Team.  Therefore, when we vote, we’re okay with any result.   

We also need to see that the public reading of this letter to Titus is some accountability for Titus. Why? Because Titus doesn’t get to choose whomever he wants.  Paul goes on to give Titus some very specific guidelines he can use in the choosing process.  And the people listening to the letter will hear these guidelines too.  They will know if Titus is following Paul’s instructions or not based on how Titus makes the selections.  So what kind of people should Titus be looking for to be leaders of the church? Check back in tomorrow, as we begin to look at what Paul has to say about who should be selected to be leaders in the church.

False Ideas Christians Believe About…Money

13 Jun

Today, as continue our series on False Ideas that Christians believe, we are fact-checking statements about money and generosity.

  1. You can’t outgive God.
  2. Give and you will receive.
  3. It’s my money; I worked hard for it.
  4. Money is the root of all evil.

Let’s start with…

On the surface, this one is true.  God is infinitely generous. 

The primary example of God’s generosity, perhaps, is Jesus.  I love how the Apostle Paul puts it in Romans 8:31-32. There he reminds us that God even gave his son!  And if he gave his son, how will he not also graciously give us all things?  Think about it.  If he already gave us his son, anything else in life that he could possibly give us would be far less valuable.  Infinitely less valuable.  So in that sense, you can’t outgive God because he already gave us Jesus. 

Imagine with me that was a giving contest, in which it was us versus God, to see who would give the most.  He could just make more money appear, and he could give more away, even more than all the wealthiest people in the history of the world combined.  It’s a no-contest. But that’s a made-up situation.

How does God give?  Primarily, God gives through his people! 

Let me explain.  The phrase “You can’t outgive God” could potentially be used as an excuse for not giving to the church because we could think in our minds, “I don’t need to worry about giving much to the church, because God will provide.”  But that excuse is incorrect because God’s primary method of providing for the church is through the generosity of his people.

Over the last two and a half years since Faith Church started our Capital Campaign, we have seen this in action.  God has provided amazingly, through his people.  We like to think of God’s provision as miraculous, like the contest I envisioned above, that God will make money drop out of the sky, or out of thin air.  He can do that. But know this: it is no less miraculous and astounding to say that God works through is people.  It has been incredible to see this through the Capital Campaign.  First of all, many individuals in our church family gave generously.  That was God providing through them.  Then we also received some surprise gifts from Christians who are friends of Faith Church.  First was a $40,000 matching gift, and then two gifts from another church, one for $20,000 and then one for $65,000.  Just because those unexpected gifts are large amounts, that doesn’t mean they were more miraculous or better than what we all together from Faith Church gave.  It all was part of how God provided through his people.  You can’t outgive God.

Why, then, are we fact-checking this statement, if it is clear that God is so giving?

Because sometimes there is another side to the story.

I recently came across a true story written by a man who described a situation in his life that happened ten years before he wrote the story.  Ten years before, he was a student in seminary.  Finances were really tight.  Going to school full-time meant that he didn’t have the benefit of a regular income.  He and his wife also had children, so she wasn’t bringing in a ton of money either.  In other words, their expenses were greater than their income.  At one point they were facing $5000 in overdue bills and they were at their wits end, with no means to pay.  Amazingly a $5000 check from one person came in the mail!  Fantastic, right?

Well…here’s how the author continues the story.  

“Take a detour with me for a moment. I have heard many Evangelical sermons on giving. I have listened to testimony after testimony from those who had prioritized the Lord in the tightest financial circumstances. I had read the passage about the “widow’s mite.” You know, the one where the lady was commended by Christ for giving her last two dollars to the Lord. I knew all the clichés: “I just keep shoveling out, but God has a bigger shovel!” Or, my favorite, “You can’t out-give God.” And, yes, how about our Evangelical go-to passage in Malachi 3:10: “‘Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘to see if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows.’” Test the Lord and see if he does not bless you.

“Now, back to my story. I tested the Lord that day. I gave to him of my first fruits. I gave to him before the late electric bill, the car payment, and the bread box. I prioritized Him above my children, wife, financial integrity and all else. I had just enough to catch up on my bills so long as I put his claim on hold. But I gave to him part of what I needed. Why? Because he is faithful. Why? Because you can’t out-give God. Why? Because he called on me to test him.

“However . . . Two weeks later, threats of collection, electricity cut-off, and growling stomachs of my family made me wonder: Did he just fail the test? Did I just out-give God?”

How about that? Here is a man studying in seminary so that his family can enter ministry.  They believe “you can’t outgive God”, and so it is the right thing to do to give money to the Lord, and watch God provide.  The give to the Lord, perhaps through an offering at their church, and thus they no longer had the money to pay their bills. Then their electric got cut off.  The bill collectors start calling.  And the man can’t provide enough food for his family.  What do you think? Did he outgive God?

I appreciated the author’s conclusion:

He says, “I do believe what I heard a pastor say the other day: “There is no greater indication of your spiritual life then your giving habits.” He went on to say, “It is impossible to be a good Christian if you are not giving.” The old saying, “If you want to know where someone’s priorities lie, thumb through their checkbook,” is true. However, I do not believe that we are to give with some idea that the bank account of heaven is obligated to wire transfer directly to our earthly bank accounts when we give sacrificially. God may or he may not.

So we Christians should be known for our generous giving to the Kingdom of God.  In many places in the New Testament we read about how disciples of Jesus should be living simply so that we can give generously.  But when we give, know that God is not obligated to shovel even more financial blessings right back into your life.

Another way to look at this is to ask the question, are there any instances in which people give more than what God has asked?  If he asks for 10%, are their people who give 20%?  Sure are!  This relates to the confusion about tithing.  In the Old Covenant that God had with the people of Israel, he did  command them to tithe.  A tithe is a giving of 10%.  But in that Old Covenant, there were actually three tithes for the nation of Israel: two annual tithes, and one every three years, amounting to 23% annually.  But again, that was God’s agreement with Israel.  We are not under that agreement, and we have no covenant binding us to give a certain percentage of our income.  Instead we are taught to live simply, so that we can give consistently and generously.  Each person needs to decide before the Lord what that will look like for their family.  For some people that will be well below 10%.  For others it could be way above 10%.

I’ve written about this before, and I think it is so helpful I will repeat it: our evangelical forefather John Wesley had a phrase that we would do well to follow: “Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.”  Here’s what he meant. 

Earn all you can.  Work hard.  Be diligent in your employment.  Use the gifts and abilities God has given you to earn an income.   And for some of you, you will find that you are really good at making money. 

Next Wesley said, save all you can.  He was not talking about starting a savings account or an investment portfolio necessarily.  Those might be good things, though.   What Wesley was talking about was living simply.  Don’t spend money on yourself beyond your needs.  Reign in your wants and your desires.  Don’t believe the American consumer system.  Don’t spend your money.  Why? 

So that you can do the third thing Wesley taught: Give all you can

There are times to celebrate and spend on yourself and your family.  But we American Christians need to allow God’s Word and Jesus’ pattern of life and his teaching to guide us, not our the spending habits of our culture around us.  Is it possible that we American Christians have been co-opted by our society?  Who would be willing to take a hard look at it?  Rather that make money in order to spend it on ourselves, we should make money to give to the Kingdom of God.  How do we give to the Kingdom of God?  Give to those groups in line with growing the Kingdom of God, give to your local church, give to a family in need. Remember what I mentioned above, about how God uses individuals to care for those in need.  Remember the story of the Good Samaritan, who gave his time and financially to the stranger/the enemy along the side of the road.

And that brings us to our next phrase:

This is a picture of the World’s Largest Shovel.  The Garden-Ville shovel, which is made from all recycled materials diverted from the landfill including scrap metal and telephone poles, has some amazing dimensions.  Total Length – 40 Feet 8 Inches, Spade Width – 7 Feet 4 Inches, Weight – 5,000 pounds!

There is a companion phrase to “You can’t outgive God,” which we just fact-checked, and the phrase “Give and you will be blessed,” and that is the idea that “God’s shovel is bigger.”  Even bigger than the one in the picture.  But that phrase “God’s shovel is bigger” is using figurative language.  Some famous Christians like JG LeTourneau used this phrase to describe a situation where he gave 90% of his income and lived on 10%.  And the more he gave, the more God blessed him, and so LeTourneau was able to give more and more.

Does God work like that?  Does he promise that?  There are a couple passages of Scripture we can turn to that seem to say this.

Luke 6:38 – Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

2 Cor 9:6 – Sow generously and you will reap generously. 

But what does these phrases mean?  Are they guarantees that if we give, we will get?  Do we just need to shovel out money and generosity back to God, and since his shovel is bigger, he will give us even more blessing? 

Remember the seminary student who miraculously received $5000 to pay his bills, but gave some back to his church and then had his electricity shut off?  Here is what he concludes:

“Won’t we experience “blessing” when we give, even if it is not financial? I suppose. But it really depends on how you look at it. When we give sacrificially to the Lord without expectations, we are acting out the blessing that we already have been given: a perspective that is in alignment with reality. The widow gave because she knew that this was not her home. She gave all she had because she was already sold out to God. She knew that the treasures of this earth are nothing to be compared to the glory that is to follow. If you believe this—if you truly believe this—you are already blessed. The belief itself is the blessing. Maybe God’s shovel becomes bigger than yours and maybe it does not. Our blessing is our ability to trust God. Our giving is an expression of that trust.  We should expect to suffer in this life. Sometimes that suffering will come in the form of financial suffering. Sometimes it will be other things. But to think and preach that there is some guaranteed way to avoid the cross of financial suffering is not a message that we carry.”

So we disciples of Jesus are people who should be known for a kind of generosity that is so different from the culture around us.  The reason why we live that way is because we have a different view of money. 

If you have bills, one of the most faithful things you can as a Christian is to pay those bills.  If you have loans, pay them off.  That is faithful spiritual discipleship work.  What was so hard for this seminary student, and what is difficult for many of us is when our income is not enough to pay the bills and give money to God.  What do you do? Pay the bills or give money to God? I can’t tell you how to make that choice.  The seminary student is right.  Just because you give, God is not obligated to pay you back more.    

One way that Christians deal with this quandary is the next phrase:

We do work hard and earn money.  But the Bible teaches the principle of stewardship, meaning that we are God’s stewards.  It is his money and he owns it.  Every cent of the salary we earn, every cent of the hourly job, every cent of the money we receive from the government, it’s all God’s money.

Yes, you work hard, and as we already heard John Wesley say, we should work hard to make money.  But we are still stewards of God’s money.  God gave us the ability to work, whether that is brain power or physical ability.  Gave provided all of our ability, and he provided our jobs.  How many of you got jobs because you knew someone….or knew someone who knew someone…how many have connections or have given connections? Not one of us got where we are at solely by ourselves. We have all been helped along the way in some way.  It is not our money.  We live in community and we are stewards of God’s earth and the money he gives us abilities to make.

Sure, hard work, living simply and wise spending and investing will almost always result in financial blessing.  But, not always. And when it does, it doesn’t mean it is your money.  It is all God’s, and we are simply his stewards.  We should use his money, therefore, like he wants it to be used.

Where this gets confusing is in evaluating how we should use his money, especially when most everyone in the culture, even Christians, use their money as if it is their money!  As if they worked hard so they can spend hard. Yeah, they give a bit here and there, but they spend quite a bit on themselves.

What will it look like when people see themselves as stewards of God’s money?  Turn to Acts 2:42-47. We need to see how the earliest Christians handled their money, and we will see that they saw themselves as stewards of God’s money.  Go ahead and read that before continuing this post.

Did you see how the people generously shared their resources with one another?

Where did they get this idea?  From Jesus!  He taught it to them.  For example, he told the Rich Young Ruler to sell everything he had and give it to the poor.  Jesus taught many parables about money, clearly showing the people that they were God’s stewards, and they should use God’s resources like God wants it to be used. 

A few months or maybe years later, after what you just read in Acts 2:42-47, but when the church was still really, really new, we read more about this selfless generosity.  Turn to Acts 4:32-5:11, and read that story.  Clearly what Ananias and Sapphira did went against the teaching of God.  It seems that they sold a property and then gave money to the church saying that it was the full amount of the sale of the property.  But they actually held some of the money back.  Their sin was selfishness and lying about it.  Have we done this?  Have we selfishly held back the Lord’s money so we can use it on ourselves?  When we already have enough?

This relates to the final phrase we are fact-checking today:

1 Tim. 6:10 is where this phrase comes from, and it is close, but no cigar.  The phrase is actually, “The love of money is the root of all evil.”  In other words, money is not the issue. The issue is our heart.

And this is where it gets real.  Let me illustrate.

On the podcast I recently created, one person, Kevin Ressler had the idea that we Christians should consider opening up our books to one another.  He was referring to our checkbooks. Submit your financial choices to the church community!  Assault the idea that our finances and expenditures are personal.  They should all be laid bare before God.  So in our new Faith Church pictorial directory we are going to list everyone’s previous year gross income.  Just kidding!  But what about you? Would you be willing to have others hold you accountable on your use of your money?

I think the assumption is that opening the books would be harder, or more confrontational, for those of means.  I would suggest that this assumption is not true.  As much as we would confront the person who dropped $25K on a big vacation, we could also confront the person who can’t pay their bills but buys drinks and snacks at the convenience story every day. After worship at Faith Church we have a sermon discussion class, and the day I preached this sermon, one person noted that for many people, the convenience store is basically their only option. They would love to be able to purchase in bulk, or organics, or other healthy options but their life situation simply doesn’t allow it. We do need to be sensitive to that. That said, I would submit that the larger point remains. We would do well to be people who have healthy, loving, gracious, but truthful and firm accountability for our financial decisions.

Selfish spending and lack of generosity is in all of us. Rich and poor.  And everyone in-between.  Young people, older people.  Teenagers who just got their first job, all the way up to older adults in retirement.  We are all swimming in the waters of American capitalism and consumerism, and we have been sold a bill of goods that we will feel better if we buy, buy, buy and treat ourselves.  It does feel good for a while.  But there is within all of us the empty self and it is insatiable, hungering for more and more stuff and experiences and clothing and vacations and coffee and it cannot be filled.  You cannot buy happiness. We need to tend to our heart.  Out of our heart flows greed. Money is not the issue.  Greed is. 

This is why Jesus taught, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Matthew 6:21.  Therefore, he says, store up treasure in heaven. Because our hearts follow our treasure.  Invest in God’s Kingdom, Jesus says, or seek first his Kingdom, and our hearts will more and more align with God’s heart

In conclusion, God does not promise you to be wealthy.  Some who follow him are wealthy and some who follow him are not.  Wealth is not a way to measure if you are loved by him and being obedient to him.  He does not promise to give us more wealth when we obey him.  He does call us to give generously and to be loving and caring for other brothers and sisters, to our neighbors, and he reminds us that we are simply stewards of what we have.  This is not our home.  So let us not live lavishly here, but instead store up treasure in heaven, as Jesus taught.

This too shall pass? [False ideas Christians believe about…difficulty. Part 4]

14 Mar
Photo by Cristofer Jeschke on Unsplash

Are the difficult times in life good or bad? You might read that and think, “How could difficult times ever be good?” Well, when we experience suffering, we tend to feel more helpless and needy and thus we pray more. Increased levels of communication with God, as with any relationship in which greater communication almost always results in being closer to the person, leads to a good change: increased intimacy with God. Maybe difficult times, then, are good? 

So many of us have experienced a deep closeness with God during the hard times.  Therefore, we sometimes say that the phrase, “During times of suffering, you’ll be closer to God.” But is it true?

What we have seen in this series fact-checking phrases that Christians commonly believe is that, like the two-liner statements in the biblical Proverbs, many of these phrases are not guaranteed promises, but they are statements that are generally true.  The same can be said about “during suffering, you’ll be closer to God.”

While generally true, we need to see that this statement is sometimes false, given that some people have gone through suffering and lost their faith!  So this statement is not a promise.  Suffering often brings us closer to God, but it also sometimes crushes faith.  We need to be very sensitive to that.  Many people in the midst of suffering are having a crisis of faith.  God gave us free will, and there are many responses to difficult circumstances.

And that brings us to our next statement.  When people are in the midst of suffering, we say, “This too shall pass.”

How many of you say this?  Or have heard it said?  It is a go-to phrase for many. Is it in the Bible?  Nope. So why do people say this?

Because people in the midst of struggle are really having a hard time, and they need hope.  So we tell them “this too shall pass,” trying too give them hope that the pain will eventually finish.  But is that true? 

Generally, yes.  Most difficult times have an end date.  Yet in the midst of the difficulty, it is very, very hard for us to be comforted by a possible good future.  We are in the pain now, and we can think that the rest of our lives will be this way.

So there is a tension in the reality of life. Whether it is a health situation or a financial situation or a difficult relationship, it is generally true that they almost always pass, get resolved. But not always. Look, for example, at 2 Corinthians 4:16-18.  Paul reminds us that our troubles will all pass. Here’s the thing thought: the pain might not be done until we die and are pain-free in heaven.  But it will pass. 

That is a harsh reality…this too might not pass until we die.

One of my first acts as senior pastor was to gather a bunch of people to meet with an elderly man in our congregation to pray for him and anoint him with oil.  He was sick and was hoping and praying for healing, and God did not answer that prayer for healing.  James 5 even says that God will heal.  Instead, a few months later that man passed away.  The sickness did not pass on this side of heaven.  Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians that he, himself, had what he called a “thorn in the flesh” and he asked God numerous times to take it away.  We don’t know what the thorn was.  Could be a broken relationship.  Could be a health problem.  Could be an enemy.  But God never takes it away from Paul. 

So again, we have a proverbial phrase.  Pain generally will pass and things will go back to normal.  There are most often seasons in life.  And seasons come and go.  Writing this in the northeastern United States in early March, I am personally ready for the warmer temps of spring!  In parenting, there are seasons.  We recently had an interesting conversation with one of our college-age sons.  He was home for a visit, and somehow we got to talking about these seasons in life.  My wife mentioned that once our kids turned 12-15 years old, we as parents suddenly lost most of our knowledge and became dumb and irrelevant.  But once the kids turned 19-20, we parents amazingly became smart again!  There are seasons, and the statement “this too shall pass” reflects how that is generally true.  Most often, the difficulty comes and goes. 

But not always.  So again, be sensitive to those in pain.  They are in the middle, struggling.  Encourage them and be with them in the pain.  But, do not give false promise that it will guaranteed be taken away.  That is not a promise God gives.  We can and should hope for that, work towards that and pray for it.  But, that is different than saying that God has made it a promise.

As we talked about earlier, in the pain, many can have a crisis of faith.  Sometimes we think “God why are you allowing me to go through this?”  And it seems to us that God is silent.  Nowhere to be found. 

So how should we respond in the midst of pain? Check back in to part 5, and we’ll explore how to have a healthy approach to the difficulty in life.