An Inconvenient Work

Faith over Fear. That is what we have heard a lot about these last several weeks. We’ve encouraged it as a church, you’ve probably seen it in a social media post from another Christian outlet, or maybe you have even encouraged someone else with that same truth. And for good reason, it is a good reminder during times like these. It is a good reminder that faith is what should be produced in us as we seek the Lord in this season. Pressing into the Lord during this time is important for us all to do. Seeking refuge in the Lord is right. (Psalm 16:1)

But what if the Lord is asking more of us? What if it is not just a simple equation of replacing fear with faith. Or having faith, instead of fear. What if the Lord wants to use this season for something much more?, What if He wants to remove that which stands in our way of faith most often, something that is actually at the root of the fear we often have? What if before the Lord can increase our faith He has to do a much deeper work; a much more inconvenient work in our life?

What am I talking about? Well let me lead you there by way of describing first how the Lord showed me this work just this week.

I was reading Exodus 14. Now this isn’t so much about what I was reading. It is more about how, deep down in my heart, I was reading it.

It is a familiar story. Moses has led his people out of Egypt into the wilderness. The people have watched over time how God has shown up through plaques and miracles, signs and wonders, and now as a pillar of dust and fire. To say that these people have seen some amazing acts of God would be an understatement. He is literally leading them day and night in a pillar of dust and a pillar of fire by night.

But now they have come to the Red Sea, a geographical dead-end. And here comes Pharaoh, hard-hearted and ready to destroy the Israelites. Imagine you are an Israelite, you’ve seen God literally send an angel of death to fight for you. You have seen God overthrow and bring to his knees the super-power political leader of your day. You have spent the last several days watching as God manifest himself in your midst through dust and fire. And at the first sign of trouble you want to run back to Egypt. I mean, I can get you being afraid. I can get there being some trepidation in your voice and heart at this moment. I can even expect the question: “Lord this looks like a pretty tough situation. Not sure how you are going to get us out of this one.” I can understand all that, but No! The Israelites sarcastically mock Moses, basically saying, “Oh so you brought us out here to die. We told you so. We had it better in Egypt.” (Exodus 14:11-12)

And if I am honest as I have told that story to kids, as I have read about it over and over, there are times that, I may not have shaken my head, but deep down in me, I was shaking my heart at least. I was scoffing at the Israelites. “Oh yea of little faith! You’ve just witnessed God fighting for you. And now you doubt him?”, my heart would say.

But this time, during this season, reading that story in the midst of COVID-19 exposed my pride, arrogance, and vanity. I didn’t shake my heart at the Israelites, I sadly identified with them. I asked myself, “How many of your prayers sound like those Israelites?” I may not be staring at the Red Sea, but take a second and look at your calendar for April. Think about the prospect of employment if this season continues. Look into the abyss of what is now our unknown situation and see if you don’t feel a little bit of what the Israelites felt that day.

Which leads me to the inconvenient work the Lord is up to in my own life, maybe your life, and maybe the church as a whole. We have talked a lot these last few weeks about having faith and believing in the goodness of the Lord. But what I have forgotten and maybe you have too, is that belief and faith is a two-step process. Faith’s biggest obstacle is not fear, it is what lies as the source of that fear, sin and idolatry.

John the Baptist comes on the scene and his ministry can be summed up in three words, “Repent and Believe.” Jesus comes on the scene and begins his ministry in Mark 1:14 and his first recorded words in that gospel are this, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Jesus first “sermon” in Mark is to call people to repentance and then belief. “Root out the sin, recognize where you have believed in opposition to my good news, and then believe in the gospel,” Jesus says. Repentance is always the first step in the process of deepening faith. Moving towards God is always accompanied by moving away from and acknowledging false beliefs, false gods, and insufficient idols.

I don’t say this from an ivory tower or some emotionally distant vantage point. I realize our current situation has already seen people lose their jobs. Families are making or will begin to have to make tough choices. Much of what lies ahead of us is unknown. That is why I called what the Lord is wanting to do, such an inconvenient work. Not an insensitive work, but an inconvenient one. In the midst of all this unknown, in the midst of this Red Sea of questions and worry, in midst of this diseases and hurt, the fact that the Lord may want us to repent so that our faith could be made stronger is inconvenient, from our human perspective at best.

But if we want more of God. If what we really seek is to be transformed into the likeness of His Son in the midst of this trial, then it would be foolish for us as a church not to recognize that the greater work of deepening faith may have to come through the road of repentance. We want to be comforted by God, but realizing areas where we have first made God small is often the first step in His comforting work.

Think back 6 months ago. Would you ever have believed, in the midst of your work and toil, your leisure and spare time, your business and money-making endeavors, that out there in the world somewhere there was lurking a little tiny virus, no bigger then 1/1000th of an eye lash that could bring the world to its knees? Our biggest weapons, all our money, and all our power have yet to stop this thing. At best right now all we hope to do is contain it. Oh but how powerful, whether we realize it or not, did we feel at that time. How little thought did we give of the millions of ways God’s good grace was maintaining our world and keeping us going. How much of our days did we think that we, in our own power and might, happened because of our ability to make it so?

And yet a tiny virus has shown us that we aren’t as in control as we thought we were. One tiny virus has shown up and once again reminded us how fragile, how needy, and how vulnerable we are. And we would be worse off if we simply hunkered down during this time, thought nothing of the different ways, known and unknown, that we have forgotten God in the midst of our everyday lives.

God brought his people to the Red Sea because he loved them. It was easy for God to get them out of Egypt, but it took a much longer time to get Egypt out of them. The same is true for us. We are living a similar exodus story. The Israelites were brought to the Red Sea so that they would feel their need of God. And God has brought us to this point because we need the same. And neediness’ companion on this wilderness journey is often repentance. God may not part every figurative “Red Sea” for us. What God did for the Israelites in the wilderness that day, is not prescriptive for what God will do for you in your family, with your health, or with your job in this season. Not because God doesn’t care about those things, but because God has already parted this sea. He did it when His Son came to this virus infected earth and died on the cross for our redemption. He did it when he raised His Son from the dead because death had no claim on his sinless and perfect life, and he does it today because he is still ruling and reigning in the midst of the pandemic. God has not been dethroned by COVID-19. And as you look to an unknown future, acknowledge the ways in which you are stilled pulled to want to go back to Egypt. Acknowledge where you heart is prone to despair. Stare at the Red Sea of your future and be reminded of Moses words to the people at that day, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord.”

Forgetful Hearts

Easter is my favorite time of year. I recently heard that according to the church calendar, Easter actually lasts for 50 days. I would like to propose that we all commit to wearing pastel colors and provide Cadbury eggs to the congregation during these days at CBC. Who do I need to speak to about that?  (Joking, joking…)

In all seriousness, Easter can splash by us like a rock skipping on a lake.   Many of us moved from praising our risen Lord in the morning to vacation mode or back-to-work-the-next-day mode in a matter of hours. As believers, we live in the shadow of Easter every day, but as we know, we are a forgetful people.  

The message of Easter is a familiar one to most of us, but still we move through it, here today gone tomorrow. The Lord knows that we are forgetful, and he reminds us to remember again and again, no matter how familiar the message. Peter tells us, “So, I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have.” Not only does he give us his own Word so that we will always have the “remembering” at our fingertips and in our heart, he writes the story of Easter so our eyes can see it. I heard someone say last week, “Isn’t it beautiful how creation tells the Easter story over and over again?” Yes, it certainly is.

Some years ago, long before we moved into this house, someone planted a magnolia tree in our back yard. It’s a rare kind, according to my dad who knows about such things. When we moved in a few years ago, it quickly became my favorite view. It grew up tall and huge, shading the corner of our sun-room and perfectly hiding the unattractive corner where the air conditioning unit and coiled-up hose lived. 

However, apparently its glorious leaves and branches that I loved to see draped over the corner of my house were (not quite so gloriously) threatening to rub the shingles off the roof. One summer day last year, my husband casually mentioned that he was going to trim it back “because it’s brushing all over the roof.”

I headed out for the afternoon and this husband of mine—whom I will identify by his initials to protect his identity B(ert) W(ilson)— killed my tree. All that remained was a sawed off fat stick in the ground with spiny looking angry branches that poked out from its once beautiful form. I sputtered and stared and may have gotten a few tears in my eyes and said (yelled), “What have you DONE to my tree?? You killed it!”

“Of course I did!  It was destroying the roof, Shannon!”

For the past year I have stared bleakly in the direction of my once beautiful tree, hating the stumpy spiny thing that remained, lonely for its previous shape and health and life and shade. A few weeks ago I walked out onto my porch and sat down facing the used-to-be-tree. The tree that was dead. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Out of the spiny hideous poking remains bloomed the most pristine, perfect white flowers. My dead tree (indeed, dead!) was suddenly gloriously bursting with life. 

I stared and then cried as this tree proclaimed the story of Easter to me. It shouted it with flitters of joy in the petals of those flowers. “Remember Jesus!” It said. “Remember the good news!” And I did. I remembered that his body was once dead. Dead! His body was ruined, crushed, destroyed, pierced, buried behind the rock and sealed in death…. until LIFE burst forth where there was no life. This is the resurrection story of my Jesus written on the white bursts of life on that tree. Before my very eyes. 

I love Easter and I loved celebrating here at CBC among our body. I love that one week later I sat and thought of that magnolia tree again as Pastor Aaron painted the picture of my heart- our hearts. Dead. Without life. No thready pulse, no shallow breath indicating life. No life. 

“You (me, us!) were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ!”

Because of HIS life bursting forth that Easter morning, our hearts that were dead can burst to life.

We heard from Ezekiel the prophet that it is the LORD who does this. HE washes us with clean water so we can be clean. HE cleanses us from all our idols.  He gives us a new heart and a new spirit. HE doesn’t just give our old heart a jolt, he removes it (as it was dead and made of stone!) and puts a new soft heart within us —  one that will love the Lord our God. One that will  mark us as a child of God. One that was bought for us with the blood of his Son. 

And into the world we go with our new hearts pumping the life of Christ in our veins. No longer are we followers of the course of the world and the prince of the power of the air, but we are followers of our Jesus who died and gave himself for us. 

So, Happy Easter (again and still), brothers and sisters of Community Bible Church.  It is a joy to walk with you in the newness of life. Let’s be on the lookout for the story of Jesus as creation proclaims it in these weeks and tell others what we see! 

Loving Like Amnon

The appalling and unsettling story of Amnon and Tamar in 2 Samuel 13 was the subject matter of Aaron’s recent messages on sexual sin and past trauma. The passage paints a grim picture: In Amnon’s broken desire for his half-sister, he “made himself ill.” After he had violated her, Scripture describes Amnon’s twisted emotional response: “… for the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her.” In the tragic aftermath of Amnon’s sin, he sends Tamar away in turmoil and shame.

I was recently praying about a challenging relationship when I sensed the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit speak to my heart: “Susan, you’re loving like Amnon.” I was jolted into attention. I continued to pray and recognized that this was a correct assessment of my heart. Amnon’s so-called love came with an agenda, was self-serving, and evaporated when his planning didn’t produce the desired result. I couldn’t claim that my love was much better in the relational challenge I was currently encountering.

Our Amnon-love is hereditary. The sin of Adam and Eve found its origin in a self-serving agenda. They saw that the forbidden fruit was “good for food, a delight to the eyes, and desirable to make one wise,” and they wanted it more than they wanted to obey God. So they ate it. In their futile attempt to hide from God and each other, “… they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.”

This act of self-protection was something new. Prior to their sin, they had no thought of self-preservation or self-justification. Sin brought with it a devastating and sinful self-orientation that has infected every person who has ever been born. Not one of us is exempt. We are prone to love like Amnon.

The inescapable truth is that we want our own way. We’re those wayward sheep in Isaiah 53:6, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way.”  And when wayward self-interested sheep bump into each other, the bleating begins.

One of the most beautiful passages in Scripture is found in Philippians 2. It doesn’t use the word “love”, but it is a perfect description of the love that God makes possible through the Holy Spirit who indwells us:

     Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard

     one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal

     interests, but also for the interests of others  (verses 3-4).

Paul David Tripp describes what happens in our hearts when we love with an agenda. He describes Amnon-love: “If sin turns me in on myself so that all I live for is me, then sin in its essence is antisocial. Living for myself and the satisfaction of my selfish desires dehumanizes the people in my life. No longer are they people to me. No longer are they objects of my affection and service. No, my loved ones and friends are reduced either to vehicles to help me get what I want or to obstacles in the way of what I want. When they deliver what I want, I speak kindly to them, not actually because I love them, but because I love myself and the fact that they have satisfied my desires. When they get in the way of what I want, I speak unkindly to them because I love myself, and they have made the mistake of getting in the way of what I crave.”

In Relationships: A Mess Worth Making, authors Timothy Lane and Paul Tripp get specific about what it looks like when our loving looks like Amnon’s:

  •      Refusing to let go of a moment of hurt
  •      Getting angry when our children complicate/inconvenience our lives
  •      Becoming defensive when challenged
  •      Avoiding conflict out of fear
  •      Being resigned to a broken relationship that could be healed
  •      Gossiping about people
  •      Pursuing comfortable relationships and avoiding difficult ones
  •      Envying other people’s friendships
  •      Controlling relationships out of a desire for security
  •      Blowing up at people when our agendas are trampled
  •      Living in bitter isolation in the face of disappointment

One of God’s purposes for the church is to teach us to love. We’re surrounded by bleating sheep – and they get in our space and they eat our grass. God calls us to a sacrificial love that is defined by the cross of Christ. All of our love for others must find its source in that Love that provided for us a new power and a new desire to say “no” to the self-protection and self-orientation that is our natural Adam-and-Eve inherited inclination.

When we think of Amnon and his sin against Tamar, we can readily comfort ourselves and dismiss any personal conviction, because we have never been violently or aggressively abusive. But when we dig a little deeper, we realize our love is often Amnon-love in seed form, bearing no resemblance to the patience, kindness, and goodness that the Spirit desires to produce in the hearts of those who belong to Jesus.

The love of Christ that God makes available to us and through us is costly: It requires two deaths. The first of those deaths occurred almost 2000 years ago. Christ’s death on the cross paid the penalty for our sin, so that we might be forgiven and receive new lives and new hearts. Jesus’s death paved the way for a second necessary death: our death to self. It’s a daily choice made possible by the power of God’s Spirit who lives in us, and by God’s grace which He offers freely to all of His children: my life lived for the benefit of others, or my life lived to benefit me.

Loving like Amnon doesn’t take work. It comes naturally. But something supernatural happens in the hearts of those who belong to Jesus when we surrender our desires to Him and find our satisfaction in Him. Our capacity for true love increases. Tara Barthel says, “As we trust in the Lord and persevere in love, He carves out a vast space that holds His grace in our hearts, for only He can enable us to obey the command, ‘A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know you are My disciples, if you love one another'”  (John 13:34-35).

I can think of no better way to celebrate Easter this year than by loving like Jesus – by the power of His blood-bought grace and for the magnifying of His resurrection glory.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Pig-Pen, Oxen, and a Glorious Mess

Do you remember the Charlie Brown character Pig-Pen from the famous Peanuts cartoon strip? He was Charlie Brown’s friend, who always seemed to have a cloud of dust following him where ever he went.  He could never get clean.  There was one time he was able to get clean, but as soon as he went outside, he instantly became dirty, declaring himself “A dust magnet.”

Most days as a father to 4 children, I think that we might have given birth to 4 Pig-Pens.  Often it is not dust that seems to be radiating and originating from my children, although that will change as Summer gets closer. No, my children seem to be swirled in a dust cloud of their own things.  Crayons and Legos, empty juice boxes and used sucker sticks, goldfish crackers and socks. 

You might suspect that my wife and I have never taught our children what and where trash bins are in our house. Or you might think that we prefer dirty clothes to sit for days in the first spot they land, not in the dirty hamper.  Or you might suspect that we prefer our children to take off their shoes and to make getting anywhere on time more fun by playing that stress-free game of “Where did my other shoe end up?” You would be wrong.  We really try to teach our kids about trash bins, clothes hampers, and how to put their shoes away.  Alas, somedays it feels like our kids our Pig-Pen.  They are just “dust, Lego, crayon, empty juice box, goldfish crackers in the couch cushion” magnets.

 A few weeks I came home to some creation sitting on our side table.  It was a penny and peppermint glued inside a small coin box that I got my children on my last trip to Costa Rica.  The box was held up by a Lego man.  When I asked my kids what in the world this thing was, my youngest told me, as if I was crazy for not recognizing it at first sight, that it was clearly, a “Leprechaun Trap”. Of course, a Leprechaun trap! How could I not have known?

Or this last week, as the weather was getting warmer, I came home to my kids outside with craft supplies making something.  All I could think about at the time was how much of that stuff will I have to pick up.  Who is going to leave the glue out? How many-colored pencils will be left out and how many will be put back in the box? Why do they have tape, and will they not ever make a mess?

It was later that night however that I went into our master bathroom and there on the mirror was taped a piece of paper from one of my kids.  It read:

 Mom and Dad, I love you guys.

(I+ drawn heart+ drawn stick figures to represent my wife and I)

Here (Heres) some flowers for good luck.

And taped to the paper where two flowers (probably weeds)

That paper is still up in our bathroom today.  And it reminded me of an interesting verse in Proverbs.

“Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.”

Proverbs 14:4

This may seem like an interesting verse to think about, but I think it has a lot to do with family life and ministry to the family.

Oxen are dirty, they are expensive, and they are time consuming.  But if you want a harvest you must have them.  There was no getting around this for the ancient Israelites.  You can have a clean feeding trough (manger) or you can have abundant crops.  But you really can’t have both.

We live in a world that continually tries to tell families that they can have it all.  That you can have the perfect house, the perfect kids, the perfect vacation, the perfect on and on and on.  And we are constantly bombarded by these images through entertainment, commercials, and social media.  It even has a name online, it’s called the “curated life”. Curated means selected, organized, and presented using professional or expert knowledge.  People have even started posting about their curated messy-life, which is just a form of emotional showmanship that masquerades itself as vulnerability. God’s wisdom tells us this.  Life is messy.  You can’t avoid it.  But there is a harvest that can come with the mess.

The glorious thing is that God cares so much for us.  He cares about the small things in life and he cares about the big things.  He knew ancient farmers would worry about barns and troughs that never could get cleaned.  He cares about moms and dads, at work and at home, caring for their families in 1,000 different ways. 

Life is messy and Life is beautiful, and life is somehow beautiful because it is messy.  And that sentence wouldn’t make any sense if it weren’t for the Good News of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Who makes something beautiful out our of mess.

Because every so often, out of the mess, you might get something like this:

The Tyranny of Worry

My mom is the youngest of 11 children. One of her older sisters just recently entered Heaven at the earthly age of 102. Of the 11 children, 9 were daughters. (My mom’s father, a farmer, had hoped for a family of strong rugged farmhands).

I grew up surrounded by scores of aunts, uncles, and cousins. We gathered at my grandparents’ farm for holidays and summer vacations. There was always lots of food, ceaseless activity, and incessant chatter. I loved those gatherings, and I can get lost in the memories of those days with my cousins when we gathered eggs, fed cows and pigs, rode horses, and gathered pecans in bushel baskets while the uncles hunted in nearby woods and the aunts cleaned the kitchen after huge family meals.

As thankful as I am for my family and the memories of those care-free days of country life, I realize now that those simple times were also intermingled with mammoth doses of worry. The sisters were fretters. All 9 of them. They feared and fumed and agonized. Their family had battled through The Great Depression and sent sons and sons-in-law off to war. Worry was the air they exhaled and the air I breathed.

The interesting thing is that in my family, worry was seen as a virtue. The sisters explained that their worry was an evidence of how deeply they loved. That sounded right to me. It never occurred to me that worry was wreaking havoc with my emotions and perspective and interpretation of life.

As I grew up, I became really good and experienced at worrying. If there had been a Worry Tourney, I would have been awarded “Most Valuable Player.” If there had been an Anxiety Society, I would have been President. You get the idea.

God gave me new life when I was a young teenager. I started having vague inklings that worry was not compatible with this new life in Christ. I remember the first time I read Psalm 46:10 – “Be still, and know that I am God.”  That verse began to sink its way into my heart and my thinking, and I longed to make it true in my experience.

To some, worry may seem like a relatively innocuous stronghold. But for me, it was brutal. It affected every area of my experience, and sapped joy and strength from my life. It kept me awake at night, and invaded my relationships. I didn’t even recognize it as a stronghold for many years, because I had been trained so thoroughly in believing it was a virtue.

I vividly remember  the first time I heard a pastor teach that worry is a sin. I was startled and felt insulted. I didn’t want to admit that my identity was wrapped up in the sin of worry. It was so much a part of who I was that I didn’t see how I could ever disentangle my heart from the tentacles of my deep-rooted anxiety.

Over a period of years, God did that mighty work of untangling. It was a hard-won spiritual battle. And I thought I was forever free. By God’s unfailing grace, Rob and I made it through his 3 1/2 years of cancer without a return of the uninvited companion of debilitating worry.

However, in early widowhood, worry returned with a vengeance. It was unexpected. I didn’t realize right away that it had happened. I was living with a constant undercurrent of anxiety that I had never experienced. During the ravages and devastation of cancer, Rob had been with me. In his presence and strength, the burden had been shared. In widowhood, without Rob by my side, the load seemed unbearable. My daily mental refrain was, “This is too hard; I’m not going to be able to do this.”

 God was so patient and merciful. The lessons He taught me during those dreadful days were life-giving and heart-strengthening. It started with His reminder to me to discern what was ruling my thoughts. In those days, it was definitely worry and anxiety.

Worry is sin because it rules my heart. It dethrones Jesus. He alone is to reign on the throne of my heart. Worry is also a choice. David says three times in Psalm 37, “Do not fret….”  In verse 8, he says, “Do not fret, it leads only to evildoing….”  In the margin of my Bible, this quote is written beside Psalm 37: “Fretting is an injury we inflict upon ourselves – people or circumstances may be the occasion of our worry, but no one can fret us except we ourselves.”

 During those first weeks of widowhood after repeatedly rehearsing to myself the plaintive refrain, “This is too hard; I’m not going to be able to do this,”  I realized that I was listening to myself rather than speaking to myself. The fact was that widowhood was  too hard, and that I wasn’t going to be able to do it on my own. But the greater truth was that I wasn’t  alone. I had been  focusing on the lesser truth of my own frailty rather than the greater truth of God’s grace made perfect in my weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9-10) and that I can do all  things through Jesus who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13). Paul Miller says that “anxiety is self on its own.”  With God-granted peace, I could rest in the greatest truth that I was not on my own. At the cross, God had bound Himself to me in Christ.

In his first “Breaking Strongholds” message, Aaron said that we must “challenge our thoughts” in the spiritual battle against strongholds. He told us to “take cover” in God’s truth. I thought of the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13 in which Jesus teaches that the worry of the world “chokes the word, and it becomes unfruitful.” This is exactly Satan’s strategy, and why the spiritual battle for our thoughts is so intense. The choking of the word and the resulting unfruitfulness are high stakes. Our thoughts do not surrender easily. Life is war.

Philippians 4:6-7 says, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  Peace is choked when I succumb to worry. Peace is God’s promised gift when I forsake the sin of worry and commit my way to Him.

Olan Stubbs says, “If worry is a conversation we have with ourselves about something we can’t do anything about, then prayer is a conversation we have with God about something He can do everything about.”  Aaron reminded us that we must “depend on the Spirit in prayer.” God’s truth and prayer are indispensible in this all-out war we face on a daily basis. We must fight back with these spiritual weapons.

The manifold worries of widowhood, unemployment, disease, relationship challenges, parenthood, and living in this sin-scorched world are meant to throw us into the Everlasting Arms that uphold and sustain the boundless universe…and the smallest sparrow. In Christ, we are His. As Aaron proclaimed in his message, “Victory is certain!”

Why Seeking God’s Reward is Different from the Prosperity Gospel

This past Sunday was the final sermon in our Living Generously series. This year, we want to commit ourselves to generously pursuing Jesus through the Word and community, generously loving our neighbors, and generously investing our time, energy, and resources (including money) in gospel initiatives. Where is God asking you to take the next step in your spiritual disciplines, your service to others, and in your financial commitment to gospel work here at Community Bible?

During Sunday’s message, we discovered in Luke 19:11-27 that God rewards faithfulness. The aim of the parable Jesus taught is to instruct us in the right and wrong way to use the worldly possessions God gives to us. We don’t invest the resources and talents God has given us to secure an eternal home with God. We invest the resources and talents God has given us because we have an eternal home with God through faith in Jesus.

More than forty times in the Gospel of Luke there are promises of reward for obedience to God. Put simply: it’s wrong for us not to seek the reward Jesus promises us. He commands us to pursue it (Luke 12:33; 16:9). But we do not seek reward for earthly praise or material gain. We seek it because the reward is God Himself. We hear this in the praise of the psalmist, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth I desire besides you.” (Psalm 73:25)

If seeking reward isn’t wrong, how is this different from the prosperity gospel? The prosperity gospel, what is sometimes called the “health and wealth” gospel, teaches that we live for God’s material blessing now. But the Bible teaches us that we live for God’s eternal glory, not our own. This is what Job means when he says, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21). Job is reminding us that abundant life in Jesus is independent of our circumstances (John 10:10).

But at the heart of the prosperity gospel is the false narrative that the abundant life promised to us in Jesus is dependent upon our circumstances. In other words, if we are not experiencing material prosperity, we’re missing something we’re supposed to have in our relationship with God (wait a minute, if that’s true, what does that mean for the thousands of poverty-stricken Christians all over the world? Is their faith faulty?).

David W. Jones outlines five false promises in prosperity theology[i].

  1. The Abrahamic covenant is a means to material entitlement. In short, prosperity gospel teachers say that the primary purpose of the Abrahamic covenant is material blessing. They often appeal to Galatians 3:14 to support this claim. It’s interesting they often ignore the latter half of the verse, which says “that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” What is Paul’s point? The blessings of Christ are not primarily material, but spiritual.


  1. Jesus’ atonement extends to the “sin” of material poverty. The claim is that earthly healing and prosperity are tied to Jesus’ death on the cross. Of course, in the ultimate sense, yes, we will be healed completely in Christ. However, when you study the New Testament, you discover consistent focus on the fact that Jesus has accomplished so much for us in our atonement, that in response we should empty ourselves of riches in service to our Savior. We should leverage our wealth for the good of others (1 Timothy 6:17-19).


  1. Christians give in order to gain material compensation from God. I believe this is a point where I could have been clearer in Sunday’s message. We do not give in order to gain earthly reward. We should not expect God to always give us back (in this life) what we invest in the Kingdom. In fact, Jesus even warns about this in Luke 6:35: “Give, expecting nothing in return.” He then goes on to say, when we give in hopes of gaining nothing but God, our “reward will be great”. In other words, give without regard or care or interest in an earthly reward (e.g., financial prosperity). Instead, seek the heavenly reward (God himself).

God does, at times, reward faithful giving by returning to us the financial gifts we’ve given for the sake of the gospel (we heard a testimony stating such). As some have said, “We can’t out give God.” However, we should not expect that our “reward” will always yield the return of financial blessing. We are not giving to gain earthly wealth. We give because Jesus, “though he was rich, yet for [our] sake he became poor, so that… by his poverty [we] might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). The wealth we gain is not a fatter bank account. We grow rich in God by our giving (“Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities, you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:10-11). We grow rich in God because Jesus died that we might experience every spiritual blessing through faith in Christ (Ephesians 1:3-14).


  1. Faith is a self-generated spiritual force that leads to prosperity. According to prosperity theology, faith is self-generated rather than God-generated. Faith is a “humanly wrought spiritual force”. And what we lack in this life, we lack because we lack faith. In other words, God’s faithfulness is predicated on our faithfulness. Oh, how wretched this false doctrine is! Think of Job. Did he suffer because he lacked faith? Of course not! His faith was tested and what he experienced revealed a depth of faith that brought him into closer communion with the eternal God. What we eventually see in Job’s life is a portrait of faith revealing that Job loves God for who He is, not what He gives.

The Bible clearly teaches us that Christians will have tribulation (John 16:33). We shouldn’t be surprised when we suffer (1 Peter 4:12). We should expect trials and count them as joy, as God’s way of accomplishing our sanctification (James 1:2-4). Our afflictions lead to abundance and glory (Romans 5:3-5; 8:18; 2 Corinthians 4:17). And none of these hardships necessarily come because we lack faith. Yet, in many cases, prosperity theology wrongly asserts that these states hardships are the result of faulty faith.


  1. Prayer is a tool to force God to grant prosperity. The idea is that we have not because we ask not (hey, didn’t Jesus say that?). The problem is that prosperity theology focuses far too heavily on personal interests. It’s selfish in orientation. Maybe we should consider that sometimes God doesn’t give us what we ask for because we ask for it with wrong motivations (see James 4:3). Within prosperity theology, the focus in prayer is more on man than God. The result is a view of God that turns him into a vending machine. Pray the right prayer with the right amount of faith, and you’ll get exactly what you asked for.

The prosperity gospel is no gospel at all. The prosperity gospel says God is most glorified when all our earthly needs are met. But is this true? No. in fact, it’s a pernicious lie. The testimony of Scripture tells us that sometimes God delivers people and they experience the best this world has to offer, and He’s glorified when He does this (see Hebrews 11:1-35a).

But sometimes, people aren’t healed, yet God is still glorified. Sometimes the dead aren’t raised in this life, yet God is still glorified. Sometimes faithful Christians suffer loss, tragedy, mistreatment, and human isolation, yet God is glorified. How is He glorified? He’s glorified when His saints declare God as sufficient, despite great loss. He’s glorified when everything is stripped away and all they have left is God Himself. Like Job. Like the Apostles. Like the modern persecuted Church.

This brings us full circle to Sunday’s sermon. God does reward faithfulness, but His faithfulness is not predicated on our faithfulness. Paul writes, “If we are faithless, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:13). The Father will always be faithful to His character and to the finished work of Christ on the cross. He will not abandon His true children. We are safe and secure, clothed in the righteousness of Christ Himself.

But when we are faithful, God sees our faithfulness, and He prepares us in our faithful invest in the Kingdom for future work in His Kingdom (Luke 19:17, 19). The greatness of our rewards in the age to come correspond with faithful obedience to God in this life (that was clear from Sunday’s parable).

We will never “deserve” the reward. Whatever reward God bestows upon us Is evidence that He looks with favor upon the work of grace that He has accomplished in our lives. The rewards of God are really nothing more than, as John Piper says, “occasions for happiness in heaven, not disappointments”. Another way to say this is that our faithful obedience to God on the earth is preparing us for greater capacities of joy in heaven.

If you are intrigued and want to read a bit more in Scripture about the concept of rewards in the Kingdom, you could read the following (also note that I pointed out the concept of reward is significant in Luke’s Gospel): Matthew 10:41; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Ephesians 6:5-8; Revelation 2:23.

To summarize this now rather lengthy blog post, the concept of reward that we see in Scripture is nothing like what is taught in prosperity theology. I believe the prosperity gospel fails to rightly understand and interpret Scripture, especially the Old Testament and its application to follower of Christ.

But Scripture does encourage us to live generously because God rewards faithfulness. We are not to see earthly praise or material gain in our giving (of our time, money, talents, resources, etc.), but to rest in the sufficiency of Christ and trust that all we need for eternal joy has been purchased for us in the gospel, and we experience the fullness of life in Christ by grace through faith alone.

Seeking to Live a Generous Life Together,

Pastor Aaron