A Gift or a Trade?

We humans are pretty bad at giving gifts. We want something in return, even if that something is just a strengthening of the relationship or a thank you. We rarely give anything away in the true sense of the word. We volunteer at church, but often want some sort of thank you from the person leading it or the people being served. We give Christmas presents, but want a thank you and often hope for a commensurate gift in return. We give money to the church and to charities, but we want a receipt for our gifts so we can get a tax deduction. Always something in return, even if that something isn’t worth what we gave.

We have a hard time with unconditional love. We don’t understand it and so it’s hard to accept it, and I don’t know if we can give it without learning to accept it first.

When I moved to Colorado Springs, I gave up a fair bit. I was in northern Virginia, one of the highest-paying places in the world, and could have gotten my CPA activated and been making a good salary again. I had a number of close friends there, a fairly active social life, a relatively cheap place to live in which I liked my roommates, and connections to the job market when I wanted to get back in it. I gave all that up to move to Colorado because God told me to and I got a wife out of it (best deal I’ve ever made).

Then we moved from there to Houston and we both gave up a bit. She gave up her family and best friends. I gave up a job offer in Tempe that was a promotion from the temp job I had. The company had good benefits, I didn’t mind the work, and I liked my bosses, who were all moving to Tempe. Recently, God had me withdraw my name from another job for which I was being considered, so we’ve both given up the things that gave us a sense of security.

This morning, in a good imitation of Peter from Mark 10:23-31, I reminded God of how much we’d given up for Him. Basically, I was holding out my hand and expecting some sort of payment for all the sacrifices we’d made. Then the thought hit me that if the reason I gave up these things was to get a reward, I wasn’t making a gift, but a trade. A true gift seeks nothing in return because a true gift is based on unconditional love.

It’s true that in the above passage, Jesus promises a hundredfold return on what we give up for Him, but I personally believe we only get that return if we truly give these things up. When you make a deal with someone, say to buy a used car, and you show up with a cashier’s check, you expect to be given the keys, the title, and the car. If you’re not given all of these or if the car has been damaged between when you took it for a test drive and when you arrive to pay for it, the deal is off. You haven’t given up on the money until you get something in return for it.

For my part, I know I’ve been treating God this way. I haven’t truly given things to Him, merely obeyed Him in order to get a blessing. He gave me an amazing blessing in Leah, but I think I was more willing to give up my friends than I have been our financial security. So far it’s been more of a trade.

In reality, it’s foolish to trade, because I’ve already been given immeasurably more than I could ever give up. I just haven’t accepted fully what I’m getting: the pure, passionate, endless, and personal love of God. 

I’ve told Leah before that she has given up so much for me because I’ve taken her away from her family, friends, financial security, and a job watching two little boys she loves almost as if they were her own. She keeps telling me she’s gotten far more than she’s given up because she loves me so much.

We need to be more like that with God: willing to make sacrifices just to be with Him because we love Him so much. And when we are, we won’t feel like we’re giving up much at all.

Advertisements

A Worthless Sacrifice

In 1 Chronicles 21, David takes a census of Israel. He wasn’t supposed to because the battles were supposed to belong to God and God can use even a few hundred as He did in Gideon’s case to bring about a huge victory. In response, God gives him a choice of three days of plague, three months of defeat on the battlefield, or three years of famine. David chose the plague because he was hoping God would be merciful.

And God was. He caused the angel to stop at the threshing floor of Ornan. Gad, a prophet, told David to go to Ornan’s threshing floor and offer a sacrifice to God there. Ornan was willing to give away his threshing floor, wheat stores, oxen, and farm tools to the king, but David insisted on paying Ornan the full price for them. Verse 24 explains why. “Then King David said to Ornan, “No, but I will surely buy it for the full price, for I will not take what is yours for the Lord, nor offer burnt offerings with that which costs me nothing.”

David understood the true meaning of a sacrifice. It had to cost him something, or he couldn’t say he was giving it to God. He didn’t praise God that a sacrifice was provided for free, he didn’t try to haggle with Ornan, he insisted on paying the full price. No shortcuts.

Yet in my life, I sometimes find myself taking shortcuts. I have skipped church when I was achy and exhausted. I’ve skipped my Bible time when I had a lot to do. A few years ago, there were a couple times I didn’t volunteer because I didn’t want to be near someone who was volunteering or because I was upset with the people at the church who were running the event. I wasn’t willing to make sacrifices that actually cost me something, I wasn’t willing to pay the full price.

To get the very best from God will cost you something. He demands it, not because He needs what you have, but because you need to love Him and love, by definition, requires sacrifice. He wants your heart to be focused more on Him than on what you have, to love Him more than you love money or security, and to be obedient even when it doesn’t make much sense to you.

Right now, my biggest struggle is being willing to sacrifice my time to Him. There are half a dozen things I’d rather be doing, but I need to be willing to give them up to serve my King, my Father. What are you struggling to sacrifice?

5 Reasons to Forgive

I’ve been working again on forgiving people. I find that when I’m stressed about my life, I look for people to blame for my current situation. Sometimes, it’s God, though that’s not very common anymore. It can be others for certain things, but it’s usually myself. I’ve made many poor decisions over the course of my life. I neglected to invest in Apple, Amazon, and Google when they were relatively cheap. I did invest too much in a stock I thought I understood, but which plummeted. I was often difficult to be around during college and my first two jobs. I hurt so many people along the way, and none so deeply as myself.

There are a few things I’ve realized, however:

1. I can’t change the past by dwelling on it. I can learn lessons, I can apologize, and I can make amends, but I can’t go back and make better investment decisions. I can’t take missed opportunities or shut my mouth at certain times. What’s in the past is done; it’s only the future that I can change. By dwelling on the past, I waste my future as well.

2. I will make worse decisions if I can’t let go of my bad ones. There are lessons to be learned from my past, such as not letting my employer work me 60 or more hours a week, but if I focus on my bad decisions, I’ll believe I’ll only make bad ones in the future. That will lead me to procrastinate, causing me to miss more opportunities, or give up and pick the easiest option under the assumption that no matter what I pick, I’ll be wrong. I can make the best decisions when my thought process isn’t getting its information solely from my past.

3. I can’t believe what God says about me if I can’t forgive myself. The Bible says I’m a child of God, that I’m forgiven if I believe in Him. I reject my identity as His son if I don’t believe I’m forgiven for my sins. This means I can’t have confidence, which in turn causes me to seek a sense of self-worth elsewhere, which will inevitably end in failure, perpetuating the cycle. Only by forgiving myself can I end this cycle.

4. I reject God when I refuse to forgive myself. This one sounds harsh because there are a number of Christians who still harbor grudges against themselves, but if Jesus died to forgive me, what right have I to say that His death wasn’t enough? In the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-15, Jesus tells His disciples that if they don’t forgive others, they won’t be forgiven. It’s not just a quid pro quo statement, it’s a matter of faith. If I don’t believe that His death was enough for not only me, but for everyone else who believed as well, then it’s not enough for anyone. It’s the ultimate all-or-nothing deal. I can accept that His forgiveness covers all the sins of everyone who comes to Him, or I can reject it for myself.

5. My mistakes don’t matter that much. This life is but a blink compared to eternity. The things that we think matter so much don’t. A big house is nice, but at best, it’s a comfort for a few years compared to a mansion in Heaven for untold billions of years. I’d love to have my dream job, but it’s still just the tiniest fragment of time compared to what I’ll have when I die. Even my relationship with Leah, though I love her passionately, would not mean much if her value was just in the good times we share together or in help through the bad times. It’s her value in helping me draw closer to God and serving Him better that really makes our relationship worthwhile. In all things, the cares of this world and even the needs of this world pale in comparison to the slightest treasure in Heaven. I have to stop judging my life by my successes or failures on earth and instead judge it by the two things that matter most to God: how much I love Him and how much I love others.

Gratitude

It is Veterans’ Day in the United States. I don’t know which other countries celebrate their veterans with a special day, but for me, this is a day of thankfulness. I’m grateful for all the brave men and women who have chosen to serve us, often for less pay than they could have gotten elsewhere. For all who have bear the scars from injuries received while defending this country. For all who have been apart from their families so I could be with mine in peace. For those who train daily to protect millions of people they’ve never met. For those who go overseas to fight for the oppressed. For the sacrifices of families who have lost loved ones in the military so that my loved ones could be safe. Thank you all for serving. I am grateful for all that you do to keep myself and this nation safe.

Too Much Grace?

Our pastor, Gary Wilkerson (for those who have heard of David Wilkerson of The Cross and the Switchblade, Gary is his son), is a self-dubbed grace pastor. He preaches the message of God’s grace nearly every Sunday. He teaches from different passages in the Bible, but the fundamental message is often the same: God’s grace for you has already made you a new person and washed away all your sins. Any that you commit are when you’re not walking in that grace which is available.

Leah’s father really appreciates this message because his background was, to put it mildly, not in the church. Oddly, having been raised in the church all my life, with most of the pastors having taught grace more than law, I struggle more with it. I’m learning to have grace for others, to see their situations through their eyes, but there’s a part of me that is still rooted in the law, that demands adherence to the Bible’s precepts,

I think it is possible to lose the law by preaching only grace. Jesus did not come to do away with the law, but to fulfill it for all who believe in Him. We don’t live under the law anymore, but only because He has paid our penalties for us rather than because the law no longer exists. 

Because Jesus gave commandments on how to live, we are still under those laws, even if we are freed from certain ones, such as not eating pork. (I think I speak for most of us when I say thank God for bacon!) And these commands are harder than in the Old Testament because they governed not just actions, like O.T. law, but the heart.

And this is where I need more grace. Ever more grace. I have always been so black-and-white, such a rigid adherent to rules. I need to learn just how much grace I have available to me, a grace strong enough that the laws have already been fulfilled for me.

God’s Love Letter: The Price of the Promise

God always has a plan for what He does. He has a plan for what He allows, too. When Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, everything was perfect. No sin, no sickness, no death, no financial worries, nothing. And God could have kept the forbidden fruit out of the garden, making it impossible for them to sin. Yet He planted that tree and allowed them to eat of it, knowing that death would follow.

Why? Because God has a greater plan. It’s easy for us to say that it’s cruel for Him to allow us to die and go to Hell when He could have prevented it, but we have no right to judge Him. We have no right to argue against what He does to or for us. As Creator, it’s His right to do with His creation whatever He wants, much like you have the right to cook a seven-course meal and throw it in a dumpster. 

God’s plan, though, is better than throwing us away and He’s not arbitrary. We’re judged by our hearts. Do we accept Him as our Lord and Savior? That’s what He’ll look at when He judges us. And for those who do accept Him, there’s an eternal reward in Heaven.

And that’s the point: Eden wasn’t close enough for God. Adam as His son wasn’t a strong enough bond. The garden was perfect in what it was, but not good enough for us in His eyes. He wanted something better. Eden had plants and animals that needed tending; Heaven has streets of gold. In Eden, God walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day; in Heaven, we have eternal access to His unfiltered presence. In Eden, Adam was God’s son and Eve His daughter; in Heaven, we are His children and the bride of Christ.

The Bible is full of stories of people who walk away from God. He punishes some, but redeems all who return to Him. More than that, the Bible is the story of humanity itself, running after its idols – whether stone and wood or subtler versions like sex and power – and His never-ending love for us.

I find it very interesting that Jesus didn’t come to earth to conquer it and be our eternal High Priest and King on earth. He could have. He has the power and the right. Instead, He came as a sacrificial lamb, humbly going to His death for us to satisfy God’s justice.

God is omniscient, so He knew that we would walk away from Him before He created us. Adam and Eve didn’t surprise Him, neither have you with any of your actions. He knew…and in knowing this, He knew that His justice and holiness would demand a terrible price to pay for these rebellions: death and separation from Him. Yet His love is so great that He was willing to not only promise us something better than what we’d thrown away, but pay the price for that promise.

Our Greatest Enemy, Part 2

Pride is perhaps nowhere more obvious than in our forgiveness of others. Some of us can get mad pretty easily and we can hold grudges for months, years, even decades. It’s easy to say that we don’t deserve what the other person did or that we would never do such a thing. These statements are likely true…but only to a very limited extent.

Ok, let’s say that someone borrowed your car, returned it without filling the tank even for what they used, and dinged the door and bumper pretty badly, but didn’t even offer to pay for it. It’s wrong of them to do that, especially when you were doing them a favor in the first place. Did you do anything to this person to deserve that from them? No. Would you have returned the car to them this way were your positions reversed? No.

But you’ve done things that deserve Hell for all eternity.

It really doesn’t matter what your sin is. What matters is that the root of that sin is choosing yourself over God. You can step on a cockroach and nobody really cares; you spit on someone and people can get very upset. Why? Because a person is regarded as far more valuable than a cockroach. Likewise, what you do to God is infinitely more important than what someone else does to you. And the punishment, whether you think it’s harsh or not, is fair because He’s the Creator, Judge, and King of the Universe.

We should not wonder at God’s penalty for sin, for He did not force us to sin neither does He answer to us. What we should wonder at instead is that He has, at indescribably personal cost, allowed us a way out of our punishment that doesn’t cost us anything.

Read those last five words again. When our pride leads to a grudge, what we’re really saying is that our forgiveness has to be purchased. Yet the last part of Matthew 10:8 tells us, “Freely you have received, freely give.” We have received forgiveness freely, so we must give it freely as well.

The key is to remember how worthless we are of ourselves compared to God. When we hurt each other, we hurt equals. When we do something against Him, it is like a speck of dust defying the sun. We’re totally insignificant and would be doomed if not for Him. If we can remember our desperate need for His sacrifice and how much it cost Him, we can dispense with the pride that tells us how much we deserve justice for what others have done to us.