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Christian Living

December 13, 2011

Yesterday I wrote about Christians and money and tried to give an answer to 2 questions: Do I have to give some of my money away? and What should my attitude be as I give my money away? You can find that article here. Today I want to continue this little 2-part series by asking and answering 2 more questions: Where am I to give? and How much am I to give?

Where Am I to Give?

If what I said yesterday is correct, then we have established that we have to give some of our money away. This leads to the question of where we are to give that money. We have a near-endless number of great options available to us—we can give to the church, to individuals, to parachurch organizations or to charities and non-profits. If you have money to give, you will never have trouble finding worthy causes eager and willing to accept it. But what does the Bible say?

I find that question more difficult to answer than I might have thought. The New Testament presupposition seems to be that your primary form of giving is to the local church. At least, this is what appears to be modeled, even if it is not explicitly stated. Certainly this was the Old Testament pattern; the tithe was not given to individuals, but was given to the Lord through his appointed people.

What I find in the New Testament is that our responsibility for caring for others, whether that is in sharing the gospel or in sharing our wealth, begins closest to us and then moves out from there. A man is considered worse than an unbeliever if he does not care for his own family, not if he does not care for a family on the other side of the planet. After that, his responsibility is to his own local church—the brothers and sisters in Christ with whom he has covenanted. This is very practical; it would not make a lot of sense for him to assume primary care for a family in Asia while his primary care comes from someone in Australia.

So first we need to care for family, then church, and after that it goes out to other Christians. The New Testament seems to place a higher priority on caring for other believers than caring for unbelievers. Both may be important, but we are to care for other Christians before we care for non-Christians. And then of course there are times in which we can and ought to care for everyone, as a way to tend to needs and as a way to open up doors for the gospel. 

This is what we see modeled in the New Testament. After caring for their own families, people were giving through the church. While there is no doubt that Christians were at times giving directly to other Christians, the early church model is to give to the church so the church can distribute to those in need. We see this in the stories of Barnabas and Ananias and Saphira, those people who brought their gifts to the church for distribution (though out of very different motives). The church was the collection point and the distribution point.

This idea of giving primarily to the church makes sense for quite a few reasons.

December 12, 2011

Last week I wrote a little bit about money, trying to point out 4 of the ways that we, as Christians, tend to think about money and possessions in worldly ways. Today I want to follow that up with what the Bible says about giving and tithing. God gives us money and tells us to be careful, faithful stewards of it. Is one component of our stewardship giving at least a part of that money away? Let me answer this question by asking a series of four more: First, Do I have to give? Second, How am I to give? Third, Where am I to give? And fourth, How much should I give?

Let’s acknowledge from the outset that this is an always-difficult subject and one which generates quite a lot of discussion and disagreement. I plan to share the way I have worked it out in my own mind.

Do I Have to Give?

Money is a good gift of God. Even though it can be used for great evil and even though it always threatens to become an idol, money is good. Money is not the root of all evil; rather, the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. This means that there is nothing wrong with earning it; there is nothing wrong with bringing home a paycheck. And, in fact, quite the opposite is true. The Lord expects that we will work hard, earn a fair wage and use our money responsibly.

With this in place, and assuming that you will earn money, does God now require you to give at least some of it away? My understanding is that he certainly does. I have come to this conclusion in a couple of different ways.

First, we see this modeled in the Old Testament. Of course we need to be careful with drawing from the Old Testament since we now live after Christ rather than before him. But having said that, many principles of the Old Testament are instructive. One thing God made clear to his people, from the earliest days, is that he required them to give back to him. He asked for the firstfruits of their labor; he wanted the first and the best. These firstfruits were symbolic of God’s claim to all of it. By giving away the first and best, God’s people were acknowledging that all of it was truly his. If they had given the last and worst, it would have been an indication that it truly and actually belonged to them. God asked for the best and that is what the people were to give him as their joyful duty.

God also asked for a tithe. He first announced this law in Leviticus 27 where he says, “Every tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the Lord’s; it is holy to the Lord.” This means that one tenth, ten percent, of the harvest was to be given to the Lord. In that day the people did not deal in currency as much as in produce and goods, so that is what the Lord required them to give. No matter what line of work you were in, you were required to bring a tenth of it to the Lord—the first and best tenth. God did not get the leftovers but the best of the best.

December 09, 2011

Throughout this fall I have been able to spend some time teaching my church about money. One of the first challenges I faced was in distinguishing between what the Bible teaches about money and what we, as Christians living in this time and this place, tend to believe. What I found is that there are many ways that we think about money that owes more to the world than to the Bible. Let me share 4 of them.

Debt

We live in a debt-based economy. A strange fact about this economy is that it begins to fall apart when people stop living in debt or when people are no longer allowed to borrow. We’ve seen this all across the world today, from the U.S. to Europe and beyond. Many countries are heavily in debt and governments have to borrow money from other countries in order to stay afloat. The scary thing is that many countries now borrow money not to fund projects or services, but to pay the interest on their existing debt; they are borrowing money to pay the interest on money they’ve already borrowed. It goes without saying that this cannot continue indefinitely.

It’s not just nations that fall into that trap, though. Many consumers—people like you and me—have borrowed far beyond our means. Many of us have borrowed so much money that we have very little hope of ever paying it back. The recent and ongoing economic downturn was triggered at least in part by debt. Many people bought homes that they could not afford and they did it by borrowing money. When the interest rates went up, which means their cost of borrowing got higher, they couldn’t afford those houses anymore. Because they couldn’t afford their homes, they stopped paying their mortgages and that led to a collapse of the banking system and the economy with it. Ironically, it was only borrowed government money that kept the problem from being far worse (another debt that will be called in at some point).

These are just 2 broad examples of debt in society—borrowing that leads to negative consequences. Lest we become proud, we must admit that almost all of us have at least one credit card and more than half of us have more than one. Some of us use credit responsibly but many of us have accumulated a lot of debt by spending more than we should have. Every store we go to is very eager to extend credit to us—to allow us to borrow money from them. The credit card companies are always trying to hook young people when they are in high school or college. Everywhere we go we are offered stuff for borrowed money. Too often we take the deal. We somehow keep believing that we’ll have money tomorrow to pay for the stuff we can’t really afford today.

December 08, 2011

This is my once-monthly Puritan post. I know that I’ve lost 50% of you with the word Puritan, but don’t be too hasty to run away; if you take the time to read this post, I am convinced you’ll benefit from it. I can say that on good authority because the essence of the post comes from John Owen.

I have been going through John Owen’s book Overcoming Sin and Temptation and trying to distill each chapter to its essence—to a few choice quotes that capture the flavor of what Owen is trying to communicate. So far we’ve looked at The Foundation of Mortification, we’ve been encouraged to Daily Put Sin to Death and seen that It Is the Holy Spirit Who Puts Sin to Death. And that brings us to chapter 4.

The theme of the chapter is this: A God-honoring life is one in which we are putting sin to death. Owen summarizes like this: “The life, vigor and comfort of our spiritual life depend much upon our mortification of sin.” I take life to be the existence of the spiritual life, vigor to be the extent of it, and comfort to be the Holy Spirit’s assurance of its existence. He approaches this topic under several headings.

Life, Vigor, and Comfort Are Not Necessarily Connected to Mortification

This is a very important from a pastoral perspective. “I do not say they proceed from it, as though they were necessarily tied to it. A man may be carried on in a constant course of mortification all his days; and yet perhaps never enjoy a good day of peace and consolation. … The use of means for the obtaining of peace is ours; the bestowing of it is God’s prerogative.” In other words, God does not owe you life, vigor and comfort in exchange for putting sin to death. But under most circumstances these are the outcome.

Mortification Is Not the Immediate Cause of Life, Vigor and Comfort

Owen next wants to ensure that what he says about the importance of putting sin to death does not infringe upon the gospel. “In the ways instituted by God to give us life, vigor, courage, and consolation, mortification is not one of the immediate causes of it. … Adoption and justification … are the immediate causes.” So do not allow yourself to think that putting sin to death is what saves you; these benefits are the result of your salvation, not the cause of it.

December 01, 2011

This “occupy” movement has made headlines all over the world—far more headlines than it deserves based on the actual number of people participating. A little while ago I came across an interesting little video, a piece of street theater generated by some of the participants of Occupy Wall Street. They call it simply, “Life Under Capitalism.” Here it is:

Did you get that? From cradle to grave, from morning to night, capitalism demands that we work. Of course we all know that life under socialism (which is what many of the occupiers are advocating) is a life of luxury and ease, right? Neverminding the obvious, it struck me that what is depicted here is not so much life under capitalism, but life in this cursed and sin-stained world. Whether you live under capitalism or socialism or under the most rudimentary economy of hunting-gathering, the reality is much the same: you work and then you die. And it all goes back to man’s fall into sin.

After Adam sinned, God pronounced his judgment on him. Here is what he said:

November 28, 2011

The relationship of Christians to alcohol is one of those perennial issues. It has often been the source of heated disagreement and even separation. It is a particularly important topic in the United States, but, since much of the rest of the world is culturally downstream from the U.S., it effects every Christian to some degree. Today I want to discuss the issue of alcohol, or at least one component of it. (Parenthetically, many Americans may not know this, but alcohol is a non-issue for Christians in many other parts of the world.)

A Personal Perspective

For reasons that I will explain in a moment, I believe it would be useful to begin with a personal perspective. I was raised in a Christian home and I was raised around alcohol. While my parents (Christians, both) never drank to the point of drunkenness, or even close to it, there was often wine or beer in our home. My parents never hid this from us and they were never ashamed of enjoying a drink. When we were children and asked if we could have a sip of beer or wine, my parents would allow us (and enjoy our disgusted reaction to it). By the time I was a teen, alcohol had been thoroughly demystified.

There is another pertinent detail. A relative I love was an alcoholic and I saw, up close and personal, the danger excess could bring. The demystication of alcohol along with witnessing the effect of drunkenness left me with no desire to get drunk. I have never been drunk and have never even gotten close.

Even today I don’t really drink. It happens that I really dislike the taste of alcohol, so tend to abstain for reasons of preference. At a wedding I may have a sip or two of champagne with the toasts and perhaps once in the summer on a really hot day I will have a beer or half a beer. But that’s all. Aileen drinks a little bit, but barely more than I do. If you come to our home you’ll probably find a couple of bottles of beer in the fridge. They may well be there still the next time you visit.

Why am I telling you this? I say all this to show that I’ve really got no personal reason to defend the consumption of alcohol. I very happily live an alcohol-free life. Not that I intend to defend the consumption of alcohol, because that is not my purpose here.

November 21, 2011

AIDSIn 1981, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta published a report saying that they had identified, without probable cause, five cases of a rare strain of pneumonia among men in Los Angeles. By the following July, this disease, now appearing in isolated pockets around the world, was given the name Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or AIDS. Just two years later, proclaiming that we would soon be able to inoculate people against this disease, the United States Health and Human Services Secretary said, “yet another terrible disease is about to yield to patience, persistence and outright genius.” Almost twenty years later, we know a great deal more about the disease, but we still have no cure and no inoculation. Since its discovery AIDS has claimed over 25 million lives.

Yet AIDS has never killed anyone; not in the truest sense. As scientists researched AIDS in the months and years after its discovery, they came to see that it was not really a disease itself but was in fact a collection of symptoms and infections stemming from a common cause that they soon identified as what we now know as Human Immunodeficiency Virus or HIV.

But HIV does not kill people either. HIV is what is known as a retrovirus—a kind of virus that can insert its DNA into a host cell’s genome and then reside there indefinitely. Transferred through bodily fluids, HIV primarily attaches itself to important cells in the immune systems—cells that defend the body from infection and disease. As infection spreads to greater and greater numbers of certain types of these cells, the body becomes susceptible to infections, tumors and other life-threatening illnesses. Viruses, bacteria, parasites and fungi that a healthy immune system can easily defeat soon rage unchecked by the weakened immune system. Eventually most HIV patients develop what we know as AIDS. While it typically takes nine or ten years for HIV to become AIDS, a person with AIDS has a life expectancy of less than one year.

November 16, 2011

I’ve had it on my heart this week to write about hope and joy. To do that I’ve gone looking for the hope that sustained the Apostle Paul as he endured trial after trial in his ministry. My logic here is simple: If Paul suffered greatly and found joy, those of us who suffer lightly in comparison should be able to find the same joy. A couple of days ago I showed that Paul found hope in the promise of resurrection and yesterday I showed that the resurrection was not an end in itself, but the means to the greater end of coming into the presence of God.

I want to wrap this up today and show how Paul progressed even from here. Even coming into the presence of God was the means to another end and here is why. With a resurrected body and in the presence of God he could now join in the most complete and heartfelt praise and worship of God. He knew that as he shared the gospel, the power of the gospel would continue to save souls. Each of these people would be added to the throng that would worship the Lord in that final day. Thinking about sharing the gospel despite pain and persecution he writes, “We speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving” (2 Corinthians 4:13). The math here is simple: the more people who hear the gospel, the more that can be saved. The more people who become Christians, the more people who can join with one voice in glorifying the Father for who he is and for what he has done. And some day all those who have been redeemed will gather together to praise the Lord.

Here is what the Apostle John wrote after seeing that day in a vision:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’

There is a great throng, a huge crowd of people, so many that John couldn’t number them, people from all times and places, from all people and races, standing before the Lord and crying out together in praise to him. Paul knew of that day, he believed in that day, and he longed to participate in that great worship. 

What was pain, what was persecution, what was suffering and nakedness and sword and hunger and all the rest, in comparison to joining with all of these people, all of these Christians, and joining that congregation in praising the Lord?

There is just one more component: the promise of glory. Resurrection will bring us to God’s presence. God’s presence will cause us to break out in praise. Do you see how Paul builds this? Resurrection to presence to praise and finally to glory. All of this praise will bring glory to God. Again, in verse 13 says: “We speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving to the glory of God.” This is the ultimate goal, the ultimate end, in it all. We are justified to bring glory to God. We are resurrected to bring glory to God. We come to God’s presence to bring glory to God. We offer praise to bring glory to God. Paul’s ultimate hope was not in escaping pain or experiencing a new body; it was the opportunity to glorify God.

November 15, 2011

Yesterday I mentioned that I had gone looking for the source of the joy that seemed to mark the ministry of the Apostle Paul. Here is a man who suffered greatly in all the years he ministered for the Lord and yet a man who was full of joy, or at least a man who didn’t sink into the depths of despair. As I went looking for the source of his joy I found that it was grounded in hope—the hope of the ressurection. That was a great discovery to me and one that has genuinely changed the way I look at life and death and all the pain and difficulty and weariness that life brings.

But I found that there was more to his hope than only the promise of resurrection. Paul trusted in the sure promise of God’s presence. He knew that we who believe will be resurrected so we can come into the presence of God. And this, God’s presence, will be the greatest joy of heaven. He says in 2 Corinthians verse 13, “We speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.” We will be raised and resurrected so we can be brought into the presence of God. The resurrection is not an end in itself, but the means to a greater end.

That is a great promise—the greatest promise of all—that we will experience the presence of God. What greater joy could we know? Some day, when we are given our resurrection bodies, when earth itself has been resurrected and renewed, we will experience the direct presence of the Lord.

There at last we will know the Father, we will experience the direct enjoyment of God. This is so great, it is so wonderful, that we cannot imagine all that it will mean. We will see face-to-face the Father, who has no body, who has no face. We will enjoy his presence in an unmediated way. We will experience the fullness of his presence. We will need no temple there to worship him, we will need no mediator to approach him, we will need no light to see him. We will see him face-to-face, there in his presence, experiencing all that he is in the deepest way. There are no words to adequately describe this reality, so we can only long for it as an experience we hope for and long for and dream of. It will be the fulfillment of every longing for every enjoyment.

November 14, 2011

Paul is not only the greatest theologian of the New Testament, but he is also a man whose life is worthy of emulation. He did not just know theology, but he also practiced it. What amazes me is that though the man endured an amazing amount of abuse and torment, he continued to be full of joy. I went looking for the source of Paul’s joy and found myself in 2 Corinthians 4. There I learned that Paul found joy in hope—hope in the future resurrection that had been guaranteed through Christ’s resurrection.

Paul knew that he had already been justified through the death of Christ, but that as a mortal man his body would eventually die, that his body was just temporary. He believed that in due time he would be given a resurrected body. He lived in that period between the accomplishment of Christ’s work of redemption and the final consummation of all that God has planned for his people. Paul found confidence, sure hope, in his knowledge of what would come.

As he considered speaking the gospel, as he considered the possibility of more danger, more beatings, more trouble, more toil, he said, “Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, ‘I believed and so I spoke,’ we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus” (verse 13). Paul knew that just as Jesus had been resurrected, he too would be resurrected. Paul never minimized the importance of having a body—he was the same guy who called the body the temple of the Holy Spirit and told people to take care of their bodies. And yet he knew that this body was only temporary and that even his body was to be used in service to the Lord. Paul would never purposely defile or deface his body. But he would take a beating, he would have other people leave scars on his body, he would let them destroy his body, if that was the cost of preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Through the history of the church Christians have counted their bodies as less important than their faith, as less important than obedience. Countless Christians have suffered otherwise unbearable torment, always with the hope of resurrection, the sure promise that they will have new bodies, perfected bodies, no longer earthen vessels but bodies that will last forever. “You can throw me in the flames, but I know that Jesus lives and so shall I. You may destroy my body for a while, but when the Lord returns he will resurrect and perfect it.” This has been the hope of so many Christians who willingly laid down their lives in service to the Lord.

Helen Roseveare was a missionary to the Congo for twenty years and while serving the Lord there she endured a particular form of torture that in some ways must have been worse than death. In 1964 she was captured by rebel forces and held captive. Noel Piper has written a short biography of her life and here is one excruciating scene from that book.

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