The Better Life

We often hear about the pursuit of the good life. Our culture promotes a variety of definitions that can shape our pursuits. Much of them have to do with the acquisition of wealth and the possessions, experiences, and status it can bring.

But God doesn’t do economics the way the world does. In fact quite often our up is His down and what we esteem He despises (see Luke 16:15).

The ofttimes contrast between what human wisdom esteems as the good life and what God esteems surfaces plainly in the book of Proverbs. For example, consider Proverbs 16:19.

It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud.

That’s not your conventional wisdom. In God’s economy poverty plus humility counts for way more than plunder plus pride.

Why is this so? First, because humility draws the gaze of God (Isaiah 66:1-2). Second, God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5). The last thing I want is for the God of the universe to regard me as His opponent; the first thing I want is for Him to look favorably upon me.

Matthew Henry made this comment on the verse:

It is upon all accounts better to take our lot with those whose condition is low, and their minds brought to it, than to covet and aim to make a figure and a bustle in the world. Humility, though it should expose us to contempt in the world, yet while it recommends us to the favour of God, qualifies us for his gracious visits, prepares us for his glory, secures us from many temptations, and preserves the quiet and repose of our own souls, is much better than that high-spiritedness which, though it carry away the honour and wealth of the world, makes God a man’s enemy and the devil his master.

Do you aspire for the good life, the better life? Take your cue from the wisdom of Proverbs and draw the gaze of God in favor, far better than any spoils this world has to offer divided with the proud.

American Caesar's Fatal Flaw

Significant Christian leaders have referenced William Manchester’s bestselling biography of General Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964), American Caesar, among the most influential books of that genre a godly man might want to read.

Recently I picked up a copy to tackle for my neighborhood book club choose-your-own-biography night. I was not disappointed.

Prior to reading this nearly 800 page tome, all I knew about MacArthur I learned from watching Mash reruns on TV. Few generals have distinguished themselves in terms of military accomplishments like MacArthur did in the Pacific theater in WWII and the Korean conflict. I took notes as I read on the man’s numerous virtues as a leader, everything from bodacious courage to strategic planning.

But the biggest lesson learned from this read had to do with the man’s fatal flaw, his ultimate undoing. I will let Manchester explain:

Probably no other commander in chief relished the spotlight so much or enjoyed applause more. In a word, he was vain. Like every other creature of vanity, he convinced himself that his drives were in fact selfless. . . . What Douglas MacArthur believed in most was Douglas MacArthur. . . . The yearning for adulation was his great flaw. He had others, notably mendacity and overoptimism, based on his conviction that he was a man of destiny, which repeatedly led him to announce “mopping-up” operations before battles had been won. . . . But it was his manifest self-regard, his complete lack of humility, which lay like a deep fissure at his very core. In the end it split wide open and destroyed him ( p. 9).

Little wonder. The Bible says in Prov. 16:18, Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.

Now I am no MacArthur nor son of  a MacArthur, but I fight the temptation to relish the spotlight and enjoy applause. I wasn’t a theater major for nothing in my undergraduate, pre-Christian days. And God help me, I can love adulation way more than I should.

Douglas MacArthur’s legacy of hubris serves as a good reminder to me to embrace the words of the prophet Micah, which a young, budding preacher/church planter recently reminded me of: He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (6:8, emphasis added).

Are you guarding your heart from the fatal flaw of the American Caesar?

Servants of God and Unprofitable at That

Lately while doing my morning workout I’ve been listening to George Verwer of Operation Mobilisation fame preach through passages of Scripture that have most significantly affected his life over the years of his ministry.

The most recent one focused on a couple of the letters to the churches in Revelation. No one exhorts like brother George and this message was no exception, particularly when he came to the question of pastors and the tendency we can have toward pride.

He questioned how we could even entertain such a notion given a passage like Luke 17:7-10.

7″Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? 8Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? 9Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'”

Earlier in the context Jesus challenges the disciples to a radical standard of forgiveness that includes a frequency of seven times a day when an offending brother repents (v. 4). The disciples respond with incredulity and a plea for increased faith to obey (v. 5). After making a statement about the amazing power of even minimal faith, Jesus goes on to tell this story as another way of reinforcing his teaching on love and grace in offending relationships.

It has everything to do with understanding our fundamental identity as servants of the living God. He makes an argument from the lesser to the greater to drive home His point. He borrows from the culture an illustration about servants and masters and the way they relate. He asks a series of questions which imply their own answers.

The upshot is this. After working hard all day in the field, the servant does not expect to come into the house and find the master inviting him to recline at table for a well-deserved meal. In fact, he expects just the opposite. He expects to be told to make the master’s meal and to dress properly (literally – gird up the loins) for even more service. Only then when his duties have finished may he sit down to eat. Nor does he expect any thanks. This is just the way it works for one designated a slave. If this kind of mindset fits the lesser realm of the world, how much more so does it pertain to the greater realm of the kingdom.

I think this text has at least four things to say about our relationship to God as servants that should color everything about the way we go about obeying the Lord’s commandments in our lives. First, we should serve enduringly. The dutiful servant plowed the field, tended the sheep, AND prepared the meal. He worked hard all the day. We never rest from our labors as God’s servants until we go home to be with Him (Rev. 14:13). May our service endure over the length of our days.

Second, we should serve vigorously. The command to dress properly, gird up the loins, speaks to a certain energy and enthusiasm with which we must go about our service. The men in this day and culture dressed in long robes that were not conducive to manual labor. So when they wanted to get down and dirty with hard work, they tucked up their clothes into their belt to facilitate freedom of movement. Our service for God ought to have a flavor of eagerness and vigor to it that suggests we do our work unto Him with a whole heart.

Third, we should serve humbly. This is the main point of the story. Jesus signals this by the transition in v. 10 – So you also. He explains how a servant of God should talk after he finishes doing what God commands. The way he talks matters because it reveals the inclinations of his heart. What should we as God servants say? We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.

The word for unworthy appears only one other time in the New Testament in Matthew 25:30 in the parable of the talents. Jesus calls the one talent man who buried his master’s money in the ground rather than invest it worthless. Another way to say it would be unprofitable. He brought no return by his efforts.

So when we admit after laboring hard for God that at best those efforts are unworthy, what we are saying is they have merited nothing in and of themselves. They merit no thanks or reward. We have simply done what is required, commanded, obligatory for a servant to his master. Now we know from the Scriptures that God does indeed reward our service to Him, but He is under no obligation to do so and grants rewards by His grace just as He does everything else about our relationship to Him. Even if we forgive an offending brother or sister seven times in a day, it’s no big deal for a servant of God. You just do what you ought.

Lastly, we should serve completely. The text says when you have done ALL that you were commanded (emphasis added). God’s servants must not pick and choose from His word like some ala carte menu what they obey and what they will not obey. All His prescriptions for a holy life pertain to every one of His servants and they must compel our dutiful obedience.

Thomas Watson wrote in his classic A Godly Man’s Picture: A servant must not do what he pleases, but be at the will of his master. Thus a godly man is God’s servant. He is wholly at God’s disposal. He has no will of his own.

Do we see ourselves in such radically different terms? Has the identity of unprofitable servant sunk home in our hearts and dispositions? If so it will compel an attitude of service toward his requirements in our lives that is enduring, vigorous, humble, and complete.

The last notion we will ever entertain is that of pride.

Can We Trust This Jesus of Christmas?

So far in our Advent messages we have studied John 7:1-24. Here are some thoughts in review.

In John 7:1-13, the apostle seeks to answer an important question. Who is this Jesus of Christmas?

In vv. 14-24, with Jesus engaging the pilgrim crowd in Jerusalem at the Feast of Booths, John seeks to answer a related but different question. Can we trust this Jesus of Christmas?

We can, indeed, when we consider statements He made like these in vv. 16-18:

16 “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me. 17 If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority. 18 The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood.

You will never ask more important questions than these. Who is this Jesus of Christmas? Can I trust this Jesus of Christmas? John’s answers are unequivocal. He is the Messiah, God’s Son and yes, you can trust Him as wholly true. His teaching is not His own, but the Father’s who sent Him. He seeks not His own glory but that of His Father. He is the fulfillment of circumcision, the Sabbath, and every other Old Testament type and shadow God gave to Israel. So believe. Don’t give way to intellectual snobbery born of moral depravity or legalistic hypocrisy born of superficial spirituality. Judge with right judgment with respect to this Jesus of Christmas.

What Shall We Do to Be Thankful?

WatsonThe day before Thanksgiving seems to make such a question advisable.

The Puritan Thomas Watson contended in his book, The Godly Man’s Picture, that, among other things, the goldy man is indeed a thankful man.

Toward the close of his chapter on that notion, he raises the practical question as to what shall godly men, and women for that matter, do to be thankful. His answers are two:

Answer 1: If you wish to be thankful, get a heart deeply humbled with the sense of your own vileness. A broken heart is the best pipe to sound forth God’s praise. He who studies his sins wonders that he has anything and that God should shine on such a dunghill: “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, but I was shown mercy” (1 Tim. 1:13). How thankful Paul was! How he trumpeted forth free grace! A proud man will never be thankful. He looks on all his mercies as either of his own procuring or deserving. If he has an estate, this he has got by his wits and industry, not considering that scripture, “Always remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you power to become rich” (Deut. 8:18). Pride stops the current of gratitude. O Christian, think of your unworthiness; see yourself as the least of saints, and the chief of sinners—and then you will be thankful.

Answer 2: Strive for sound evidences of God’s love to you. Read God’s love in the impress of holiness upon your hearts. God’s love poured in will make the vessels of mercy run over with thankfulness: “Unto him that loved us, be glory and dominion forever!” (Rev. 1:5,6). The deepest springs yield the sweetest water. Hearts deeply aware of God’s love yield the sweetest praises.

What will work in us a spirit of gospel thanksgiving this holiday and beyond? Lord, grant us a sober perspective on our sinful condition AND a deep awareness of your stunning love.

Amazing love, how can it be, that thou my God shouldst die for me!