The Blessings of Giving

The Lord Jesus himself said: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Acts 20:35

One of the strangest peculiarities of the human race is the hoarding habit. When it gets out of hand, psychologists call it “disposophobia”. The rest of us speak of the “packrat mentality”.

Different people hoard different things. Minimalists may frown at being called packrats, yet their bank accounts or foreign investments would usually confirm that that is exactly what they are. The rich are in fact the greatest hoarders, but we forgive them as it is more interesting to watch someone hoard Louis Vuitton handbags than what it is to stumble over your husband’s junk in the attic.

The sin of covetousness, which underlies the hoarding habit, is humanity’s most aggressive effort to compensate for the distinct sense of loss we experience without God in this world. It makes perfect sense, and explains why any effort at filling the hole in our soul is always met with further disillusionment.

As Rockefeller famously answered when asked how much money is enough: “Just a little bit more.” Centuries earlier Solomon said: “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income” (Ecclesiastes 5:10).

Jesus challenges the fallen and conventional wisdom of this world by pointing out that the ultimate answer for our ailments is not to keep on receiving, but to start giving. This teaching runs like a golden thread throughout the New Testament.

The words of Basil, Bishop of Caesarea in the fourth century, is worth quoting here: “When someone steals a man’s clothes we call him a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.”

Think about this for a moment. If the absence of God leads to covetousness, and covetousness to acquisition (let’s not use the word “hoarding” here, just in case you do not relate), then the presence of God should lead to contentment, and contentment to divine forfeiture (a.k.a. giving).

It is a huge subject, and one I have been contemplating since the early seventies. I had not yet turned ten when my mom took me to the drive-in to see Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun Sister Moon, and my life has never been quite the same. It remains my all-time favourite movie, and also the one that has inspired me the most.

Early this morning I received a notification of a post from one of my favorite bloggers, David McAnulty. It addresses the issue of the poor from a contemporary perspective, and I found it extremely meaningful. David says it so well that I prefer him to speak for himself. You can find it here.

Blessings to all.

(A few paragraphs of this post has appeared in Bloemnews.)

The Lord’s Supper: Losing Your Life and Finding It

If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. Matthew 16:24-25

Did you know that the act of partaking in the Lord’s Supper is linked to the passage above in a profound way?

The teaching below was given at a house meeting in Bloemfontein at the end of 2011. We gathered for our monthly love feast and shared the Word. Someone read an encouraging passage from the Bible, and the conversation turned to recent world events and the unprecedented anxiety experienced by millions all over the globe.

The teaching that ensued was not prepared. I certainly had never put it together in my mind as it came out. In fact, I was instructed just like everyone else. It was never intended as a sermon or podcast. What you will hear is a brother sharing with other brothers and sisters.

The Word, just like the bread that we broke that morning, is intended to be shared. And so I post the audio here for those who may be interested. There is some discussion at the beginning, which you may want to skip. The Scripture reading, followed by the teaching, is about 3 minutes into the recording.

May the Lord bless and instruct you as you listen to it, and please feel free to comment.

01 Communion Teaching

How Not to Not Love the World

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever. 1 John 2:15-17

Do not love the world, John tells us. If you do, then the love of the Father is not in you.

The problem with some of us is that we turn from the world before we turn to the Father. And then, when we eventually do turn to the Father, we make the mistake of thinking that we have already (rather conveniently) forsaken the world. We may even conclude that we have some advantage over those poor souls who have not yet dealt with the issue of “not loving the world”.

If we hold to such a view, we have never come close to understanding John’s words. In fact, we may love the world very much whilst thinking that we have forsaken it.

The key to understanding John’s words is found in Jesus’ words: “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25). “Loving the world” does not mean loving something that exists apart from you. Rather, it means that you love something in which you live and of which you are a part.

What I mean is this: You cannot separate the idea of your own “life in the world” from the idea of “the world”. The two are inseparable. And so, “loving the world” means loving some or other relationship, dynamic or interaction that exists between you and the world. This could be anything, and it differs from person to person, but the common denominator between all of them is what Jesus refers to as “your life in this world”.

It is this thing that you are not allowed to love. It is this thing that you are told to hate. It is impossible to not love the world whilst loving your life in it.

Some of us turn from the world as one would turn from a bad business partnership. Perhaps we have been disillusioned by the loss of a loved one. Perhaps by war, disease or poverty. Perhaps we are sick and tired of the rampant materialism around us. Whatever the case, it is not that difficult for a thinking person to see through the facade of life and to adopt some or other countercultural agenda to express his or her misgivings.

They are all around us: Some become Greenpeace activists, others gangster rappers. World haters are as plentiful on the worldwide web as are the utopian experiments that have preceded it. From Babel to Woodstock, people have tried to reengineer society. Tupac Shakur has become the spokesman for many of his generation when he sings: “It’s just me against the world, baby.”

The point is, while all of these people turn against the world, none of them turn against their own lives in this world. And so their turning away from the world in one way always ends up as a turning back to it in another way. Paul Gauguin became sick of the pretentious Parisian art scene and fled. But he still had his life in this world, and so he was forced to find an alternative place for it. This he did in Tahiti, where he reinvented himself by indulging in sexual exploits with prepubescent peasant girls. Tahiti may be the exact contrast of Paris. But it is still in this world. Gauguin merely swopped one life in the world for another. He may have told himself that he had escaped, but he hadn’t. He died at 54, his body racked with Syphilis and poisoned by alcohol. He loved his life in this world, and so he lost it.

The same can be said of countless other efforts to flee the world. It never works. Indeed, it cannot work. You can no more hate the world than you can flee from it by trying to jump to the clouds. There is a law that will bring you back. You may not end up in the same place where you left off, but you can rest assured that you will return. Hating the world in one way will always lead to loving it in another. That is why burnt out CEO’s become tree huggers and billionaire heiresses philanthropists.

And so it is simply impossible to turn from the world before one has turned to the Father. You may think that you have seen through the world and that you did so all by yourself, but you are deceived. The world lives on happily in your new life. God is little concerned with that which you have turned from. He is interested in what you have turned to. If it wasn’t him, then you have simply traded in old idols for new ones.

A Religious World…

The error above is by no means restricted to the sad world of those who have forsaken obvious forms of worldliness for subtle ones. On the contrary, its worst manifestation is in the area of religion, and the reason is clear to see: Religion, more than any worldly form of otherworldliness, provides a way to turn against the world without turning against your life in this world. This is because religion provides a substitute life that appears to be more non-worldly than any other. And so religion makes it more possible to hate the world, whilst loving your life in it, than any other pursuit.

Ever wondered why billions of people are happy to turn to religion without seeing the need to turn to Christ? The answer is simple: Religion does not need Christ to facilitate the great escape from the world. It can do so all by itself. To escape one’s life in this world is a different story. For that you need Christ. And the reason is clear to see. To escape from one’s life in this world is to escape from your very self. And that cannot happen without Jesus Christ.

What Jesus commanded was a peculiar thing. To hate one’s life in this world is to hate the symbiosis that exists between the world and you. It is to understand that there is a demonic and vile interplay between the human soul and this dark, evil age. It is to understand that the two feed on one another, and that they cannot exist without one another.

Many Christians believe that the so-called “world” was created by Satan. Of course I am referring here to the wicked world system, not the planet we live on or the people on it. The Greek word “kosmos” is used in Scripture to refer to all three, and we are only using it in the sense of the world system. Let us not be confused. The most famous verse in all of Scripture tells us that God loved the world, and he was not contradicting himself. He loves the people, and he has created the planet as a depiction of his glory. But he hates the system, and that is what we are commanded to hate.

When Paul called Satan the “god of this world” (literally “age” in Greek), this is what he had in mind. And so it is not difficult to see why people think that Satan created this wicked world system.

But he never did. We did. This world is nothing but a projection of our hearts, tailor-made to suit our desires. We birthed it. We invented it. We hold the rights to the patent. Fallen humanity created this world in the same way a man takes a piece of wood or clay and shapes it into an idol. Satan never gave us Hollywood. We did. Satan did not give us Wall Street. We did. Satan did not invent the Mafia, or the Third Reich, or the porn industry. We did. And astonishing as it may sound, we did all these things, and keep on doing them, for the very purpose of reacting against our very own former systems that have failed us. Whether it’s Hefner’s house of bunnies or Hitler’s Aryan race, we all seek the Utopian kingdom that will help us to escape a world that has failed us in some or other way.

The reason why Satan is the god of this world is not because he has created it, but because we have elected him. You don’t need to create a country in order to be its president. What you need is to win the hearts of the people. And this Satan did. He rules through us, not apart from us. We created this world as a result of our allegiance to him. He rules our hearts, and so everything we do is from him, through him, for him.

This is why it is impossible to escape the world, and sheer idiocy to suggest that a human being can do so. We are not in the world. The world is in us. The reason why Christ set his kingdom up in the hearts of people and not in Jerusalem is that the problem has never been in Jerusalem. It is within us. That is where the change of rule should take place.

When we flee the world, we take it with us. We may become desert monks, but we will only transplant the world in the process. It is not what goes into a person that makes him unclean, but what comes out.

“For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.”

The first step to forsaking the world is to hate your own life in it. It is to see that your very soul has been baptised in a way of thinking and behaving that is corrupt from its beginning to its end. It is to see that you yourself are the contamination, the primary shaper of the bricks that make up Babylon. It is a deep need to cease existing in your present state, a passionate desire for a new life altogether.

In short: It is to see Christ as the fullness, glory and beauty of God, and the desire to be dissolved in him. There is no other passage out of this world but through Jesus Christ. He is the Ark. He will take you to the new world. He will take you through the waters of death and judgment. In them he will bury you and everything associated with you. And out of them he will birth a new creature, conformed to his image and likeness.

The only way to ever stop loving this world is to believe in Jesus Christ, to know him and to love him with all of your being.

All other efforts to do so are futile. It is as simple as that.

Truth and Glory II

How can you believe when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? John 5:44

Strange as it may sound, you were created for glory.

Glory is a somewhat abstract term, and so many translations use the word “honour” in the quote from John 5 above. The New International Version uses “praise”.

The point is that humans have a deep need to be praised, honoured and acknowledged. We were created this way, and so we spend our lives doing things that attract praise and honour.

Our role models are those who have succeeded in their quest. We want to be like them, and we teach our children to do the same. It is for this reason that most of us want to associate with the rich and famous. We hope that some of the glitter will rub off on us. We obsess about their television reality shows, feeling that they have allowed us in their homes, that we are part of their glamorous lives.

When we are tortured by our own insignificance, we try and bask in others’ glory. That’s the point.

Some of us prefer more subtle and sophisticated methods to gain glory. We despise the tabloids and reality shows, calling them gutter journalism. Instead we chase after Nobel prizes, or Honorary Doctorates, or the top spot on the career ladder, or standing ovations for piano recitals. But in the end it all boils down to the same thing.

I do not accept praise…

It is extremely significant that Jesus said “I do not accept praise from people” (verse 41 in the NIV, preceding the passage above). This raises an obvious question: Was Jesus Christ different to us in this aspect? Did he not have the same human need to be acknowledged and honoured?

Not at all. The difference between Christ and us had nothing to do with the need for commendation, and everything with the source of commendation. Jesus understood that the true source of honour was his Father in heaven, and not the praises of people.

For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. 1 Peter 1:17

As Henri Nouwen pointed out: Christ’s immunity to the devil’s temptations in Matthew 4 is found in his Father’s commendation of him in Matthew 3, the words quoted by Peter above. He was defined by these words, and that was more than enough. He had no need to be defined by Satan, the world or the flesh. His identity as a son was secure. His Father’s praise was his glory.

I suspect that this is a much more important truth than what we have been led to believe by most standard presentations of the gospel. To repent is to turn from the praises of people to the praise that comes from God alone. If this is not a fundamental aspect of our repentance, then we have not repented.

Note the following verses:

Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteriesa wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’ Matthew 23:5-7

A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God. Romans 2:28-29

Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. Matthew 6:1

Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ. Galatians 1:10

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Colossians 3:22-24

On the contrary, we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts. 1 Thessalonians 2:4

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. John 7:16 – 18

The Day of the Lord’s Glory

He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God. 1 Corinthians 4:5

It is Gods’ will that all his sons and daughters should have the same attitude that was in Christ Jesus (Phil.2:5). They are not to seek the honour and praise of people, but of their Father in heaven. If they do, the day in which Christ Jesus will be revealed will be the day when they, too, will be revealed as God’s children. Romans 8:18-19 combines “the glory that will be revealed in us” with the “revelation of the sons of God”.

What is this glory? Note the words of Peter, referring to our suffering in this present age:

These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 1 Peter 1:7

That is the day that we live for, when we will hear those very words: “You are my beloved child. In you I am well pleased.” This is what the so-called doctrine of future glorification is all about: The honour and praise of our Father, resulting in him handing over the inheritance to us as his heirs.

But there is a price to pay. We are to resist any glory in this world. We are to treat the praises of people as something venomous. More than anything else, they contain the potential to rob us of the greatest treasure: The glory that comes from God alone, the treasure in heaven that is kept for us.

“I do not accept praises from men”, he said. Was it because he was the Son of God? Of course, and so are you. Do not dare to think for a moment that this was a unique responsibility of Christ that does not apply to us. “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you”, he said after his glorification. The same glorification awaits us, and the same conditions to get there apply. We are to shun the approval and honour of people. If not, we have receive our reward in the here and now.

Go and reread Jesus’ instruction about storing up treasures in heaven instead of on earth (Matt.6:19-20). The context has to do with the honour and praise of people. Those who have been “honoured by men” (verse 2), have “received their reward in full” (verse 3). You cannot have both. They are mutually exclusive.

A Startling Implication

These truths come with huge implications. They suggest a type of Christianity that cannot exist without the exact humility that characterised the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. They redefine what it means to take up one’s cross and follow Him. In fact, they challenge much of what is understood as Christian ministry.

Can a man (or woman) embrace these truths and still allow his business card to carry a title? Can he allow himself to be draped by a multicoloured robe in front of multitudes and receive such a title? Can he allow a ministry to bear his name? Can he allow his picture on a cover of a book or magazine? Can he allow a life-size cutout of himself in a Christian bookstore window? Can he charge people a fee to come hear his voice, even if he should decide to sing to them instead of preach?

I think not.

Am I propagating a false humility? Am I saying that one is instantly humble when he/she refrains from the above? Not at all. I am merely suggesting that we have not done nearly enough to consider the logical conclusions of “not accepting praise from people”.

I realise that I may upset some people with this post. But then, the beauty of the above is that it does not matter what people think. You see, these truths do not only take away from our lives. They add to them. We may sacrifice the honour of people, but we gain immensely more. We gain freedom from trying to keep up with the Joneses, from trying to outrun the other rats, from the pain of not having been noticed, or promoted, or acknowledged, or thanked, or respected. We also gain freedom from the idiocy of thinking that promotion in God’s kingdom means a calling to the bigger church with more nickels and noses, and so we are liberated to go where the harvest is ripe and unattended to: The poor, the widows, the orphans… And we do so blissfully, BECAUSE IT DOES NOT MATTER WHETHER OUR EFFORTS ARE NOTICED OR NOT. We gain freedom from anxiety, depression, feelings of worthlessness and a host of other demonic states, because these are all related to judging our worth according to the standards of a fallen world where people survive on one another’s praises.

And, of course, we develop an uncanny ability to distinguish between truth and error, as pointed out in the previous post.

Let me share a secret with you. When you accept these truths, heaven is opened and the rest of God begins. The glory of God is a future event, yes, but it is so in the sense of it being “revealed”, that is, of it becoming public. But this does not mean that the glory only begins with the resurrection. No, it begins in the here and now, in the heart of the one who has turned his/her back on the glory that comes from people. The moment that the praise of people is resisted, the praise of God begins in the heart, and the glory thereof is incomparable with the pale counterfeit offered by the praises of men. The very Spirit that cries out “Abba, Father!”, is the Spirit that responds with the echo “You are my beloved child, in you I am well pleased.” Glorification is for the here and now, but it is private, not public, and it is in the heart, not yet in the body. This is the inexpressible joy spoken of by Peter.

Note, once again, 1 Peter 1:7, and then note the sentence following it:

These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.

A glorious joy… The joy of glory. Anticipated, yet present.

It took me over 30 years of Christianity to get this. Looking back, I weep. For the first time I understand why so many pastors burn out. For the first time I understand why the burden of the Pharisees was a heavy one, and why Christ’s is a light one. The one contains deeds “for men to see”, the other deeds for God to see. People are much harder to please, believe me. God is not hard to please.

As I write this, my three year old is running around without his pants on, acting like a clown and screaming for my attention. I am so very pleased with him, and it has taken no great effort from him to cause this approval. He is my flesh and blood, and nothing gives me greater pleasure than to inform him about my love.

It’s had an interesting effect on him. The following conversation has now become extremely regular in our house:

Oliver: “Dad…”
Me: Yes, my boy?”
Oliver: “I love you, dad.”
Me: “Oh, wow. I love you, too. Very much.”

We love, because he first loved us. And that is enough. It does not matter what others think. My Father’s estimation of me is out of this world.

(This article has appeared in abbreviated form in Bloemnews, 6 June 2012.)