April 29, 2012

An Honestly Simple Life

On occasion I’ll open our time together by asking a question to get you thinking about the topic for the day.  This is one of those occasions.  Think about this for a minute and I’d love to hear from anyone willing to share.  What would you count as the two most important things to have received from God before you die?  If you could ask God for two things and be sure of getting them, what would they be?  I can think of a bunch of things I’d like to ask of Him.  I can go through my mental list of accomplishments for myself and my family.  I can think of a variety of things I’d like to buy; places I’d like to go; experiences I’d like to have; people I’d like to meet.  But to try and prioritize my top five would be hard, let alone the top two as I’ve asked you to do.  I mean, I could probably give some generic responses like “world peace” and “the spread of the Gospel” or “an end to world hunger,” but I don’t know about you: I’m way more selfish than that.  I’d probably feel better if I could compare my not-quite-put-together list with someone else who’s already finished theirs.  This would all be under the guise of comparing notes, but I’d really just be looking to copy their answers.  I’m sure you’re not like this at all, but if I were to make a truly honest list, I’d feel like I had to copy off someone more righteous than me because my list might reveal how shallow I really am.  Maybe if there were a list already in existence that’s kind of held out as worth copying, that might help me make sure I have my priorities in line.  Maybe it would help me reorganize my list so that I had the right attitude towards God’s stuff.

Indeed, we are in the second week of a new conversation we’ve started about God’s stuff.  In particular: what do we do with God’s stuff?  In case you missed it, we started this conversation last week by taking a look at Jesus’ parable of the crooked manager.  This guy was using company money on himself and was rightly fired for it.  Instead of going away quietly, though, he sped right on off the cliff in order to make sure that when he was tossed out the door he had a nice cushion to land on.  Coming out of this surprising ending, Jesus encouraged His audience to take the same kind of shrewd approach the manager took to saving his post-job life to the kingdom of God.  His followers should take every opportunity to invest in kingdom matters they can and make such investments lavishly.  We should work all the angles so that we are able to store up as much treasure in the kingdom as possible.  The reason for this is that the stuff we use to do this is God’s stuff and that’s what He wants us to do with it.  In fact, the stuff of God’s we are able to use to accomplish this kingdom investing is the only stuff there is because all the stuff in the world is God’s stuff.  He created it and so He gets to say where it goes and how it is used.  And He’s made very clear the kinds of investments He was His money-managers (that would be us) to be making: kingdom investments.  The only way for us to make these kinds of investments with anything resembling the efficiency God desires is be constantly keeping before us the awareness that it is in fact His stuff and by seeking to know Him as intimately as we can.  Because, being a good steward means knowing the owner.

This week we are going to continue this conversation about God’s stuff.  We’re going to continue it like this: even though we are taught to recognize (and accept) that “our stuff” is really God’s stuff, we still tend to get out-of-balance in our thinking about it on occasion.  Much of human history has been a pendulum swing from one extreme to another regarding this balance.  At various times people have sought to have as little of God’s stuff as possible and at others, to have as much as possible.  Now, granted, periods in which the former drive has been the defining feature have been much fewer and further between, the general theme here is that people are not very often happy with simply having enough.  Instead, we want lots. We want to have lots and lots of stuff.  We want to have so much stuff that we don’t have to worry about not having enough stuff.  And so we work hard and acquire and sacrifice in order to reach some level of stuff we deem plenty.  The trick, of course, is that “plenty” is an ever-retreating standard.  Furthermore, when we are making this our driving goal, there’s a good chance we’re going to be doing some things that are not as honoring of God as we could be.  So how can we make sure we honor God with His stuff?  How can we be sure we don’t offend Him with it?

Well, it seems like this would be an issue on which wise people would want to weigh in.  As a matter of fact, several have.  One in particular, the wisest man who ever lived, a man who had an awful lot of stuff himself, who recognized how illusory its promises really are, did include some words on this in his book of wisdom.  In the book of Proverbs, which is largely a collection of the sayings of King Solomon, the son of David, the wisest man who ever lived, this very subject is addressed.  Near the end of Proverbs there are a couple of collections of wise sayings from guys other than Solomon.  All this means is that while they are not the actual words of the wisest guy who ever lived, he thought them sufficiently wise to be included in his collection of wise sayings.  If you will, grab your Bibles and open them to Proverbs 30 and we can take a look at what he had to say on this together.

Look with me starting in v. 7 as we see what one of these other really wise men, a guy named Agur about whom we know nothing, had as his top two things to get from God before he died: “Two things I ask of you; deny them not to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.”

Now, that’s a pretty impressive list.  Did your list look anything like that?  I confess, those weren’t at the top of my list.  I don’t know that those two would have even made my top five.  Let’s think about these for a minute.  Agur asks in the only prayer recorded in Proverbs for God to remove falsehood and lying from him and to give him neither poverty nor riches.  What does he mean “remove falsehood and lying from me”?  This seems fairly straightforward.  He doesn’t want to be a liar and he doesn’t want people lying to him.  I think we can all agree with that, but why make it one of the two things to ask from God before you die?  I mean, I can think of some other things that would seem to be more along the lines of God-sized requests.  And yet, given a little more thought, maybe the first part of his prayer goes somewhere beyond merely being honest.

Let me see if I can frame it this way.  A couple of summers ago we worked our way through the book of 1 John.  Going into the series I initially planned to call it “The Love Apostle’s Epistle.”  I thought that was a nice, catchy title, and it pretty much summed up what I had always assumed the book was about.  The more I read and studied it, however, another theme rose to the top as the most important.  It was so striking that I had to redirect the entire series.  Instead of giving its greatest focus to love, John’s first letter to the church in Ephesus seemed to focus its attention on encouraging the believers there to live lives that are fully consonant with reality.  In other words, John was passionately concerned with seeing people live in the real world.  The question then became: what or who defines the real world?  In a word: God.  God is the foundation of all truth and reality.  There is no falsehood found in Him.  He cannot lie because He is truth.  All of this is to say that while in a surface sense Agur is asking God to help him be honest and to avoid the deceptions of others, in a deeper, richer sense, he is asking God to help him live fully within the spacious confines of reality.  Well, a few moments of thoughts on the subject will quickly reveal how often we don’t live our lives according to the demands of reality.  Again, God defines reality.  Much to the contrary of all the critics of the faith who deride us for living in a fantasy land of faith and make-believe, it is when we live apart from the kingdom of God that we are walking in a delusional world.  Every time we commit a sin in ignorance we are perpetuating the delusion that we are the ultimate authority on what is right and what is wrong.  When we sin intentionally we are living in the delusion that such behavior won’t affect our standing with God and our ability to be who He created us to be.  Every time we prioritize something else over activities which expand and invest in the kingdom we are living under the delusion that those other things actually matters apart from the redeeming framework of the kingdom.  Every time we treat the stuff we have as our stuff we are suffering from the delusion that it’s…our stuff.  I could go on and on like this.  No, as it turns out, the first part of this prayer is indeed a God-sized request.  If we could live even a single day within the spacious confines of reality that would be an amazing accomplishment; a whole life would shoot the moon.  And when we live within these confines, we will necessarily be honoring God.  So then, at least part of the answer to the question of how we can be sure to live in such a way as to not offend God with our use of His stuff if for us to live an honest life.  As Agur rightly reveals to us here, though, this is not something we can do apart from His help.

Running with the last example I gave there of living out of sorts with reality, living a fully honest life is a necessary first in order for the second request Agur makes to be possible.  He asks God to give him neither poverty nor riches.  Like the first request, this one also seems pretty straightforward at first read.  But again, this is this a God-sized thing?  To live in a state of fiscal sanity?  Maybe you can guess that it is, but let’s talk about why for a minute.  I’ll start with the first part because that doesn’t require too much attention for us.  Lord don’t give me poverty.  Can I get an amen there?  We are sufficiently shaped by the materialism of our culture that poverty is not something on the radar for most of us.  And yet, there are many believers around the world who dwell in poverty, even extreme poverty.  Even in this country where poverty has had to be defined as a standard of living far above most of those around the world dwelling in absolute poverty in order to motivate people to give it much consideration there are folks who struggle financially.  They are in a place where they literally don’t know if the next bill is going to get paid.  I know that for most of the folks in here we honestly can’t imagine being there, but when you get to the point at which you are genuinely worried about your family having enough food to eat and clothes to wear, things which weren’t even on the radar in better times begin to take on an air of possibility.  Ethicists will sometimes debate things like whether or not it’s okay to steal to meet some physical need.  The hard but stark reality is that it’s not.  The act of taking from someone else something which does not belong to you is a bold statement of mistrust of God’s ability to provide.  The reality—which is why that’s the first part of Agur’s prayer—is that the God who made bread appear on the ground every morning for forty years for perhaps a million people or more is capable of providing for His people wherever they are and regardless of their situations.  All stuff is God’s stuff and He is passionately concerned that people have at the least enough stuff to meet their base physical needs.  He created us with those needs, experienced those needs Himself, and therefore is patently aware of what they are.  Yet in this context, with perhaps a few exceptions, there isn’t anyone in this kind of a place.  We are by no means among the super wealthy of our nation, but we are a rich church.  More on that in a couple of weeks.

The other side of this request is worthy of a good bit more commentary.  Agur asks God not to give him riches.  Okay, survey time.  Raise your hand if you have ever prayer (and really meant it) for God to not give you a lot of money.  Okay, how many of you have prayed for God to give you more money than you currently have?  How many of you have prayed for God to give you a lot more money than you currently have?  I suspect most of us have at one time or another processed the thought: If only I had more money things would be better.  Because, if we had more money we could buy the next best thing.  We could give more.  We could save more.  We could get that vehicle upgrade we’ve really been needing.  We could pay off our debt and start fresh.  Whatever it is, more money is the solution.  One of Lisa’s and my running jokes when one of us runs to the mailbox is to ask if the check for a million dollars has come yet.  I can think of so many problems that would solve.  Of course, having more would probably open up some new windows of opportunity for us which would mean needing just a bit more money.  And that would probably open up new avenues of possibility which would mean just a bit more.  Well, God might as well just go ahead and give us riches galore so we don’t have to keep going back for more.  Now, perhaps for some of you I’m starting to drift pretty far afield as far as the kinds of things that can be said from the pulpit.  As Christians we’re not supposed to want to have lots of stuff.  Didn’t we just talk about that last week?  No, actually.  We talked about having the right perspective on who owns it.  God doesn’t care how much of His stuff you have and is happy to see you have lots of it, as long as you keep in mind whose it really is and use it appropriately.  If we have a desire for more stuff than we currently have we should be honest about it rather than trying to hide it or cover it up.  Usually when we want something and try out of guilt to fight the desire on our own we end up simply binging on it.  God would rather us honestly tell Him that we want to be filthy stinking rich if that’s what we want instead of trying to look what we think is the part of holy by lying that we are content with the amount of stuff we have if we aren’t.  But our modern church culture has for some of us driven the idea into our heads that wanting to have stuff, to be rich is a bad thing.  We shouldn’t want things like that.  Don’t want know that money is the root of all evils?  Actually it’s the love of money, but the point is that many of us talk a blue streak about not wanting lots and being okay with what we have, but our practice rarely looks as good as our theorizing.  This is living out of sync with reality and is an offense to God.

I’ve done a fair bit of marriage counseling for having only been at this for a few years.  In fact, I have weddings number 10, 11, 12, 13, and 14 coming up in the next year and a half.  For every couple I marry, I also sit down with them for about six hours worth of counseling.  Some of you know this very well.  And in these sessions, one of the things we always talk about is money.  In particular, I take couples through an exercise designed to help them understand how they each view money; what they believe to be the chief value of money.  There are four possibilities identified in the survey: money as entertainment, money as status, money as control, and money as security.

After having done this about ten times do you know what I’ve found?  Nearly every person who’s taken the survey has indicated that their primary belief about money is that it offers them security.  (For the few who didn’t, money as security was a close second on their list.)  I think this reveals a deep truth about most people, particularly in this culture.  Most of us want money so that we know we’ll be okay.  For those of you who lived through the Great Depression or were raised by parents or were close to grandparents who did this is especially true of you.  We need to have a certain amount of money so that we feel like we have things under control; so that if an emergency arises we can handle it; so that if it rains, we can whip out our umbrella.  The more money and stuff we can get our hands on the more in control we’ll feel.  Now to say that our loud may sound terrible, but we don’t have to say it.  Our checkbooks say it with plenty of volume for us.

Before you start getting down on yourself if you are resonating with this description, let’s be clear that this isn’t solely your fault.  We live in a culture that vigorously encourages this mindset.  We are taught from a very early age to look to our stuff as the answer to just about any problem we might encounter.  If we want our futures to be secure, all we need do is give this or that financial institution our money and they will make sure we have more of it later than we do now.  Take a count sometime of all the commercials you see for financial planning and investment groups.  Yet in all of this, where is our trust and faith in God?  We don’t need it.  It is absent.  We might still try to be faithful with the stuff we have but in terms of needing to depend on God to provide something we can’t do on our own, that becomes unnecessary.  But then, according to our culture, if we have enough stuff, we don’t have to trust in God.  Oh certainly we’ll give great lip service to our faith, but if we have enough stuff we put ourselves in a place where we can save that for kind of an emergency backup plan.

Now, Biblically speaking, our goal should never be to make money.  It should be to be as faithful with God’s stuff as we can be.  If we’re doing that, He’ll make sure we have at least enough for ourselves.  If we happen to make a lot of money in the process that’s great, but that’s not the goal.  The reality is that He generally provides us more than enough.  The question is: what do we do with our extra stuff?  Now, we’ll address this question next week and again after Mother’s Day, but let’s follow the tangent for just a minute with what we’ve been talking about in mind.  Answering this question can prove dicey.  For most of us, we think about the stuff we can get.  But consider some rather stinging insights from author Randy Alcorn: “Every item I add to my possessions is one more thing to think about, talk about, clean, repair, display, rearrange, and replace when it goes bad.  Acquiring a possession may also push me into redefining my priorities, making me unavailable for ministry.  If I buy a boat, the problem isn’t just the money.  I must now justify my purchase by using the boat, which may mean frequent weekends away from church, making me unavailable to teach a Sunday school class, or work in the nursery, or lead a small group, or . . . fill in the blank.”[1]  Let me also add to that the fact that getting more stuff often means needing more money to care for the stuff.  This just pushes us back in the direction of desiring wealth.  Once again, this is offensive to God.  It’s offensive because we are putting ourselves in a place in which pursuing Him is one of our many priorities rather than the lens through which we view everything else.  Following our culture in desiring wealth is a dangerous thing.

Indeed, having more than enough, as most of us do, is a blessing from God, but it is also a great danger.  Consider the warning Moses gave to the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land in Deuteronomy 8: “For the Lord your god is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of foundations and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and of trees and pomegranates, a land of olive tree and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper.  And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.  Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and your forget the Lord your God, who brought you out o the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end.  Beware lest your say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’  You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day.  And if you forget the Lord your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish.  Like the nations that the Lord makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the Lord your God.”

The danger, friends, is that in having our needs met we will forget the God who met them.  This is all an offense to God.  So what’s the solution?  How can we avoid offending God with an unbalanced attitude towards our stuff?  Well, we certainly don’t want to reach for a state where we might be tempted to doubt God’s provision and steal from someone else.  But, that’s not really a concern for folks here.  Instead, we want to avoid the place where we are looking to expand the amount of stuff we have to the point where we don’t have the trust God.  We do this by seeking to live simply.  There is great power in seeking to live as simple a life as we can.  This doesn’t mean living poor.  It means living simple.  We’ll talk more about what this looks like in coming weeks—so don’t miss it.  For now, though, let’s put things together.  The first part of Agur’s prayer asked for an honest life.  Here we see him ask for a simple life.  It would seem, then, that the kind of life which does not offend God is both honest and simple.  Indeed, there’s no offense to honest and simple living.

So then, in the end, we discover that the two part prayer of Agur, the only prayer recorded in the whole book of Proverbs, really is asking for God-sized intervention.  We can’t live consonant with reality apart from His direct intervention which means we can’t live with the properly balanced perspective on the stuff He has given us without His help either.  And when we submit ourselves to His help as Agur did, we will live in a way that is honoring of Him.  We will live honestly and simply.  There’s no offense to honest and simple living.

Let’s think about the list you made at the beginning of our time together.  What did you include?  Were they grand things?  Big and obviously God-sized things?  Things so awesome that they would be clear displays of God’s power for all to see?  Agur did too.  How does your list compare?  You see, just as we often wish, under the Siren song of materialism—a song we are taught from a very early age by our culture—to appear grand and obviously wealthy to the people around us, to appear as if we have it all together and are equipped to handle whatever life throws our way, we also look for the big and flashy with God.  Yet sometimes, often even, His power is more clearly displayed in things which seem to us to be small and insignificant.  In this case, Agur asked to live in honest and simplicity.  What could be smaller than that?  As we live in ways diametrically opposed to their natural inclinations.  Such a God-sized accomplishment can only happen with God’s help and thus honors Him when it happens.  There’s no offense to honest and simple living.  There’s no offense to honest and simple living.  So friends, take this prayer and make it your own.  With God’s help, live your lives in ways that reflect His sovereignty and power at every turn.  With His help, cut out all the worldly riches you can in order to live as simply as possible.  By this your lives will give Him the honor He deserves.  There’s no offense to honest and simple living.

 

[1]Randy Alcorn, Managing God’s Money: A Biblical Guide (Carol Streams, Ill.: Tyndale House, 2011), 44.