June 3, 2012

Great Rewards

So for six out of the last seven weeks we have been talking about God’s stuff and what we are to be doing with it.  In the third week of this conversation we talked specifically about why we should be giving.  I told you then that a rich life is found in rich works.  We should be giving in order to experience a rich life.  And “shoulds” like that are nice sounding, but they don’t always do very much for us when the rubber meets the road.  So I want to ask you a different question this morning.  It sounds similar, but it’s not.  We’ll deal with shoulds again in a few minutes but for now I want to focus on this: Why do you give?  Think about that for just a minute.  Why do you actually give?  Why do you give the amount of money to this church that you do?  Now, perhaps some of you don’t give—and if you aren’t a member here we don’t have any expectation that you will because giving to this church is something that only members are expected to do—so this whole line of questioning is at least for the present time moot.  Perhaps it won’t be in the near future.  But, back to the question: why do you give?

Do you give because it’s right?  That certainly sounds like a noble reason for doing something.  “I don’t do it for any personal gain, but merely because it’s the right thing to do.”  Our society looks very favorably on such sentiments.  They sound awfully biblical.  But maybe that’s not you.  And that’s okay.  Being motivated by something other than a thing simply being right doesn’t necessarily make the person doing it somehow less noble.  Maybe you prefer a holier approach.   You do it because the Bible tells you so.  That sounds even better in some circles than the first kind of givers.  Why, anyone could give because it’s the right thing to do and still be on a slick road to Hell.  There have been very generous philanthropists who were followers of Jesus and very generous philanthropists who wanted nothing to do with Him.  So you seek to eliminate worldly motivations.  You do it because the Bible commands it.  Doesn’t that sound spiritual?  Now, such a person has to guard against legalism—after all, the Pharisees gave exactly what the Law of Moses prescribed they should give—but isn’t it better to be motivated by Scripture than not?  Or maybe you have still another reason.  Maybe you give because your conscience tells you to.  Perhaps you went through a period of life where you were pretty generous, but without realizing it at the time, let that period slip away until you weren’t giving anything at all.  When you realized this, your conscience didn’t leave you alone until you started giving something again.  Or perhaps you heard a really convicting sermon on giving and couldn’t avoid it after that.  The danger here is that conscience-driven givers are often guilt-driven givers; and guilt-driven people become bitter over time if they don’t find something or someone to help them pursue the once guilt-driven action freely.  And God doesn’t want bitter givers.  Perhaps though, your reasoning is even simpler.  For you it just feels good.  I can identify with this.  In college I had the opportunity to give a close friend who was hurting for money $100 without him knowing where it came from.  A few days later in our Bible study I got to be there when he tearfully related his humble joy at this totally unexpected answer to prayer.  That was a pretty special moment.  Maybe you’ve experienced something like that and are almost addicted to the emotional high that comes with helping someone else.  Of course the kick here is that such a person sometimes begins giving publicly in order to enjoy the recognition more fully.  Or maybe your reason is something else entirely.  Why is it that you give?

It’s an important question to think about because understanding why we give, why we manage God’s stuff the way we do, will give us a head start on making sure we are doing it the way God would have us.  We understand already that we are to always remember that it is God’s stuff, not ours.  We understand that we are to keep our desire for more stuff at a minimum in order to keep ourselves focused on managing it well.  It’s still okay to want stuff, to like stuff.  After all, God created the stuff and pronounced it good which presumably means He likes it too.  We just have to keep this desire in its proper place.  We also know that once those two understandings are in place what we are to do with the stuff God has given us is to give as much of it away as we can.  We should do this gladly, out of the overflow of the joy we have in our heart because of the extent of the Father’s blessing to us.  And as far as how much to give, this should be a decision worked out between you and God, but it should be an amount that keeps you on the edge of your seat, relying on God, always straining forward to reach new heights of generosity.

What we finally came down to last week was the fact that we should be practicing prioritized, progressive, percentage giving.  The way we are effective stewards of what God has given us is to gladly give first a set percentage that progressively increases over time as we become accustomed to its challenge.  But why should we do this?  Harkening back to our question, is the reason as simple as we are told it’s right?  I don’t know about you, but while I could live with that fairly contently, somewhere inside I would never be quite as happy as I could be.  There’s always going to be part of me that wants to see some kind of a return on my “investment” as we’ve taken to calling our giving over the course of the last few weeks.  Somewhere inside I’m always going to be asking: why am I doing this?  The rest of this morning, then, I’d like to give you one more answer beyond what we’ve already said…one I happen to think carries with it the most punch.

In order to understand this last reason, I need to make sure you understand what’s going on when we manage God’s stuff in ways that honor Him, that is, when we are generous givers.  If you have your Bibles handy, open them up to Matthew 6:19.  These are familiar words and we’ve looked at them before, but never in quite this light.  Check this out with me.  “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.”  We have that down pretty well.  Laying up treasures on earth is forbidden for folks who want to live the life of Christ.  Now, what exactly storing up treasures looks like is going to vary from person to person and from place to place.  There’s a heart attitude here that helps determine how much is too much.  But look at the reasoning behind Jesus giving this command.  He doesn’t say it’s morally wrong to store up treasures on earth.   This doesn’t mean it’s right, but that’s not Jesus’ focus.  Lately we’ve been dealing with mice in the garage.  At last count I had killed four.  What would you say if I started storing up food in the garage?  Or what about if I parked my car in a high car theft part of town and left the windows down and doors unlocked after making a trip to the mall?  Would you focus on the morality of decisions like these?  Even if they were morally wrong, no, you wouldn’t.  You would say I was dumb.  You would condemn those as a stupid decisions.  Who in their right mind would store up stuff in a place where it is going to get ruined or stolen?  Such a person would rightly be maligned as an idiot.  This is what Jesus is getting at here.  He didn’t say, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth because this is an offense to God.”  He said we shouldn’t do it because stuff on earth is all eventually bound for the dump.  Using the resources God has given us to accumulate huge amounts of stuff—be that money or clothes or electronics or cars or kitchen gadgets or knickknacks or whatever—is a foolish waste of them.  It’s dumb.  And that’s what’s offensive to God.  Not the stuff, but the waste of His resources.

So what’s the alternative?  Look at v. 20: “…but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.”  Laying up treasures on earth, whatever form those treasures happen to take, is poor stewardship.  Building up unreasonably large collections of stuff—including money—on earth is terrible financial management.  Now, where the line of unreasonable lies is something you’re going to have to work out between you and God, but I would advise erring on the side of less, not more.  This is the case because eventually everything in this place is going to be destroyed and when the kingdom comes it will have no value.  It is a much smarter move, then, to make lavish kingdom investments, hanging on only to what you need to scrape by.  One author compares this with the situation of many southerners at the end of the Civil War when it became clear the North was going to win.  Those who had amassed huge amounts of Confederate money had a choice: keep it or get rid of it.  The wise folks kept only what was absolutely necessary to get by until things settled and exchanged everything else for U. S. currency.  The stuff we have here is Confederate money.  In a short while it is going to be worthless.  We are wise to exchange as much of it as we can into tender that will be worth something when the coming kingdom finally arrives.

So how do we do this?  Well, turn with me a few pages ahead in Matthew and we’ll get a clue.  In Matthew 19 the apostle includes a story in which a wealthy, but pious, young man comes up to Jesus and wants to know how he can go about making certain he goes to heaven when he dies.  Jesus, playing ball with him for a minute, runs through a perfunctory list of what would have been identified as important ethical commands in that day.  The man affirms that he’s kept all of these and wants to know if there’s anything else.  So Jesus looks him right in the eyes and says in v. 21: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor…”  This took all the wind out of the young man’s sails.  There’s a good bit of debate as to how broadly Jesus meant this, but the next part of the verse is what I want to draw your attention to.  Keep reading.  What will happen when this guy gives away all his stuff?  “…you will have treasure in heaven.”  Now the most important part of this is the next where Jesus calls the man to follow Him, which is the framework in which the giving will do anything positive for him, but look at what is couched in the middle there.  His giving stores up treasure in heaven.

That answers our question of how we store up treasures in heaven, but what are these treasures in heaven?  Well, the Bible doesn’t ever specify, but it does give us enough information to get some clues.  Flip back a book to Malachi 3.  Malachi is a book aimed at a people who had grown comfortable in themselves and while they were still going through the motions of religion, their hearts weren’t in it.  They were wealthy.  They were well-fed.  They were relatively at peace with their neighbors.  Who needs God when things are going that well?  They did the religion thing because it was culturally important to them, but it never quite penetrated the hard lining on their hearts.  This was especially true of their money.  Look with me starting at v. 8: “Will man rob God?  Yet you are robbing me.  But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’  In your tithes and contributions.  [Notice God mentions both tithes and contributions, or offerings, suggesting that tithing was the starting point for what people were called to give to God, not the upper limit.]  You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you.”  That all to say, God takes it pretty seriously when His people do not properly honor Him with the stuff they are managing for Him.  But keep reading in v. 10: “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse [in other words, give me fully what I am due], that there may be food in my house [in order to share with those who can’t provide it on their own—suggesting that a good bit of our giving should go to helping meets the needs of others].”  Now comes the key part for our purposes: “And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.”  Now, we’re not Israel so this isn’t simply a promise we can apply laterally to ourselves.  That said, even through the lens of Christ (which is the proper framework for us to understand the Old Testament), there is a powerful suggestion here that when we give God what is His, He will pour out blessings on us.  Some of those blessings will certainly be temporal in nature (that is, He’ll give us stuff we can enjoy in this life), but perhaps at least as often they will come in the heavenly treasures we are storing up for the future.

Now make the connection here with me.  Storing up treasures in heaven is much smarter than storing up treasures on earth.  We store up treasures in heaven when we give generously to kingdom causes.  When we give generously to kingdom causes God will reward us.  Thus, treasures in heaven are a big part of our reward.  That’s right.  When we give, God rewards us.  But can something like that be our motivation for giving?  Isn’t that selfish of us?  Isn’t that petty of us?  Isn’t that unspiritual of us?  Perhaps.  But, we’re not desiring something Scripture hasn’t already promised us.  In fact, we’re wanting precisely what we are promised.  There’s no wrong in wanting what the Bible tells us to want.  When God tells us to test Him, we’d better get started.

I said a bit ago that we would come back to the should question.  Let’s come on back to it now.  Why do we give?  Lots of reasons.  Why should we give?  Because God rewards it.  We give because God rewards it.  Now, the thought of doing something spiritual because of the rewards involved might seem a bit…presumptuous to you.  The protestant church culture (and particularly the conservative Baptist church culture) in this country for the last 100 years or so has been very much focused on faith.  We should live by faith.  We should act by faith.  We should do everything out of faith.  In an almost Lutheran-like eschewal of anything smacking of works-based righteousness, we have largely jettisoned any kind of an emphasis on talking about the rewards of faithfulness.  We hold God up as this preeminently transcendent, other-than, deity who should be obeyed because He is worthy of our obedience and because He is God.  Thoughts about any other motivations for obedience are deeply unspiritual.  There is also a cultural element that would reject this picture of God in favor of the Buddy Jesus image as we have talked about before, but here the only real motivation for obeying God is that He’s such a good guy, how could we not do what He asked?

Historically there has long been this battle going on between the respective roles faith and works should play in the life of the follower of Christ.  We’re often taught that we are saved only by faith.  And this is absolutely true.  It is by grace we have been saved through faith and this not of ourselves but it is the gift of God so that no one can boast.  But, the Bible is also clear that the judgments and rewards handed out at the end of history are not going to be on the basis of faith.  They are going to be on the basis of our works.  Faith is the work that results in our salvation by God’s grace by enabling the rest of our works to by seen by God through the lens of Christ’s perfect works thus allowing us to pass the test we would otherwise fail, but it is the works God will judge.  And it’s the works God will reward.  Now, we do well not to equate earthly rewards that seem really good to us now with heavenly rewards such that we are desiring the wrong things, but the evidence of Scripture seems to suggest that we can and should desire these rewards.

Consider, for example, the witness of Matthew 25 in Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats.  Both groups are judged on the basis of what they have or haven’t done in service to God in this life and rewarded accordingly.  To the goats Jesus will say. “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”  Arguments as to whether this is metaphorical or literal aside, this is clearly phrased in such a way that no sane person would want what’s coming to the goats.  To the sheep, on the other hand, Jesus will say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”  Theology aside, this sounds like something worth desiring.  It is clearly set out to be a motivation for pursuing the kind of lifestyle for which the sheep are rewarded.  The rewards of faithfulness are elaborately described in the Bible and are packaged as part of what should drive us to obedience to God’s commands.  Taking up the attitude that, “Well, I do this and such simply because it’s right and don’t concern myself with what rewards I might gain by it,” may sound humble and spiritual, but it’s not.  It’s insulting to the God whose idea it was to set out clear rewards for faithfulness in the first place.

Now, should there be other motivations behind our doing what God has commanded?  Certainly.  We should give because we love God.  We should give because we understand who He is.  We should give because we understand who owns the stuff we’re giving.  We should give because we want to help the people around us and to see the kingdom of God advance in this world.  But we should also give because God rewards it.  When you think about it, this gives something concrete to our hope so that it has a bit more substance onto which we can hold.  Some people are spiritually strong enough to be motivated solely by love of God, but I don’t know about you, but I’m not one of those.  So let’s not flatter ourselves with the pseudospiritual (and false) notion that rewards don’t matter to us.  They do matter to God.  God is the one who expressed in His word things like Proverbs 28:27: “Be generous to the poor—you’ll never go hungry.”Matthew 6:3-4: “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.  And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”  He spoke through the Son promises like Luke 6:35: “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons [and daughters] of the Most High,” and Luke 14:13-14: “But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.  For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”  Indeed, we give because God rewards it.

Sometimes as an incentive to behave a certain way we will tell Noah that if he’s good we’ll get him a Happy Meal or an Icee at Target or some other kind of a treat.  Is he wrong to want these things and to behave in our desired manner in order to receive them?  Of course not!  The same is true with our heavenly Father.  He has promised rewards for our giving, for our faithfulness generally.  We should eagerly anticipate these rewards, understanding that they will be great beyond our imagining, and keep them at the forefront of our minds when we are faithful in the trenches of life.  As Randy Alcorn aptly puts it: “God will reward the child who gave to the missions offering the money she’d saved for a softball mitt.  He’ll reward the teenager who kept himself pure despite all the temptations.  He’ll reward the man who tenderly cared for his wife with Alzheimer’s, the mother who raised the child with cerebral palsy, the child who rejoiced despite his handicap.  He’ll reward the unskilled person who was faithful and the skilled person who was meek and servant-hearted.  God will reward the parents who modeled Christ to their children, and he’ll reward the children who followed him despite their parents’ bad example.  He’ll reward those who suffered while trusting him, and those who helped the ones who were suffering.  He’ll reward the couple who sold their large house to live in a small one and gave the remaining money away to missions.”[1] He promised and we should desire it.  We give because He rewards it.

So why do you give?  I hope there are a lot of reasons, but now you have one more.  You have one more reason to look at the stuff you have as God’s stuff which you are managing for Him so that His ends are accomplished with it.  You have one more reason to desire to possess God’s stuff only insomuch as you can use it effectively to steward the advance of His kingdom in the world.  You have one more reason to pursue the rich life laid out in the word as possible for those willing to walk in the hard footsteps of Christ by giving away as much of the stuff you are stewarding as possible and then a little more.  You have one more reason to give gladly and with a clear plan in place in order to accomplish your generosity goals.  And the reason is: God’s going to reward it.  We give because God rewards it.  We give because God rewards it.  I pray that you will seek to know His rewards.

[1]Randy Alcorn, Managing God’s Money (Carol Streams, Ill.: Tyndale, 2011), 106-7.