Monthly Archives: June 2013

God’s Creation, Giving Thanks, and the Seven Deadly Sins

Surfside, Texas

Surfside, Texas

“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (Romans 1:20-21, NIV)

This passage, including the verses that follow, suggests that there are contrasting ways of reacting to the beauty and goodness of God’s creation: we either praise and give thanks to the Creator, or we resist God and abuse his good gifts through selfishness, self-indulgence, and excess.

Here are three ideas to kick around:

1) We as people are not morally neutral in the way we relate to God. During our lives we are either responding to our surroundings and experiences with grateful worship towards God and motivation to serve him or with distorted self-gratifying and self-glorifying pursuits. This means that the practice of giving thanks to God throughout our lives is not a mere afterthought of minor importance: it reflects a fundamentally healthy orientation towards God. The alternative is a rebellious “suppression of the truth” (Romans 1:18). Of course, we all are naturally “bent” away from God and towards ourselves (as the first several chapters of Romans make clear). But the transforming grace and power we receive through Christ and by the Spirit allows us to fulfill the original design humans were given when God made Adam and Eve in his image, before their descent into sin (see Romans 8:3-4; Col 3:9-10). Being restored to God’s image in Christ enables us to give him heartfelt thanks and praise for his many good gifts.

2) Giving thanks can serve as a great antidote to the so-called “seven deadly sins.”

We can give thanks for food instead of consuming it mindlessly and excessively (gluttony). The practice of giving thanks before meals makes a lot of sense from this perspective!

We can give thanks for beauty and things that delight our five senses rather than treating beautiful things or people as commodities to “consume” for our own selfish pleasures (lust).

We can give thanks for our God-given skills, abilities, and spiritual gifts rather than boasting about them and elevating ourselves above others (pride).

We can give thanks for our friends’ and colleagues’ talents, achievements, and resources rather than seeking to snatch them away for ourselves, along with  the applause or purchasing-power that accompanies them (envy).

We can give thanks for God’s provision of finances or opportunities without hoarding them, using them for selfish gain, or obsessively striving to obtain even more (greed).

We can give thanks for rest and refreshment instead of over-indulging in those comforts (sloth).

We can thank God for his justice and judgments rather than “venting” our offended emotions and recklessly attempting to enact justice or revenge on our own (rage).

3. Thanksgiving can also help us avoid the opposite extreme – unnatural detachment from our physical world. The apostle Paul battled some of this misguided asceticism in his day. For instance, Paul castigates those who “forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth” (1 Tim 4:3). Paul counters with this perspective on physical life and creation: “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim 4:4-5). Thanksgiving is the gateway to healthy and holy enjoyment of God’s good creation.

Our family is working on the practice of thanksgiving this summer – whether it is for a tasty meal, a good night’s sleep, the sunny and breezy outdoors of rural Indiana, our most recent paycheck, the timing of answered prayers, or the personal gifts or achievements of family members or friends. I am realizing more and more that giving thanks is central, not incidental, to a life of following Jesus.

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The Gap Decade

We have high-schoolers in our home, and there are plenty of friends around town who have high-schoolers too. One thing that we talk about with our friends is the idea of taking a “gap year” between high school and college. Every student is different, so the gap year makes sense for some but not for others.

I took a “gap decade” between my undergraduate and graduate studies (my wife and I had ten wonderful years serving with Campus Crusade for Christ, in the U.S. and in East Asia). A gap decade isn’t the best choice for everyone, but it was perfect for me. Here’s why:

1) Believe it or not, I was not very mature personally or intellectually when I was 22 years old. Shocking.

My kids are known to choose store-bought, processed “desserts” over sumptuous home-made creations at pot-luck dinners or dessert carry-ins. I just smile when they do: one, because it leaves the better desserts for me, but two because I recognize that tastes change and improve over time. At age 22 I was not ready for the fine food that graduate studies had to offer.

thanksgiving feast a

2) The gap decade allowed me to develop in some areas of weakness instead of focusing prematurely on areas of strength. I have always been comfortable in an academic setting – taking tests, writing papers, exploring and discussing ideas – these all come fairly naturally for me. My ten years in between undergraduate and graduate studies gave me the chance to cultivate areas in which I was not as naturally gifted – public speaking, leadership, strategic planning, and being intentional about reaching out to a wide variety of people. I’m so grateful for the mentors and experiences that challenged and stretched me in those areas during my gap decade.

3) My gap-decade helped me to appreciate the practical in addition to the theoretical. Theology is rich and complex and significant. But that theology needs to be communicated in ways that connect with people, beginning with where they are in life. I learned this fairly quickly in ministry. There were times when I thought I had developed fascinating Bible studies or teaching material to share with others about God, salvation, and the like, only to find out that they needed something more concrete and practical first.

4) Here’s what may be an eye-opening point: nothing stops us from learning when we are not in school! I read and wrote and thought and learned a lot during my ten years outside of school. I remember pouring through the history of the New Testament canon and other church history highlights, digging into commentaries on various biblical books, and examining systematic theologies on God’s sovereignty, the Holy Spirit, the nature of Scripture, missions, spiritual formation, and other substantive topics. I recall the fun times engaging in detailed studies of books of the Bible with my friends and co-workers. And I wasn’t reading and studying because of an assignment or grade, which made the learning all the more sweet!

5) When I finally returned to the academic arena and began graduate studies, I brought a sense of focus and motivation with me that would have been absent a decade earlier. I knew my need for what I was learning, and my appetite for structured and challenging learning had increased exponentially in my life. A key to success in graduate studies is to sustain momentum throughout the program – from the classwork to the comprehensive exams and all the way to the completion of the thesis or dissertation. I was glad that my motivation level was high at the beginning of the long journey that was ahead of me, so that I could have some energy in reserve for the challenging stretches along the way.

The gap decade – that idea might not catch on like the gap year has, but for some recent college graduates it might be just what the doctor ordered, like it was for me.

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Good Soil in Thessaloniki

Corn in Indiana

The first 3 chapters of 1 Thessalonians give a great picture of the 4th, good soil in  Jesus’ parable of the soils (Matthew 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-20; Luke 8:1-15). This young church in Thessaloniki was filled with believers who had heard the good news of the kingdom of God through Christ and had responded with faith and obedience:

1 Thess 1:6 – “You welcomed the message (of Christ) in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.” The Thessalonian believers received the word with joy, like the second soil in Jesus’ parable, but unlike the second soil they withstood the pressures of “trouble” and “persecution” (Mark 4:16-17). They were beginning to exhibit a faith that endured. More than merely a human decision or evaluation, the response was marked by the Holy Spirit’s power. When people respond to God’s word in saving faith, this is a work of new birth carried out by the Holy Spirit.

1 Thess 1:8-9 – “Your faith in God has become known everywhere . . . . You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” The believers made a clean break from their idolatrous past when they embraced the one true God. In other words, they experienced conversion from one way of worship and living to another. Their purpose in life was now to serve God, being wholly devoted to Him.

1 Thess 2:13 – “And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the Word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.” The Thessalonians rightly evaluated the message proclaimed to them. They received it as a divine message, originating with God. They recognized the eternal risks of ignoring it and the eternal blessings of heeding it. They were like the 4th soil, the person “who hears the word and understands it” (Matthew 13:22), making the connection between its content (the good news of the kingdom of God, centered in the death and resurrection of Christ) and its implications (this is a treasure to be valued more than anything in this world, demanding an urgent and wholehearted response – see the parables of the hidden treasure and the precious pearl in Matthew 13:44-46).

1 Thess 3:6 – “But Timothy (Paul’s co-worker) has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love.” The Thessalonians were fruit-bearing soil: “Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.” (Luke 8:8). The Thessalonian believers were demonstrating the two cardinal virtues of the Christian life: faith and love (Gal 5:6). Paul uses “faith” to describe the Thessalonians’ stubborn allegiance to Christ in the midst of hardships, and he uses “love” to acknowledge their affection and humility towards Paul (1 Thess 3:6b), and their concern for other believers in their region (1 Thess 4:10).

Good soil – the message of the gospel is heard, and its divine authority is recognized. A joyful response follows, which results in conversion and transformation, regardless of the opposition faced.

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The Biblical Doctrine of Election – An Overlooked Point

The Bible uses language of “election” to talk about people who are part of God’s family and share in the blessings of that family. A discussion on this topic is usually dominated by questions and debates about predestination and free will. In fact, some people think only about the philosophical category of determinism when they encounter language about election in the Bible.

But there is something more consistently emphasized when the Bible affirms the idea of election – that God chooses surprising candidates as recipients of his blessings and as participants in his plans for the world.

Jesus with the disciples he chose

Jesus with the disciples he chose

Mark 1:17 – “And Jesus said to them (fishermen Simon and Andrew), ‘Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.'” And Mark 1:19-20 – “And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boats mending the nets. And immediately he called them.” Mark 2:14 – “And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.'”

Jesus chose disciples who had no exceptional characteristics that made them stand out from the crowd. Quite the contrary: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13).

Similarly, the women God placed in Jesus’ genealogy (Matthew 1:1-17) – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba – were Gentiles (Rahab and Ruth), widows (Tamar, Ruth, Bathsheba), and had been taken advantage of by people more powerful than themselves (Tamar, Bathsheba). Even Jesus’ own mother Mary was poor and a virgin – an unlikely candidate for being the mother of a king.

James, reflecting on the beatitudes that Jesus had proclaimed (Matthew 5:3, Luke 6:20), confronts his readers’ preferential attitude towards the rich with the question, “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom?” (James 2:5).

Paul develops this theme in 1 Corinthians 1:26-28 – “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in this world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even the things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.”

Jesus applauds God’s intentional disclosure of himself to the overlooked in Matthew 11:25 – “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children.”

Paul looks back on Israel’s history from this vantage point in Romans 9 through 11 – discerning that “God’s purpose of election” (Romans 9:11) involved many surprising turns, such as God’s choice of Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over the firstborn Esau, and his inclusion of “wild olive shoots” (the Gentiles) into the family tree of Israel.

This fits in with God’s words to Israel in Deuteronomy 7:6-8 – “For you (Israel) are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers.”

What can be learned from this repeated theme of God’s surprising choice? First, God’s choice highlights his grace and silences human boasting (“so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” – 1 Cor 1:29). We are not part of God’s family based on our own credentials. Second, God’s election of unexpected people puts the spotlight on Jesus’ power working through them (as seen in the Jewish leaders’ observation that the lowly fishermen who spoke so boldly “had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). Third, God’s loving concern for the overlooked means that we should share God’s heart for those who are poor and discounted – not “dishonoring the poor man” but “loving your neighbor as yourself” – James 2:6-8.

God’s election of unlikely people throughout Scriptures, and his election of us, should spark thankfulness, humility, reliance on God, and an active love for the people around us.

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