Too many toys can mess up a person’s spiritual life. Too many Hummers, iPhones, and Louis Vuitton purses, too many designer jeans with huge back pockets covered in embroidery, too many Brazilian Blow Outs, CAbi parties, chrome rims, and too much Twilight (way too much Twilight), can make it darn near impossible to know a real blessing when you get one.
We never lose that infantile fascination for shiny things. We sit in our BarcaLoungers and reach for the flat screen just as we reached up for the colorful animals, stars, and toys in the mobiles rotating over our cribs.
So, how do we interpret our excitement for this stuff when it falls in our lap? Who is to say that getting the new iPhone is not a ‘blessing’? What does it mean to seek a life that is blessed by God? If everything is going great – with lots of money and stuff pouring in–doesn’t that just mean that we are blessed? If having a lot of cool stuff, and living in a zone where everything is going my way, is not being blessed, then what is? Conversely, when everything is going wrong, can you blame me if I don’t feel blessed?
It has been said by some pretty smart guys–I’m thinking of C.S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton to name a few–that one of the real distinguishing doctrines of the Christian faith that really was revolutionary is its affection for the poor and its drastic and explicit warnings to the rich, to the extent that one could conclude that to be rich was almost in itself a reason to be afraid for one’s soul (Mark 10:25).
Only in America and places where all the coolest stuff is incessantly waved, shouted, and served before all senses 24/7 could one imagine that Christ really wanted us to have it all (Matthew 6:19). I’ve tried to find the scripture that supports the health and wealth, and prosperity teachings, but I can’t find it. The notion that the rich and healthy are or are not inclined to be more spiritual than the poor and sick may belong to some philosophy or religion somewhere, but it does not belong to Christianity.
It is true, though, that God wants to bless his children. The Scriptures say so over and over. The Sermon on the Mount begins with God promising blessings to those the world may have thought were least likely to get them–the poor in spirit, those that mourn, and those who are meek, to name a few (Matthew 5:3-5). But what does that mean to have God’s blessing? What is that good thing he wants to give us?
Most often I hear a blessed Christian life described as one where we derive our joy from God himself. So, from this perspective, what God the Father wants to give us is not stuff, but himself. That is not to say that God is not interested in our physical needs (Matthew 6:8). And, it is right for us to feel blessed when good things happen to us–when we get the job, or the bonus, or score the goal. Still, there is something more, something truly better. And that is when the joy comes from God or is in God directly, and not through something else that he gives. Philippians 4:4-7 says “(4) Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! (5) Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near. (6) Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. (7) And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
There’s one of the monster, off the hook, promises in scripture. Mighty, mighty. (It is stuff like this, frankly, that is so super human that it had a huge impact on my decision to be a Christian in the first place, but that’s another article.)
Obviously, joy like this would not only be better than a front row seat to the American Idol stage, but could even be expected to overcome life’s great struggles. And life, as we know, can have some great struggles. But how does one connect with this? Because, let’s face it, just being a Christian does not mean you’re going to feel like Philippians 4:4-7 all the time. Heck, even the Philippians didn’t feel that way or Paul wouldn’t have reminded them about it.
Taken at face value it sounds like you’re supposed to sit around and meditate on the Scriptures or Psalms or whatever and find some kind of meditative peace. And the more of this monastic peace you can gather into yourself–the more time you can stay in the trance–the better. That cannot be what God means when he says he wants you to have a blessed life.
The Christian life is the life of conquerors, and scholars, and athletes, and peasants. Of nuns, and soldiers, and teachers, and scientists. It is a full blooded life of vigor, and compassion, and commitment. I believe that the Christian life properly lived is one where we jump into the deep end. None of this is to exclude those times that require quiet, solace, and rest. But we should not expect God’s blessing to be something that takes us away, as an escape, from the life he has given us. We are physical. He was physical with us. Our joy in the Lord, this excellent joy that is the best thing in life (and probably heaven), transforms our spirits but is delivered in the midst of our physical lives. Our lives, in time, are the vessels of his blessing. That sounds weird, but what I’m really trying to stay away from is that our blessings are physical. I’ve said above that they can be, but this joy overcomes the physical though it is necessarily delivered in the physical. Still sounds weird. Keep in mind that this joy is possibly the most valuable thing a person can have apart from salivation itself. It is the stuff of giants.
In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, chapter 8, verse 2, Paul wants them to take notice of the joy the Macedonian saints have exhibited, that they, in the midst of severe poverty and persecution, have nonetheless put together a huge offering for others in need. He calls this power (2 Corinthians 8:3), and indeed it must be if it can cause someone indigent and afflicted to cheerfully give up what small provisions he has to serve God’s will. The world will call that person crazy, but it is the kind of behavior that built the largest church the world has ever seen or ever will. It is the kind of behavior that causes the nonbeliever to pause and wonder what it could be that could make a sensible person act so radically and be so brave and so confident in the face of such opposition.
This is a great section of scripture to help us with this often confusing topic. Paul goes on to say in verse 5 that the Macedonian saints did not blindly do what they were asked by the apostle, but first, in the midst of their trials, gave themselves to the Lord. From there they gave themselves to Paul’s authority “by the will of God.” That is, Paul does not brag that they were obedient to him, but that they sought God and came to know his will, and then were willing to obey his will by serving Paul. In that combination of events–the trial, the devoted attention to God’s will, and then the doing of that will–they had superhuman joy and they had done an amazing thing. Their thoughtfulness combined with their devotion, and then combined with their action in the world. And they loved it.
The lesson I take from the Macedonians is this:
1. Know your circumstances, be honest and forward about the facts of your circumstances. What is the truth about you and your situation? Keep in mind it is almost impossible to know the truth about someone else. God has decided that we should not know each other’s thoughts and motivations–therefore we should not judge one another. But, we can know a lot about our own thoughts and motivations.
2. Seek the Lord first.The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7) is devoted to this theme. Get to know his will, his way of thinking. What is his will in relation to the circumstances of your life right now?
3. Then, put his will to work in your life. Do it now.
When we walk through life this way, we experience the kind of joy God wants us to have. Remember the monster scripture from Philippians 4 above. This is how Paul follows it–Ph 4:8-9 “(8) Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. (9) The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” That confirms what we learned from the Macedonians, and, not coincidentally, forms an insane one-two punch of amazingly inspiring scripture.
So, what’s the catch? For myself, I must say that I often fall short of feeling this joy. I struggle, get mad, and fail enough times in a day that I know this is not how it is supposed to be. It is because I am not following this simple plan. I’m not thinking clearly, and I am not putting God first. And when I get the first two points together, I resist following through. I resist doing his will.
It should be easy, but it is not. Haven’t we all seen people confessing they have done God’s will when they have actually just done something really idiotic, like the guy who said God told him to drive his car into a tree? It is obvious that just thinking you are following God’s will is not enough. The guy with the tree is someone not facing the facts. Remember point one, above. We have to get our heads around the truth of our circumstances. We have to be clear headed. Wise as snakes but gentle as doves, Christ said (Matthew 10:16).
Secondly, the world is noisy, isn’t it? All that stuff I mentioned at the head of the article is day by day forcing itself into my head just as I am trying to push it out. It is hard to make meditation and prayer a priority when the kids have to get to school, the kitchen has to be cleaned, the car fixed, the bills paid, all during the same week that the super cool action movie got released. And I haven’t even mentioned the really tough stuff like my wardrobe, the coolness of the apps on my phone, or whether it would be better to download music from iTunes or Amazon. The truth is I need to push all that aside and give myself to the Lord first (Matthew 6:33). I can think about those things, but they shouldn’t rule me. My time with God is more important.
Finally, we need to act (Matthew 7:24). If you want to feel the joy, you are going to have to get your feet wet. You are going to have to get out there and bump shoulders. Life is about living it, and God wants us out there knocking around. The tough part here is that even though joy will come from performing God’s will, the world may not like it. For instance, you may find some blowback from your friends and family if you start doing particularly altruistic acts for the poor, or decide to tell the truth at an inconvenient moment.
Furthermore, it is a fact that life is not easy and it is not safe. God has not given us a Garden of Eden. There is danger and trouble in the world–this is one of the facts that fits into our first point. But Christ has said “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) Now, that is some mighty, mighty encouragement.
As you go about trying to implement this, remember that the obedience cannot be forced (2 Corinthians 8:8). God does not force you to do anything. This joy comes from freely performing God’s will. It feels good to do the thing that God wants us to do and that he would do.
So let’s do it.