Friday, 2 January 2009

Much given; much expected

Ok, so my grasp of the concept "in the next few days" may be somewhat loose, yet I am a man of my word and so hereby goes the afore promised post...

Throughout the last term at Lifegroup we've been looking at the theme of 'Radical Disipleship'. In essence, we as Christians are a people called to lives that are both radical - in terms of our rejections of a 'worldly' life, and disciplined - in that we adhere to the patterns God has set out for us instead. We looked at a variety of topics - namely: forgiveness, time, love, money, evangelism - all of which were rooted in the challenge of Romans 12:2: conform or transform? Blend into society or allow the Holy Spirit to transform you into the person God destined you to be?

Anyway, it became increasingly apparent over the weeks that God was putting his finger on a couple of foundational issues that seemed to permeate, in my mind at least, every discussion or study we had. Hence my desire to engrave them somewhere a little more permanent that my short-term memory. If others benefit, great, but my main motive here is a selfish one - to put these challenges in front of my own eyes to inspire me to step up and meet them. Otherwise I've just spent the last few weeks spouting a load of hot air.

Ok, so here are the two (main) things:
  1. At a foundational level, Christianity is incredibly simple.
  2. Generosity, or 'open-handedness' as i like to call it, is the key to honouring God with the gifts that he gives us and the tasks that he calls us to.
Let me explain further...

Essentially the guide to living the Christian life is presented clearly by Jesus when asked what was the greatest commandment:

"Jesus replied: 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
Matt 22:37-40

Simple. Love God with everything we've got and do likewise to those around us. Now I know that the outworking of that is anything but simple, but the blue print for how to live couldn't be any clearer. The key thing is recognising the assumptioms behind Jesus' statement and also understanding what love is. I'm sure everyone's heard the chat about the different kinds of 'love' in Greek, but the distinctions really do help us to depart from a 'candles-and-roses' perception of love - an emotion, and one which, more often than not, is associated with weakness as much as strength. No. This agape of which Jesus speaks is not so much a request that we dote on God but that we, like he himself would later demonstrate, sacrifice ourselves for him. And not just partially either - but with all our heart, soul and mind. Everything; no half measures.

Furthermore, this isn't just about how we interact with God; it extends to how we interact with everyone (including ourselves). The sacrifcial love that God calls to is a full-time vocation: it is as much about our horizontal expressions of love (i.e. to those around us) as it is our vertical expressions of praise, adoration and obedience to our creator.

Here comes the crux. The only way to be able to actually walk this out is by coming to truly recognise who this God is who asks us for everything. For if we don't have that, then ultimately every attempt at self-sacrifice will be doomed from the outset - we'll be doing it because someone else told us it was a good idea, not in response to the sovreignity of God. But if we do recognise that Jesus is Lord, that everything comes from him, and that ultimately everything is for him, then not only will we be able (in his strength) to lay down our own desires in favour of his, but we won't want to do anything else anyway. Once we loosen our grip on theses 'lives' of ours and start to see them purely as time, opportunity and talent given to us by God, the only thing that makes sense is to use them for his glory.

If everything comes from God (James 1:17; Colossians 1:16) then our response should be thus: give back, obey, give away! I.e. respond to what God has given us by giving back in return - time, money, energy, future plans etc etc; obey his commands - not to earn his love but because he already bestows it upon us; and share what he has given us with all those around us - if what we have is so good and so needed, why don't we want others to get some too?!

This whole concept of 'giving' is what I'm talking about when referring to 'open-handedness'. It's about saying that it's not just about me - i'm not just going to take everything that God's given me - gifts and abilities, money, my eternal salvation! - and keep it to myself. I'm going to recognise that God gave everything for me and that he wants me to give everything back in return. And that doesn't happen in a vacuum - it involves choices, and changes in patterns and behaviours that will effect and impact others; hopefully in a way that alerts them to the fact that God has got all this great stuff for them too!

Not only is this a challenge from God, it comes with a stark warning for any ignorance towards it, most notably in the shape of the parable of the talents/minas (Matt 25; Luke 19). God gives us gifts, yes. In fact, everything is a gift from God. Yet he calls us to be good stewards of these gifts. And the way we do that is quite clear - invest in them. I.e. don't just admire them, but use them to further the kingdom. Otherwise, we're no different to the "wicked, lazy servant". Now I'm not talking about stuff like playing in a worship band because you're kick-ass on the guitar, although that concept does come into. I'm talking about everything. Money's an obvious one to mention, but for me the biggest area is that of evangelism, and with this I will close.

Our salvation is a gift from God. Fact. We don't earn it, so we must have been given it. Therefore, like any other 'talent' we need to be open-handed with it. That means we don't just hide ourselves away in 'God-club', patting ourselves on the back because we've accepted God's gift of grace, but that instead we give of our ourselves in order to help others recognise this awesome truth - we make God's love real to people by showing that it is really in us. In order to invest this gift, we'll need to sacrficie certain things - it might be time, it might be money or a career, it might even be our attitude towards our non-Christian relationships. One things is certain, though: if we are generous with our gifts, God will honour that. If our heart is for him and for his glory, even when it hurts, then he will take our 'not enough' and make it 'more than enough'.

Read this passage from 2 Corinthians and look beyond the context of money.

"Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written:
"He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor;
his righteousness endures forever." Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.

This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God's people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!"

2 Cor 9: 6-15

It speaks plainly about a spirit of generosity - a generosity that produces results. By giving of ourselves, by being open-handed in all areas of our lives, "men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies our confession of the gospel of Christ, and for our generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else." I'll have some of that!