11 Self-Deceit 101


Have you ever been deceived? Bet you have.

Have you ever deceived yourself? Know you have. So have I.

If you have never had this experience and would like to know how to do it, look no further than James 1. James, Jesus’ younger half-brother, knows all about self-deception. He deceived himself for many years, denying that Jesus was God in the flesh.

In the first chapter of his epistle, he cites four ways we deceive ourselves. Here they are:

Praying without believing.

In verse 6, after exhorting his readers to ask God for wisdom when they need it, he continues,

But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.

We’ve already discussed this verse, so I won’t belabour it. Praying without faith–for anything, not just wisdom–is an exercise in double-mindedness and self-deceit. It just doesn’t make sense.

Blaming God for acts of sin.

The second way to deceive ourselves is by saying, when we are tempted to do evil, “I am being tempted by God.” (JAM 1.13) As I’ve already mentioned, the warning in verse 16, “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers,” seems to serve better as a summary for the previous paragraph than as an introduction to the next one. Adam blamed God for his sin, and we know how that turned out. We’ve all been doing it ever since. We might deceive ourselves that way, but we don’t fool God.

Being hearers, not doers.

20130115_094910Verse 22 warns us that if we are hearers of the word–the Bible–and not doers, we deceive ourselves. James says it’s like looking into the mirror on the morning of an important interview, seeing some serious bed-head, lots of stubble and a smudge of last night’s hot fudge sundae, and just walking away without taking action.

In the same way, sitting under the teaching of the Scriptures and not doing what they say is an act of self-deceit. Studying the Scriptures for ourselves, gaining an understanding of their meaning, but not obeying God’s Word, produces knowledge that makes us arrogant but yields no fruit in our lives. It is self-deceit. Even more serious is purporting to be a teacher and either teaching what is false or not doing what is true. James will deal with this more later in his letter.

Not minding our mouths.

Finally, in verse 26, James writes:

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.”

James has a lot more to say about the tongue in the third chapter, but for now he just drops this little bubble-popper. People can crow about being devout to this or that religion, but if they cannot manage their words–and, without the indwelling Holy Spirit, they can’t–their religion is worthless.

Why is that? I’m not sure if James heard it or not, but Jesus once said, “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of his heart his mouth speaks.” Since the Bible tells us at least twice that no one is naturally good, (Psalm 14, Romans 3) that pretty much says it. If I eat a head of raw garlic, my breath is not going to smell like freshly baked apple pie when I start to burp. In the same way, if my heart is evil, my words will not be good.

To think otherwise, says the second son, is self-deceit.

If you opened a book that started like this, would you want to keep reading?


THE BEEKEEPER’S DAUGHTER

Anna arched her back and stretched. She had come to the spring three times already today, and she was glad this was the last. She knew her mother yearned for its clear, cold water—especially now that she was close to delivering her sixth child—but the filled jars were heavy and the walk from the house seemed to get longer and steeper each time she took it.

Even so, she was thankful she hadn’t had to go with her brothers. Their father was with his friend Eliab, who was also his business partner, planning the expansion of Eliab’s almond grove. Abba—Anna’s father—was a shrewd merchant and a careful planner, and Eliab’s almonds were part of his long-range strategy to leave a thriving enterprise to his sons. He would help to propagate the new trees with healthy rootstock. The more trees, the more blossoms. The more blossoms, the more almonds for Eliab and the more honey for Abba and her brothers.

Anna loved and admired her father more than anyone she knew. He feared God, he was wise and hard-working, and he adored his family. Even now, as she approached womanhood, she would sometimes sit on his lap in the cool of twilight and together they would listen to the night sounds and discuss local gossip. Feeling the warmth and strength of his body gave her a sense of serenity, and she loved the sound of his laughter. He appreciated her quick wit, her curiosity, and the gentleness she expressed toward others. Abba was not an especially gentle man himself, except with his three daughters. He drove his sons hard, and with exacting standards. He wanted them to understand the value of hard work, to master every aspect of the family business, and to appreciate what they would one day inherit.

Anna’s family had grown prosperous from keeping bees. The apiary near their house was a place she had grown to love—from the calming drone of the bees as they busily filled the clay hives with honey, to the cloying, musky scent of the place and the orderly rows of clay cylinders, stacked several tiers high, that housed the hundreds of thousands of bees that had brought honey merchants to the city of Rehob for three generations.

Almond blossom honey was prized for its sweetness, its clarity and its nutty aftertaste. Bakers preferred it to any other, and foreigners used it to brew ale. It was expensive, but the wealthy clients who sought it always seemed willing to pay. Anna enjoyed listening to her father boast of its marvelous qualities as he haggled with buyers, and often smiled to herself when she heard them sigh with resignation as he named his final price. He had a reputation both for producing a high quality product and for driving a hard bargain.

Sometimes, Hittite or Assyrian merchants would appear with jars of bees they had brought to sell. Abba always bought them, knowing they were more productive and less aggressive than the bees from the Jezreel Valley. Even now he was trying to cultivate some hives of local bees, but he found them difficult to handle. He was about to give up.

The wildflower honey, which came mainly from the anemones that grew all over the valley in winter, was red and dark and had an aroma like perfume. It was not as expensive, so it was what most people used. Anna liked it better, possibly because she had an affinity for the weaker and less appreciated elements in life—from the feeble, blind widow who lived on the next street to the orphaned lamb she had nursed by hand with another ewe’s milk and a barley straw. She liked nothing better than dipping a peeled stick into a honey pot and savoring the floral sweetness.

There were some things about being the beekeeper’s daughter that Anna did not like. One was building new hives from clay, dry straw, and dung—a dirty, itchy job that she felt would be better done by slaves—but her father only kept one slave, a surly Egyptian girl who had become more of a liability than an asset to the family. When asked why he didn’t have slaves running his business, Abba would jokingly respond, “Why does a man need slaves when he has children?”

Another loathsome task was pulling the dead blossoms from the anemones, as her brothers were doing today. It made them produce more flowers, Abba said, but it was backbreaking work that kept the children out of the house for many days each year. Up until her marriage three months ago, Anna’s sister Mahlah had gotten all the good work—cooking, baking bread, and helping to care for their little sister Rachel, the darling of Rehob, who at twenty-two months was active and mischievous and could charm just about anything out of just about anyone. Anna loved being at home with her mother to cook, scrub, bake the daily bread, and visit with the other women of Rehob who stopped by to gossip or ask for advice. She even enjoyed serving the merchants who would come to buy honey or beeswax from her father. So she was glad that having to stay near her mother in these last weeks before she gave birth meant she didn’t have to pull blossoms. But because their maidservant was needed at home in case Anna’s mother went into labour, it did mean Anna had to carry water.

As she leaned over to pull the last earthenware vessel from the cool depths of the spring, Anna caught a movement out of the corner of her eye. What looked like a puff of smoke appeared toward Beth-Shan to the north—then another and another. It was still late summer, so farmers would not be burning off their fields. The closest village was more to the west, so it couldn’t be coming from there.

She watched, perplexed, wishing her brothers were with her. Surely they would know what she was seeing. An inexplicable sensation of dread crept into the pit of her stomach. Something was wrong, but since she was only twelve, her experience was not able to provide her mind with the answers it sought.

The puff became a cloud, writhing and scintillating in the afternoon sun. Then her ears detected a distant rumble that sounded to her like boulders rolling into the steep ravine that ran between Rehob’s “upper town” and “lower town”. Soon the rumble was accompanied by muted shouts, then coarse laughter. Suddenly, she could discern the sound of hoof beats, and a shiver of terror shook her body.

Soldiers. Please, dear Adonai, please let it not be the Syrians.

She had reason for concern. In Beth-Shan, the town just an hour’s brisk walk to the north, a cousin of her father had been burned alive in one of the recent raids the Syrians had been conducting on the border towns of eastern Israel. He had watched his wife raped and brutally beaten; then, she and his children had been run through with spears before his eyes as the flames had devoured him.

The clay jar fell from her hands with a crash, the water drenching her clothes. Anna gathered the skirts of her smock into her small fists and began to sprint back into town, screaming to all who would hear.

“Soldiers are coming! Run! Hide! The Syrians are coming! Mama! Abba!”—she choked on the words, gasping for breath as much from fear as from exertion. Other people had seen the danger as well, and women were already weeping and trying desperately to gather their children and what few possessions they could carry before fleeing for refuge into the folds of the hills of Gilboa that lay just to the west of Rehob. They knew what had happened in Beth-Shan.

 

10 The Marble Lady


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Shhh…she’s sleeping!

Meet the “Marble Lady.” Dr. Frederick Augustus Webster, of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, met his stunning wife, Margaret McNaught, in Scotland when he was studying medicine there.  The couple soon returned to Nova Scotia, where the doctor set up a practice in his hometown. As a young woman, Margaret contracted a fatal illness and died in the mid-19th Century. Her widower asked a local sculptor to create a fitting memorial for her, and the result was this fine marble representation of a beautiful woman resting in a field and clutching a small sheaf of wheat. It is said to have been taken from a painting on a matchbox, and it can be seen at the historic and serene Town Point Cemetery at Chebogue, Nova Scotia.

I have admired this memorial often, and it always comes to my mind when I read James 1.18:

Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

James’ Jewish readers didn’t have to grab their concordances and look up, “f-i-r-s-t-f-r-u-i-t-s.” They would have known exactly what James was saying, and they would have understood why he said it. We, however, may have to do a bit of research.

Leviticus 23.9-12 describes–actually, prescribes–for the Jews the Feast of Firstfruits, the annual festival meant to celebrate God’s faithfulness in providing another harvest for His people. It was a time of thanksgiving and reflection. The feast required each Jewish family to do three things:

  1. Take a small sheaf of grain, such as the one in the sculpture, to the priest to be waved before the Lord as a “wave offering.” This demonstrated the worshiper’s dependence on God for the harvest and gratitude for His provision.
  2. Sacrifice a perfect male yearling lamb as a burnt offering. This was for the purpose of recognizing and confessing one’s sin and receiving atonement for it through the substitutionary death of the animal.
  3. Offer with the lamb a grain offering consisting of fine flour mixed with oil, and a drink offering of wine. No grain or bread could be eaten on that day before this offering was made.

MY LIFE MUST BE AN OFFERING TO GOD

Now, when James tells me God brought me forth–gave us life–by the Word of Truth in order that I should be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures, I can understand a bit more what he means. If I am to be a kind of firstfruits, my life needs to be a daily offering of thanksgiving to God, always with the harvest in mind. In addition, my life is to be the “living sacrifice” Paul speaks of in ROM 12.1,2. What can I offer God, really? What do I have that He doesn’t? Nothing, of course. So He has explained that I can love Him by loving others, and part of loving others is proclaiming to them the good news of salvation in Christ.

MY LIFE REPRESENTS COUNTLESS OTHER PEOPLE

Firstfruits are about the harvest. Just as the Marble Lady isn’t holding a harvest, neither did the Jews offer God the entire crop. It was just a token, and it represented everything that was still in the field awaiting the sickle. In the same way, my life is a small part of an enormous harvest–people from the families, languages, ethnic groups and nations of the world. (REV 5.9,10) God wants to use me in the lives of others in the same way He used others in my life–to proclaim the “word of truth,” which alone brings new life in Christ Jesus.

Paul, another one who understood well the concept of firstfruits, uses this word to describe Jesus in 1 COR 15.20: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Jesus is not the only one to experience this resurrection and receive a glorified body. But He is the first, and therefore represents all who will come after Him.

I AM ON SOMEBODY’S LIST

If you are a child of God today, think of the many people God used to bring you to faith. People who loved you sacrificially, even in those times when you were supremely unlovable and ungrateful. People who patiently and creatively explained the gospel to you, even when you didn’t really want to hear it. People who modeled godly character. You could write a long list, and would miss an unknown number of people of whom you aren’t even aware.

God didn’t save you just so He could enjoy the pleasure of your company in heaven. James tells us what our purpose is–after all, we’ll be far better able to glorify God and live holy lives in heaven. The reason we’re not there yet is that we are to be “a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” The harvest isn’t all in.

If you haven’t yet, embark now on a life of firstfruits living.

09 Shadow Maker


The other day we were flying over Lake Superior and I was looking at the clouds below us. Even the wispiest of them cast shadows on the water–dark blotches that appeared to be islands.

Clouds hover outside the window of an aircraft on a mission to find the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, off Tho Chu islandShadows move and change. The shadow of a tree when the wind is blowing brushes the ground like a broom. Shadows can drive a hunter nearly mad with frustration: Is it an ear? An antler? A branch? Where is it now? Shadows can make a photo portrait appear either dramatic or sinister.

James writes about this in James 1.17, and makes the point that the good gifts we receive come down from the Father of lights, who never shifts like the shadows do. When we know Him, we realize that He is not fickle or capricious or vindictive. His character does not change, and He does not vengefully withhold His goodness like a catty middle-schooler might. Certainly, James never saw his older half-brother, the Lord Jesus, act that way.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

In the Scriptures, the character of God is connected very often with light. At creation, His first command was, “Let there be light.” It wasn’t until Day Four that He created the heavenly bodies, so the original source of light was God Himself.

The psalmist wrote, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” (PSA 27.1a)

John the Apostle wrote in the first chapter of his gospel, “[John the Baptizer] came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.” (JOH 1.7-10)

Later, in John 8.12, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

chp-shadowIn our text, Jesus’ younger brother speaks of the Father of lights, from whom we receive every good and perfect gift. As the Father of lights, there is no variation with Him, no shadow due to change.

James makes a connection between this idea and the one that follows in verse 18, which we’ll consider next time. What we understand from this text, though, is that God is constant and reliable. There are no shadows with him.

A shadow is cast when something gets in the way of the light. God never does that–He is the light.  John also wrote, “…God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” (1 JOH 1.5) God cannot deny Himself, and, as the Father of lights, He cannot obstruct the path of His own glory.

But I can. If I get in the way of His light, I cast a shadow on my own path and on the path of anyone near me.

James knew Jesus never did that.

 

Image is from nypost.com

08 The Lion, the Birds, and the Bees


Though I never saw it, there once was a TV show in which the main character, Flip Wilson, used to routinely justify his mischief by saying, “The devil made me do it.”

Baloney.

The devil never makes anyone do anything. There is not a single act of sin we may commit which we can blame on the devil. That’s not to say he isn’t involved–the Holy Spirit tells us through the Apostle Peter that he “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 PET 5.8b)

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So, who is actually to blame for our high crimes and misdemeanors, then? James tells us who in James 1.13-15, and then reminds us in verse 16, “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers.” While some translations (my ESV, for one) place this verse in the next paragraph, it seems to make far more sense as a summary warning for verses 13-15, in which it is clear that some of the apostle’s readers were deceived about who is responsible for acts of sin:

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

THE THEOLOGICAL REASON

James first offers a theological rebuttal to the accusation that God tempts people to sin. The fact that sin is possible and available in the world God created does not constitute divine temptation. God was not sadistically using reverse psychology in Eden when He instructed Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. James reminds his readers of two critical theological facts about God: His separateness from sin Himself and his hatred of sin in us. These two facts serve as the backdrop for what he says next. If sin is never God’s fault, whose fault is it?

THE PHYSIOLOGICAL ILLUSTRATION

To allow James to illustrate his point, the Holy Spirit uses an illustration about human reproduction–conception, to be exact–by comparing an act of sin to the process by which life is formed in the womb. He makes it clear that this is what He is doing when he says, “…desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin,” in the first part of verse 15.

Just as two things are required for conception, an egg from the female and sperm from the male, two things are required for an act of sin to occur–desire and enticement, or opportunity. The devil cannot provide the desire–he doesn’t have to. James says that desire is our “own desire,” the cell we provide. Satan can certainly point out opportunities, though–he did that in Eden and has been doing it ever since. When desire and opportunity come together, an act of sin is often conceived. We sin when we allow our desire to dwell on and seriously consider the opportunity. This is what James means when he talks about being “lured and enticed.”

Let me illustrate. If I am an alcoholic and stumble upon (sic) an unopened bottle of whiskey on a table in an abandoned building, I have a problem. Desire and opportunity have met, and they’re climbing into bed. My best strategy is to turn around and run–or stumble–out of the building as fast as my legs can take me! If I have an aversion to alcohol, a bottle of the very best Scotch would not tempt me, even if I knew nobody would see me drink it. On the other hand, if that bottle is empty, I won’t take a drink no matter how badly I want one. I can’t drink what isn’t there.

So it all comes back to us. What are we to do, since the desire to sin is part of our makeup as fallen people, and the opportunity to sin is ubiquitous in our fallen world? Until God removes the desire, we need to run from the opportunity, just as Joseph ran from Potiphar’s wife in Genesis 39, leaving his blazer in her hands in his haste to escape.

If we know the Lord, we can be reassured that God “predestined [us] to be conformed to the image of his Son. ” (ROM 8.29) One of the things conformity to Christ involves is the removal of sinful desires from the heart of the believer. (Remember, Jesus never had any.) Sometimes this removal is immediate and dramatic. Sometimes it is more gradual, a constant struggle to evade the lion who is always on the prowl.

James  grew up with Jesus, who, ironically, was not conceived in this way. Nor did He ever have the desire to sin, though He was “in every respect tempted as we are.” (HEB 4.15) James could never convince him to participate in neighbourhood shenanigans with the other the kids in Nazareth, or to lie to their parents, or to steal matzoh from the matzoh jar. Imagine growing up with a sibling who never once had the desire to do wrong–never!

When you sin, James says–and you will–don’t deceive yourself by saying, as Adam did in the garden, that it’s God’s fault. It isn’t.

Don’t forget about that lion, and don’t forget about the birds and the bees.

07 Five Crowns


We love the word game, Quiddler, produced by Set Games. It’s a fantastic game for people who love words, and we use it with our English students to develop their vocabularies and spelling skills. The same company makes another game, which we haven’t played, called, Five Crowns

 

5 Crowns

 

That’s an interesting name in light of James 1.12:

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.

The New Testament speaks of five distinct “crowns,” or rewards, God will give His children for their faithfulness. The “crown of life” is one of them. “The Greek word translated “crown” is stephanos (the source for the name Stephen the martyr) and means “a badge of royalty, a prize in the public games or a symbol of honor generally.” Used during the ancient Greek games, it referred to a wreath or garland of leaves placed on a victor’s head as a reward for winning an athletic contest. As such, this word is used figuratively in the New Testament of the rewards of heaven God promises those who are faithful.”*

In 1 COR 9.24, Paul–evidently a sports fan–uses an allusion to the ancient Isthmian Games to illustrate how these crowns figure in the life of the believer: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.” Paul is not suggesting that only one of each kind of crown will be awarded in heaven, but that every believer should view his or her life as a race and run to win.

The crowns mentioned in the New Testament are not the wreaths of the Greek games, which were already dead when they were placed on the heads of the victors. Instead, they are “imperishable” rewards that will last for eternity. (1 COR 9.25)

The second kind of crown is the “Crown of Rejoicing,” (1 THE 2.19) or literally, a “Crown of Boasting.” Paul purposed not to boast in anything but his identity in Christ, and in this text he suggests that the Thessalonian believers will give him cause to boast in the grace of God when he gets to heaven because they will be with him there for all eternity.

Paul writes that the third crown, the “Crown of Righteousness,” will be rewarded to “all who have loved his appearing.” (2 TIM 4.8) He is writing at the end of his life, just before he is martyred by the Romans for his faith in Christ and his earth-shaking  ministry throughout the Roman world. Given the chaos and evil of our day, all believers in Jesus should “love his appearing,” the instantaneous removal of true Christians from the earth just before the horrific “Time of Jacob’s Trouble.” Sadly, some do not.

Given the chaos and evil of our day, all believers in Jesus should “love his appearing.” Sadly, some do not.

1 PET 5.4 mentions a fourth crown, the “Crown of Glory,” which will be awarded to those who faithfully, eagerly, selflessly “shepherd the flock of God.”  While the rewards on earth for this work may be few and small, the reward in heaven will be glorious beyond all imagination.

The fifth crown is the one we see here in James 1.12: the “Crown of Life.” It is mentioned in REV 2.10 in the same way: as a reward for steadfastness in the midst of suffering. First Century followers of Jesus were being put to death by the thousands in unspeakably horrible ways, and all of these writers were well acquainted with this reality. Paul was martyred by the Romans shortly after he wrote his second letter to Timothy. John died alone in exile on the island of Patmos just after writing Revelation. Historians tell us James was killed in Jerusalem  in 62 A.D. by being thrown off the roof of the temple and then stoned.

In our text, James 1.12, we should notice several important things.

STEADFASTNESS IN TROUBLE IS A BLESSING

Just as when he exhorted his readers to “count it all joy” when they encountered all kinds of trials, James reminds them that doing so–remaining “steadfast under trial”–will result in their blessing. Endurance, like joy, is not contingent upon the intensity of the trouble, but on the faithfulness of God. Further, steadfastness in the midst of affliction yields more than “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (PHI 4.7)–a blessing in itself, given the array of things which would rob of us of peace. It also ensures us this mysterious, glorious “crown of life.”

STEADFASTNESS IS ONLY POSSIBLE IN TESTING

Obviously, if there is no test, there is no reason to be steadfast. The very word implies stress, trouble, pain, sorrow, heartache, and any number of other nouns we could use to describe human experience during its darkest hours. Aspirants to the “Crown of Life,” Beware!

STEADFASTNESS DEMONSTRATES LOVE FOR GOD

Notice how James connects endurance and love: the one who remains steadfast in trial will receive the crown of life, which God will give to all who love him. Clearly, then, steadfastness is a way in which we demonstrate true love for God. As it has been throughout history, the crown of life may be inextricably joined to the sentence of death. Our friend Chet Bitterman understood this. He was killed for his faith in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1981 after 48 days in captivity. “There was found an entry in Chet’s journal written nearly 2 years before his death that read. ‘The situation in Nicaragua is getting worse. If Nicaragua falls, I guess the rest of Central America will too. Maybe this is just some kind of self-inflicted Martyr complex, but I find this recurring thought that perhaps God will call me to be martyred in His service in Colombia. I am willing.'”

Even as I write this post, we are hearing reports of the unthinkable brutality of ISIS in Iraq and elsewhere. We have precious friends from Iraq–from the Kurdish region as well as from elsewhere in the country–and our hearts go out to the suffering citizens of this blood-soaked nation. These fanatical, bloodthirsty extremists have demanded that “infidels” convert to Islam or face immediate death, and it has been reported that hundreds of what I call “CNN Christians”–those who claim allegiance to Christianity or who are thought to be Christians simply because they are not something else–have capitulated.

No crown of life for them.

I pray that God would empower those who are truly His to remain “steadfast under trial” and “faithful unto death.”

 

 

THE WIDOW’S MIGHT: Giving Everything When You’ve Got Nothing


As Brother Thaddeus lit the torch in the hall, Paul paused to glance at the fading opulence of this sprawling villa just south of Berea. The remaining furnishings cast their ornate shadows upon cracked walls poorly disguised by a few threadbare tapestries. Many tiles were missing from the mosaic floor, and the Syrian carpet was faded and torn.

The apostle had been dumbfounded when this congregation had presented him with a love gift on this, his last day with them. In addition to the gold and silver coins, there were rings, bracelets, nose rings, brooches, and several unset gems. His heart overflowed with affection for this little band of believers. A marked people in a pagan city, they were being severely tried for their faith in Jesus. Money was scarce. Some shivered in thin, tattered clothing. Others had not eaten yet today. Many bore the marks of brutal beatings. Thaddeus, who had been removed from his government post for refusing to say, “Caesar is Lord” upon entering the council chambers, had been strangely unable to sell his property, and his taxes had taken an unexpected jump. Paul hoped his last sermon would encourage them all…

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“So as Jesus sat by the temple doors with His disciples, the worshipers filed by and dropped there offerings into the massive, carved chest which is opened each Sabbath to receive the tithes of the Jews.

“Our Lord watched closely. Prominent men strode sedately to the coffer, their elegant robes sweeping the marble floor, and with practiced flourishes dropped fistfuls of silver from their brocade purses. Pharisees and members of the religious councils would bow and scrape piously, glancing about to make sure none of their generous contributions slipped into the box unappreciated.

“Occasionally, one of the Twelve would gasp as the equivalent of an entire year’s earnings passed before his eyes and clattered onto the growing heap of coins.

“Then, as several of my associates quietly speculated about the possible uses for such a fortune, a young widow entered the hall and shuffled over to the treasury in her patched sandals, carrying a whimpering infant and pulling a dirty toddler with her. No flowing robes here. No gold, no jewels, no wish to be seen by anyone but God. Clumsily she fished two tiny coins from the threadbare pouch fastened to her tunic. Whispering a silent prayer of thanksgiving, her damp eyes full of hope and adoration, she dropped her very life into that chest, its tinkling barely  audible as it, too, landed on the heap.

“Instantly, the Master was on His feet.

‘Did you see that poor widow, my friends? That one, over there. She just put two mites into the treasury, but I tell you assuredly that she has given more than all these well-heeled hypocrites put together! And do you know why? Because those two mites were all she had. They gave token amounts out of their vast wealth, doing their best to appear generous and holy. But she, in her poverty, gave everything to her Heavenly Father. He will reward her richly for this!’

Though we don’t actually know what Paul taught the Macedonian believers about giving, the apostle held them up to the Corinthians–wealthy, urbane believers in a city directly south of Macedonia–as model givers. They are an example to us, as well. If we could master the principles by which they lived, the cause of Christ would be propelled forward exponentially. People in our communities would not go hungry or unclothed. Believers would be more content and better able to serve the Lord.

Just what was it about these anonymous Christians that made their gifts so special? Four simple observations can reveal their secret of giving.

A DIFFERENT  PERSPECTIVE ON THINGS AND CIRCUMSTANCES

The Macedonian Christians had a different perspective on things and circumstances from most of us. In 2 Corinthians 8.1-2, Paul writes, We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.

What an amazing statement! In our culture, affliction and joy, poverty and liberality–these are perceived as mutually exclusive. We don’t expect afflicted people to be joyful; indeed, when they are we question their grasp of reality. We certainly don’t expect the poor to give generously to others–we expect others to give to them! So when we read of these wonderful people who were both oppressed and poverty-stricken, we marvel. Affliction did not rob them of their joy, and poverty did not rob them of their generosity.

Joyfulness and generosity must be conscious decisions we make as Christians, irrespective of circumstances. They are directly related to our priorities. Our tendency is to pursue what is not important, to wish for what is not possible (see PRO 23.1-3), and to take pride in what is not ours. (PRO 30.8,9) What a contrast to those struggling Macedonians, enduring one of the early waves of persecution which swept over the Church in the first century.

A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE ON FAITH

Their perspective on faith was different, as well. Paul writes in verses three and four, For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints… We often give according to what we can afford. This is not wrong, but it is not faith. As we learn to give, it is a good place to begin, as Paul says in verse 12: For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have. But that was not enough for the Macedonian believers. They gave beyond their ability. They gave according to faith, not figures. Not only that, but they “begged…earnestly”. There was no reluctance, no need for reminders, as in Corinth. They were “cheerful givers,” not giving  “reluctantly or under compulsion.” (1 COR 9.7)

Sometimes the poor are more generous than the rich. Perhaps this pattern was evidence in Paul’s day, as well, and prompted him to write, As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the certainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share. (1 TIM 6.17,18)

Either we trust God or we don’t. If we don’t, no amount of money will be enough to please Him. If we do, no amount will be too much. He can afford whatever we decide to give.

A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE ON MINISTRY

An incident over thirty years ago taught me a lesson I hope I will never forget.

I went with a friend to visit a rural family in Nova Scotia who lived in a two-room block cottage with no hot running water, little heat, and just enough food to keep the lions in their bellies from roaring too loudly. It was a bitterly cold winter, and they had to wear their coats inside to keep warm.

They had recently immigrated from England. The man was out of work, with no prospects. His wife was ill and they had two small children.

But they were a Christian family, and there was joy in the home despite the hardship. We had a good time of fellowship, and when my friend and I went out to the car, the man came with us. As we said good-bye, he stuffed a five dollar bill into my hand.

“I–bu–I can’t take this from you!” I stammered. “I should be giving you money.”

“Listen, Brother,” my new friend replied in his direct manner, “does your Bible say it is better to give than to receive?”

“Of course it does, but—“

“Then who are you to deprive me of the blessing of giving?”

He had me there.

The Macedonians might have asked this question had Paul refused their gift. Indeed, he says they begged…earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints. (2 COR 8.4) These impoverished disciples knew God could use them despite their need, and they considered the needs of their Judean brothers and sisters more pressing than their own. The realization that we all minister together with God and that we are equally important in His program will affect how we give out of what He has given to us.

A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE ON COMMITMENT

Paul seems surprised himself as he writes of the Macedonians, and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us. (2 COR 8.5) Just as the widow in the temple, they had given God their very lives, so it was no great thing to offer Him a gift to ease the pain of His children in Judea and give His servant a nice send-off.

To be truly cheerful givers, we must give ourselves to God. Such a gift is not beyond the call of duty. Indeed, Romans 12.1 calls it our “spiritual worship.” This sacrifice comes with the knowledge that if the Lord can’t have us, He doesn’t want our money. And if He does have us, He already has our money, too. All of it.

If that poor widow had only known how many precious gifts her spirit would inspire, her steps would have quickened, her face would have radiated with humble thanksgiving to her Lord for using her so.

She knows now.

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