By Linda Rex
Many years ago, I attended a mega church for a while. It was located a little distance from me but provided some important counseling resources which were not available in my neighborhood, nor with the other church I normally attended.
One of the first things I noticed about this church was that nearly every car in the parking lot was only two to three years old and in good condition. I was a little embarrassed to have to park my old clunker next to the shiny minivans and SUV’s, but I did it anyway. As I walked inside the building, the people around me seemed friendly, though preoccupied. They were good folks, and I found it quite easy to melt into the crowd and not have to engage anyone in conversation.
After a few weeks, I became more and more aware of the subtle difference in financial status between me and the other people in the church. Most of the conversations between the people in the study group I joined involved decisions about a second or third car, a summer home, or a long vacation in Hawaii. I did not feel able to contribute anything to these conversations because I was still wondering how on minimum pay I would handle all the bills I had coming due in the next week. It was rather awkward for me, but I was there to study the Word of God with fellow believers, not to wrestle with financial inequities. So I let it go.
As the years have passed I have on occasion experienced more of this disparity between the wealthy church, and the broken community within and without the church who needs helped and healed. I have met and grown to love some pretty amazing people for whom the distress of suffering financially or physically is a foreign concept, or one they have experienced only briefly in their lives.
These people are compassionate and generous, but they can sometimes be completely out of touch with the everyday struggles of the needy. It’s not that they don’t care or are indifferent, but that it’s either not a part of their everyday experience, or they feel it would not be genuinely helpful for them to take on responsibilities which belong to the people who are struggling. And they have a valid point.
The culture we live in today often looks perplexedly at the Christian church, wondering why we are not more helpful to those who are suffering. I have no doubt there is room for us to grow in our generosity and helpfulness towards the poor and needy. But it may be that those who are being critical of us have a skewed view of what it means to have life and to have it abundantly. In other words, it’s possible we value different things than they do.
Historically the church understood that divine abundance doesn’t necessarily involve monetary wealth. The kind of abundance Jesus spoke of has a whole lot more to do with the generous outflowing of love and grace from the God who made us and redeemed us than with physical wealth, popularity, and material goods. True abundance involves growing in our relationship with the God who made us and growing in Christlikeness, which involves struggle and sometimes suffering. It involves our participation in a spiritual community which has Christ at the center.
Wealth in itself is not a bad thing. Nor is it a sin to live comfortably in a safe neighborhood where everyone has large homes, big yards, and a swimming pool in the backyard. These blessings provide ample opportunities which would not exist otherwise, and include their own unique set of dangers and temptations. There are benefits and potholes in every walk of life.
Throughout the centuries the church as a whole and individually has at times fallen prey to the subtle deceit of greed in all of its forms. The financial well-being of churches and their leaders sometimes preempts the care of the poor and needy. The health-and-wealth gospel distorts the truth about the Word of God, equating financial and material success and abundance with proof of goodness, success, and godliness. It’s easy for well-blessed Christians to slide into a place of spiritual apathy or an unconscious desire for more and more when all their needs are supplied and they don’t have to struggle to make ends meet. Because of all this, those who are critical of Christians have been well-supplied with ammunition to find fault with us.
But the calling to the Christian church, whether wealthy or poor, still is to preach the gospel to those we encounter on the roads of life. We are to share with others the good news about Jesus Christ, no matter who they are, or in what situation we may find them.
In some ways it can seem easy to preach a meaningful gospel to someone who is starving or homeless. We can offer them what they are needing at the moment and then tell them about Jesus and his love for them. I would imagine it must be much easier to see God’s love in a real way when you are in real trouble and someone offers you love and grace in the midst of it.
It also seems to be much more difficult to preach the gospel and be heard by those who really have no need for God in their lives. When a person is reasonably content with their life, and is able to handle everything they face day by day, God is extraneous to them. In their lives, he really serves no purpose except perhaps to limit them in some way. Or their faith may just be something that is part of their family heritage and really has no personal impact upon their lives.
This is why as I see the material abundance in this country and encounter financially successful people in every walk of life, the question arises in my mind: How in the world do you share the gospel with people who feel no need for it? What do you offer to those who believe they already have all they need or can earn enough to supply it themselves? What if these people are much more generous to the needy and poor than those worshipping in your own church down the street? Why should they care about becoming a Christian when Jesus or those who represent him seem indifferent to them, as well as to those who are suffering or doing without?
The gospel we need to tell must offer something much deeper than just relief from suffering or freedom from sin. The gospel must touch at the core of our humanity. We need to help people personally encounter in Jesus Christ the amazing God who created us and sustains us and who calls us into relationship with himself.
The gospel we offer has great power. It is such good news! In Jesus Christ, we are given the real presence of God in our humanity, living our life, dying our death, and raising us to new life, a life which is at this moment hidden with Christ in God and offered to us right now in the gift of the Holy Spirit. Surely, there is a deep hunger hidden somewhere in the human heart, longing to hear this good news, no matter how distracted a person may be by their abundance and blessings.
And so, we pray. We serve. We love. We pray and care for each and every person we meet, helping them see God is offering them the same gift which was given to us. And we trust in God’s good time, he will enable them to encounter the truth of their need for him, and the wonder of his precious gift of life in Christ Jesus by the Holy Spirit.
Abba, thank you for your faithful love and for all the abundant blessings we receive from you. Thank you for the gift of both prosperity and poverty, for in the midst of each of these we can come to know you and learn to trust you more. May we always be on guard against greed and indifference, and freely share with others all you have provided for us, through Jesus, and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Then He said to them, ‘Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.’” Luke 12:15 NASB
“For our exhortation does not come from error or impurity or by way of deceit; but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts. For we never came with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness—nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority. But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.” 1 Thessalonians 2:3-8 NASB
by Linda Rex
As I was looking at some scriptures this morning, I was struck by the way the psalmists often remind us to not forget God’s benefits. It got me to asking myself how many benefits are out there for us we are not even aware of, and are we even enjoying the benefits God offers to us each and every day?
Even though I work full-time hours as a pastor, I also work part time for another organization. One of the things I do at my other job is to help sign people up for benefits. These benefits are determined by the organization, and people are eligible for them if they meet certain criteria such as working the equivalent of 30-40 hours a week.
It is important for me to determine whether or not someone who is eligible for certain benefits has actually signed up for them and is receiving them like they should. There may be some really good benefits they could be receiving, but they might not even know those benefits are available to them or that they qualify for them.
Now in the working world, benefits can be things the employer pays for, but they can also be things we pay for. But God’s benefits to us are freely given to us by him. Any cost incurred was paid in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of his own Son Jesus Christ. We don’t owe him anything for these benefits other than gratitude, a gratitude which expresses itself by living in loving relationship with God and others.
So what are some of God’s free benefits? The most significant and life-transforming benefit God gives us is eternal life—a knowing and being known at an intimate level both now and for all eternity by God, because of God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ, and his gift to us of his Spirit. God through Jesus and by the Spirit intervenes in our human existence and brings redemption, healing, renewal and abundant living. God’s benefits also include a deep and abiding love and compassion, and personal participation of Christ by the Spirit with us, in the midst of our suffering and daily struggles.
So, this begs a question: Do we have to sign up for these benefits in order to receive them? What if we don’t even know about these benefits? Does this mean we never receive them at all—we’re just out of luck—too bad, so sad?
The truth is, God’s giving of his benefits to us as his creatures, made in his image, is a freely given gift. God gives us all of his benefits, not because we deserve them, or we have earned them, but merely out of the abundance of his great love. He is the Benefit-giving God. It is his nature to be beneficent.
Considering all God has provided for us not only in this amazing cosmos we live in and earth we live on, but also in all he has given us in sending his Son and giving us his Spirit, we are really overflowing each moment with benefits. It may feel like our world is falling apart, or God is indifferent to our existence, but the truth is, we are held in the midst of his love and grace, and we are abundantly blessed with his benefits.
These benefits are ours just because we are God’s creatures, his beloved and redeemed children. The thing is, we have an extremely difficult time participating in and enjoying these benefits when we either don’t know about them, don’t recognize them, or refuse to embrace and receive them as a free gift from the Giver of all Benefits.
We may think we need to sign up for them in order to have them, but the reality is—they belong to us already. How we participate in, enjoy and experience these benefits has more to do with our relationship with the Benefit-Giver than in our experience of the benefits themselves or our need to do something to enjoy them. When we turn to Christ in faith, we find our eyes and hearts opened to the deeper reality of an immense array of benefits at our disposal, many of which we didn’t know existed or thought were worthless.
And God is not expecting us to pay him back for the benefits he gives us. Rather, he is inviting us to turn away from ourselves, and all our other loyalties, and to turn back to him in face-to-face relationship so we can experience the fullness of his benefits. He’s offering us what the deepest longings of our hearts cry out for—to be truly and deeply known and loved. And this comes as a free gift to us—something he has already paid the price for.
This leaves us with only one thing to do—to give thanks! And we do this out of a heart overflowing with gratitude for all God’s goodness, grace and love. Yes, there will be times when we lose sight of all God has done and is doing because life is such a struggle or so distracting. But even then, God will remind once again to live gratefully by sending his Spirit to whisper his Word into our heart: the echoes of the psalmist’s song, “forget none of His benefits.”
Abba, thank you for all your overwhelming abundance of benefits which you pour out to us moment by moment, day by day. You are so generous to us! May your Spirit ever remind us when we forget of all the benefits which are ours, and grant us the grace to live gratefully in response, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name. Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget none of His benefits; Who pardons all your iniquities, who heals all your diseases; Who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with lovingkindness and compassion; Who satisfies your years with good things, so that your youth is renewed like the eagle. Psalm 103:1–5 NASB
By Linda Rex
The house is quiet tonight. All I hear at the moment is the sound of the concentrator as it pulls oxygen out of the air and pumps it through the line into my mother’s lungs. She’s been sleeping for hours now, and I’ve been unable to coax her to eat anything since lunchtime yesterday. Although I am sad about all that’s going on, I am happy that I can be here for her. Right now, being by her side is more important to me than the sleep I sorely need.
How I wish that rest were so easy for me at this moment! It would certainly help me to feel better, and to have more energy when I get up in the morning. But it doesn’t look like sleep is going to happen any time soon.
I read a devotional yesterday that spoke about rest as being a way in which we worship God. Now that is a spiritual discipline I could really get into at the moment—a true, deep rest would be really nice.
But such a rest isn’t going to happen unless and until I am ready to fully let go of all my concerns and give them all up to my heavenly Father. There is a rest that is mine that I have in Jesus, but I can’t participate in it until I’m willing to let go of my insistence upon handling everything myself. God calls each of us to take Christ’s yoke on and to learn from him—this is how we find rest.
Even in the midst of heavy, weighty issues in our life, we can feel light-hearted and at peace when we are fully trusting in the love and faithfulness of the Father, and are turning to Jesus Christ for all we need. Somehow, through his Spirit and by his living Son Jesus, God gives us the ability to weather catastrophes and griefs, and to come out the better for having experienced them.
It is this redemption I am counting on. I do not understand the why or how, but I know that God does. All he asks of me is to trust him and to rely on him in the midst of this journey through the dark valley. And I don’t do that alone—Jesus is present with me, in me and is for me as I go through it all. He is my peace.
And the other blessing that comes with this struggle is the nearness of others who are helping to carry the weight with me. The peace and rest that I find in dark times is often best experienced in the midst of loving, caring relationships with others who pray for me and lift me up even when I don’t ask them to. This creates gratitude which quickly turns to praise to God who so blesses me with and surrounds me with such love, compassion and grace. I am truly grateful for all of you who are lifting us up in prayer. May God bless you abundantly in return.
Dearest Lord God, thank you for offering each of us the rest that comes when we lay down our burdens at your feet and take on what you want us to carry instead. Grant grace and peace to those who are struggling even now, and pour out on them the strength they need to walk through the dark valley with you. May we each faithfully trust in you to work all things for our best benefit. We know you are a faithful God and you will do this through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Matthew 11:28–30 NASB
by Linda Rex
Lately I’ve been starting out my day reading a chapter from the Old Testament and a chapter from the New Testament. Today I was reading Chapter 27 in the book of Deuteronomy. Here Moses instructed the people about something they were to do when they entered the Promised Land. They were to divide the people up, with six tribes standing on Mount Gerizim and six tribes standing on Mount Ebal. Then the Levites were to recite curses and all the people were to respond with “Amen” to each curse.
Something occurred to me as I was reading this. It was something I never played close attention to when I read it before. And it really bugged me—enough that I had to stop and think seriously about it for a while.
If I were to ask you what many traditional and fundamentalist Christians have posted in their house or office somewhere, what would you say? I was in someone’s office the other day, and there it was, in bold print, so everyone who came in couldn’t miss it. Many Christians insist that the Ten Commandments are the trademark measurement of goodness and badness and what matters most to God in our relationship with him. So they post them where they and others can see them.
That being the case, I was stunned to see that nowhere in this list of sins these curses were for, were the Ten Commandments specifically listed. There wasn’t mention of a single commandment in relation to God and how the people were to relate to him. The others were related to some of the other six commandments, but they didn’t at all appear in the form you would see in Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5 where the Ten Commandments are listed.
If the Ten Commandments were so important for the people to be keeping, why weren’t they listed with the curses? And I found that it is interesting in the same respect that each of these things listed had to do with proper relationships between people, both in the family and in the community. The last one in the list was a summary statement pronouncing a curse on anyone who did not uphold the words of the law.
Then a blessing is pronounced in Chapter 28 and it has everything to do with Israel’s relationship with God and how they participated in their covenant of love with him. The blessings and cursings described in Chapter 28 are related to the way Israel behaved in their relationship with God and whether or not they lived in communion with him as the law instructed them to. The blessings and curses had to do with whether or not Israel as a nation trusted in God alone and was faithful to their covenant relationship with him.
In both of these cases, the Ten Commandments was supplanted to some extent, or shall I say, surpassed by, the greater law of covenant love. Our relationships with God and with each other are what really matter in the end. The consequence of living for ourselves and not living in communion and godly love with one another and God is well described in this listing of curses. And the blessings that come with living in the communion of the Holy Spirit with one another is clear to see as well. It explains why Jesus, when asked, said the most important commandment is to love God with one’s whole heart, soul, mind and being, and the second is to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Instead of seeing the law as a list of do’s and don’t’s that separate good people from bad people, we can see the law as an expression of what it looks like to live in loving relationship with God and each other. The simplicity of this is expressed in the NASB when it says that the people were to confirm the words of the law by the way in which they lived. We confirm our love relationship with God and each other by the way we treat God and each other, and by what goes on in our hearts and minds in each moment of each day as we interact with the world around us.
Going on beyond this, we are told by the Apostle Paul that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us…” (Gal. 3:13) So even our shortcomings in living out a relationship of love with God and each other are covered by our Savior. The prophetic word of Isaiah to Israel was that God would author a new covenant in which he said he would “put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Jer. 31:33). This is reflected on by the author of Hebrews, who explains the gift of God is the internal eternal Law of God, Jesus Christ, who has joined himself with humanity and who stands in our place as both the Lawgiver and the Lawkeeper.
Now I’m not against people posting the Ten Commandments places as a reminder of how to treat God and each other. That can be a good thing. But it is easy to hold to this external expression of goodness and badness by which we judge one another and to totally miss the mystery of godliness—Christ in us, the hope of glory. It is Christ who defines us, who lives his life in us and through us by his Holy Spirit. It is God who plants within us the heart, soul and mind to love him and each other from the core of our being with his own very own love, planted within us through Jesus Christ in the Spirit.
How often I have encountered people who are very busy with the externals of Christianity, but who are also vindictive, hateful, spiteful and even cruel—because the law has become to them a dividing point between goodness and badness between them and other people, and they have missed the One who gives Life and offers us an intimate relationship with himself through Christ in the communion of the Holy Spirit.
They are eating of the tree of good and evil and have missed entirely the tree of life offered us in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension. This seems to me to be the worst possible thing that could happen to anyone. And all these curses described in Deuteronomy cannot begin to describe what it’s like to live out one’s life in rejection of the One who is our life, our love, our obedience, our peace. That seems to me to describe in many ways what a personal hell looks like.
Dearest God, Thank you for giving us your Son so that we can live in loving relationship with you and each other. Thank you for your precious Spirit who opens our eyes and minds and hearts to see Jesus Christ living within, and who makes us receptive to the Truth and Life he is. Grant us the grace to seek Life in Jesus Christ instead of seeking to be our own gods and to live independently of you and each other. We trust you will finish your work in our hearts, minds and lives, through Jesus Christ. Amen.
“’Cursed is he who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” Deut. 27:26 NASB
“Jesus answered, ‘The foremost is, “HEAR, O ISRAEL! THE LORD OUR GOD IS ONE LORD; AND YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH.” The second is this, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’” Mark 12:29–31 NASB
by Linda Rex
One of the most unbelievable and amusing Bible stories is the one about the talking donkey and Balaam the seer. As a child I would imagine what it was like for the prophet to be riding along, trying to get his donkey to go where he wanted, even striking him to force him through a narrow passage. And then, all of a sudden, the aggravated donkey started talking: “What have I ever done to you that you have beat me these three times?” What a start that must have given Balaam!
This story from Numbers 22-24 captures the imagination of children and adults alike. But by focusing on the more unbelievable aspects of the story, I think we can miss a fabulous expression of the love and devotion of God to his people and to all humanity that is hidden in these passages.
Balak, the king of Moab, was getting nervous. The huge multitude of Israelites was traveling through the plains near him. The Amorites had attacked them, but they had defeated the Amorites, taking away from them land and cities that had once belonged to the Moabites. Balak feared that his nation would soon be overwhelmed by the Israelites and be defeated as well.
So Balak sent a message to the seer Balaam and requested that he place a curse on the Israelites. Balaam’s reputation was such that the people of his day believed that whoever he cursed would be cursed and whoever he blessed would be blessed. Balaam countered this by saying he could only do what God allowed.
As the story progresses, we see that every time Balaam tried to curse Israel, he ended up pronouncing a blessing over them instead. Balak, of course, was offering Balaam great wealth to do as he asked. But Balaam was unable to curse the nation of Israel. God had determined that Israel would be blessed and not cursed. And no prophet, king or anyone else was going to reverse God’s will.
Finally, after three tries, Balak and Balaam gave up. Israel not only had a blessing declared over her three times, but in the midst of this blessing, God predicted the coming of a scepter rising from Israel—this statement we understand today to be a reference to the coming Messiah.
It was God’s will that Israel be blessed because God had chosen Israel to be his very own people. He was in covenant relationship with them. And one day all people would be blessed through them—this was a promise he made to Abraham, their forefather. God had determined that Israel would be blessed and through them in their Messiah, all humanity would be blessed. And nobody can curse what God has determined to be blessed.
Even though in the future Israel would sin over and over again, turning away from God to the local gods of the nations around them and participating in their sins, God did not revoke his commitment to send a Messiah. He did not stop loving them and working for their ultimate blessing and the blessing of all humanity in Christ.
Israel, and all of humanity for that matter, have rejected God and disobeyed him, yet none of this has annulled our eternal relationship with God in Christ. God in Jesus took on our humanity and joined himself to us forever. Our relationship with God is secure—we are “blessed … in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph. 1:3 NIV) God may chasten us as sons (Heb. 12:7 NIV), but his love and blessing do not change. We are reconciled to God in Christ—we live in union with him. It is now a question of fellowship or communion, not union.
We are all God’s children, in Christ. Our badness or goodness does not alter God being for us, with us and in us. It does, however, alter our experience of this reality. When we deny who we are as God’s children, made to reflect his image, and we attempt to live outside the divine life and love, we experience alienation from God. We believe we are outside, excluded from God’s household, when in reality we are included, having been created and renewed in Christ to live in relationship with God and each other. So we experience fear and anxiety instead of God’s love, power, and self-control.
God has included all humanity by making a place for each person at the wedding supper of the Lamb. And he has handed to each person the appropriate wedding garment, Jesus Christ. We can choose to not even show up at the banquet. Or we can refuse to trust in Christ at all and depend solely upon our own ability to put together the perfect wedding ensemble to wear. Or we can choose to put on Christ instead of our old garments of self-justification and carnality and fully experience the joy of the wedding party. God has given us the freedom to choose. What will we trust in? What do we believe to be true about ourselves and about God?
God has determined to bless all humanity and not to curse us. He has determined to bless us with salvation, with an intimate relationship with himself in Christ through the Spirit. All the efforts of the evil one and his cohorts to curse you and me or to destroy that relationship are futile in the face of God’s heart toward us in Christ, which is good. We are all under God’s blessing, not his curse.
And with that being the case, shouldn’t we guard against ever cursing another human being? There ought to only be praise on our lips, for God has determined that they are his chosen ones as well, and they are under his blessing, not his curse. The evil one and our sinful nature may find many ways to lead us into sin, but none of these change the reality that we are reconciled with God in Christ and are held forever in an intimate relationship with him in the Spirit.
Holy God of Glory, God of Israel and of all humanity, I thank you that you have chosen us as your people, and you have done and are doing everything in your power to ensure that all humanity might share in your blessings forever. Renew in each of us a vision of who we are in Christ, and grant us the grace to experience for ourselves and to share with others the wonder of the intimate relationship you have given to us in Jesus Christ. In whose name we pray. Amen.
“He took up his discourse and said, “From Aram Balak has brought me, Moab’s king from the mountains of the East, ‘Come curse Jacob for me, And come, denounce Israel!’ “How shall I curse whom God has not cursed? And how can I denounce whom the LORD has not denounced? … Then he took up his discourse and said, “Arise, O Balak, and hear; Give ear to me, O son of Zippor! “God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good? “Behold, I have received a command to bless; When He has blessed, then I cannot revoke it.” … “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; A star shall come forth from Jacob, A scepter shall rise from Israel, And shall crush through the forehead of Moab, And tear down all the sons of Sheth.” Numbers 23:7–8, 18-20; 24:17
“With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh. James 3:9–12