Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Double Agents

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

-- Matthew 6:24

Maybe you’ve experienced (or are now going through) the discomfort and uncertainty of a job layoff or so-called corporate right-sizing. But if your career is at least a few years old, chances are that you’ve at some point gone job hunting on your own and landed a better position...and all while you were still earning a paycheck from your current company. You were the one who did the firing when you broke your big news to your boss. And if you followed accepted corporate protocol, you probably gave your employer a two weeks’ notice.

You were in the driver’s seat at that point. But still, it was likely an awkward situation - particularly if you were well-liked around the office. And odds are that you probably didn’t get much done during those final days on the job. Although you still appreciated your company and wanted it to succeed, you somehow felt out of place. Conversations with your co-workers became forced. And your efforts were sometimes half-hearted because you felt torn by your past accomplishments and your future endeavors.

Divided loyalties are uncomfortable when it comes to your career. But think about how they affect something that’s much more important: your spiritual life.

As Christ-followers, we’ve accepted God’s invitation to meet all our needs in every area of our lives. That covers deeply intimate issues involving our significance, happiness, value and self-worth. And let’s not forget our money and possessions. But deep down, too many of us would rather depend on our bank accounts, 401ks and job titles.

Unfortunately, money and possessions are often God’s greatest competitors for the loyalty of our hearts and minds. We think we can buy security and satisfaction, or even reach career milestones on our own merits. Our rationale is that if we’re doing OK on the job and there’s money in the bank, why should we depend on Him? That can be our mindset when we turn a good thing like money into a god thing. 

The fact is that what we do with our paychecks is a test of how well we use God’s blessings. And how we handle our finances is also an accurate barometer of our faith.

Our jobs, bank accounts, and health - those things in which we can mistakenly place our faith - can disappear overnight through either poor planning or unexpected circumstances. But the good news is that we worship a God who’s much greater than any natural disaster, economic downturn or international dispute. He literally spoke the universe into creation, formed great mountain ranges with His hands and parted the seas with a breath.

“Is anything too hard for the Lord?” asks the writer of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. As we peruse our bank statements, stock portfolios and resumes, it’s a question we would all do well to ask ourselves.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

First Things First

I know how to live when I am poor, and I know how to live when I have plenty. I have learned the secret of being happy at any time in everything that happens, when I have enough to eat and when I go hungry, when I have more than I need and when I do not have enough.

-- Philippians 4:12

The story goes that a reporter once interviewed a billionaire and marveled at the rich man's ability to amass wealth. "Just how much money is enough?" the reporter inquired. 

"Just a little bit more," replied the billionaire.

Whether you're rich, living from paycheck to paycheck or somewhere in between, a little bit more always seems to be the remedy for life's dissatisfactions. Rather than In God We Trust, perhaps America's national motto should be Supersize It.

God has blessed us with a nation of incredible wealth. Even our poor and unemployed could be considered rich by the standards of most of the world. Yet an epidemic of discontentment tends to blind us to this fact. The more possessions we gather and the higher we climb on the corporate ladder, the more disillusioned and unfulfilled we become. And rather than thanking God for His blessings and making the most of them, we wonder (often aloud) if this is all there is to life.

This so-called disease of discontentment has some nasty symptoms. Those afflicted with the malady often turn to alcohol, street drugs, illicit relationships and gambling to ease the self-inflicted pain. Things might get better for a while. But the hunger returns soon enough.

This problem is hardly new. And it's not confined to the United States or even Western society. In fact, the Bible addressed the issues of greed and discontentment centuries ago. And its advice is as valid today as it was back then.

First, be sure to think about all the ways God has blessed you. It could involve your family, career, health, friends ... just count the ways. Then, stop trying to compare what you have with your neighbor's possessions. Advertising agencies prosper when they convince folks that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. But don't forget that someone else is probably wishing they could enjoy just one or two of your blessings!

Like that elusive blessing called joy, contentment isn't something that we can get by buying a new car, moving into a bigger house or landing that job with the corner office. Contentment is instead an internal source of fulfillment and comfort acquired by knowing our Savior and living out the abundant life He's purchased for us.

It's really all about Jesus. A growing relationship with Him renders contentment because there's nothing bigger, better or more necessary. Comparisons fall away and material things lose their luster. What was once so important soon fades into obscurity.

Does this sound simplistic or too good to be true? A whole new life really is but inches away: it's the distance between our head and our heart. The fact is that every one of us is free to accept Jesus' grand offer and grow in contentment.
"Seek first God's kingdom and what God wants," He tells us through Matthew's Gospel. "Then all your other needs will be met as well."

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Heart of the Matter

"Warn the rich people of this world not to be proud or to trust in wealth that is easily lost. Tell them to have faith in God, who is rich and blesses us with everything we need to enjoy life. Instruct them to do as many good deeds as they can and to help everyone. Remind the rich to be generous and share what they have. This will lay a solid foundation for the future, so that they will know what true life is like."

-- 1 Timothy 6:17-19

The statistics are literally heart-stopping. 

According to the American Heart Association, an estimated 81 million American adults (more than one in three) have one or more types of cardiovascular disease (CVD). The organization’s 2010 mortality data also reveal that 2,300 Americans die of CVD each day, which averages to one death every 38 seconds. What’s more, CVD claims more lives each year than cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases and accidents combined.

It’s obvious that our nation faces a cardiac crisis. But there’s another serious heart problem that doesn’t involve cigarettes, cholesterol management or low fat diets:

Far too many Christ-followers lack a heart that’s willing to give according to the resources God has richly given them. And when they do open their pocketbooks, it’s often done grudgingly.

Of course, that’s not the example God gives us through His Word, the Bible. If there’s a short lesson we can learn from God’s principles about money and possessions, it’s Be Generous.

We worship a God of generosity. And He wants us to follow His example and spread His Kingdom throughout the world. One way to do that is to follow the Biblical principle of the tithe, which means returning to Him the first 10 percent of our income through the local church. Obviously, the God who created the universe with a Word hardly needs our money. But following this savvy practice accomplishes much. In addition to enabling the church to better spread the Good News about Jesus and help Christ-followers grow spiritually and benefit our community, generous, purposeful giving demonstrates how much we differ from society.

The world teaches that cash is king and that he who has the most toys wins. Money and possessions are its god. However, Christ-followers are to give away that which will eventually rust and fade away for something much more permanent and valuable. Our Lord also knows our inner nature; if we didn’t give to others, our selfish natures would inevitably take over.

There are many reasons why Christ-followers fail to give to their potential. For some, it’s a lack of sound Biblical teaching on the matter. For others, it might be a lack of financial planning or even debt issues. And unfortunately, basic selfishness often figures into the equation.

“Who has known the mind of the Lord?” asks the Apostle Paul through the Book of Romans. And that’s a great question when it comes to money. After all, what if God had commanded us to give 80 percent of our income and live on the remaining 20? But He didn’t. Instead, we should ask ourselves if we believe that our Creator – the one who raised His own Son from the dead – can let us do more with 90 cents than we ever could on our own with the whole dollar.

The Bible doesn’t advocate gambling. But when it comes to money and possessions, putting your bottom dollar on God’s abilities is the safest bet of all. 

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Cash Flow

Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

-- 2 Corinthians 9:7

God doesn't really need your money.

That might be one of the last things you'd expect to read in a church newsletter. But think about it. Since God can speak all creation into existence, part the Red Sea with a breath and live among us in human form (through Jesus Christ), it's safe to assume that He doesn't need a hefty bank account or a high limit American Express Gold Card to get things done.

So why for centuries have Christ-followers given a portion of their incomes to help achieve God's will on earth? First, God is the ultimate giver. And He wants us - His children - to be that way, too. And a great way to start is by considering some of the things we tend to take for granted - the many priceless gifts He gives us every day. Our lists might vary, but they probably include health, job, home, family, friends and church. The fact is that we're all incredibly blessed in countless ways - regardless of our circumstances.

How about God's ultimate gift: the forgiveness of our sins and an eternal relationship with Him through our faith in Jesus? Salvation is one gift that's so expensive we could never buy or earn it ourselves. But since Jesus paid our way through His death on the Cross, it's free to anyone who's willing to accept it.

So although we can't out-give God, we should still become more like Him as we progress in our individual faith journeys. But there's another important issue in this process. God recognizes that people tend to grossly overestimate the true value of money and possessions. It can even get to the point where our money - which should only be our servant - becomes our master. This can happen through constant spending on what we don't really need...and eventually lead to our virtual enslavement when we're over our heads in debt.

That's not the way God wants it for His children. Instead, we're to look to Him - rather than money - as our Provider. The economic and social hardships from the current recession should be constant reminders that bank accounts, careers and 401ks can disappear overnight. Of course, money troubles can also be self-inflicted in even the best economy through greed (think can't-miss stocks and get-rich-quick schemes!), laziness and poor planning.

But here's something to consider that puts it all into perspective: Rich or poor, not one of us really owns anything in this lifetime. Instead, we're simply temporary managers of the resources - our money, time and talents - that God has entrusted to us. The bottom line is that all creation ultimately belongs to the Creator.

As Christ-followers, we're called to serve as God's hands and feet to feed the hungry, heal the sick and house the homeless. And by being generous givers of our money and resources, and making generosity a spiritual habit, we can do just that - and all while becoming more like Him and changing our world for the better.
"Don't store up treasures on earth! Moths and rust can destroy them, and thieves can break in and steal them," Jesus reminds us. "Instead, store up your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy them, and thieves cannot break in and steal them. Your heart will always be where your treasure is."

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Gospel Truth

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16-17

Can you really believe what's in the Bible? And is all that stuff about Jesus rising from the dead really true?

Those are some lofty questions with eternal consequences. But who really knows the truth? After all, some people say the Bible is too old to be relevant in the 21st Century. Others doubt the possibility of all the miracles it reports. And still others say the Bible is no greater than the scriptures used by other religions.

With so many legitimate concerns out there, what makes the Bible stand out above every book ever written?

First, the Bible claims to be God's Word. But what's more is that it backs up these claims with hundreds of prophesies (predictions) about events that eventually happened decades or centuries later. For instance, the Old Testament records in detail God's plan for saving mankind through a Messiah. The prophet Micah wrote that the Savior would be born -- in of all places -- an obscure Middle Eastern town called Bethlehem. And as we read in the New Testament, Jesus actually fulfilled these prophesies in person through His birth, ministry, death and resurrection. And he did so to the letter!

Historically and scientifically accurate, the Bible is also the most studied and critiqued book in history. Try as many have, no one has been able to disprove its claims. Luke, the physician who wrote the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, also wanted the real scoop. So he interviewed the people who knew Jesus best and could attest to His reality. Consider the opening lines of Luke's first book:

"Many people have tried to tell the story of what God has done among us. They wrote what we had been told by the ones who were there in the beginning and saw what happened. So I made a careful study of everything and then decided to write and tell you exactly what took place. ... I have done this to let you know the truth about what you have heard."

 The Apostle Peter - someone who knew Jesus personally - also reassures us through his own testimony:

"When we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, we were not telling just clever stories that someone invented," he reported. "But we saw the greatness of Jesus with our own eyes."

It all adds up to a mountain of convincing evidence that would stand up in court. So as Christ-followers seeking to grow in our faith, what's our response to this awesome reality?

First, we should take time each day to read and memorize His Word. After all, it's His message to us that covers just about every facet of life. And of course, we also need to obey it - even if it doesn't make sense at the time. What's more, we should delight in it because we know it's the source of truth for our life. And this all leads to our final response: trust.

Yes, God's Word to us through the Bible is trustworthy. And who better to confirm that than someone who very much believed it Himself: Jesus. Luke's Gospel tells us that Christ even launched His public ministry by reading passages from the Book of Isaiah. A tiny Jewish congregation was the first audience for these stunning words of new-found meaning. But Jesus also meant them for everyone -- even those today -- with ears to hear them:

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."