Faith first

There’s a quiet little Scriptural principle about faith and love that encourages me. Let me see if I can explain it here in a way that makes sense.

I’ll start with my own experience today. This morning, driving into work, I was thinking about 1 John 4:7-21. It talks about God’s nature being love, and how that love is manifested to us and in us. First and foremost, God’s love is shown in the historical fact of Jesus becoming a man and dying for our sins. Second, it is shown as we let Him love others through us.

I began praying that I would show enough love to my students today that it would be a witness of God’s love for them, but as I thought about it, that seemed to assume that my own personal acts of love were somehow more important than the gospel itself. I decided the focus of my prayers shouldn’t be that people would be impressed by my love, but that they would be impressed by His.

Sure enough, just after my first class, I failed in a small but definite way to demonstrate love to one of my students. I tried to get past my own embarrassment and dismay to remember that it’s far more important that students see the love of God demonstrated in the gospel, than that they be impressed by me.

An hour later, in a time of worship and Bible study, several Christians confirmed this (without knowing it) by reminding me of the importance of simply remembering how much God loves me.

1 John 4:7-8 says,

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

Verses 11-12 say,

Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us.

Clearly, we are told to love one another, and that doing so displays the nature of God to others.

But right in between those two verses, we have these:

By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

In other words: Love others, and expect that to help them see God. But the most important thing isn’t what you do; it’s what God has done for you.

That brings me to the quiet little principle I promised at the beginning.

Scripture refers to faith and love as all-important elements of the Christian life, but they are important in different ways. Faith is where we must always start. Love is where we must always end up.

  • 2 Peter 1:5-8 describes Christian growth as a process which begins with faith and leads step by step to love.
  • 1 Timothy 1:5 says the goal of Christian teaching is love which springs from a sincere faith.
  • Galatians 5:6 says that the Christian life is characterized by faith working through love. In context, the point is that it must start from faith rather than self-effort. Faith sets to work and keeps working until it has worked its way all the way to love.

1 John makes the same point, but it describes faith specifically as faith in God’s love. In receiving the gospel,

… we have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. (1 John 4:16.)

This is where all our love starts:

We love, because He first loved us. (1 John 4:19.)

Ephesians 3:14-19 is similar:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, … that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.

Paul prays for believers to have the faith to see God’s love for them.

So the quiet little principle is this: Faith first, then love. Receive first, then give. Trust first, then obey. My first response to God, even before I give anything to him in ministry, is to receive what He gives me in the gospel. That way I’ll have all I need to give to others, and the focus will be on God’s grace, rather than on my obedience.

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Contaminated by holiness

Recently I mentioned to a few people that in Leviticus, sin is talked about almost as a contagious disease. It makes us unclean and then we cannot approach God. Sort of like being quarantined.

In Leviticus 6, the picture is almost the opposite. It’s as though holiness is the contagion, and it’s dangerous for humans.

Here are verses 8-11:

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Command Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘This is the law for the burnt offering: the burnt offering itself shall remain on the hearth on the altar all night until the morning, and the fire on the altar is to be kept burning on it. The priest is to put on his linen robe, and he shall put on undergarments next to his flesh; and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire reduces the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar. Then he shall take off his garments and put on other garments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place. 

Before the priest removes the ashes from the holy altar, he must don special “protective gear”. After the ashes are removed from the altar, he is supposed to take them outside the camp to dispose of them, but before he does that he has to change back out of the linen clothes, presumably to limit the contact of everyone else with the garments. Even he himself is protected from the linen clothes by special undergarments. Touching the altar “contaminates” the linen garments with holiness, and contact is kept to a minimum.

Here are verses 24-28.

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and to his sons, saying, ‘This is the law of the sin offering: in the place where the burnt offering is slain the sin offering shall be slain before the LORD; it is most holy. The priest who offers it for sin shall eat it. It shall be eaten in a holy place, in the court of the tent of meeting. Anyone who touches its flesh will become consecrated; and when any of its blood splashes on a garment, in a holy place you shall wash what was splashed on. Also the earthenware vessel in which it was boiled shall be broken; and if it was boiled in a bronze vessel, then it shall be scoured and rinsed in water.”

Once again, the point seems to be to limit human contact with the holy. Garments that come into contact with it must be washed, but only in the sanctuary area — they should not be taken outside the camp unwashed. Vessels that were used to cook the holy offerings must be either broken or at least scoured and rinsed.

Here is another passage that sounds sort of similar from Ezekiel 46:19-20.

Then he brought me through the entrance, which was at the side of the gate, into the holy chambers for the priests, which faced north; and behold, there was a place at the extreme rear toward the west. He said to me, “This is the place where the priests shall boil the guilt offering and the sin offering and where they shall bake the grain offering, in order that they may not bring them out into the outer court to transmit holiness to the people.

It also reminds me of this passage in Exodus 33:18-24:

Then Moses said, “I pray You, show me Your glory!” And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the LORD before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” But He said, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” Then the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand there on the rock; and it will come about, while My glory is passing by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.

This is all sort of strange and maybe profound.

Am I right in thinking that in Christ we are able to approach the holiness of God without fear or danger?

I frequently ponder the hiddenness of God, the way that he so rarely shows himself to people overtly. I’ve tended to assume we need to learn to see God in the ordinary. But these verses emphasize the opposite idea — the idea that God is anything but ordinary. They make it sound like he hides himself partly because he is protecting us from too direct a revelation.

How do all these thoughts fit together? I’m not sure yet … Feel free to speculate in the comments.

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Our pastor’s sermon yesterday was on forgiveness. Afterwards our family had a discussion about it. So here’re all the thoughts I have about forgiveness for now.

Forgiveness is odd. On the one hand, it is a kind of mercy, which means is it always strictly undeserved. If it was deserved, it wouldn’t be forgiveness but justice. On the other hand it is our obligation as Christians to forgive. So how can I be obligated to give someone something he doesn’t have a right to?

One possible solution is that my obligation to forgive other people is actually an obligation to God. He has forgiven me, and demands that I do the same. They can’t justly claim forgiveness from me, but God can justly require me to give it.

Another solution is say that certain relationships obligate us to forgive others. A father ought to have compassion and mercy toward his children, for example, according to both Scripture (Psalm 103:13) and common sense. I forgive my children quickly not because the nature of their offences obligates my forgiveness but because the nature of our relationship obligates it. Good fathers are merciful toward their children. Good marriages are built on forgiveness. Good families maintain an atmosphere of forgiveness.

Christians are obligated to forgive one another on both counts: because God commands it, and because we are spiritually brothers and sisters in Christ. (Colossians 3:12-13, 1 Peter 4:8, etc.)

On a related note, in the New Testament we tend to think of God’s forgiveness as the prerequisite for us to enter his family. We cannot become children of God until our sins are pardoned (Ephesians 1:7, for example). In the Old, forgiveness is presented as the result of being God’s children. God’s chosen people experience his mercy because they belong to him (2 Chronicles 7:14, for example). I think the gospels also look at forgiveness the same way.

Jesus often taught that if we do not forgive, God will not forgive us. I used to worry that somehow that meant that if we do not forgive, we lose our salvation; then for a while I took it as establishing a prerequisites for saving faith. Most of the verses are in the context of prayer, though, and in such cases I think there’s a simpler explanation. Jesus means simply that if we come to God with unforgiveness toward others, he won’t answer our prayers. As long as we ignore their pleas, we cannot expect God to hear ours. (Mark 11:25-26, Matthew 6:14-15, 18:19-22).

The pastor said yesterday that forgiveness does not mean forgetting what was done. Yet, Scripture also speaks of God’s forgiveness by saying He will remember our sins no more (Isaiah 43:25, Jeremiah 31:34, Hebrews 8:12,16-17). Why does it say that? My children’s answer was: it means that God will not focus on our sins. Love “keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Corinthians 13:5). That is, we remember what was done to us, but when we evaluate others, we do not take those wrongs into account. That means that as long as the only thing we think about is the wrong someone has done us, we still aren’t fully forgiving.

One way to think about forgiveness of believers is in terms of 2 Corinthians 5:16-17. There, Paul says that when we think of other Christians, we should think of them as new creatures in Christ. All the sin of their past is erased. Even if you, as a Christian, should sin against me, I need to see that as a mere reflection of who you used to be. It is a remnant of your old life. It comes from the flesh. It isn’t who you really are anymore. It isn’t who you will be when Jesus returns. Forgiving you means, among other things, seeing you as you are created to be in Christ, and refusing to identify you with the way you act when you sin.

Our pastor suggested that forgiveness is not an emotion, but merely an act of the will. I agree that forgiveness frequently starts with an act of the will, but our emotions should eventually fall in line as well. At its fullest, forgiveness will affect our emotions. It would be a mistake to think of God’s perfect forgiveness as begrudging, for example. Nor would it be very forgiving of me to say to someone, “I have forgiven you with my will, even though I still have feelings of hatred toward you, and always expect to.”

Still, as another one of my children pointed out, when someone has hurt us, there are a lot of emotions involved. In particular, there will probably be both resentment and sorrow. Forgiving someone may release me from the resentful emotions, but leave the sadness in place. That can make it hard to feel as though I’ve fully forgiven someone.

Sometimes forgiving someone takes a while. I think it’s significant that the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) has us pray “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The Lord’s Prayer is full of things that we are supposed to pray daily. “Give us this day our daily bread” – as opposed to praying “Give me everything I need for the rest of my life” once, and then being done with it. “Forgive us our trespasses” today as opposed to “Forgive me all my sins for the rest of my life” and then never asking again. In the same way, we pray “as we forgive those …” each day because each day we need to be reminded that we are forgiving others.

A few years ago I had difficulty forgiving someone. I kept trying to truly forgive and then discovering the next day that I still had resentment toward them. At first I felt discouraged; I took this as a sign that my decision to forgive hadn’t been real, hadn’t “taken” in some way. Then I realized that perhaps I simply needed to reaffirm my decision to forgive every day. “Since it’s a new day, God, I once again forgive ___.” Gradually, the discipline of regularly re-forgiving changed my feelings and my stance. The forgiveness that had been at first just an act of my will became something deeper and more consistent.

Forgiveness is different than pardon, I think. Pardon is releasing someone from the penalty that justice requires, whereas forgiveness is related to the relationship. If I am a Christian, and have a job as a judge, I am supposed to forgive people but I am not permitted to ignore justice and stop sentencing them. In real life, I’m not a judge, but I am a teacher. If I am to have integrity as a teacher, I need to grade people’s work accurately. If you don’t turn in a paper, I’ll give you a 0. I’ll forgive you, but I’ll still give you a 0.

That makes it difficult to know to what extent we are supposed to implement mercy and forgiveness in society and government. Luther taught that there were two realms. In the spiritual realm we are supposed to live by grace and forgive each other. In the worldly realm of government we are supposed to live by law and hold people to the consequences of their sins. Similar distinctions apply to warfare. C.S. Lewis said that it is completely consistent for a Christian soldier to pray for a man’s soul while trying to kill him. I think there’s some wisdom in all this, but I think there may be something wrong in it also. I don’t think the “two realms” can be compartmentalized so easily. But I don’t have a better suggestion.

God both pardons and forgives us, by the way.

Do others have to ask for forgiveness before we can forgive them? Well, in a practical sense, we must unilaterally forgive others before they repent. If we had to wait until others repented to do that, we’d be in trouble, because some people will never repent, and some who have hurt us may have died. Forgiveness in this unilateral sense is simply a change of attitude on our part. We let go of our resentment. We release them in our heart, for our own sake. As someone said, “Forgiveness is setting a prisoner free, and discovering that the prisoner was me.”

On the other hand, I think forgiveness proper does require repentance on the part of the offender. Scripture seems to speak of God as extending forgiveness to all who will accept it, as though the forgiveness is not really put into place until they repent and are saved. Although forgiveness is offered unilaterally, it cannot really be received by someone who is unwilling to admit he was wrong. (Psalm 86:5, Luke 24:47, Acts 10:43, etc. – see also Luke 17:3-4)

What about when Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing?” (Luke 23:34). What about when Stephen said, “Do not hold this sin against them?” (Acts 7:60). Isn’t that unilateral forgiveness?

Let’s start with Stephen. Does his prayer mean that all those who stoned him were forgiven all their sins? Hardly. I think it’s extremely unlikely that they all got saved. (How much did Stephen’s prayer connect to Saul’s eventual conversion? Hmm … set that aside for future consideration.) Did his prayer mean that all those who did not get saved were nonetheless forgiven by God for that particular sin apart from the blood of Christ? No, that doesn’t make sense either. In fact, if you think about it, the men who stoned Stephen were committing serious blasphemy against God. What right did Stephen have to ask that they be forgiven?

I think the best way to make sense of Stephen’s prayer is this. When those men stoned Stephen, they were ultimately sinning against God. They were also sinning against Stephen. While Stephen could not strictly speaking pardon their sins against God, he could release his own claim against them. He was saying, “God, deal with their sin as you need to, but I relinquish any claim I might have against them on the basis of what they are doing to me right now.”

I think Jesus was saying the same thing. He was speaking as a man being unjustly crucified. He was saying, “Father, I am, after all, dying that they might be forgiven. I certainly don’t want to also bring my own charge against them for killing me.”

There’s a lot here I don’t understand about the relationship between sins against us and sins against God and our “right” to bring our grievances to God for judgment. Some relevant passages might be Genesis 4:10, Revelation 6:9-11, John 20:23, Romans 12:19-20, Psalm 51:4.

In the Old Testament, there were several times when sacrifices were required for sins that people committed unknowingly. (Leviticus 4:2,13-14 for example.) Is it possible to be guilty for something that was not deliberate? Can our lives be stained by sin even when our hearts were innocent of any attempt to sin? I don’t know, but I do think that God sometimes used pictures of sin consistent with that idea. He seemed to want the Israelites to imagine sin as something we can commit without even trying. We can find ourselves unclean before God without even having intentionally done anything wrong.  Whether this reflects the idea that sin is not always deliberate, or whether it reflects that we deliberately sin even when we think we don’t, I am not sure.

I do agree with Paul Ricouer that the notion of being unclean before God is more basic than the notion of violating a moral code. We don’t start with the idea of a moral law, and only then develop the awareness that if we have violated it, we are cut off from the presence of God. Rather, we start with the sense of being wrong somehow, of being cut off from God, and then develop a sense of moral standards afterwards. Guilt is a more primitive notion than failure to follow a code, which corresponds to the fact that our sin goes deeper into us than our conscious choices.

The word conscience in Scripture does not refer primarily to a Jiminy-Cricket-like voice who tells us ahead of time what we should and shouldn’t do. It refers to the weight of guilt we experience after the fact, which tells us that we have become unclean and unfit to stand in God’s presence. Our forgiveness in Christ means first and foremost that we are objectively declared innocent before God, but it has a subjective impact on us as well. The weight of our sin is lifted, and our conscience is cleansed.

How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven,
Whose sin is covered!

How blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity,
And in whose spirit there is no deceit!

When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away
Through my groaning all day long.

For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me;
My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer.  Selah.

I acknowledged my sin to You,
And my iniquity I did not hide;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”;
And You forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah. (Psalm 32:1-5)

Praise the Lord!

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Leviticus 2

My quiet time today [back when I wrote this] was from Leviticus 2:

“Now when anyone presents a grain offering as an offering to the LORD, his offering shall be of fine flour, and he shall pour oil on it and put frankincense on it. He shall then bring it to Aaron’s sons the priests; and shall take from it his handful of its fine flour and of its oil with all of its frankincense. And the priest shall offer it up in smoke as its memorial portion on the altar, an offering by fire of a soothing aroma to the LORD …”

It reminded me of something very simple: that I can do my work each day in a way that brings pleasure to God.

I know that God’s forgiveness and cleansing is a permanent thing, that we have been given the righteousness of Christ, and that nothing we can do can make God love us either more or less. But I also know that, just as the actions I take and the thoughts I think can grieve the Holy Spirit, so they can please Him.

In the Old Testament, God trained the Israelites to see him as taking pleasure in their sacrifices, using the imagery of a sweet-smelling smoke rising into the sky. In the same way, as we live by faith and abide in Christ, offering our daily works to God as a kind of worship (Romans 12:1), we can know that it brings him pleasure.

It’s not that he needs our work, but that he is glad to see the fruit of his own work in us.

It’s not because he is our Lord and we are his faithful servants, but because he is our Father and we are his beloved children.

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Divinely inspired imagery

One purpose of Scripture is to tell us facts that are true. Another, I increasingly believe, is to give us images to fuel our faith. I have found in the last few years that, when I need to pray or act and my faith is flickering, picturing things the right way can make a big difference, and the best source of such pictures is the Scripture.

For example, we know that God is able to provide for us, but when we read “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters” it gives us an image to use as we think about his provision. That image fuels our faith and helps us believe more genuinely and more enduringly.

I think this is especially helpful in prayer. When I’m praying, I ask God to bring Scriptures to mind to use as I pray, and often what comes to mind is a story or image from the Bible.

The image need not be connected to a promise made to us. If I am fighting a fierce temptation in my life, and I read about David defeating Goliath, I may be encouraged to trust God by that picture. I may imagine the temptation as Goliath, and myself as David, and God as helping me defeat it. None of this means that I interpret the David and Goliath story as promising me that I will defeat the temptation. My faith will not be a matter of “claiming” what God has promised. Rather, it is the kind of faith that asks God for victory, keeping the picture of Goliath’s defeat firmly in mind. My faith is in the God who really does things like that, without presuming that he must do them this time.

When I talk about imagery strengthening my faith, what do I mean? I am assuming that faith, while it has an intellectual content, is also something more than belief in an abstract proposition. I may believe something intellectually, and still have trouble emotionally committing to it (which is different than merely feeling like it is true). It is at that level that imagery helps.

Finally, I don’t mean merely that Scripture has a lot of images, and that imagery helps our faith, but that Scripture’s images are divinely inspired to do so. I realize this makes my view of Scripture a little mystical, but I’m willing to live with that as long as the mysticism does not nullify the process of sober, objective interpretation of Scripture’s meaning. It seems to me that Scripture speaks of itself as having not only accuracy but also power in our lives, power to stimulate faith and not only to direct it.

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Genesis 12

In Sunday School this week, we looked at Genesis 12 — the last part, where Abram has Sarai tell Pharaoh that she is his sister.

One of the problems in interpreting the passage is to decide whether it is condemning or condoning Abram and Sarai for what they did. Were they lying? Telling a half-truth?Doubting God’s provision? Were they wrong? Or were they just being crafty?

Another is the general question of how to apply a narrative passage.

After our discussion (and, in most respects, before our discussion), my views are as follows.

  • One person asked, “Are we even sure that every passage has an application?” My answer is Yes, based on 2 Timothy 3:16.
  • I think the passage itself is silent on whether Abram and Sarai were right or wrong. I assume they were wrong, but it isn’t critical to interpreting the passage.
  • Someone in class said the application might be, “God can bless us even when we’re stupid!”. I think that’s sort of correct. The point of the passage is to show how God blessed Abram. The focus is on God’s blessing, not Abram’s righteousness. It doesn’t matter in the passage whether Abram should have lied or had Sarai lie or whether they told a half-truth or whatever. The point isn’t about Abram’s good or bad works at all. It’s just focused on God’s blessing.
  • The structure of the passage is interesting: it’s book-ended by two nearly identical sets of verses, in Gen 12:8-9 and 13:3-4. In between is the episode in Egypt. The effect of that is to emphasize the change that took place while in Egypt. There’s a basic before and after picture being presented. When Abram went down to Egypt he was of modest means and when he came back he was rich. So I think the main point of the passage is to explain how he got rich (Gen 13:1-2).
  • The passage follows immediately on the heels of God’s promise to Abram in Gen 12:1-3, in which he promised to make Abram’s people preeminent among all the nations of the earth. The next thing we see is God enriching Abram by using the nation of Egypt. It’s an instant demonstration of God’s favor to Abram above all the nations and even through those nations.
  • Furthermore, God promised specifically that “I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse”. (Gen 12:3). Abram visits Egypt and what happens? Pharaoh harms Abram by taking his wife, and God curses Pharaoh. Then Pharaoh repents and restores Sarai to Abram and gives him all sorts of gifts, and God blesses Pharaoh again. Again, the promise came first, then a story which instantly demonstrates it.
  • There’s more. The most pivotal event in Israel’s history was the exodus. No Israelite reader would have missed the parallels: Israel / Abram left Canaan and went to Egypt because of a famine; Israel / Sarai were taken into Pharaoh’s possession; God sent plagues on Pharaoh; Pharaoh agreed to let them go; Egypt gave them riches before they left (Exodus 12:35-36!) ; they returned to Canaan. The Genesis 12 story foreshadows the greater drama that would follow later.
  • When we read stories like this one, we are trained to look for the individual believer and try to figure out what we should imitate in his example. We see this as all about Abram, and have trouble figuring out whether this is saying we should act like Abram or act unlike him. But I suspect the Old Testament Jews would have read this as being about Israel. They would have been reading to see what this said about them as a nation. They would have been encouraged to see God immediately confirm the promises of Genesis 12:1-3 in a visible way. They would have taken heart and trusted that God still had plans for them as a nation and still was sovereign over all the other nations.
  • In the same way, I think most of the Old Testament stories are easier to understand if we see them as stories about the nation of Israel, with individual characters as part of the supporting cast, instead of seeing them as mainly about the individual characters with the nation as a part of the supporting cast.

P.S. If you want to see my latest philosophy post, on values, go here.

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Is worship for us or for God?

Last week, Victoria Osteen apparently said this:

“… when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God—I mean, that’s one way to look at it—we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy. That’s the thing that gives Him the greatest joy… So, I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy … When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy.”

Most people responded by saying this is nonsense. Perhaps it is.

But I want to ask a serious question: Is worship for us or for God?

On the one hand, the whole idea of worship is that we prioritize God and His glory and His pleasure and His will. We stop thinking of ourselves as being important, and focus on Him alone. So clearly, worship is for God. If we focused on our own needs and happiness in worship, it wouldn’t be worship any more.

However … does it hurt God if we don’t worship? No. Does God need my worship? Not at all. God needs nothing from me. That we have the opportunity to freely worship God is a tremendous gift from him to us, not the other way around. It is hubris to think we can bring anything to God, even worship, that he really needs. It is we who need to worship. Worship is created for us, not for God, and for our benefit, not God’s.

Still, when I say that God gives us worship as a gift, to benefit us, what I mean is that focusing on him instead of us is a great benefit to us.

Worship’s benefit is for me; worship’s focus must be on him.

One more thing to add to the mix: God chooses to be blessed by our worship. So in a way, our worship does benefit God — not because he needs it but because he takes pleasure in it.

Practically speaking, if you are tempted to indulge your own desires, it may be a really bad idea for you to think about worship as for your benefit. Worship is your chance to stop thinking about pleasing yourself and think about pleasing God instead. On the other hand, if you are tempted by spiritual pride you should probably stop thinking of worship as something you give to God. We glorify God when we see that he is the source of all good things, even our worship, and humbly receive it all from his hand.

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I heard someone preach a sermon recently about selfishness, and how it is the root of almost all sin. I hear this preached a lot, by lots of different people. It depends on defining selfish as “wanting things for yourself”. We are exhorted to deny ourselves, which is taken to mean that we stop paying attention to our own desires and instead focus on glorifying God. This is the tough, mentally disciplined approach that God wants from us.

So, to summarize:

  • Selfishness is the root sin
  • Selfishness means wanting things for ourselves
  • We should stop expecting to have our own needs met
  • Instead we should only worry about glorifying God
  • A life of doing this will be disciplined and well-ordered and pleasing to God

While there is some important insight in this overall teaching, I think it’s wrong.

First, every Christian should go read John Piper’s book, Desiring God, and then rethink the points above.

Second, the Scripture itself does not, to my knowledge, name selfishness as the root of all sin, although I admit it gets close. It talks about idolatry and coveting and pride and fleshly lusts. Here is how I see the different meanings of these terms, in the context of this discussion.

  • Selfishness: wanting things for myself
  • Idolatry: looking to someone or something other than God to meet my deepest needs
  • Coveting: comparing what I have with what others have and then becoming frustrated that I have to live my life instead of theirs
  • Pride: making it my highest priority to manage my own happiness
  • Fleshly lusts: impulses for short-term satisfaction — I should ignore them if that would be better for me in the long run

James 3 and 4 also talk about something closely related to selfishness. James 3 speaks of “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition” and explicitly says that all kinds of sin spring up from these. James 4 explains that our strife with others comes from envying them and coveting what they have. The passage goes on, though, to point to pride and idolatry as the real culprits. The problem is not that we want things; it’s that we look somewhere other than to God to find them.

The biggest problem with the selfishness doctrine is that it leaves faith out of the picture. Instead of telling us to realize how much we need God, it exhorts us to need nothing. A more Scriptural approach would emphasize these truths:

  • We have many desires, some of them deep and some less so.
  • Some of our desires are for things that won’t really satisfy, so we need to have a healthy skepticism towards our desires.
  • God Himself is the source of all true satisfaction. We need to pursue him with all our hearts to find our needs really met. (“Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.”)
  • Once we trust in God, he will call us away from pursuing many of the things that we think will meet our own needs. The test of our faith will be whether we are willing to let go of what seems to satisfy us and trust him to bring us real satisfaction.
  • Sometimes, he will call us away from even having certain desires. Even that, though, will be based on our trusting that His wisdom is greater than ours, and that He has a better set of desires for us to have.

The practical consequence of these ideas is this:

  1. Have all the desire you want, but …
  2. Take all your desires to God. Believe with all your might that he and whatever he gives will truly satisfy you.
  3. Because you are trusting him to take care of what you want most deeply, leave it with him. Hope, but don’t pursue. Instead focus on loving God and loving others. Expect God to bring you the desires of your heart as a by-product as you live for Him.
  4. When others are needy, don’t tell them to get over themselves; rejoice with them that God cares about the desires of their hearts too.

The difference is really important. It is one thing to say to someone, “Stop wanting so much! Focus on loving God and others!” and quite another to say to someone, “Trust God to fulfill all your deepest desires! Focus on loving God and others!”

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Does the Holy Spirit lead us?

A friend on facebook (Tim Dukeman) recently said:

– I’m deadly serious about this. God doesn’t speak through impressions, feelings, “leadings”, or any of that other nonsense. He speaks through the Bible.

– Nothing in the Bible would lead us to the idea that God speaks in these hyper-spiritual ways. If you hear an audible voice, we’ll talk.

But this “leadings” nonsense is paganism.

– I used to ask God for specific guidance. I have repented of such foolishness.

This was my response:

Tim, have you never read a Scripture and felt vaguely convicted, and then asked God to reveal to you the specific attitude or action you needed to repent of?

I do that all the time. I read something and ask the Spirit to search my heart and bring to mind whatever He wishes. Suddenly I’ll realize, “Oh! I’ve been arrogant. *That’s* not good.” So I’ll repent.

I consider that the leading of the Holy Spirit. It’s Scripturally grounded, but goes “beyond” the Scripture in that He brings to mind something specific in my own life to which the Scripture corresponds. It’s a kind of “revelation” about my own circumstances and heart.

It’s not authoritative. I don’t even have to know whether it was my own insight or something God led me to think of. But it seems silly, after having asked God to guide my thoughts, to say that it is wrong to believe he actually did guide them.

I realize this is not what you meant. But I think it is what you should have meant.

Tim’s further response:

You are correct. That is an important caveat. The Bible says that the Holy Spirit convicts us of sin. If you feel convicted of sin after reading Scripture, that’s usually legitimate.

But what I said above stands.

Comments? I have a lot of other opinions on this, but I want to organize my thoughts a little before saying much more.



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