Saturday, September 02, 2017

What is Abundance?

Most days, I have a quiet time with God, a time when I consider God's Word and ask Him to reveal the truth He wants me to see in it for that particular day. To see how I approach quiet time, read here.
Look: “Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. 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. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” (2 Corinthians 9:6-8)

Paul continues here to write to the relatively wealthy Gentile congregation in Corinth about an offering they had once pledged to give for the relief of Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. The latter were impoverished and struggling.

On first blush, one might think that what Paul writes in chapter 9 of 2 Corinthians supports the “prosperity gospel,” which is no gospel but a heresy and is popular these days. NOT AT ALL.

Paul is NOT saying, as the proponents of the heresy say, that if you give a lot, God will make you wealthy. Jesus gave and He wasn’t wealthy. Paul gave and he wasn’t wealthy. Peter gave up what was likely a lucrative business in order to follow Jesus. So did Matthew.

Following Jesus, believing in Jesus, is no guarantee of wealth. The God we meet in Jesus makes no deals for His mercy or His grace. Both are things that He gives to us.

So what is the promise of God to “cheerful givers” (in the Greek in which Paul composed this letter, the phrase is “hilarious giver) that Paul offers here?

Listen: The pertinent passage is verse 8. Paul says: “And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.”

The verse is bracketed by abundantly and abound. This English rendering from Paul’s Greek is accurate. In both instances, the root word is περισσεύω, perisseuo, meaning literally, according to Strong’s concordance, to be over and above, to exceed the ordinary.

The double use of that term, appearing near the beginning and near the end of the verse forms what the scholars call an inclusio (or inclusion). It tells us, if it wasn’t clear enough on the face of it, that the verse deals with the subject of abundance.

The verse gives God’s understanding, the Bible’s understanding of abundance, though.

This understanding of abundance doesn’t mean that you won’t sweat out paying the mortgage some months.

It doesn’t mean that you’ll have the nicest car or bling.

It doesn’t mean that care and struggle with finances will necessarily go away.

Some believers in the God we know in Jesus will be entrusted with wealth. Abraham was wealthy. So were Joseph of Arimathea and Lydia of Thyatira. But some have been poor. Joseph and Mary were poor. So were others already named, including God in the flesh Himself, Jesus.

Some believers in the God we know in Jesus are gifted with a capacity for generating greater wealth or have inherited it.

But with greater wealth comes greater obligations (Matthew 25:24-27).

It also present greater spiritual danger. When Jesus encountered a wealthy man who asked what “good thing” he needed to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus saw straight through the man. (The question itself was all wrong. The rich man wanted to know what he good work he needed to do to gain eternal life. But no good work, not even making big donations, will gain eternal life for us. We are saved by God’s grace through our faith in, our trusting surrender to, Jesus alone.)

Jesus understood that this man’s wealth was his idol. Wealth was a spiritual danger to him. Wealth deluded him into thinking that he had control of everything, even his own salvation. The rich man did many right things, but in his heart, he worshiped money, not God. Radical surgery was necessary.

When Jesus told the man that the only way he could get free of the idol he worshiped and get with God, was to sell off everything he owned, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Him, the rich man walked away sorrowful. He was sorrowful because he knew that he would never have eternal life; his money was too important to him, more important than God.

This gave rise to Jesus telling the disciples: “I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." (Matthew 19:16-24)

Wealth might not be the idol or impediment for everyone that it was for that man. But Jesus’ words are a solemn warning against taking anything as our god but the one true God revealed to all the world in Jesus Himself. He’s the only One Who can give us life with God.

This kind of talk is anathema to the advocates of the “prosperity gospel.” They think that following Jesus is a matter of making deals with God: They will follow Jesus and He will put them on easy street. No financial worries. No sickness or disease. No hard times. But one look at the faithful Christians we have known in life will tell you that such immature heresies are all cow pie!

Jesus never promises that following Him will ease the financial strains--or any other stains--of this life. “In this world you will have trouble,” He says truthfully. “But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

And Paul warns Christians elsewhere: “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:19)

That’s why what Paul says in this verse is so important. He tells those who have made up their minds to give cheerfully, not under compulsion, but as a joyful response to the undeserved grace God gives to those who turn from sin and follow Jesus:

“And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.”

To be blessed abundantly by God because we divest our idolatrous attachment to money doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to be wealthy. But it does mean two other things:
“...that in all things at all times 
1. We will have all that we need. This is what Jesus calls “our daily bread,” what we need. 
2. We will abound in every good work. In other words, when we give to cause of God in the world, when we PUT GOD FIRST--loving God, loving our neighbors, making disciples, God will magnify our giving and living so that it glorifies God and points others to Christ.
We will have what we need. And what we give, whatever we give--our time, possessions, money, service--will contribute the growth of God’s kingdom. We will be empowered to use our lives and all of our gifts for the purposes for which God gave us life in the first place and for which He gives new, everlasting life through Jesus to all who trust in Christ. THIS IS WHAT IT MEANS TO LIVE AN ABUNDANT CHRISTIAN LIFE.

How do I know that this is what Paul has in mind when he wrote this verse?

In the previous chapter, when he begins this appeal to the Corinthian Christians to follow through on their public pledge to help the Jerusalem Christians, Paul mentions an incident when ancient Israel, having been freed from slavery in Egypt and heading for the promised land that God would show them, was in the wilderness. They had no food. But God daily provided them with something called manna, an edible substance like bread.

Exodus 16:1-36 tells about this incident. When God provided it, He told Moses that the people were to collect the manna when it appeared on six days of the week. On the sixth day, they would be enabled to collect more than they needed for that day, double the usual amount, in fact; the people were to prepare all of the manna to eat and not collect on the seventh day, the sabbath, a day of rest. They were all to collect the same amount, an omer. When they measured what everyone had collected, from the oldest to the youngest, “Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed.”

(Some got greedy for the world’s version of “abundance” and went out collecting the manna on the seventh day. They trusted this stuff that they could see, touch, and eat, more than they trusted God. Even though God was the One Who had given it to them!)

Paul references this entire incident in 2 Corinthians 8, writing to a church that may be thinking that if they give away money, there will be less abundance for them:

“At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: ‘The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.’” (2 Corinthians 8:14-15)

Paul’s picture of abundance then, is the same as that of Jesus, Who taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

I love how Martin Luther explains this petition of the Lord’s Prayer in The Small Catechism:
God indeed gives daily bread to all, even unbelievers, without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that he would help us to recognize this so that we would receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.
And then, Luther tackles the question of what is meant by daily bread:
Daily bread includes everything required to meet our earthly needs, such as food, drink, clothing, home, property, employment, necessities; devout parents, children, and communities; honest and faithful authorities, good government, seasonable weather, peace, health, an orderly society, a good reputation, true friends and neighbors, and the like.

And where it’s lacking, it isn’t due to a deficiency in God’s creation, but a deficiency in His creatures, His human creatures, the ones intended to be Creation’s caretakers, the ones made in the image of God whose fall into sin impacted the entire Creation over which it was to have dominion.

It’s the condition of sin with which the whole human race is afflicted at birth and from which only Christ can free us--and then only fully in eternity--that lay behind so many people getting their daily bread from God.

Famine and starvation, for example, are problems rooted in human sin. If those who have shared with those who haven’t more completely, including sharing technologies, no one on earth would go hungry.

Wars are the result of the human unwillingness to give a little.

It should also be evident that even many natural disasters are either the result of or are exacerbated by human sin. Climate change, which made the recent horrors brought to Texas by Hurricane Harvey worse, all the result of the hellish pursuit of more and of conspicuous consumption. Bad weather itself results from human sin, since the whole universe has been screwed up by the fall of the species who were meant to take care of it.  
In Romans 8:22, Paul writes that, “...the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time,” awaiting the final consummation of God’s plans in Christ. Christ will return, the old creation will be no more and the new creation--of which those who follow Jesus in this imperfect world are the “early adopters” who will populate the new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17)--will be brought in its fullness for all who have loved Christ’s appearing (2 Timothy 4:8).

Whether I am wealthy, poor, or of the middle class, I must not be dazzled by the finite wealth of this dying world!

I must use whatever wealth I possess not just for my own daily bread, but with gratitude to God for Christ’s cross and empty tomb and all the promises I have as I follow Him, learn to give. This is how the abundant life is lived.

Respond: Lord, in Your Word, You declare, “ thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8). And sometimes, as one of Your departed saints, Rich Mullins, wrote, You are “hard to get.” But, Lord, help me to live the abundant life You have in mind for me and all of Your people, a life of usefulness and gratitude, of giving what I can from whatever means I have. Help me to be grateful for my daily bread and not to covet what others have. And where others lack daily bread, help me to do what I can to see that they have it. In Jesus’ name.
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

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