How sacrificial, really, are most of us?

I rarely work out on Sunday, but I felt the need to balance out a little Fall Saturday gluttony, and I used my elliptical time to check in with a pastor I haven’t seen in years — David Jeremiah of Shadow Mountain Community Church.  I faith-channel-surfed a little too, and I came to the conclusion that my own house church is so small because I haven’t mastered the dramatic pause and the overly general sermon. People will accept a message that conveys just about nothing at all, so long as the pauses are pregnant, and the flock feels God’s truth is somewhere around the corner, but not close enough to bruise them.

“Get to it,” I keep yelling at these preachers.  “Get to it!”

David Jeremiah, at least, has an entertaining story to tell. He’s got a big orchestra and a choir too, and a huge sanctuary, and a message, and even if you only check in on him every two decades or so, he will still be talking about the same thing — giving him your money.  Come back in ten years, and he’ll still be doing sermon series on the extraordinary benefits of sacrificial, break-the-bank giving. (This time, a little weirdly, he used the charitable giving of abortion-loving Bill Gates as a pastoral example, which makes me think Jeremiah has been reading Newsweek more than the Bible.)

Pastor Jeremiah doesn’t say “give it me,” of course. He doesn’t have to. He uses the widow’s mite story to maximum effect. With David Jeremiah, you get the feeling that if you gave up your plans for a vacation home, and turned over the $100,000 to his church, he would look at you with a twinkle in his eye and say, “that’s a good start, brother.”  L. Ron Hubbard has nothing on this guy, in the financial demands department.

Here’s the startling thing: sacrificial giving is a Biblical truth. My wife taught me this on the tipping front. If you pay for a meal in a restaurant, and the tab comes to $80, you would probably conclude that $20 is a very generous tip. Try giving $40, or even $60 or $80 next time.  Try tipping lavishly, and I can almost guarantee you will feel better for it. Extraordinary generosity, even generosity directed at someone who doesn’t deserve it, is good for the soul.

I think this is true for a number of reasons:

  • You have made someone’s day.  Try it sometime, and you’ll feel the results, even if you don’t hear the “thank you.”
  • The happiness you created may get lavished on someone else you don’t even know.  And God will be watching that.
  • You will declare yourself, in a very small way, as being “not defined” by your money.  You aren’t currency.  You are creature created in God’s image.
  • If you reflect on your blessings, and you understand how precarious life really is, you’ll understand that God gave you that money to use it to “build the kingdom.” Building the kingdom might be using the money God gave you to ease someone else’s burden.

Now, with respect to ministry giving, I think the standard is a bit higher.  I certainly would NOT give vast sums to David Jeremiah’s ministry, because anyone who uses the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as a pastoral example, without mentioning their devotion to abortion, population control, and sexual-preference politics isn’t serving the flock.  You certainly want to be very careful with God’s money.  I think you would be doing much more for the kingdom by tipping your waitress, or helping a widow or contributing to Donald Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign. (Think about it.  As much as you may dislike Donald Trump, one more supreme court nomination could mean saving millions of babies in the womb, but $10,000 to David Jeremiah might just mean another desk for a volunteer web developer at the church campus.)

I don’t mean to talk simply about charity though.  I mean to talk about the extraordinary sacrifice expected of Christians.  Jesus told us to “take up our cross,” literally to make the sort of sacrifice that could lead us to the gas chamber. He counseled the rich young man to give up ALL of his wealth. He said that anyone who values father, mother, wife, children more than Him is not worthy of Him.

That is an extraordinarily sacrificial standard.  I guess that pastors today master the dramatic pause and the insubstantial sermon because this central reality is just too difficult to mention.  Give up EVERYTHING for Jesus? Do things that make us unpopular, and in some cases criminal?  Say things that make us unpopular with our friends?  Act against our financial and career interest?

Let’s be honest, shall we?  How many Dietrich Bonhoeffers do you know?  On this, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, how many Martin Luthers are in your circle?  How many of your friends would risk being burned at the stake for speaking the truth to a corrupt religious hierarchy?  How many live in celibacy?  How many forego all worldly pleasure to feed the poor or care for orphans?  How many of your friends have the courage to jump up over a wall and pull a friend out of the gunfire?  (Little hint as to where I’m going: they don’t just give the medal of honor to everyone.)

If the degree of our faith were measured by supremely heroic acts of self-sacrifice, the vast majority of us would have to really question: do I really believe in Jesus? If the sign of our regeneration were giving up all of our wealth for the kingdom, most of us would wonder — was I really born again?

And if we ponder those who dropped their fishing nets, left their family business and chose to follow Jesus, we have to look at most of the Christian world and think — are we really disciples?  We stay at home, after all. We raise children. We save for retirement.  Most of us live lives characterized by “saving” our lives, not “losing” our lives. Most of us couldn’t go into business with our brother-in-law, let alone turn all of our wealth over to the pastor of a local church.

I think this sense of our failure worms its way into our actions in unseemly ways and we make comic bargains with God. We can’t bring ourselves to sell the family business and move to Africa for permanent missionary work, so we “give up our beer to God.” We can’t bring ourselves to “multiply and replenish,” so we volunteer at a pet rescue, and we get snotty towards anyone without our pooch pride. We can’t bring ourselves to run for office so we scold Christian political activists for investing too much “in this world.”

The bargains always look absurd. They lead to legalism. Some Christians, this week, lamented “Halloween” as a pagan, secular ritual that does no justice to God. I’ve known Christians who wouldn’t celebrate Christmas or even their children’s birthdays. I’ve met Christians who felt the urge, suddenly, to throw all novels and all “secular books,” from their homes. I’ve written before about “modesty standards” and “purity rings” and street evangelists who thought the local bar and pool hall, must on its very face, be a place of vice and sin.

When believers start “proving” themselves to God this way, it’s been my experience, when they come up for air, they throw off the purity ring, and the dress along with it.  Things go downhill very quickly, because they forget that Jesus was bewildered by those who didn’t know how to mourn AND celebrate. They couldn’t stand Him preaching the truth or drinking wine.  They had defined their holiness on their own terms, and it had nothing to do with God’s.

I know, from personal, experience that any of God’s actual laws, lived sacrificially, will yield blessings beyond measure, but I also know not everyone has been gifted with celibacy, or the ability to live in poverty, or the ability to stand up defiantly before a dictator and yell, “repent!”

Jesus had friends who didn’t throw down their nets, who stayed home, who tended their farms, and their families. While he was out preaching, He received word from a little town called Bethany that Mary and Martha’s brother, Lazarus, was gravely ill. A very perverse reading of the Gospel, indeed, would have Mary following Jesus on the ministry trail, affirming her utter lack of care for her brother.  A very perverse version of the gospel would have left Lazarus unmourned, because he had “not given everything up.”

But the story of Jesus is much different, much more understanding, and much more generous. We know what that story is, that Jesus wept, that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.

Moreover, we know that even though it is more difficult for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, because God can elect anyone. We know that harlots and thieves and rogues enter in, and that He only gives us the challenges and the temptations we can conquer.

In a very roundabout way, I’m saying you might be the sort who can give it all up entirely, or you might not.  And there is hope for both.

With God, all things are possible.