Since I post on Mondays and Thursdays, I’ll always be posting on Thanksgiving Day in the US.
I wrote a post about thankfulness on July 27, 2017, and I think I’m going to post it every Thanksgiving.
Since it’s Thanksgiving Day in the US, I thought I’d repeat a thankful post from this past July 27.
Early in our marriage, when we were in the process of making friends with other young couples, my wife and I would occasionally notice that as we socialized in our home or in someone else’s, some people always seemed to be upset about something. They’d tell us the story of how they were wronged in some way, how some injustice was done. The next time we were together, they had their tails in a knot about something else. Always upset, always holding on to wrongs, real or imagined.
Once, we made the conscious decision to minimize our socializing with one such couple. These days the internet memes say, “You just don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.” And it’s true.
It puzzles me how some people can be so ungrateful. People don’t treat them right; they don’t get paid enough; their mother-in-law is a pain in the neck; their boss is an idiot. And on it goes.
A colleague of mine remarked to me several years ago, “You know, life’s going to happen, no matter what you do. Some of it will be unpleasant. You can be bitter about it, or you can be happy in spite of it. The choice is up to you. I decided,” she said, “to be happy.” And boy, was she.
As result of her example, I began to think about all the ways I’ve been blessed. And one day it occurred to me that everything I need—literally everything—is free. That’s the way God has arranged the universe.
Don’t believe me? Think about it.
What do you need more than anything else in the world? If you lack it for 30 seconds, it will be literally all you think about until you get some.
You’re swimming at the bottom of an ocean of it—an ocean that God has kindly diluted so you won’t burst into flame at the slightest spark. God’s even given you a scoop on the front of your head so you’ll get your share of the stuff. Some of you he gave a larger scoop to, and you have the gall to be upset with him about that. Shame on you.
What’s the second most necessary thing? Water. They say you can last 3 days without it—some maybe as much as 8 to 10 days under certain conditions. But not long.
Most of the globe is covered with it. And that water mass feeds a delivery system that brings it right to your feet, purified, for free. (Unless you live in the Atacama, which hardly anybody does.) And again, many of us complain when it rains. Especially at the beach.
Granted, I pay a water bill, but I’m not really paying for the water; I’m paying for someone to clean it up and bring it to my house. I choose to do that, but I have a big ol’ plastic barrel that I could use to get my water for free.
What’s next? Food. Grows right out of the ground, from plants that are already there. Free. Again, I pay for my food, but only because I don’t feel like growing my own. So I pay somebody else to grow and harvest and deliver it; and sometimes I go out to a restaurant and pay somebody else to cook it and bring it to my table. But the food? The food’s free.
And then there’s light, and heat, and all the other physical necessities. All free.
God has been remarkably good to us.
But you’re thinking (I hope), those aren’t our greatest needs. They’re just temporal. We have greater needs: forgiveness, relationship, grace, mercy, peace. Love.
What do you know? They’re all free, too.
Everything you need is free.
I don’t mean to minimize anyone’s suffering. The world is broken, and we and everyone we know here are broken as well, by sin. Suffering is real. Abuse is real. Pain is real. Death is real.
But we have much to be grateful for, and these jewels shine all the brighter against the black background of pain.
Today’s homework: read Psalm 145.
“He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously [freely!] give us all things?” (Rom 8.32).
Since in my last post I raised the issue of spiritual gifts, I’d like to engage in a little iconoclasm here.
Much of what you read in those spiritual gifts books, and in those online tests, is completely made up. It’s folklore, not based in Scripture. Might be true, but might not.
There. I’ve said it.
Now the hard part: I need to back it up.
The Bible lists the spiritual gifts in 4 chapters: Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12 (with a discussion continuing into chapters 13 and 14), Ephesians 4, and 1 Peter 4. The 1 Corinthians chapter contains 3 lists, while each of the others contains just one. 4 chapters, 6 lists, 5 by Paul, 1 by Peter. Here’s a chart that lays them out for comparison.
Some things to notice:
Thing 1: No list is exhaustive; there are blank cells in each list.
So if we combine all the lists, is that list exhaustive? Or, to put it another way, does the Bible name all the spiritual gifts?
The correct answer is “We don’t know.” It’s important to know when you don’t know something. Here’s why.
The Bible clearly states that every believer has at least one spiritual gift (1Cor 12.7, 11). Those online spiritual gifts tests typically assume that you have one of the gifts listed in Scripture; but what if there are other gifts? And what if yours is one of those? You take the test, and, assuming it’s accurate (more on that in a minute), it shows that you have “none of the above.” What’s a believer, particularly a new one, going to conclude?
Must not be saved. Must have done it wrong. Must have not really meant it. Must have …
We can do great spiritual harm when we think the Bible says something that it doesn’t—and when we teach others our unstated assumptions (Jas 3.1).
So are there spiritual gifts that the Bible doesn’t mention?
I don’t know. And neither does anybody else. And we ought to quit acting as though we do.
And if you’ve taken one of those tests, and you’ve scored a Big Fat Zero, freak out thou not.
Thing 2: We don’t even know what some of the gifts are.
Several of the gifts we know a lot about: prophecy, pastor-teacher, speaking in tongues. Lots of biblical information.
Word of wisdom? Not so much. We know what wisdom is—there’s a whole genre on that—but what “word of wisdom” specifically refers to? Nope. It occurs in only 1 list, and it’s not defined there. No mention of it elsewhere in Scripture, no account of someone who had the gift, nothing. Same thing for word of knowledge. And discerning of spirits.
Have you ever noticed that more than half of the listed spiritual gifts—12 of 21, by my count—appear in only 1 list? And that the lists don’t define anything, they just, well, list? How much can we possibly know about those gifts, unless we meet someone in Scripture who is specifically said to have that gift?
So what is discernment of spirits? We don’t know.
Now how are you going to write a test for that? What questions are you going to ask?
Here’s what I think the test authors did. They made up a definition for the gift out of their own heads, and they wrote test questions to identify those traits.
But let’s not pretend that’s what the Bible teaches.
Are the tests helpful? Well, they might be. For certain gifts. If you have them.
But I wouldn’t take them very seriously on matters where they don’t have any biblical backup.
Thing 3: If we don’t know what some of the gifts are, is it possible that we don’t need to know for sure what our gift is?
Nowhere in the Scripture are we told how to identify our gifts. For that matter, nowhere in the Scripture are we warned to distinguish between spiritual gifts and natural abilities. Even though The Folklore seems to think that’s very important, God doesn’t seem to care at all.
If my gift is discerning of spirits, and I don’t know what that phrase means, how will I know I have that gift?
I suspect that a lot of Christians take those gifts tests for the same reason some people read horoscopes.
Oh, I’m a Virgo? Cool! I understand myself so much better now!
Oh, my gift is mercy? So that’s why I cry so much!
Your spiritual gift is not about you. In fact, you’re the only person in the world that your gift is not for. It’s for everybody else.
Here’s my Official Biblical Spiritual Gifts Test:
What can you do?
Do it for Jesus.
For the glory of God’s name and the edification of his people.
That won’t sell a lot of books or generate a lot of web traffic to my gifts test site, but it’ll make a huge difference for God’s people, if we’ll just do it.
Why do you go to church?
Because it’s Sunday, and that’s what we do on Sundays?
Or maybe because you need something to hang onto if you’re going to make it through another week? A Bible verse, a thought from a sermon, an encouraging line in a song?
I’d like to suggest that you may be doing it wrong. Bear with me here.
Let’s get back to the beginning. God has graciously gathered his people into a body he calls the Church.
Why did he pick that name?
Church. In the language of the New Testament, it means “gathering” or “assembly.”
Think about it. Of all the things God could have named his people for—forgiven ones, holy ones, loved ones, redeemed ones, known ones—he chose to name us “the gathering ones”—“the people who get together regularly.”
Apparently it’s really important to God that we assemble. And if so, then it ought to be important to us as well. Why?
Paul gives us the answer in several places; I particularly like the one in Ephesians 4:
11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
So why do we gather? We gather so that each one of us may exercise his gifts (vv 11-12) for the benefit of everyone else, to the further benefit of the body as a whole.
Well, how about that. You’re not there to get a blessing; you’re there to be one. You’re there to give, not to get.
And when everyone gives, everyone gets. When the pastor exercises his gifts in preaching, you’ll be ministered to by the sermon. When the congregation sings praises, you’ll be ministered to by the singing. But your motivation is not to receive; it’s to minister in the way that only you can, by the gifting of the Spirit.
Let me suggest a mindset for you.
If you’re a believer, you’re gifted by the Spirit in certain ways (1 Cor 12:7, 11). By the grace of God, you can minister to those around you. Maybe your gift is teaching. Maybe it’s serving. Maybe it’s mercy: listening to others and showing them grace.
When you’re with the assembly, you’re there by God’s calling—because someone there needs what you have, and you can exercise your gift(s) in ways no one else can. If your gift is mercy, your job there is to find someone who needs mercy, and dump a truckload of it all over them.
So you don’t walk into the building, find a seat in the back, and wait to get blessed. You’re on a mission; you seek. You talk to people, asking them how they’re doing, and listening to what they say, maybe asking further questions to coax the truth out of them, demonstrating that you care and that you have time to listen. And when you find someone who needs mercy—or whatever your gift is—he’s the reason you’re here today. Give him your gift.
And you can’t go home until you’ve done that, because until then you haven’t really done church.
How different would church be If Everybody Did?
Sundays are special.
I don’t mean to me. Well, they are special to me, of course. I get to gather with other believers who have committed to me and to one another, and we get to serve, encourage, educate, and challenge one another.
And we get to worship God together. That’s what makes Sunday especially special: it’s special to God. He sees and hears people from almost every language, people, and nation—more than we can possibly be aware of—all singing to and about him, all thanking him, all rejoicing in him, all hearing what he has said in his Word.
Does that sound self-centered and egotistical of him?
Come on, you know better than that. When you give a sacrificial gift to someone you love, is it egotistical and self-centered to be pleased when she tells you how much it means to her? How much more should God, who has given us more than we can ever know, at greater cost than we could ever pay, rejoice when we thank him?
Egotistical? What nonsense.
Because God is unique—infinite, eternal, complete, unchanging—he sees things differently from the way we do. We think of Sunday as beginning in the morning, when we get up—maybe at 6 or 7. (I suspect that most American Christians with 8-to-5 jobs actually sleep in a little longer on Sundays, since few churches have services beginning as early as 8.) And Sunday ends when we go to bed at 10 or 11—or, if you’re a college student, shortly after 4 am.
But it’s not that way for God. Days and hours aren’t a part of his nature; they’re something he invented. So he’s outside of time, though well aware of it. (And of course he entered time and space in the person of his Son, but without becoming limited by it.)
So he’s not on Eastern, or Central, or Pacific Time. He’s beyond and above all of it. And that means that Sunday lasts longer for him than for us.
It begins on Kiritimati Island (Christmas Island) in the Pacific, which has the most forward time zone on the planet, 14 hours ahead of Greenwich. If believers there start their service at 10 am Sunday, it’s only 3 pm Saturday where I live, in Eastern Standard Time. That’s when God begins to hear the chorus of praise. And yes, he has his people there. It’s a small group, barely heard above the breakers, but certainly heard and relished in the courts of heaven.
The chorus moves westward with the sun. An hour later Tonga joins, then the Marshalls, then the Solomons—and with them the easternmost reaches of Russia—then Papua New Guinea. And at 5 hours in, the chorus begins to swell as thousands—millions—of worshipers from eastern Asia—Japan, the Philippines, and soon the behemoth of China—shout their loud praise to the one who is worthy. How joyously the thundering praise must crash into the presence of Majesty!
And we’re just getting started. Vietnam, Myanmar, India, Pakistan, Iran, Jerusalem—hour after hour the chorus mounts, with new, fresh voices and ever-changing accents joining the praise. With Jerusalem, Kenya has joined, and now the wave moves from Asia—the birthplace of Abraham and Moses and Judaism and Jesus and Christianity—to Africa. The voices are different now, even as they are different from those of their northern brothers in Europe, but the content and the heart are ever the same. Cape Town, Yaounde, Wa, Reykjavik, and across another ocean, to the New World, still far short of the New Earth, but praising God nonetheless.
Cape Verde; Rio; St. John’s. And then, 19 full hours after it has begun, the crescendo arrives at my church on Hudson’s Corners in Greer, SC—a place that no biblical character could ever have imagined would receive the gospel—and I am privileged to add my quavering voice to a song that supersedes time and place and culture:
See the destined day arise!
See the willing sacrifice—
Jesus, to redeem our loss,
Hangs upon the shameful cross.
Lamb of God, for sinners slain!
Jesus Christ, we praise your name!
And still we are not finished. Millions more wait to add their voices in places like Bogota and Tegucigalpa and Winnipeg and Salt Lake City (yes, some are there, too) and Spokane and Fairbanks and Adak and Honolulu and Midway. Then to Amchitka in the Aleutians, where U.S. airmen are the only human inhabitants, where at last the long shout subsides for another week. With the vagaries of time-zone organization, we’re much further west than we were when we started, but Sunday is just now arriving in the northern Pacific. And back at my house, the time is 5 pm.
The song that lasted only an hour for us has gone for more than 24—26, to be exact (or 27, if you stop counting at the end of the service). What a glorious ride it has been. And in just 6 days (not 7) it will start again.
God is worthy of much, much more. But he rejoices in this. Add your voice to the largest choir of all time. It meets every week.