Increasing And Decreasing


CBS logoHuman nature seems to push us toward selfishness as I noted in “The Scientific Discovery Of The Sin Nature.” If in doubt, watch CBS’s 60 Minutes video for yourself. Here’s an excerpt:

Lesley Stahl: Sounds to me like the experiment show[s] they [the babies who were the subjects of the experiment] are little bigots.

Paul Bloom [Yale researcher]: I think to some extent, a bias to favor the self, where the self could be people who look like me, people who act like me, people who have the same taste as me, is a very strong human bias. (emphasis added)

The Bible doesn’t equivocate when it comes to human nature. We are self-deceived and wicked at our core—primarily because of our bias to favor ourselves. We want to win, to be noticed, admired, loved and praised. We want our fifteen minutes of fame, and if we can stretch it out to a half hour, all the better.

The problem for the Christian is that when we push ourselves forward, we are actually stealing the limelight from God. He’s the star, after all, the One who deserves the accolades, who produces the show, who works behind the scenes to hold it all together, who assembles the cast, who writes the checks, and who takes center stage. So when the curtain comes up for the credits, for whom is the applause greatest? The actor playing the page who carried the king’s sword, or the king himself?

Clayton_Kershaw_(8664742364)We live in a celebrity culture. Consequently Christians often flock to “famous Christians,” like Tim Tebow or Jeremy Lin or Russel Wilson or Clayton Kershaw. And isn’t it a good thing when people of all stripe, even people of other religions or people of no religion, recognize a “famous Christian” for their talent and intelligence and good deeds?

That’s what the Bible seems to say. We are to let our light shine so that people see our good works (Matt. 5:16). It’s the last part of the verse that I think 21st century Christians seem to have trouble with: “… that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (emphasis added). The goal isn’t that they might glorify the Christian, but that they might glorify the God whom we serve.

John the Baptist articulated the principle well. One of his disciples was troubled that the crowds were leaving John and flocking to Jesus. Here’s his answer:

John answered and said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent ahead of Him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made full. He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3:27-30)

In other words, John’s popularity was a gift from God. But he was not the Messiah. He was the second, the best man, the squire. Understanding his role, he rejoiced to see Jesus get all the attention. That’s what he lived for. To decrease, that Jesus might increase.

In some ways, it seems a person must first increase to get to the point that he can decrease. I mean, if John didn’t have a following, would he ever have been able to say, I must decrease?

But what about the widow who gave her last coin in the temple. She had no following, and she was still willing to decrease that God might increase.

I think our current Christian culture has it wrong. We should not be working to be known so we can make God known. That’s upside down. The widow gave to God because she knew God deserved her very last coin. As a result, God spread her fame down through the ages, to every tribe and tongue where the gospel is preached. She wasn’t after fame, but God gave it to her as a result of her willingness to decrease.

I think too of Boaz and the anonymous relative who could have married Ruth. In that day, a widow had no protection unless a relative of her deceased husband married her. She was also tied to the property her husband may have owned. So Boaz, wanting to take Ruth as his wife, first had to find out if the relative who was closer would step up and do the right thing.

Boaz started by asking the man if he wanted to buy the property which had belonged to the deceased. The relative said, sure. OK, Boaz said, but you know, of course, that means you’ll also have to marry Ruth. Oh, the man answered. Forgot about her. You know, on second thought, this marriage and property purchase isn’t going to work for me after all. It would jeopardize his own inheritance, he said—something about the child of their union would be known as belonging to the first husband, and his land reverting to that side of the family at the jubilee.

It’s a bit too legal and technical for me. But I bring it up because this man who wanted to guard his inheritance is no longer remembered by name. Boaz, however, and Ruth are both recorded in the ancestral record of the Messiah. The one who wanted to increase, didn’t. The one who cared for the widow, who served and protected a foreign woman in need, received recognition throughout the ages.

He must increase. And I must decrease.

My devious mind immediately goes to the idea that, yes, the way for me to get noticed, like the widow Jesus praised, like Boaz, is to put Jesus on display. But that misses the point. God can use even that wrong attitude, as Paul says in Philippians, but the right perspective is to see the way things really are: God, the high and exalted King; I, the servant holding the edge of His train.

Shockingly, this life is really not about me. It’s about God—serving Him, loving Him, listening to Him, abiding with Him, and above all glorifying Him. Seeing Him increase.

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Purpose


Adam_and_Eve019What is the purpose of life? Not just any life, but the life of a human being. Christians schooled in the Westminster Shorter Catechism will immediately answer that “the chief end of Man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”

It’s hard to refute that statement, for surely all of creation is to glorify God and at some point in the future “every knee will bow of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-10).

The problem I’m having with this concept is this: why didn’t God tell Adam and Eve their purpose was to glorify Him and enjoy Him forever? And when Jesus came, why didn’t He correct any wrong thinking and state what His followers’ purpose should be? Then when Jesus left earth, why didn’t the Holy Spirit set them on the right path and give them their ultimate purpose?

In other words, this idea that Humankind has been given the central purpose of glorifying God and enjoying Him forever seems to me to be something humans have cobbled together from various scriptures. By the way, the purpose the Westminster Catechism gives humans seems to me to be fulfilled by the angelic host. Are we to duplicate what they have been given to do?

According to Genesis, God gave Adam and Eve a completely different directive:

God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:27-28)

First, God made humans His image bearers. Second, He told them to multiply. And third, He gave them dominion over the earth and the rest of life on the earth. God never rescinded his commands to Adam. Therefore, I submit, these are the purposes of Humankind.

Because Humankind introduced sin into the world, Adam’s original purpose was subverted, but not eliminated. Humans are still to multiply. I don’t think that command was ever about filling the world with more bodies, however. Without a sin nature, a child born before sin would have had the same relationship with God that Adam and Eve had. They could have communed with Him in transparent intimacy. They could have represented God to the rest of creation by administering just and merciful dominion over all of life. In other words, God wanted more people carrying out His work in the world, and it was up to Adam and Eve to multiply.

In many respects, the Church, God’s redeemed and reconciled people, have been recommissioned to accomplish what Adam and Eve failed to do.

We are to represent Christ to the world. Paul terms this as being ambassadors:

Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us (2 Cor. 5:20a)

We are also to multiply.

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you (Matt. 28:18-20a).

I recently read that Christians are not primarily to engage in a “pyramid scheme” of evangelism. That term, of course, has negative connotations because those participating had to put in money with the hope of getting a greater return in the end. This goal can only be accomplished by bringing as many other members into the scheme as possible.

Of course Christians aren’t to be engaged in disciple-making with some ulterior goal or with some sort of works-based reward system in mind. We shouldn’t be trying to notch our belt to signify another redeemed scalp.

But trumpeting the good news, playing the part of ambassadors, teaching others who can then turn around a teach others, is precisely what Christians are called to do.

The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2)

As I see it, because of sin, we are now on a rescue mission. Our chief end, just as it was Adam’s chief end, is to obey God–which Jesus says we’ll do if we love Him–and His primary commands haven’t change, though the scope of them has. Now we are to be image bearers to the rest of creation, including people who do not know the Son. In the process, we are participating in the multiplication of His people:

For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren (Rom. 8:29 – emphasis mine).

Throughout the New Testament there’s a discussion of “bearing fruit.” Primarily those references deal with one of two things–good works or people. In one parable, for example, Jesus admonishes His disciples to go out into the harvest because the fields are ripe. Then in the epistles, Paul talks about obtaining fruit among the Gentiles. Elsewhere he talks about some Christians planting, others watering, but God giving the increase–or bringing to fruition their work.

I suggest God receives glory when what He made works the way He intended it to work. The heavens, for example, declare His glory. How so? By the fact of their existence because what He made originally was good.

Because of the sin nature in Humankind, however, we do not glorify Him merely by our existence. We are not the perfect image bearers He originally made. We are flawed, which is the very thing Christ came to take care of. His work allows us to return to our work.

Yes, I happen to believe God will receive glory because of our doing what He made us to do. In other words, I believe that when we fulfill our chief end we will glorify Him. I also believe that when we fulfill our chief end, we will enjoy Him and that enjoyment will be without end.

Consequently, when we fulfill our purpose, we will bring about the things the Westminster Catechism declares to be the chief end of man. I just happen to think the men who put that doctrinal statement together put the wrong question to the answer. They should have asked, “What will result when Man fulfills his chief end?” Then the answer, “They will glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” works very well.

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