Christians toss that particular “B-word” around a lot. We get a raise at work. It’s a “blessing.” We finally get over a cold that kept us miserable for weeks. It’s a “blessing.” Our kid’s math grade improves. It’s a “blessing.” You get the point. Understand I’m not trying to rain on anyone’s parade. God may be behind those good things happening. Maybe not. One can’t be sure. But there’s one thing we know for certain is a true “blessing” – Jesus, the Son of the living God, incarnated as a human being and endured a horrible death on the cross so we might be able to know and nurture a relationship with our Heavenly Father who created everything there is. That’s our “blessing.” That’s the source of our joy and assurance of salvation. That’s the gift that keeps on giving. We should be grateful to God for anything positive and encouraging that comes our way in this life but all our incidental “blessings” put together pale in comparison to the one that Christ offered freely to mankind 2,000 years ago. All the “good things” that occur in my life are merely offshoots of the supreme “blessing” I received when I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior. I’m “blessed” for eternity to come no matter what happens to me in the here and now. That’s the perspective I must keep.
John, son of Zebedee, was a faithful servant of God and very thankful for that same sublime “blessing.” He wrote three books in the New Testament. In his gospel he told all he could cram in about Christ and then commented at the end he’d only scratched the surface. He had to limit himself to relating the essentials. “But these are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). His final book, Revelation, emphasized the coming day when the glory of Christ will stun the earth. John tells all believers that if we could catch even a fleeting glimpse of what he was shown concerning our future we wouldn’t spend another moment worrying how best to go about making our life work the way we want it to. He’s telling us that, though things may look grim from time to time, we can be confident that what lies ahead is amazing. “And the one seated on the throne said: ‘Look! I am making all things new!’ Then he said to me, ‘Write it down, because these words are reliable and true.’ He also said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the one who is thirsty I will give water free of charge from the spring of the water of life. The one who conquers will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be my son’” (Revelation 21:5-7). It’s okay to look ahead because this fallen world won’t stay fallen forever. Temporary blessings this side of heaven are nice but they’re not to be lived for. Paul wrote, “For if only in this life we have hope in Christ, we should be pitied more than anyone” (1 Corinthians 15:19). Larry Crabb wrote, “In other words, if you’ve signed on to Christianity in order to get a better life now, you’ve made a serious mistake. There is joy now, but every bit of it is rooted in future hope.”
John also wrote a book (actually three brief letters) in between the other two that shouldn’t be overlooked. Earlier this year my church’s pastor led a study of them entitled “So that you may know.” You see, John wanted to erase all doubts a Christian might entertain about where they’re headed. “I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). We who’ve decided to follow Jesus have the privilege of being able to gaze beyond the strain and strife of this messed up planet and know without a doubt that paradise awaits. About three and a half centuries ago John Owen opined about 1 John: “Christians in those days were poor and despised. Christian leaders were treated as the filth of the world. So to invite people to become Christians, to join in their fellowship and to enjoy the precious things they enjoyed, seemed to be the height of foolishness. ‘What good thing will we get if we join up with those Christians? Are they inviting us to share in their troubles? Do they want us to be persecuted, reviled and scorned and to suffer all kinds of evils?’ It is with these objections in mind that John writes. Notwithstanding all the disadvantages their fellowship lay under from a worldly point of view, yet in truth it was, and they would soon find it to be, very desirable. ‘For truly,’ says John, ‘our fellowship is with his Son Jesus Christ.’” John’s aim was to get it through our thick skulls that the true appeal of being a believer isn’t a blessing-saturated “good life” today. If that’s what you’re after you’d be better off checking out Confucianism or maybe even Scientology. Best of luck, dude.
The truth contained in John’s letters informs us that there is something available 24/7 that beats the hell out of anything this world has to offer – real-time fellowship with God. That contrary to what we might think, the second we stop trying to make life run smoothly and trust God we’ll experience a peace/contentment that’ll defy logic. Too many modern-day churches are obsessed with filling up their pews by promising folks the “good life” as the world defines it. That by proudly wearing their “I Heart Jesus” tee shirt on occasion they’ll be entitled to have their dreams come true. But that’s the old way (do A, get B) and it doesn’t work. Christ didn’t shed his blood to verify or bolster the dysfunctional old way mindset; He died to present us with the new way that provides a steady, unceasing flow of spiritual blessings. But if the church tells people they’ll get material blessings by dutifully showing up on Sunday mornings and then those material blessings don’t arrive it’s no wonder their faith fades and wilts faster than a week-old bouquet of roses. “Hey, preacher, my marriage is still in the dumper. What gives?” “Where’s that great job promotion you said I’d get if I prayed for it?” “I did what you suggested, dragged my teenage daughter to the youth ministry and now she’s gotten knocked up by her hoodlum boyfriend. Where’s your merciful God when I need Him most?” Well, what’s the church going to say to those disillusioned folks? That they gotta be more patient while waiting for the great I AM to deliver into their life what He never promised to deliver in the first place? That’s not going to appease the man or woman who’s neck-deep in troubles. They’ll turn away from God and seek relief elsewhere because the church never passed on John’s important, clarifying message to them.
Right off the bat John writes, “This is what we proclaim to you: what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our own eyes, what we have looked at and our hands have touched (concerning the word of life – and the life was revealed, and we have seen and testify and announce to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us). What we have seen and heard we announce to you too, so that you may have fellowship with us (and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ). Thus we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” (1 John 1:1-4). Notice there’s nothing about God being obligated to make our lives run like clockwork in those verses. Not a trace. Our “blessing” is fellowship with our Creator. Crabb wrote, “The apostle John invites us into the enjoyment of precious things, not into the satisfaction and pleasures of improved circumstances, closer relationships, and happier feelings, but into the inexpressible joy of drawing near to God.” Granted, that may not be what a sizeable slice of the population wants to hear but, nonetheless, they will be hearing the truth. And those who yearn to know the truth that there’s more to life than romance, wealth and houses full of stuff will respond to what the Word of God teaches with gladness. John’s letters make it clear that God wants us to be with Him in His perfect kingdom for all time to come. He tells us if we become overly attached to the earth we’ll be inviting even more discouragement into our lives. “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him, because all that is in the world (the desire of the flesh and the desire of the eyes and the arrogance produced by material possessions) is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world is passing away with all its desires, but the person who does the will of God remains forever” (1 John 2:15-17).
The Bible provides a great illustration that’s relevant to this subject in Luke 12:13-21. Jesus is addressing a crowd when one of the men interrupts him with a personal request. He says, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” The man didn’t care about spiritual guidance; he wanted his fair share of the family estate and thought Jesus would intervene on his behalf. He thought wrong. Jesus responded with, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you two?” The guy was probably taken aback because he’d figured who’d be more qualified to settle a dispute than the smartest fellow he’d ever come across? But the man’s money-based dilemma didn’t interest Jesus in the least. I expect the man spat on the ground and left in a huff because he’s not mentioned again. But, as always, Jesus saw an opportunity to teach his listeners a vital lesson.
He told the throng, “Watch out and guard yourself from all types of greed, because one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” He then gave them a parable to mull over. He set it up with “The land of a certain rich man produced an abundant crop…” Note Jesus didn’t say abundance was a sinful thing in and of itself. He continued. “So he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’” Ah. The rich man is revealed as greedy. He’s not thinking of how he can help out the less fortunate with his surplus; his only concern is how to hang on to what he’s got. Jesus went on with the story. “Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to myself, “You have plenty of goods stored up for many years; relax, eat, drink, celebrate!’” Whoopee! The man had achieved the “good life” he’d dreamed of. Doing things the old way had finally paid off. He figured God was forced to bless him because he was such a fine, hard-working man. He’d done A and, in the process, earned B. Or so he thought. Jesus then delivered the shocker. “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded back from you, but who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’” The rich man had had a plan. God had a different one. Jesus let that sink in for a moment before adding the moral of the story. “So it is with the one who stores up riches for himself, but is not rich toward God.”
Jesus then proceeded to warn everybody about worrying too much concerning what we’re going to have for supper tonight, what we’re going to wear to work in the morning, or how much is sitting in our bank account. Only God knows what tomorrow will bring. He told them if their treasure lay in the things of this world instead of heaven they’d end up bankrupt. He said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:34). Crabb wrote, “Either we live to store up things for ourselves, or we live to become rich toward God. We cannot do both.” Thus we must sometimes examine what we’re actually doing when we stop and count our “blessings.” Do we liken them to “merit badges” awarded to us for our exemplary behavior? Do we end up treasuring them and displaying them as proof that our Father loves us more than he loves all those “bad people” out there? Jesus’ parable was intended to teach us that if we’re being selfish, if we’re not sharing with others what God has so generously provided to us we’re dishonoring Him. Big time. Blessings are not ours to hoard. They’re to be passed on to whoever’s struggling behind us.
The only way we can live a life that’s pleasing in the eyes of our magnificent Creator is to see things from His perspective. Of course, since He’s God and we’re not, that’s no easy feat. But so is the command to“…be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). It takes a concentrated effort on our part to keep our focus centered on Christ. Jonathan Edward commented that it requires of us “…an intense narrowing of all our interests on earth, and an immense broadening of our interests in heaven.” The new way Christ provided is the exact opposite of the old way the rich man in the parable had placed his bets on. The really good news is that the new way is as easy to travel as Jesus’ yoke is light to carry. We shift our desire from amassing and safeguarding spiritually-worthless stuff to adoring God as our greatest treasure, our most wonderful blessing, our all-consuming passion. Getting to know Him better each day becomes our deepest, most profound joy.
Some years ago I attended a funeral for the husband of a coworker. He’d died suddenly out of the blue from a massive stroke. The few times I’d been around him I’d been impressed by his outgoing personality. He was one of those rare men who you can’t help but like immediately. He was a natural-born salesman in every sense of the word and he’d made a very lucrative living selling things. The funeral home’s chapel was filled to capacity. One of the songs they piped in was Casting Crowns’ “If We Ever Needed You (Lord, It’s Now)” and the sadness in the room was palpable. But then the eulogies started coming. One after another. His friends and family members reminisced about the wild fishing trips they’d taken together, hilarious-but-not-funny-at-the-time situations they’d gotten into with him and warm memories from childhood. They talked about the goals he’d set and met. They talked of how much he loved his wife and his step-daughter. They spoke about how respected he was in his profession and in the community he lived in. This went on for almost an hour. But not once was his relationship with God, if he had one at all, ever brought up. Afterwards I offered my condolences to his widow and left. As I drove home I prayed to God that my memorial service would be different than his. That folks who knew me would talk more about my Heavenly Father than about my accomplishments or my career or my demeanor. I want the greatest compliment paid me upon my passing to be “He wanted passionately for people to know how Christ had changed his life and that He’d change theirs, too, if they’d just let Him into their hearts.”
I love this quote from the late Brennan Manning: “The dark riddle of life is illuminated in Jesus; the meaning, purpose, and goal of everything that happens to us, and the way to make it all count can be learned only from the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Perhaps when we get to heaven we’ll find out the majority of what we’d deemed to be divine “blessings” were nothing more than being in the right place at the right time. We’ll laugh at our overinflated pompousness and realize what the apostle Paul wrote was the absolute truth. God had simply told him, “…My grace is enough for you” (2 Corinthians 12:9). It’s enough for anybody.