God Prepares Our Works, Motivates Us, Then Rewards Us. What’s Up With That?

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Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Php 2:12-13

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works,which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Eph 2:10

God is the ultimate “worker,” the great worker of “good works.” He deals bountifully with us (PS 119.17), he is good and does good (68). In fact he rejoices to do good to his people (Je 32:41) and he purposes to bring good to his own (Zech 8:15).

God did the ultimate good work when he sent his son Jesus to redeem us. And Peter preached to Cornelius’ household that Jesus “went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil.” (Ac 10:38).

By contrast, we are not good in and of ourselves – “no one does good, not even one” (Ro 3:12). But when he saves us, God makes us new creations. The great worker of good makes us his workmanship, and creates us in Christ Jesus, the one who went about doing good. God creates us for good works.

Not only that, but he prepared our good works beforehand, in eternity past, long before he created the universe. All we need to do is walk in them.

God not only creates us in Christ for good works, prepares the very works we will walk in, but gives us the desire to do those works. He works in us both to will and work for his good pleasure. We who once lived only for ourselves, who worked only evil, and loathed the light, now long to please our heavenly Father, to act like him and his Son. God not only gives us the will but he supplies the strength and energy to do good.

But wait, there’s more. The great Giver gives us gifts to use in the service of others. Mercy, administration, helps, giving, faith, prophecy, teaching, sewing, cooking, artistic gifts and skills in every craft (see Exodus 35), musical and medical skills – every kind of gift. God not only gives us the works to walk in, but the talents to execute them.

But God doesn’t stop there. He rewards us for using the gifts and doing the works he gave us.

What kind of God is this? A wonderful God. A good God. A lavish, generous, amazing, creative, surprising, loving God. It would be enough if he only saved us. But he transforms us, then rewards us. Unbelievable.

And God won’t forget to reward us. He sees every work, no matter how “insignificant” in our eyes, and records it for the last day. Not a single cup of water given to a disciple will go unrewarded. Not a single visit to a sick person, a piece of bread given a hungry one; not a tiny act of kindness done to a child – none will be missed or forgotten.

For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do (Heb 6:10).

Last night I joined some members of our church who conduct a monthly service in a personal care facility. Patients were wheeled in and handed large print hymn books. The folks from our church went around cheerfully greeting the patients, shaking their hands, making small talk. Then they led the service, playing and singing some good old hymns, Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art. Then one of my friends gave a short talk about the love of God from Romans 8. A couple more hymns, then our folks helped wheel patients back to their rooms. These members of our church have been serving the residents of the home every month for years. Last night I thought what a reward they are going to in heaven. Month after month, singing The Old Rugged Cross and What A Friend We Have In Jesus. Loving these people who can’t give much back. Year after year of doing good to the weak. I thought, I want to be there applauding them when Jesus says “Well done, good and faithful servants.”

Your labor in the Lord is not in vain. Let’s thank God for his incredible goodness in giving us works to walk in, the will, strength and gifts to do them, and then rewarding us. What an incredible God we serve!

Me, Bob Wiley, And Getting The Grace To Be Cheerful

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Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: …the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (Romans 12:6, 8)

I’ve seen lots of people doing acts of mercy lately. My 95-year old Dad, JJ, fell on the ice last December, fractured his ankle on both sides, had surgery, spent a week in the hospital then several in a personal care facility, then had a small heart attack 3 weeks ago which landed him back in the hospital. Lots of people showing my Dad mercy. Many with cheerfulness. Some not so cheerful.

Being the son who lives in the same town as Dad, I’ve gone to the hospital and care home more than I ever want to again. Of course, I love Dad and want to do all I can for him. But trudging to the hospital every day gets old. So does helping Dad with bodily functions, wiping his mouth and chin when food is caked on, getting him a drink, turning on his TV, etc. None of this tiny acts of mercy are hard. I don’t share this to evoke admiration or pity. I share this because I don’t always do these simple acts of mercy with cheerfulness.

Sometimes I do. You’d think I could always do them cheerfully. I mean, it’s my dad. He’s always been a great dad. It’s the least I can do. And I know others with immeasurably bigger challenges than me, who have cared for a disabled spouse or child for years with smiles on their faces and gladness in their hearts.

I have seen anew and afresh how much I need Jesus. I need his grace. I need his joy. I see that I am so week that I need him to help me do even the most peewee acts of mercy with cheerfulness. I’ve seen yet again the truth of Jesus’ words “Apart from me you can do nothing.” And I’ve also experienced the truth of “Ask and it will be given to you.” Jesus fills me with joy in serving when I pray. Day after day I come back to Jesus, like Bob Wiley to Dr. Marvin in “What About Bob” and cry out, “I need, I need, I need, Gimme, Gimme, Gimme.” I need grace. I need joy. I need strength.  For even the smallest things.

I know that Jesus was tempted in every way I am, yet without sin. He probably didn’t always “feel” cheerful when the crowds were pushing in on him. It’s hard for me to imagine that he felt cheerful the night before his crucifixion when he thought about washing the disciples’ feet. Yet I believe he sought his Father for strength and joy. He regularly prayed throughout his ministry. I would imagine he prayed for God’s grace to preach and heal and put up with his disciples with cheerfulness.

I’m happy to report that Jesus answers my prayers. He helps me.  He gives me joy in mundane acts of serving. He gives me enough grace for this hour. He doesn’t give me several days’ worth or even several hours’ worth of grace ahead of time. He gives me enough to be cheerful now. I’ll have to pray again soon, because I seem to leak. But I’m confident he’ll fill me again.

When You Do Good And It Comes Back To Bite You

After we were brought safely through, we then learned that the island was called Malta. The native people showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold. When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god. (Acts 28:1-6)

Paul was trying to serve others – he was gathering sticks for a fire to help people warm up. And what happened? He got bit. Sometimes you try to do good and it comes back to bite you.

Years ago I counseled a struggling couple for months. Many evenings I drove to their home after receiving a desperate call to intervene in a major blowout. After a couple years the wife left her husband. And who did he blame? Me. Me. All I did was try to help and it came back to bite me.

A fellow pastor spent hours and hours trying to help a different couple, and our church helped them financially. The thanks my friend got was they left our church and told people he was a Satanic high priest. He did good and it came back to bite him.

Jesus is the supreme example of suffering for doing good – he went about healing people, delivering people from demons, and teaching the truth, and he wound up nailed to a Roman cross.

2 things to remember when you do good and it comes back to bite you:

Suffering does not mean we have done something wrong.

We can think, what did I do wrong? Is God punishing me? Suffering doesn’t mean we’ve done something wrong. Very often we’ve done something right. Satan isn’t happy when we serve the Lord and often he resists us and afflicts us. And because we live in a fallen world, we sow good seeds but along with our crop, thorns and thistles come up. Don’t be surprised when you sow good deeds and some weeds pop up alongside.

Our reward is from God, not those we serve.

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)

When we try to do good and it comes back to bite us we can think what’s the point, why bother? We feel like the preacher in Ecclesiastes: all is vanity. If this life were all there is, our labor would be in vain. But we know differently. We know that “in the Lord” our labor is not in vain. Our reward is from God, not those we serve. That child you adopted (or your own child) may never thank you. Those neighbors you reach out to may never be saved. That man in prison you visited all those months may never appreciate it. You may never see the good your giving to the poor does. But your labor in the Lord is not in vain. Even if it feels like it.

When we do good and it comes back to bite us, we can feel giving up. Don’t. Your suffering doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong. And your reward is from the Lord, not those you serve. Do you have a viper dangling from your hand? Shake it off and keep serving. Jesus is pleased with you, even if things didn’t work out like you hoped.

Being Epic Is Killing Us

These days everything is “epic” (insert one to fifteen exclamation points). Every movie is an epic story of heartbreak, love, and survival. Every book is the most epic tale since Homer’s Odyssey. Every sports rivalry, no matter how lame or inconsequential (“the Altoona Curve take on their epic rival”) is the epic game of the century. The Super Bowl is epic. The World Series is epic. Those wings I ate last Thursday were epic.

We Christians are epic junkies as well. The books that sell and the blog posts that spread are those that portray the Christian life as an epic journey of thrills, excitement, and crazy adventures, all for the glory of God. And don’t get me wrong, there will be times in our lives when we will do big, difficult things for God, like go on a mission trip, adopt a child, or plant a church. I am ALL for those things. Praise God if you have the opportunity to be a part of something big.

But, to paraphrase the movie The Incredibles, if everything is epic then nothing is epic.

Does God really want all of us to be constantly living epic, exciting, thrilling, over-the-top lives? If so, where does that put those of us who simply read our Bibles, go to church, take care of our kids, and serve those around us? I would put myself in that category. Am I missing out on something? I don’t think so.

In 1 Timothy 2:1-3 Paul says:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior…

Wait, what? Peaceful, quiet, godly, dignified lives? Where is the epicness? Where are the crazy adventures for God? Where are the thrills? Where is the radicalness?

Maybe we’ve got this epic thing all wrong. Maybe God wants us to live epicly quiet lives. And maybe, just maybe, living a quiet, godly, dignified life truly is epic.

I think this is what Jesus meant when said: “And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” (Matthew 10:42) Most of the Christian life is ordinary, at least in the world’s eyes. We go to work. We take care of our children. We serve those in our neighborhood. We take care of the new mom in our small group. We reach out to the sick in our church. We pray for one another. We instruct our children in the fear of the Lord. We change diapers. There is nothing epic or extraordinary about any of these things.

But the reality is, serving the Lord in any way truly is epic.

When we serve the Lord in any way, big or small, quiet or loud, at home or abroad, we are storing up rewards in heaven. We are laying up treasures in heaven. And when we get to heaven the real epic life will begin. Heaven truly is epic in every sense of the word. Everything we do, see, say, and enjoy in heaven will be epic.

If you feel discouraged because your life doesn’t seem very epic for the Lord, maybe you need to redefine your understanding of “epic”. All service to Lord is epic. Serving your children can be epic. Cleaning the bathroom can be epic. Creating a spreadsheet can be epic. Every day of the Christian life is meant to be quietly epic. Because a day is coming when life truly will be epic in every sense of the word. Let’s live for that day.

+ original photo by Curtis Fry

Put Down The Cheetos, Read This Post, and Stop Being So Lazy!

This is a post about laziness, so you’d better pay attention. That’s right, you: put down the Cheetos, turn off the TV, and listen up! Here’s what the Bible says about laziness. It’s bad. So stop being so lazy! End of post.

Are you still reading?

All right, I admit: that’s not what the Bible has to say about laziness. But be honest: it’s about what you expected me to say, isn’t it? If laziness actually crosses our mind we assume that A) it applies to someone else, someone with Doritos stains on his undershirt; and B) the solution is for Mr. Doritos to suck it up and work harder. If only it were that easy….

Here’s the rub when it comes to laziness: you can be the busiest person you know…and still be lazy. I know what you’re thinking. Hang on, time out – lazy people don’t do anything. Busy people do lots of things. So busy people can’t be lazy. It seems to make sense – but unfortunately it’s just not true. Here’s why: laziness isn’t defined by mere lack of activity. Laziness is not doing the tasks God has given you to do. It doesn’t matter whether you fill the void with hours of Star Trek reruns or with answering work-related emails. If it’s not what God has called you to do, then it’s laziness. So you can be perpetually busy and chronically lazy.

I know, I know – this post is getting worse by the minute. Hang with me, because there’s good news coming. Before we get there, we need to be convinced that laziness is indeed something the Bible condemns, not just a cultural taboo concocted by the workaholics among us. Proverbs has much to say on the topic of the “sluggard”, as in:

The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied. (Proverbs 13:4)

And Paul also addresses the topic:

For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12)

Now then. If laziness is a sin and isn’t limited only to the couch potatoes among us, how does the gospel address this perpetual tendency to avoid the things we should be doing? Here’s how: the gospel calls us to be people of significance. The God who saves us also gives us eternally meaningful tasks to do – not as the way to earn our salvation, but as a privilege flowing from our salvation.

Consider Ephesians 2:10: “for we are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Do you see it? Before he acted in time to save you, God had already prepared a heritage of good works to give you – neighbors and family members to share the gospel with, encouraging words to speak, children to raise, a vocation to pursue. We were made to walk in those good works to honor God, love our neighbor, and bring good to our souls. After all, no one wants an empty, wasted, meaningless life. By saving us, Jesus has secured for us a life of true significance. He intends for our actions, even the mundane, fold-the-laundry ones, to matter in the world.

So Christian, fight laziness. Fight the temptation to turn away from God’s call on your life by reminding yourself of the good news: in Christ Jesus my good works matter. When we faithfully plod along, fulfilling God’s call on our lives – whether it’s the day at the office or a day at home wiping runny noses – our actions count for eternity.

Photo by Cindy Funk

 

Let Love Set The Agenda

“The Love Agenda”…it would be a great name for a mid-90′s Contemporary Christian Music band. I could see them being the opening act for “Geoff Moore and the Distance” or “Carman”. They’d probably have one or two albums, then fade into history along with “Earthsuit” and “Burlap To Cashmere”. Every once in a while someone would say, “Do you remember ‘The Love Agenda’? They were awesome! I saw them at Creation ’95!” Then everyone would recount their favorite “Love Agenda” moments. But enough reminiscing about the good ol’ days.

“The Love Agenda” also encapsulates what it means to love as a Christian. In his book Loving the Way Jesus Loves, Phil Ryken says:

This is what love does: it lets the needs of others set our agenda, rather than letting our agenda limit how much we are willing to serve…Whatever limits we decide to place on our service should not be determined by our selfish desires but by the will of God, by our other legitimate callings, and by what is truly merciful for the people who are asking for our help.

Dang. That hurts. When I’m putting my kids to bed, and I just really, really want them to go to bed without throwing a fit, and I get angry when they keep coming up with excuses not to go to bed, what is really determining my agenda for that night? Love or selfishness? When someone asks me to serve in a particular area, do I only serve if it fits my agenda or giftings? Or do I let love for God and others determine when I serve? Do I only serve those who are easy to serve and who can repay me in some way? Or do I let love lead me to serve those who are lowly and can’t give anything back?

So often I serve only when it fits into my agenda for the day, or week, or my life. I want to grow in letting the needs of others determine my serving.

God Don’t Do Nike, and Neither Can We

The longer I’ve been a Christian, the better I’ve become at acting. Not acting in the movie sense of the word, but in the doing sense of the word. I know how a Christian is supposed to act in different situations. I know what I’m supposed to do, say, think, and display through my body language. I can put on the right faces, say the right things, reference the appropriate scriptures, you get it. I guess that is sort of like movie acting, now that I think about it.

Because of this, there are many times when my service to the Lord becomes more like a Nike commercial than a holy moment: I just do it. You need me to lead worship on Sunday? Yeah sure. I don’t really feel like it, but I’ll just do it. I’ll put a brave face on it, and all that. You need me to take my Saturday to help you move? I mean, it is my Saturday and all, and I have been really looking forward to relaxing, but I can do it. I’ll just do it. Jen needs me to watch the girls for a few hours? Yep, can do. Just do it. I’d rather watch television, but I can grin and bear it. I can make my body do the right thing, even if I’m complaining on the inside. 

The problem is, just doing it isn’t enough in God’s eyes. God requires happy service. In Psalm 100:2 it says:

Serve the LORD with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!

If only the word “gladness” hadn’t nosed its way into that scripture, then I’d be good! I could serve the Lord, no matter how I felt about it. But God makes it clear that I must be happy in my service of him.

Why does God care so much about happy serving? Because the way we serve is a direct reflection on who we serve. If God was a cruel taskmaster who didn’t care for me and enjoyed punishing me, then it might be okay to serve without gladness. If God was a joyless God who never blessed me, then serving without gladness would be fine. My joyless serving would be a reflection of my joyless God.

But the fact is, serving God is the greatest privilege of my life. I was once a hell bound sinner, enslaved by sin and ruled by Satan. But God rescued me, forgave me, adopted me, and continues to pour blessing after blessing into my life. No one has done more good to me than God. When I don’t serve the Lord with gladness, I’m saying he’s not a very good master. I’m saying that he hasn’t been kind to me. I’m saying that it is drudgery to follow the Lord, when in reality his yoke is easy and his burden is light.

So whether I’m serving in church, serving my family, or serving at work, I need to do it with gladness. The way I serve makes a big statement about the one I serve. Today, let’s seek to serve the Lord with gladness. If you find yourself lacking gladness, ask God for help. Ask him to fill you with his joy. Ask him to refresh your glad spirit. God takes our gladness very seriously, and he wants you to be glad in your service of him.

Let’s Put The “Z” In Zealous (Why Should Zombies Monopolize This Letter?)

who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. Titus 2:14 

Believers should be zealous for good works

Not to be saved, but because we are saved. Good works don’t save us, but salvation produces good works.

I’m a naturally lazy person.  As a kid I put the “S” in slothfulness. When I was 12, my dad put a tetherball pole in the back yard for us kids.  He had dug the hole and was pouring the cement and asked me to hold the pole for a few minutes. You’d have thought he’d asked me to bear the world on my shoulders. I was suddenly overwhelmed with a wave of energy-sapping tiredness. I stood there sighing and slumping, like I’d been doing hard labor for 16 hours in the desert heat.  Here was my dad – dripping with sweat from digging and mixing cement – and I couldn’t even hold a pole for three minutes.  I wasn’t that far from being a zombie.

When Jesus saved me, he began to change me, as he tends to do.  One reason he died was to create a people zealous for good works.  And that’s what he began to do in me.

We should be zealous for good works first of all, because Jesus died for us.  He did that for me. I want to do all I can for him.

We should also be zealous for good works because life is short. None of us knows how much time we have left to serve God.  In the twinkling of an eye we’ll be in heaven.

There are hundreds of good works to do each day – most of them mundane and seemingly insignificant.  A quick phone call or an encouraging email to a friend. Giving somebody five dollars for a meal or a ride to church.  Making your wife a cup of coffee.  Whether it’s setting up chairs, talking to a child before the Sunday meeting, or helping someone carry groceries to their car, be zealous for any small good thing God gives you to do.

Just get in there and start serving. Faithful in little faithful in much. If you’re faithful in small ways God will give you bigger ways to serve.  Remember, Jesus rewards giving someone a drink of water.

Don’t worry about whether you’re gifted or not. Some only want to serve where they are gifted. Serve wherever and whenever you can.

Serve God with gladness. Sing while you do the dishes. Be the most cheerful barista in the church coffee bar. Whistle while you clean that bathroom.

Be zealous for good works even if nobody sees you.  The Lord sees and will reward you.

Obviously, we don’t have this kind of zeal in ourselves. So we should ask Jesus for it. Ask him to make you a joyful servant like himself.  He loves to answer this prayer. It’s a prayer according to his will and he promises to answer any prayers according to his will.

Full of Sap and Spring at Age 93

They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green…(Psalm 92:14)

This is my grandpa, J.J. Altrogge. He’s 93 years old, and he’s still bearing loads of fruit of Jesus. The picture is of him doing a Bible study at a retirement home, which is something he regularly does. For the last 15 years or so he has also painted birthday cards for every member of our church. That currently puts him at around 5,000 birthday cards. Lately he’s been bringing a down-and-out friend of his to church to hear the gospel. He also gives the guy rides to the grocery store to help him purchase groceries.

So what’s his secret? How is he still so fruitful for God at age 93? I think it’s because he is in regular fellowship with Jesus. Every morning he sits in his sunroom, surrounded by his paintings, sips on bad coffee (instant!), reads God’s word, reads a devotional, and takes time to pray. Nothing fancy. No extravagant, mystical rituals. Just time with Jesus.

I’m convinced that the more closely we stay connected to Jesus, the more fruitful we will be. The more we marinate in his word and open our hearts in prayer, the more we will blossom with spiritual fruit. That’s why Jesus said:

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4-5 ESV)

My grandpa abides with Jesus which then leads to him being fruitful. It’s the same with my dad. His fruitfulness as a pastor for the last 30 years is because he is regularly abiding with Jesus. I want to be like my grandpa and my dad. I want to imitate them as they imitate Christ. There’s no gimmick or trick to being fruitful for the Lord. It’s simple. Abide with Jesus and then walk in the works he has prepared for you.

Don’t Let Fear Hold You Back

I think that fear often holds us back from pursuing the desires that God has put on our hearts.

For example:

  • You desire to use your spiritual gift of prophecy or leadership or mercy, yet you fear making mistakes and failure.
  • You desire to start a Bible study but fear asking people to join you.
  • You desire to write a book, but fear that you’ll never finish it.
  • You desire to challenge someone in their spiritual walk, but fear that they’ll react poorly.

The gospel is what frees us from fear. In Christ, God accepts me. He is my father, I am his son. There are no conditions on his love, no earning that I must do. I don’t need more acceptance. I have enough in Christ. If others think poorly of me, who cares? If I fail, then I’ll fail knowing that God still delights in me. I am free to step out and risk my reputation, because my identity isn’t found in my reputation, it’s found in Christ.

The glory of the gospel is that I am in Christ. My identity is wrapped up in him. I belong to him and I am his servant. I’m a soldier in his service. Nothing more! Whether I succeed or fail, my position in Christ doesn’t change. Whether I produce bushels of fruit or go down in a glorious mess, it doesn’t matter. In 1 Corinthians 3:7-8, Paul said:

So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor.

My identity is a servant of Christ. If I water, wonderful. If I harvest, great. If I try and fail, God is still honored. If I try and succeed, it was still God who gave the growth. I’m free to risk my reputation for God because I’m not the one ultimately responsible for producing the fruit. God is pleased by my efforts.

Charles Spurgeon said:

I think I know of no delight on earth that is higher than that of knowing that you really are with all your heart adoringly serving God.

Is fear holding you back from using your gifts to serve the Lord? Is fear of what others think keeping you from adoringly serving God? Don’t hold back. Don’t let fear limit you. You are secure in Christ. If you’re going to fail, fail gloriously.