Recently, I was confronted with a disturbing realization . I have been sugar coating some bitter biblical pills in order to make it easier to swallow some of Jesus’ more difficult teaching. That’s not an easy thing to admit, given that I have been a follower of Christ for nearly 30 years, most of them as someone who has taught and led others from Sunday to Sunday as a pastor and church planter. What made it even more startling was that the verses that caught me up short are the very ones my wife Barbara and I chose as the foundational verses for our marriage and had read at our wedding nearly 25 years ago. Talk about being a slow learner.
As a young couple planning to serve Christ by working full time in a church, we anticipated that we would certainly not get rich and would probably struggle financially most of our lives. To remind us of God’s provision, we selected Matthew 6:26-36 as the reading at our wedding. To say the least, it was highly unusual to hear Jesus speak about the lilies of the field and birds of the air at a wedding. Hearing about storing up treasures in heaven and not giving a thought to where food and clothing will come from is a far cry from the normal stuff on love that gets read. In the early days of our ministry, those words were often a source of great comfort when we wondered how to put food on the table.
But something happened along the way. We became very much like everyone else. Our needs were more than met. In fact, we now have a nicer house and more stuff than we ever dreamed possible. And that is what disturbs me. In preparing a sermon on chapter 12 of Luke’s Gospel, I came across those words of Jesus again. There they were, the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, not toiling and not spinning and being taken care of by God. But Luke included some words of Jesus that Matthew left out:
“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Of course I had read those words many times in the past. I had even preached on them and taught on them before, but this time something new happened. God seems to do that. He opens up new areas of our hearts with familiar words that strike us afresh. I was being confronted with the reality that in my own life, I had taken these and similar words from Jesus and made them safer, easier to take, easier to swallow. The thinking usually went something like this, Certainly Jesus is not saying that all of us are to sell our possessions and give everything away. But He is challenging our attitudes toward our stuff. The idea I conveyed was that as long as you put God first, you could keep your stuff. But how would I know if I really loved God more than my stuff, if I was never confronted with a fork in the road? How could I know if I really loved God more than the comfort of my possessions unless I took Jesus at His word? Suddenly I felt like that scene in Job, where Satan says to God, “Of course Job loves you, you protect him and give him all he needs. But will he still love you if a little hardship comes his way?”
So I asked myself, is there anything I have that I would be unwilling to sell and give the proceeds to the poor? If so, I needed to deal with the fact that something has become my idol, a thing I worship and love more than Jesus. I started with the big-ticket items. Could I get rid of my car for the kingdom of God? Sure. After all, how much emotional attachment can a guy have to a 10-year-old Buick, four-door sedan? The house? Yeah, I could sell it and live in a small apartment. If God wanted the proceeds from the house to go to the poor, I could do that. I would even be willing to sell it and head to some foreign mission field.
It was about this time, as I was feeling pretty good about myself, that it all started to unravel. In the course of doing a mental inventory of all the stuff I would be willing to sell for the poor, I pictured my books, more than 3,000 of them. My books. My books! Now God was getting personal. Could I sell off my books in order to give money to the poor? That is when the disturbing thought hit. Jesus really meant what He said, and I had been keeping Him at bay all these years. I had rationalized away the naked reality of His words. I had been denying Him the glory He is due by placing my books ahead of Him. Selling my house or my car for the poor was not what would give God glory; (too many fragements) selling my books would. Even though the monetary value is less, I would give God greater glory because the books were more important to me than the house or the car.
You see, I could get rid of the car because my identity has never been wrapped up in what car I drive. I could get rid of the house, because I have long recognized that no matter how nice and big my house is, someone has one nicer and bigger.. But my books, that’s a different story. I get a sense of my identity from being a reader, a student of the things of God and being somewhat scholarly. However, my identity, my sense of worth, my value needs to be in Christ and Christ alone. If I am able to love God enough to sell my books, then it shows that my identity and ultimate satisfaction is in Him. As author John Piper says, “God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in Him.”
God has opened up a new area of my heart that He wants to inhabit. He wants the books moved out so He can move in. When Jesus said to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength,” He meant it. Part of my heart has been in love with what my books say about me, the pleasure they give me when I read them and the satisfaction I get by having them on the shelves.
So now it’s time to start giving them away as well as selling them, so that others can benefit from the proceeds. In a wonderful way, God is beginning to get me excited about the glory that will flow in His direction, as I am more and more satisfied in Him and Him alone.