My cell group is currently going through a study about what the Bible says about our finances. We’ve discussed debt, honesty, and giving so far. I think the discussion about work is next.
One discussion that came up the other day was about “God loveth a cheerful giver”. What does that mean? Does the Bible really mean that we ought to be giddy with excitement every time we write out a check? What are the right motives for giving to God? Am I wrong for giving because I know it’s what I’m supposed to do?
My answer to this question is pertinent to a couple of other discussions. Various bloggers and commenters have expressed the idea that our obedience to God ought to spontaneously spring from a deep sense of gratitude as a response to the grace of God. The author of a book I have once carried it to such an extreme that made it sound like if you had to put any effort into obeying God, you were doing it wrong. Because after all, that’s not living out of gratitude for God’s grace.
I wholeheartedly agree that our obedience ought to be primarily out of sincere devotion to God. Now there are other legitimate motivations, such as reverential fear, but it really ought to boil down to Christ’s simple formula: If you love Him, obey Him. He’s the God that brought us out of Egypt, He redeemed us, He died for us. If that doesn’t motivate us to love and good works, then there’s a real serious problem.
It is entirely correct to say that Christians are not under the law, but under grace. We are to obey God, but that does not make Him love and accept us. Even our obedience falls far short. Our works are only pleasing to God because they are surrounded by His grace within the context of Christ’s atoning death.
It’s also correct to say that our love for Christ will produce obedience. If we walk after the Spirit, we will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh. We will obey. This is the natural result of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in us.
And I agree that God does not want mere outward obedience. He wants much more than that. The goal is sincere obedience out of a pure heart that genuinely loves God. This is repentance.
But I take issue with the way this idea is sometimes presented. For example, the author of the book I referred to earlier expressed this as “Sin is stupid”. It’s the idea that if we just love Jesus enough, we’ll effortlessly and spontaneously stop sinning and start doing what we ought to. And again, there is some truth to this, but it’s not always presented very well.
I love my family. That’s why I go to work, Monday through Friday, day in and day out. I want to provide for my family. I love them.
My wife loves our family. That’s why she works hard to make our home a haven. That’s why she changes diapers, cooks meals, and does the laundry. She loves us.
But of course, I do not go off to work every day skipping along, gleeful that I can provide for my family. I just get up and go to work. My wife does not get all weak in the knees when she puts a casserole in the oven.
Does this mean I’ve traded the love of my family for law and duty? Of course not. It’s still true that I provide for my family because I love my family. But my love for my family is far deeper than just an emotion. It’s also a commitment that is much more stable than my feelings. As Rich Mullins sang, “There’s a loyalty that’s deeper than mere sentiment”.
I love Jesus. God created me, redeemed me, sustains me. I love Him because He first love me. But again, this is a lot more than emotions and feelings. My love and gratitude manifests itself as a commitment. I obey and serve Him because I love Him, not because of how I feel.
That commitment, born of love and gratitude, should produce work and discipline. There is indeed effort to the Christian walk. Sin may be stupid, but Satan is a roaring lion not to be scoffed at but to be firmly resisted through the power of the Holy Spirit. It takes work. It takes discipline. It takes commitment. And all that is born of a desire to obey God, which is born of gratitude and love for Him.
Imagine someone giving instructions on how to write well. What would you think if that person stood up and said “What you have to do is just really, really want to write well” and stopped at there. You’d think he was nuts. Instead, books on writing well include detailed instruction, exercises, lessons, etc. All to support the goal of fulfilling the reader’s desire to write well.
Or what would you think of an athlete who thought his desire to be a good athlete was sufficient, and did not bother training? No, an athlete trains because he wants to be a good athlete. He practices for the race.
So I do not give because I have to. I give because God said to. And I do the things God says to do, because I love Him. But my eyes don’t always swell with tears of joy when I write out that check. I just do it because I know it is right.
There are at least two ways to go wrong here. The first is “This is the law. Keep the law, and be righteous.” That’s self righteous legalism, and it is rightly confronted with the grace of God and our sincere obedient response out of gratitude. But there’s a ditch on that side, too. We don’t obey the rules just because they are the rules, but that doesn’t mean there are no rules. And it certainly doesn’t mean that it won’t take effort. This error is rightly confronted with the Biblical instruction to run, to persevere, to discipline yourself, to work, etc.
There is no tension between geniuine love and gratitude, and a commitment born of that genuine love and gratitude. We read in the Bible both “if you love Me, keep my commands” and “discipline yourself for godliness”. There is no conflict there.