In the parable of the talents, Jesus taught his disciples how to respond to blessings in our life. The first two servants responded by using their blessings (talents) for good, but the third man hid his because he was afraid of the Master. In fear, he actually accused his Master of stealing from others (see Matthew 25:24-25). When our heavenly Father blesses us, we must not respond in fear of losing it. Yet, this becomes harder the older we become, because our Father gives us more and more. When I was in college, I didn’t have much materially. I had a great heritage from my family, but I owned little more than a car, a stereo, clothes, and some textbooks. If I lost all my worldly possessions, it would not have been a great loss. However, as time went by, Father gave me a wife, children, and way more stuff than any of us need. With each new blessing comes an increased temptation to protect what I have. Fear and anxiety bangs at the door of my heart to enter in with all kinds of “what if” scenarios. With nothing, it is easy to live like the first two men in the parable of the talents, but with each increasing blessing, the temptation to slip into a life of fear, like the third man, becomes increasingly attractive. However, fear is a cruel master, constantly seeking more and more control of our lives. On the other hand, the recognition of what Jesus taught us about God our Father sets us free. The more that we grasp and act upon his goodness, the more our lives are set free.
While we often misinterpret tribulation, I believe we do the same with blessing. Blessing comes to us starting out as good, because it comes from Father. But, throughout Scripture, people who were blessed often fell. It happened over and over, until in Luke 18, Jesus declared how hard it was for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven. The disciples couldn’t believe their ears when Jesus said that. Think about it. The people who have received God’s blessing have the hardest time entering into the kingdom! King Saul was blessed when he was anointed king over Israel. It was God who made him king. Nevertheless, in the midst of all that blessing, he fell to the extent that God had to remove him. David fell into sin with Bathsheba, not when he was in tribulation, but when he was at the height of his power—rich and secure in his palace. Solomon, the wisest and richest man who didn’t have an enemy in the world, fell into idolatry at the end of his life. In the decades prior to Assyria’s invasion, Israel experienced great wealth and blessing. Prior to Babylon’s invasion, Judah experienced blessing and even revival under King Josiah.
We have to be missing something here, because God is the one who blesses us for good purposes. So, why do blessings often end up badly? It can’t be Father’s fault, so we must be missing something. That something, I believe, is our worldly meaning given to the blessing. I believe the reason blessing is given is the same as heaven’s purpose in tribulation. Father desires an encounter with us. In difficulty we turn to our heavenly Father for help, but in blessing we need to go to him just as often in thanksgiving and ask for wisdom to manage the blessing in an appropriate manner. Put another way, in tribulation, Father encounters us and produces strength. In blessing us, Father offers partnership to produce intimacy.
Let me suggest to you that exercise is to the physical body what adversity is to the spirit. We may not like it, but it is helpful in developing strength. Furthermore, without adversity, you will never develop greatness in the kingdom. If you consider anyone who was ever great in the kingdom or in the world, adversity was always part of their becoming great.
I grew up in Wisconsin during the 1960s. Virtually everyone I knew was a Packer fan. On December 31, 1967, the Packers played the Dallas Cowboys for the NFL Championship in Green Bay. The temperature was thirteen below, and the field became ice as the game progressed. Some players had to be treated for frostbite after the game. Some have called that game the greatest football championship ever played. With a little more than four minutes left in the game, the Packers, who were behind, got the ball. They had to score a touchdown to win the game, but they had not done well since the second quarter. With thirteen seconds left in the game, the ball sat on the one-yard line, and the Packers called their last time out and decided on play. The play was a quarterback sneak that Bart Starr ran, and he went on to score the winning touchdown. Many people have heard of that game, often called the Ice Bowl. I suggest to you that what made that game great was the adverse conditions under which it was played. If it had not been played in the cold and ice, it probably would not be remembered that much, because many games and even championships end with a last second score.
However, what many people don’t know is that seven years prior, the Packers were in a similar situation. In 1960, they were playing for the championship in Philadelphia. They got the ball one final time with just a few minutes left, needing to score a touchdown to win. They got down near the Philadelphia goal line, but they were stopped short and lost the game. After the game, Green Bay coach, Vince Lombardi, told his team that they would never be in that situation again. In fact, over the next seven years, the Packers never lost a play-off or championship game. I suggest to you that the victory in the midst of adverse conditions during the Ice Bowl had its foundation in the adversity and pain of losing the championship in 1960.
Many of us face adversity today, but we have reason for hope and joy. As we stand firm in joy by rejoicing, we know that Jesus is near. We can give thanks for what is good in our life, and we can discipline ourselves to think according to Father’s heart until it becomes automatic in our life.
I recently heard a speaker explain that, according to studies, the most underdeveloped attribute in humans is gratitude. Because we have not developed gratitude in our lives, we fail to discern all that is good in our life. If we fail to focus on the good, then we give in to the tendency to focus attention on problems. Having focused on our problems, we are even less able to see the things for which we should be thankful. Losing the ability to see that which we should be thankful, our problems consume an even greater portion of our thoughts, until we can only see our problems and sink lower and lower.
All of us have problems in our lives along side things for which we can be thankful. Rather than giving energy to our problems, we can choose to draw energy by deciding to be thankful for that which is good in our lives. It boils down to developing a discipline regarding what we will choose to think about. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul put it this way, “Finally, brothers, whatever is pure, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8 ESV)
A few years ago, a missionary speaker came to the church I was pastoring. His young son of three, who had recently broken his leg, was with him as he spoke. After holding his son for a while, the speaker put him down on the platform next to him as he shared about their ministry. I found myself watching the little boy. Normally, young children are uncomfortable being in front of so many people, but this little boy was quite at ease in front of the congregation. How could he be so comfortable when most would be anxious and comfortable? The little boy knew he was safe because his daddy was near to him, and he was confident that in his daddy’s presence, nothing bad could happen to him.
The boy’s behavior reveals what Scripture teaches us; Jesus is always near us. Therefore, Jesus’ nearness to us gives us no reason to be anxious, and actually, his nearness can give us great courage. When we know we are protected, we can do things we would never normally do.
Many of us have promises and prophecies spoken to us that are, as of yet, unfulfilled. Furthermore, our circumstances scream at us, day in and day out, that those promises and prophecies cannot possibly be true. Circumstances said that Abraham would never be a father, but they were wrong. Circumstances affirmed that Joseph would never rule over anything, much less an empire, but he did. Circumstances declared that David would be killed in the wilderness, but he became king. Have you ever considered that your contrary circumstances may actually be an indicator of the truth of those promises and prophecies? Contrary circumstances may be all the more reason to rejoice and give glory to Father who, in the most amazing and dramatic fashion, will bring the promises to pass if we refuse to shrink back.
Let’s pause now. Consider the promises, prophecies, and dreams that are in your life. Write them down or bring them to mind, for every child of God has a kingdom destiny. What is that destiny? Give thanks for that destiny. Now let’s look at circumstances. If your circumstances are hindering you from pursuing your destiny, if they are hindering you from rejoicing, then it is time, like David, to strengthen yourself in the Lord. To focus on the promises which are heaven’s reality and not be hindered in any way by temporary circumstances that seem to indicate the contrary. They may, in fact, be confirming the truth of those promises.
Jesus reminded his followers that we are not to live our lives for the purpose of being praised by people, but rather for the benefit and pleasure of our heavenly Father. In Matthew’s Gospel chapter 6, Jesus explained to his disciples that when they help others or when they pray, they are not to do so to receive praise from other individuals, but to help others in secret and to pray in secret. According to Hebrews 12:12, we live with a great cloud of heavenly witnesses. In giving us this teaching, Jesus encourages us to look at our heart condition and motivation. Jesus himself lived in this manner. In John 5:31-34, he explained to his followers that his own testimony concerning himself was not valid, but it was was what the one who sent him, God his Father, said about him that really counted. Jesus lived his life refusing to promote himself and teaches us to do the same. In 1 Peter 5:6-7, Peter wrote that we are to humble ourselves before the mighty hand of God and in the proper time he will lift us up. In examining the life of Jesus, I realized that humbling yourself before God was not a tactic to gain recognition some day, be lifted up, but was a continual lifestyle. Therefore, it is interesting to consider the possibility that when we have the world’s attention, we are backstage in heaven, and when we are offstage in the world, we are in heaven’s spotlight.
In the spring of 1747, a young missionary showed up at the Edwards family home. He was quite ill, and seventeen-year-old Jerusha took up the task of caring for him. For nineteen weeks, she cared for this young man. In October of 1747, he died of tuberculosis, which he had previously contracted while proclaiming Jesus’ love to the Native Americans of New England. Due to her care, the young missionary was able to complete his diary and leave it with Jerusha’s father for publication. That diary has never been out of print in over 250 years. The young missionary was David Brainerd, whose diary has inspired many Christians over the last two centuries.
I wonder how often David Brainerd, as he lay in bed during the final weeks of his life, was tempted to think his life was a waste. He was prevented from completing his education at Yale. He never became an ordained minister. He had only four years of ministry, and even that was of questionable value in the eyes of others. Nevertheless, it is David Brainerd who is now remembered more than the famous instructors of Yale who made the decision to expel him. Brainerd is remembered for his diary and the experiences he wrote in it more than the sermons he preached to the Native Americans.
It might be that thing we do in secret, that sacrifice we make when we don’t think anyone notices, which becomes the real reason for our life.
The way we think, day in and day out, gives to us a foundational key to sustaining joyful living on a daily basis. Joy is built upon the foundation of daily thinking in a manner that reflects our Father’s heart. In order to remember what we’ve been given, we need to think in a correct manner. I believe this is what Paul is telling us to do in Philippians 4; we are to think in a way that does not come naturally to us. Remember that Jesus told his disciples that what comes out of our mouth reveals what is in our heart. What Paul is doing is revealing to us a different thought language. It is a language that reveals the heart of God through the Spirit.
While most of us agree that we should think in this manner, I believe that there is subtle opposition to this way of thinking. I saw this when we were living in Rome. One day, I was speaking with our neighbor. I don’t remember the topic of our conversation, but at one point, I commented about how our children enjoyed good health. Quite seriously, she told me not to speak in that manner. She believed talking about the positive aspects of our life brings a curse on us. It struck me how different that type of thinking is. If you live in a culture that discourages speaking about positive aspects of life, then you might be tempted to think negatively so that you don’t somehow curse yourself.
I think we subtly have the same tendency in our culture. Recently, I was speaking with someone at work. I mentioned that we had not had any problem calls that day. He responded, “tongue in cheek,” by saying, “let’s not jinx it.” Let’s knock on wood so that it will continue. Now he was joking, but that line of thinking has a belief foundation from somewhere, otherwise it would not exist in our language. This type of speaking can discourage us from thinking in the manner Paul described, because we might fear “jinxing” the good things in our life. So, we subtly begin to think negatively and hope that positive things will occur. Not much different from how our Italian friend would think. However, Jesus did not teach us to live, speak or think in this manner.
A number of times in his writings, Paul referred to running a race. This would have made sense to the Greek mindset that was accustomed to athletic games which included running. Paul emphasizes how important it is to keep the goal or finish line in mind. Several years ago, I ran in the Helvetia Half Marathon in Hillsboro, Oregon—thirteen point one miles. My goal was to run the race at a pace a little faster than an eight-minute mile pace, or to finish the race in under an hour and forty-five minutes. Fortunately, the race had pacers who ran with helium-filled balloons attached to them so that you could see them. Since there were so many racers, I could not get up with the eight-minute mile pacer, so I began with the eight-and-a-half-minute mile pacer. I realized that, since I was starting after the eight-minute mile pacer, if I could catch her by the end of the race, then I would have accomplished my goal and would have run under one hour and forty-five minutes. At the seven-and-a-half-mile point, I reached the highest elevation of the race and could see far ahead. That was when I saw my goal, the balloons of the eight-minute mile pacer. For the rest of the race, I kept her in my sight, running to catch up to her. At twelve and a half miles, less than a mile from the finish line, I caught and passed her. As I did, she encouraged me to keep going and finish under an hour and forty-five. I did, finishing a bit under one hour and forty-four minutes.
On the other hand, several years after I ran that half marathon, I ran in a five-kilometer race—just three point one miles. My goal was to run it under twenty minutes. When I started, I had a glitch with my watch, so I didn’t have an accurate time of when I began. When I finished, I knew I was close to twenty minutes. When the results came, I finished at twenty minutes and two seconds. Two seconds over twenty minutes, I had missed my goal. If I had a clear idea of my goal as I got close to the finish line, I believe I could have cut two or three seconds off my time. As we run the race of life, we must keep Jesus firmly in our sight, because he is our goal; otherwise, we can become distracted and miss our goal. The purpose of our life is to become like him.