Columnists > Soul Food

Christmas challenge

The biblical order of grace, gratitude, and giving

Issue: "The tolerance police," Dec. 19, 1998

You may have watched Christian comedian Dennis Swanberg on television. One of my favorite Swanberg stories concerns his "interactive" preaching experiences as a Baptist pastor, when a deacon (tie coming about halfway down the shirt covering his oversized stomach) stood at the back of the sanctuary, listening and responding to his sermon about the future of the church. Mr. Swanberg said, "If we're going to be the church God wants us to be, each one of us is going to have to walk faithfully in the ways of the Lord." The deacon agreed, "Amen, preacher, let's walk." Mr. Swanberg went on, "If we're going to fulfill God's mission for this church, we're going to have to run, getting more involved in local evangelism and worldwide missions." The deacon was still with him, "Amen, preacher, let's run." Then Mr. Swanberg said, "If we're going to accomplish these things, we're going to have to fly, growing our ministries and renovating and expanding our church facilities, and that will mean we will have to raise some money." To which the deacon responds, "Preacher, let's walk." All of us-as individuals, as families, as a congregation-are constantly facing questions about how far we will go in answering the Lord's call upon our lives. I remember as a young person singing, and feeling guilty as I did, the gospel missions song: I'll go where you want me to go, dear Lord, O'er mountain or plain or sea; I'll say what you want me to say, dear Lord, I'll be what you want me to be. I've had the same feelings singing the familiar hymn of consecration: All to Jesus I surrender, All to him I freely give. May I ever love and trust him, In his presence daily live. I surrender all, I surrender all, All to thee my blessed Savior, I surrender all. These hymns sound like we're expressing a willingness to do whatever-to walk, run, fly, to do anything the Lord wants us to do. Probably the most common response to such challenges is to put them out of our minds, thinking that these sentiments must be for the few, not the many-maybe for missionaries and some especially serious Christians, but not for us. We think, "Total availability to God can't be a serious expectation of ordinary Christians." Whether we blurt it out like Mr. Swanburg's deacon or not, our decision, consciously or unconsciously, is, "I'll go this far and no farther." We have our limits. If we do try to take such challenges seriously, we frequently make the mistake of beginning with guilt. We feel guilty, so out of guilt we resolve and try to work up the will to "do better." Some go to the opposite extreme, thinking, "I can't ever give God my all in my own strength, so I need to quit trying and just to give myself to him in total resignation-I'll let go (of myself and my efforts) and let God (do it for me and through me)." The biblical call to put ourselves at God's disposal, to be expendable for Christ, is a serious one meant for every Christian. But the Bible doesn't call us to guilty effort or to effortless passivity. The biblical order is significant. Grace: We receive God's grace to us in Christ who rescues us sinners from condemnation and gives us the blessings of forgiveness, reconciliation, justification, adoption, a new life, and an eternal hope. Gratitude: When we have received God's grace we will not be the same. Profound gratitude will begin and will grow in our hearts. Giving: In response to God's grace and motivated by gratitude, we will give ourselves and our time. One of the greatest Christmas texts in the Bible was written by the Apostle Paul in the context of two chapters in 2 Corinthians (8 and 9) on the subject of giving: "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich (8:9). That experiential knowing of the grace of Christ produces gratitude, or to use Paul's word, love-"I want to test the sincerity of your love" (8:8). And that is what enables people to give-first giving ourselves to the Lord (8:5) and then giving what we possess-time, talents, and treasure-as we are "able and even beyond (our) ability" (8:3). How far will you go-walk, run, fly? When the dynamic of grace, gratitude, giving is at work in your life, your gratitude and giving will expand in response to the God whose grace-Christmas proves-has no limits.

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William H. Smith
William H. Smith

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