Wednesday, September 24, 2014

In a letter. To my daughter. After a sermon. (Part I)

Audio: 34 sec.

Most of us understand the cost-benefit concept. And it boils down to a simple question ... Is the benefit (the reward) worth the cost? Every decision that you make, every day of your lives, is controlled by that idea.  Now last week we said that the resurrection is the cornerstone of our hope. So here's the question ... What's the going price for a happy resurrection?

Dear E.,

On Sunday, we heard a sermon together that began with the words above. As I've pondered them, I'd like to share with you some of what's been stirring in my heart. Yes, in a very real sense, it is true that every decision you make, every day of your life, will be controlled by weighing the costs and the benefits as they apply to you.

And yet, on a deeper level, I keep coming back to this question: Does this cost-benefit idea really best describe the method by which we "lay hold" of salvation? Perhaps a cost-benefit approach is less a feature of our awakening, and more a feature of our brokenness. Perhaps it best describes our lot in life as fallen creatures who are in bondage to our own selfish desires. Since the time of Adam and Eve, hasn't our sin centered around having our own view of what's best for "ME", and then acting on it as a way of having control?

I do not say that the words we heard are "wrong". The benefits of faith are real, but perhaps in this case discernment has a bigger role to play. A great preacher named Charles Spurgeon once defined discernment this way: "Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right."

One of the problems of a cost-benefit model is that it characterizes every decision as a "means to an end". My choice ends up nothing more than the means by which I get what benefits me in my own eyes. And yet, do you remember what Paul says in 1st Corinthians, chapter 13?  "Love does not insist on its own way"(RSV). Love "seeketh not her own"(KJV). There you have it. Love, as described here, does not operate as a means to obtain a beneficial end for the self. It seeks something "other".

We catch a glimpe of this even in the ordinary blessings of life.  There will hopefully come a time in your own life when your love for your husband, or your love for your children, will cause you to think and act in ways that have very little regard for yourself. And for a few moments your heart will not entertain even a hint of a cost-benefit analysis. You will see your loved ones in an "other" centered light, not as a means to an end, but as ones who, each in their own right, are ... PRECIOUS.

So love is not bound by the laws of the cost-benefit model. And what's many times hard to grasp is ... neither is the gospel and the salvation that it proclaims. If I could be granted one wish with regard to the gospel and my children it would be this ... that they might fully receive the gospel, not as a means to an end, but as a finished promise that is PRECIOUS in their sight.

Faith is trust in someone "other".  It is not a means by which we lay hold of a benefit. We walk by this trust and not by sight. It is the very substance of what is hoped for, not the prerequisite cost for securing what is in reality a free gift.

There are places in the bible where we catch a glimpse or two of how the gift of God, "the cornerstone of our hope", transcends a cost-benefit view of life. I offer you these few:

"In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins."  (1 John 4:10)

"We love, because he first loved us."  (1 John 4:19)

"And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."  (John 8:32)

"We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose."  (Romans 8:28)

"I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate."  (Romans 7:15)

"For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do."  (Romans 7:18-19)

In closing, permit me to state one last time that one of the most precious truths of the gospel is that Christ is not a means to an end. George W. Peters says it well I think:

"Salvation is not a detached gift of God in some gracious and miraculous way bestowed upon man. Salvation is Christ, and to experience salvation is to experience Christ. It is not the experience of something, but of someone.

The Bible does not teach that Christ has salvation and dispenses it like a benevolent master giving gifts to his servants who obey him. Christ is our salvation and gives Himself to us as our salvation. He is our life; He is our strength; He is our peace; He is our joy; He is our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption."

All is grace,


Craig Combs said...

Amidst several good thoughts, might I add one persepctive adjustment to your analysis of the cost-benefit analysis?

YOur analysis assumes that "benefit" by its very nature msut be "selfish." But when benefit is understood to be "the thing I really want most" -- and when conversion to Christ has so changed my heart that the thing I really want most is the benefit of my brother, the glory God, the honor of Christ, etc. --- then my "cost-benefit analysis" reads this way: I can sacrifice, suffer & endure hardship awaiting the resurrection because what I want most is the gathering of the church, the saving of souls, and the honor and glory of Christ which he recieves when all the saints stand before him made perfect. Wanting this is not selfish. Wanting this is the fruit of a heart made new by Christ.

Stephen said...

Hi Craig, and thank you for sharing.

I can give a loud "Amen" to the "perspective adjustment" that you prescribe as a way of broadening our understanding of costs and benefits. I think it is true that there is a very different angle of approach in how our "analysis" operates when "Christ has so changed our hearts." And I like the way you described it as an "I CAN / BECAUSE" approach to serving God and others.

Also, I can agree that what you found to be missing was a result of assumptions that I made. And I appreciate you speaking to what was missing for the benefit of others.

But here's one small rub that I offer for your consideration. Allow me to speak briefly to these assumptions. Assumptions are sometimes necessary to achieve effective communication.

For example, if I were speaking to one of my daughter's future suitors, it would be not be wrong to characterize strong physical advances by him towards my daughter as categorically "selfish" in nature. If, on the other hand, I was having a heart to heart talk with the husband of my sister, then the doors of "YOU CAN / BECAUSE" are able to be swung open.

In this case, I made assumptions in the context of writing a letter to my unsaved daughter, in response to words that she heard regarding "the way by which we lay hold of the benefits that [Christ] secured for us".

Instead of hearing "I CAN/BECAUSE", there was the possibility that she was hearing "I SACRIFICE/SO THAT". It is this possibility that I was attempting to address.

Lastly, I'd like to share one of the ways Martin Luther describes a life of "I CAN/BECAUSE" in his treatise on Christian Liberty:

"Lastly, we will also speak of the things which [a christian] does toward his neighbor. A man does not live for himself alone ... nay, rather, he lives only for others and not for himself. And to this end he brings his body into subjection, that he may the more sincerely and freely serve others.

But none of these things does a man need for his righteousness and salvation. Therefore, in all his works he should be guided by this thought and look to this one thing alone, that he may serve and benefit others in all that he does, having regard to nothing except the need and the advantage of his neighbor.

Lo, this is a truly Christian life, here faith is truly effectual through love; that is, it issues in works of the freest service cheerfully and lovingly done, ... without hope of reward, and for himself is satisfied with the fullness and wealth of his faith.

...[And] each has such abundant riches in his faith, that all his other works ... are a surplus with which he can by voluntary benevolence serve and do good to his neighbor."

After reading this, however, I can't help but wonder:

1. Does he describe a transformed "analysis"? YES
2. Is his an "I CAN/BECAUSE" model for serving? YES
3. Does he describe a cost/benefit analysis? (I'm not convinced)

Some food for thought.