Friday
Jul062012

The Nonprofit Life

At various times in our lives, we are moved to personal reflection, wondering if all our effort and personal investment of time, energy, and sacrifice have been worth it.

Whether it is a graduation, reaching middle age, listening to a dire diagnosis, or some other major event, we begin to ponder if it has ultimately amounted to anything. What have we made of our lives? What have we done with our talents and opportunities? What would we have done differently if we had known then what we think we know now? What does the future hold?

For the disciple of Christ, these questions are loaded with spiritual consequences, especially as it sometimes seems wicked people have prospered where we have suffered. We judge everything in life according to value – not always its material worth, but also its aesthetics, emotions, and other intangible assets. When we begin to feel as if our lives have not proven profitable, we become prone to discouragement, depression, and even digression, making these assessments powerful tools of the tempter to lure us away from our inheritances.

This, naturally, is nothing new. Centuries before the ministry of Christ, the prophet Malachi observed this attitude among his own generation.


You have said, “It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the LORD of hosts?” And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.” (Malachi 3:14-15)


 

Malachi witnessed the development of an attitude that faithfulness was futile because the unfaithful often prospered and went unpunished, at least as far as the eye could see.

That is also the issue with which the patriarch Job wrestled, as his physical joys evaporated and his worthless counselors misled him. The effect of their false accusations was to deepen Job’s confusion about the relationship between faithfulness and reward. Job had been faithful, but he was no longer enjoying any obvious reward. Of the wicked whom he had observed, Job asserted,


They spend their days in prosperity,

 

and in peace they go down to Sheol.

They say to God, ‘Depart from us!

We do not desire the knowledge of your ways.

What is the Almighty, that we should serve him?

And what profit do we get if we pray to him?’

Behold, is not their prosperity in their hand?

The counsel of the wicked is far from me. (Job 21:13-16 ESV)


 

In the midst of his mourning and scratching, Job was working hard to sort out why the wicked were wrong, where the profit was in prayer and piety if a faithful man could be stricken so thoroughly. When our afflictions or self-assessments turn negative, we can become susceptible to the same kind of misguided disappointments.

Job’s experience proves the fallacy of the ancient and timeless theology concerning the relationship between faithful piety and earthly reward. God allows us to peer behind the curtain on life’s mundane stage to witness the tempter’s accusations and the necessity of trial and temptation. Our modern experience simply continues to confirm what Job’s friends acknowledged and what Malachi’s generation observed, even though they could not comprehend it – the good sometimes suffer and the wicked sometimes prosper, but neither injustice is an indictment of a God whose concern is for eternity. This theodicy of justice is weighted toward Heaven and Hell, with earthly affairs serving only as a precursor and determinant, not the main course (Hebrews 9:27-28).

As we assess our lives, success cannot be judged according to checking account balances, residential square footage, or social envy. The most profitable life ever lived ended in poverty and shame upon a Roman cross, after all, and many are the heroes who have perished as teenagers on fields of battle.

We must remind ourselves – constantly – that eternal life is what matters and that everything that happens here is merely another step along the path. That is the divine perspective – that is why God can observe and suffer such injustice as he patiently waits until the right time to send his son back toward Earth (Romans 2:1-11). What's past is prologue.

Unless that becomes our perspective, we are doomed to digression or depression.

The apostle Paul, who sacrificed earthly stability for eternal hope, offers an inspirational example, writing Corinth:


Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. (Second Corinthians 4:16-5:1)


 

Paul’s perspective on earth and eternity was informed by his rendezvous with Jesus on the road into Damascus, his redemptive experience in the watery grave of baptism, his many persecutions, and his anticipation of heaven. In contrast to eternal life, he counted his earthly position, income, and the admiration of unbelievers as if it were a noisome pile of human waste (Philippians 3:7-8).

Where is the profit in serving God, if the wicked are permitted to prosper? Materially, God pledges only that we should have such things as are necessary to life, not that we should bask in luxury, especially since such things often prove to be severe stumbling blocks (First Timothy 6:6-10, Matthew 6:25-33, Proverbs 10:3). Spiritually, God offers to direct us toward the inheritance which belongs to his children. “I am the LORD your God, who teaches you to profit, who leads you in the way you should go” (Isaiah 48:17). That is the abundant life Jesus predicted for his followers, one that boasts eternal treasure and earthly joy, but a joy that is sometimes in spite of adversity (James 1:2-3).

God illuminates the pathway of life with unparalleled insight, a guiding hand for those moments of fear and doubt: “Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold” (Proverbs 3:13-14). The myopic perspective by which most people navigate their lives insists upon instant gratification, often at the expense of everlasting wealth (Second Peter 3:1-11). We mortgage eternity for a moment of thrills and then demand the proverbial bailout without any genuine repentance or reformation. It is an ugly cycle, spun by Satan.

Idolatry

It is plainly idolatry which challenges our comprehension of this comparatively temporal life. If eternity were only one million years, it would still easily dwarf our fourscore decade sojourn on Earth. Eternity, however, is boundless, but its vastness and mysterious qualities preclude us from seeing it clearly. Instead of investing ourselves in Almighty God, we barter and broker with temporary pleasures.

Habakkuk asked, “What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it, a metal image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in his own creation when he makes speechless idols!” (Habakkuk 2:18). The metal images of his era were physical representations of humanoid deities and animals, useful for idolatrous adoration and the superstitions of human ignorance. Today, we bow before a new brand of metal image, the coin of the realm, idolizing material gain, entertaining devices, and the electronic or automotive baubles of prosperity.

In the sermon on the mount, Jesus contrasted the unprofitable life with the spiritual success story, asserting that no man can thrive who attempts to serve God while stalking money (Matthew 6:19-21). The yearning – not to subsist or even to get ahead, but to be wealthy – poisons our perspective so much that we are deluded into perceiving balance where we have already been upended.

We are wasting time when we sacrifice activities and reject opportunities with eternal application so that we might revel in the fleshly and temporal, no matter how inherently harmless such endeavors seem. James reminds the businessman,


Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13-15)


 

The profitable life is not measured in dollars and cents, but in heavenly treasure, a reward accrued with sacrifice and sufficiently invisible to the carnal eye that it will never really seem to possess the same significance as earthly gain.

Thus, compromises are made. Time, which is precious and limited, is spent on the flesh at the expense of the spirit. Integrity, which cannot easily be replenished, is sold to a higher bidder and the conscience is corrupted, silenced, and enslaved. Wisdom struggles to be heard: “Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit, but righteousness delivers from death” (Proverbs 10:2).

Contemplating what has appeared to be a nonprofit life can lead to such dissatisfaction that the believer becomes depressed, or even moved to digress from spiritual convictions in favor of carnal ambitions. Faced with professional disappointment, financial debt, family trials, or feelings of failure, the disciple of Christ discovers he is not immune to doubt and compromise. From the Old Testament, Samuel offers,


Yet do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart. And do not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty. For the LORD will not forsake his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the LORD to make you a people for himself. (First Samuel 12:20-22 ESV)


 

Judgment

We judge human lives after they are over by how the obituaries read, what is said at the funeral, even what the history books report. We judge lives in progress by how much we envy them, and we judge our own lives by how happy we feel. God assesses each life according to how well it has answered the call to fear him and obey his commandments. It is no accident that, at death, one leaves behind every material thing he has acquired in life. “Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death” (Proverbs 11:4; see also Ecclesiastes 2:18-19).

Jesus responded to an unbrotherly inheritance dispute with the parable of the rich fool, in which the protagonist experienced a life that most would count as highly successful. His land was so productive that his chief concern in life was where to store his vast harvest. What insurance or car salesman wouldn’t love to have too many accounts, a surplus of paying customers? Who among us would not love for our greatest worry to be which bank account to use for the next million? Finally, he achieved such material security that he was able to say, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”

He achieved the happiness that so many of us covet, and yet it cost him too much, for he measured success with the wrong ruler. Back in the parable, “God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’”

The disparity between God’s judgment of success and ours becomes clear in the moral of the story: “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:19-21). Richness toward God does not require personal destitution, a vow of impoverishment, or even canceling all our earthly ambitions. Indeed, we should make diligent use of the talents, abilities, training, and opportunities God grants to us to go as far in life as we can. It is just that our priorities must always reflect a front-burner understanding that everything is converging at Judgment Day and eternity, and that God does not take plastic.

What if we reach that point in life – call it middle age – and we realize we have not made it as far as we expected back when we were young and everything seemed possible? What if our earthly objectives are never realized? What if our assessments begin to suggest we have lived the nonprofit life?

Jesus addressed that very question, possibly floating around in the minds of a group of men who had traded successful professions for subsistence ministry. His words, even stripped of an unfortunately excessive translation, continue to resonate today among the Jobian faithful:


Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. (John 14:1-3)


 

Heaven’s street is paved with gold, its gates fashioned from pearl, its estate consisting of ample quarters. These descriptions – metaphors all – should not reduce our faith to another warped form of avarice, but should excite our anticipation of the glory God includes in “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (First Peter 1:4).

What is the nonprofit life? So few ever go as far as their dreams indicated, and an overpowering sense of regret can accompany getting older, as doors seem to close forever on that potential. We should draw solace and renewed hopefulness from the blessed assurance that a faithful life is never vain, and that the reward for loyal discipleship is richer than all the marvels of Earth.