The Wisdom of Generosity

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. … Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the first fruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine. …. Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold. She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her (Selected from Proverbs 3:5-15).

“A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed (Proverbs 11:25).

A Biblical Take on Generosity

images-1Pastors frequently speak of how much the Bible talks about money—and the Bible does have a lot to say about money. What surprises me is the volume of teaching about giving and generosity. Right at the beginning of Genesis, in the story of Cain and Abel, we see the importance of giving back to God. In the Pentateuch (the beginning of the Old Testament), offerings are made, tithing is taught, and the importance of generosity is underscored. Jesus tells stories and parables about giving and generosity, and some of Paul’s most moving and most quoted phrases, like, “God loves a cheerful giver” come from his letters (I Cor. 9:6-7). Generosity is encouraged and taught throughout the Bible. It is part of the wise and righteous life. Furthermore, the Bible teaches that a generous person is a blessed person. There is no living wisely without living generously.

God is a Generous God.

imgresThe Bible begins with a majestic retelling of the story of creation. In that story, we see God creating the entire world—and everything that is in it. We see the creation of the heavens and the earth, of the sun, moon, and stars, of the wonders of the heavens and the beauty of the earth. At last, God creates the human race, into whose care God places his beautiful creation. Not only does he put creation under our care, but he specifically says that the human race can use all of the bounty he has created to meet our human physical and other needs. Our Generous God generously gave the human race the entire world.

The writer of Psalm 8 puts it this way:

Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens. Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger. When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet: all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild, the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas. Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

In this psalm the generosity of God is clearly laid out. God is the creator of the heavens and the earth. God is the creator of the human race. However, God is not just our creator. God is also our defender and savior. This we see most clearly in the Prophets, like Isaiah and in the New Testament. In the New Testament, Jesus, the wisdom of God in human form, comes to save the world. God is so generous that he sent his “Only Begotten Son,” the very “Word of God, God himself, to save his lost and wandering creation and creatures.

It is important to remember all God has done. God created each one of us. God provided for each one of us. God saved each one of us. God gives to us more generously than we could ever give to God. God is not just good. God is generous—generous unto death.

Called to be Generous Like God.

images-1One of the least understood teachings of the Christian faith is this: God desires us to be like God whom we see revealed in Jesus. Jesus says that if we love him, we will do his works (John 14:15, 23). Jesus also says that we are to be perfect, just as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:28). Paul urges believers to be imitators of Paul as he is an imitator of Christ. In First John it is put this way, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (I John 3:2).

One of the most beautiful and important doctrines of the church is its teaching that we are by faith and God’s grace children of God—part of God’s family, carriers of God’s spiritual DNA, which is self-giving love. When Jesus says, “If anyone would be my disciple, let that person deny his or herself, take up his or her cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24), Jesus is saying we must be transformed into people of generosity who have the same love for the world and others that God had when he sent Jesus. The process of what we call “sanctification” is a process of becoming true children of God, just like Jesus.

Years ago, I had a friend who died young of heart problems. Before he died, once in a while we would go out to lunch together. I don’t like being panhandled, and when we were walking down hot, crowded Houston streets, I often passed by beggars. My friend never did. He always gave something from his pocket to the poor. One day, I asked him why. “Because God has asked us to be generous to the poor,” he answered. Since then, I’ve been a lot more generous in similar situations. My friend was a generous person, and in showing the virtue of generosity, he was like a Jesus not just to the poor but also to me.

Principles of Generous Living

The Bible and wisdom literature are full of teachings as to how we can become generous, like our generous God.

  1. First, if we are going to be generous, we must be creators of value. That is to say, we must use our God-given talents to create value in the world. As I mentioned in my last Blog, not all this value is monetary. If we are going to be generous with our time, we have to develop the talents God has give us so that we will have those God-given, developed talents to share with others. As workers, to be generous, we have to work hard enough to make a living.
  2. Second, if we are going to be generous, we must learn to save, that is we must learn not to consume all the wealth we create. We need to learn to live simply, so that we are not constantly buying more things, borrowing money to buy more things, consuming all that we earn and can borrow to keep up with either the Jones or some idea we have of what a good life entails. If we don’t save, we won’t give generously.
  3. Third, if we are going to be generous, we must learn to give of our first fruits. Our text says that we should share the first fruits of all that we have. In the ancient world, it meant giving of the first fruits of the harvest. Today, this means putting our giving first, not last, in our monthly budget. My particular gifts to our church come automatically out of my paycheck, first. If I receive a check for income from outside of Advent, I try to remember to write Advent a check right then and there. A generous spirit does not wait until all the other bills are paid to give. A generous spirit budgets so that all the bills will get paid after giving.
  4. Fourth, If we are going to be generous, we have to have a heart for the lost, the poor, and for what God is doing in the world. Without compassion, without a sense of how blessed we are to have the things we have, we will never be generous. We will never give to missions and evangelism if we do not have a heart for how blessed we are, and what our city, state, nation and world could be like if God’s kingdom were to expand.
  5. Finally, we have to have a generous heart. We will never be cheerful givers unless and until our hearts are like God’s heart, filled with a desire to reach out, create, use our time, talents, and treasures to bring the peace of God’s Kingdom upon the earth. Generosity, real generosity, is a matter of character, of discipline, of heart transformation. We all need to pray for generous hearts.

Blessings of Generosity

imagesFinally, to become generous like God we must come to a clearer understanding of what God is promising us when the Bible promises “bursting barns” and “vats of wine flowing over” (Proverbs 3:10). We need to understand why we are promised that. “A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed” (11:25). The ancient wise men and women knew that life is a little more complicated than, “If you are generous, you will be financially blessed.” Nevertheless, they observed that generous people were very frequently blessed. That has been my observation as well. As I joked with our staff this week: God promises that our barns will be filled to overflowing. He does not say just exactly how big that barn is going to be! Nevertheless, it is amazing how many stories there are about the blessing of generosity.

In addition, we need to look at what we might call the “hidden” or “non-obvious” benefits of generosity. First, and perhaps most important of all, generous people are normally some of the most well-balanced, happy, joyful people in the world. [1] Generous people are less stressed, happier, have better marriages, and have better mental health than people who are not generous. This should not surprise us at all! Who could be healthier and more adjusted than God? Therefore, it follows that when we have the character of Christ, we will experience the blessings of a transformed life and increased Christ-likeness! This does not mean that we are all going to get rich. It does not mean that we will not have hard times. It does not mean that we will not share in the sufferings of our family, friends, fellow church members, neighbors, and nation. It means we will share the blessing of the Divine Life of God.

Copyright 2014, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] This part of the blog was helped by Amanda L. Chan, “7 Science-Backed Reasons Why Generosity Is Good For Your Health” The Huffington Post   Posted: 12/01/2013 9:24 am EST; Updated: 01/23/2014 6:58 pm EST (October 22, 2014)

Work Hard and Wisely

“Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest. How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a thief and scarcity like an armed man” (Proverbs 6:6-11).

imagesThere is nothing so characteristic of contemporary life as the intense importance people place on work. Modern people often spend more time at work than with family, friends, children, or spouses. Based on time alone, our work is an area in which we human beings most need wisdom and have many opportunities to demonstrate wisdom or foolishness. [1]

For a lot of people, work has become more than a way to make a living and provide for a family. It has become a source ultimate of meaning and purpose in life. Many people primarily find their self-identity in their work. The first question many people ask in a conversation is, “What do you do?” A few people find not only self-identity in work, but also the meaning and purpose for their lives. For these people, work has become an idol, a part of created existence through which they try to give their lives meaning and purpose. We have a technical name for such people: we call them “workaholics.” The problem with the workaholic is that work has taken on a meaning it was never meant to have.

On the other hand, there are people in our and almost all other societies, who spend a great deal of time and energy avoiding work. Years ago, for a couple of years, our church was bedeviled by a person who was constantly asking for money and hotel rooms. This person was smart, attractive, convincing, and dishonest. She called every six months or so with another story about needing money. On one occasion, she accidentally made a mistake that let us know she was a fraud. Otherwise, we would never have caught on. This person would have been a fabulous honest sales person or manager. She spent more energy avoiding work than she would have spent working!

Proverbs and Work

Proverbs and wisdom literature has a lot to say about work. In my office, I have a workbook I made listing all the sayings in Proverbs that deal with work, finances, and the like. It takes up ten single-spaced pages. This does not count the wisdom sayings about work that appear in other books of the Bible. The Bible has a lot to say about work and about wisdom and foolishness in working.

Just as family life in the ancient world differed from ours, economic life was very different as well. The culture of ancient Israel was both agrarian and family-based. Just as the family was the fundamental social unit of society, the family was also the fundamental economic unit of society. Today, most people do not live on farms and work and family are separated. Nevertheless, the Bible has a lot to say about our modern work lives.

What is Work?

One thing I quickly realized as I thought about work is that we need to be clear what we are talking about when we talk about work. In Genesis in the story of the Garden of Eden, God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden to tend the garden, to be his stewards of the garden, and to enjoy the fruits of the garden (Genesis 1-2). Unfortunately, Adam and Eve sinned, with the result that Adam was judged and his relationship with his work tending the Garden changed. Here is what God says in Genesis:

Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return (Gen. 3:17-19).


Too often, we focus on this quote when thinking about work and fail to remember that we were created to tend God’s garden—and anyone who has ever gardened knows that gardening is often hard work. Work is not a curse. It is part of God’s intention for human life. Work is not just about making money: there was no money when God put Adam and Eve in the Garden. Work is about adding value to God’s creation.

So, what is work? Here is my definition: “Work is that which we do that expands the Kingdom of God in the world while providing for the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual needs of ourselves, our families, and others.” The spouse who cooks for children, the spouse who works in an office, the farmer planting a crop, the poet writing a book that will never sell, the engineer writing a manual for a new computer program, the man fixing his neighbors fence, all are working. We work to meet the needs of ourselves, our family and others, not just for money. In fact a lot of work does not involve making money at all.

Not All Work is Work

This definition, “Work is that which we do that expands the Kingdom of God in the world while providing for the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual needs of ourselves, our families, and others” reveals to us a fact: not everything we call work is really work. It is something else. It is more like “anti-work”. It is work that does not bring God’s kingdom into the world, but instead brings chaos, suffering, evil, and darkness into the world. Just doing something and getting paid does not mean you are working by God’s definition of work.

First, real work is honest; dishonest gain is not work—it is crime. Real work brings more beauty, truth, order, goodness, and peace into the world. Anti-work brings ugliness, lies, disorder, immorality and violence into the world. This is where we come face to face with a big problem in our society. If I make $100.00 selling legal pornography to teenagers and if I make $100.00 inventing a cure for cancer, the people who calculate our Gross Domestic Product count those two $100.00 as equal. Unfortunately, experience teaches us that the $100.00 earned the first way will bring suffering, a need for counseling, marital problems, and a host of evils, which will cost our society much more than the original $100.00. As a society and as individuals, we need to see that work, to be real work, for the Garden of Earth God has put into our care to be a better, richer, more pleasing place to be, we have to do honest, legal, life enhancing, wealth-creating work.

Second, we must remember that because I am at the office does not mean that I am working. One aspect of workaholism is that people who consistently overwork eventually lose their edge. They may be in the office all the time, but they are not necessarily working. Years ago, I had a good friend in a major law firm. He was famous for the hours he billed and spent at the office. However, it was also true that years of over-work had taken a toll on his mental, physical, and emotional acuity with the result that he had to work really long hours to accomplish tasks. Unfortunately for my friend, the toll it took on his health was very traumatic. There is a lot of wisdom in the old phrase, “Don’t just work hard. Work smart.”

Things to Avoid in our Work and Economic Life

Proverbs is filled with behaviors we are to avoid in our economic life. There are many, many proverbs about work. Some of them have to do with working hard and avoiding laziness (Proverbs 6:6-11; 13:4; 15:19; 18:9; 19:15; 19:24; 20:4; 20:13-17). Just on numbers of proverbs along, God must think we need to know about the danger of laziness. It is in our human nature to be lazy. Someone this week pointed out that even those of us who do not think of ourselves as lazy at the office may be lazy in our chores at home, in relating to family members, in taking care of elderly parents, in raising our children, etc. Therefore, all of us need to ask the question, “Is there some place in my life in which I am lazy?” Working hard and avoiding laziness are important virtues (Proverbs 12:24, 27; 13:4)

The Bible also constantly warns against borrowing too much money and guaranteeing the debt of others (Proverbs 6:1-5). There are many proverbs that speak of the dangers of partnering in business with unscrupulous people, criminal enterprises, and the like (Proverbs 10:2-5; 15:27). Basically, any business strategy or practice that involves taking advantage of other people by dishonest means is condemned in Scripture (Proverbs 10:2-5; 11:1).

One of the most unfortunate aspects of contemporary American business life is the degree to which people have come to accept taking advantage of others as a reasonable business practice. In Path of Life I tell a story about the financial crisis in the U.S. during which a particular investment bank was approached by a valued hedge fund customer to create a pool of high-risk mortgages it intended to short. The investment bank did that very thing and itself shorted the portfolio without fully disclosing that neither it nor one of its best customers believed in the product and in fact were shorting it. I was amazed at the number of business people who thought nothing wrong with this. It so happened that I was in Scotland when the mortgage crisis began—and retirement plans in places like Norway were impacted by their purchase of similar investments. [2] Honesty counts and dishonest practices are to be avoided.

The Blessing of Work

images-2Mike Rowe, the television personality, was host of “Dirty Jobs” on the discovery channel. [3] In this capacity, he milked camels, worked on road crews picking up road kill, castrated sheep, slithered through sewers, and held a variety of other really bad jobs. He discovered that those who worked in such jobs were frequently the happiest, most balanced people he ever met. Unfortunately, our culture too often demeans manual labor. [4] All honest labor is a blessing to the person who labors and to everyone else. We have made work about success, money, and security. We have made our economy about making money. This is not a good way for us to think. Our national economy needs to be organized to provide opportunities for everyone to earn a living, provide for their family, and save for old age. It should not be a giant lottery to see who can get the richest. In fact, that sentiment is a distortion of what God intends.

The blessing of work is first and foremost the contribution we can make to the health, security, happiness, and welfare of other people. The blessing of work is in the way in which it allows us to use our time and our talents and our energies to make the world a better place for ourselves, those we love, our fellow citizens—everyone. True work is a blessing because it is part of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven into the world.

The Bible and Christian faith do not think that the only professions that are sacred are those practiced by religious professionals. Every honest profession, every honest job, and every craft that makes the world a better place involves a calling from God to make the world a better place. It is as much a calling to run a restaurant as to be a priest. It is as much a calling to build houses as to be a pastor. I could go on and on.

This is an especially important point in our culture. In many ways, people have come to distrust the church and pastors. In many ways, the church has been shoved out of the public square. Many people are hesitant to enter the doors of a church. However, we can minister to co-workers, clients, customers, employers, and employees as we incarnate the character of Christ, becoming more like Jesus, and slowly ever so slowly bringing the Kingdom of God into our working relationships.

[1] A large part of this blog is from G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014).

[2] Path of Life, at 125; see also, Louise Story and Gretchan Morgenson, “S.E.C. Accuses Goldman of Fraud in Housing Deal” New York Times (April 16, 2010).

[3] Michael Gregory “Mike” Rowe is an American media personality, actor and comedian best known as the host of the Discovery Channel series “Dirty Jobs”.

[4] See Susan Fikse, The Centrality of Every Day Work (September 30, 2014).

“Wisdom and Relationships”

Chris Portrait 006Like most homes, growing up in our house, Mom was the most frequent witness to misdeeds and normally the first person to give advice or discipline my brother and me. Many times, I’ve shared with you advice of my father, who was a fund of aphorisms. This does not mean that Mom was not without her favorite proverbs. One of her favorites was “To whom much is given, much is expected.” The first proverb I heard every time I made a bad grade. (Mom, like my teachers, was of the opinion that I failed to live up to my potential as a student.) As often as I heard that saying, even more often I heard the saying, “Be careful who your friends are.” Mom used this proverb if either Tim or I had a friend she did not think was a good influence.

Tim and I were especially blessed with a best friend, Mark Schmidt. The Schmidt family moved to Springfield a short time after the Scruggs family. Mark was my best friend. He was Tim’s big brother in their college fraternity. He was in our wedding. He was in Tim’s wedding. Tim and I were part of his marriage. Bob Schmidt, Mark’s Dad, was my Dad’s best friend. Pat, Mark’s mother, Pat, was my Mom’s best friend. We were in church together, Boy Scouts together, school together, and in the case of Tim and Mark, in engineering school together.

This is not to say that there were not bad elements in Springfield. One particular little boy, who thought of himself as the local Tom Sawyer, was known to be the source of endless pranks, snowball fights, war games, attempts to derail trains, and other activities in which the property and health of others might be injured. I can remember my mother calling in my brother to tell him to be careful who his friends were while all the time looking directly at me! I am sure Mrs. Schmidt did the same thing.

In this blog, I am talking about relationships. Healthy relationships of many, many kinds are essential to human health and human happiness. The text is the first in Proverbs to speak of the importance of healthy relationships. It comes from Proverbs 1:

Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching. They are a garland to grace your head and a chain to adorn your neck. My son, if sinful men entice you, do not give in to them. If they say, “Come along with us; let’s lie in wait for innocent blood, let’s ambush some harmless soul; let’s swallow them alive, like the grave, and whole, like those who go down to the pit; we will get all sorts of valuable things and fill our houses with plunder; cast lots with us; we will all share the loot”—my son, do not go along with them, do not set foot on their paths; for their feet rush into evil, they are swift to shed blood. How useless to spread a net where every bird can see it! These men lie in wait for their own blood; they ambush only themselves! Such are the paths of all who go after ill-gotten gain; it takes away the life of those who get it (Proverbs 1:8-19).

The God of Healthy Relationships

It cannot be said too often that Christians believe in One God in Three Persons. The Three Persons exist in a relationship of self-giving love. Since love is a relation, it can be said that God exists in relationship. [1] It is not surprising that a God who exists in relationship would create a being in his own likeness that is also constituted by relationships. And, that is exactly what psychology tells us: Human beings develop as a result of loving relationships with significant people, especially parents and family. When human beings are denied loving relationships, they fail to develop normally. [2] God, it seems, implanted in us the same capacity and need for self-giving relationships as characterizes God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Our relationships are also important because, like the choices we make, our relationships determine the person we are and will be. If we have healthy relationships, we will become healthy people. If we have unhealthy relationships, we will become unhealthy people. If our family and friends are violent, rebels, immoral, and the like, we are in trouble. If we have relationships with the God of wisdom and with wise, moral and emotionally healthy people, we will likely become wise, moral and emotionally healthy. If we have a healthy vertical relationship with the God of Love and healthy horizontal relationships with loving people, we will become loving people. If we have relationships with people who are on the Path of Life, we will remain on the Path of Life. Relationships are important.

Family: The Basic Relationship

Wisdom literature assumes that there is a place where wisdom grows first and best—a place that must be created, protected and treasured. That place is the family. It is within a family that children are conceived, born, loved, and raised until they achieve adulthood. They will belong to that family when their parents have grown old, and they are the family leaders. The family is not just the place where wisdom is learned. It is the first and primary place where it is practiced during all of life. [3]

Over and over again, Proverbs begins with an exhortation using the narrative voice of a concerned and loving parent. For example in Proverbs 4,

Listen, children, to a father’s instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight; for I give you good precepts: do not forsake my teaching. When I was a son with my father, tender, and my mother’s favorite, he taught me, and said to me, “Let your heart hold fast my words; keep my commandments, and live. Get wisdom; get insight: do not forget, nor turn away from the words of my mouth. Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her, and she will guard you (Proverbs 4:1-6, NRSV).

Throughout wisdom literature, wisdom speaks as a parent attempting to impart wisdom to her children. Often, there is a sense of urgency—the resolve of one who deeply desires to impart a most important lesson to a beloved child. The representative parent is desperately attempting to see that the child has the wisdom and life skills to meet the difficulties of life.

Scholars are almost unanimous in their evaluation of the American family: it is extraordinarily weak. [4] If in ancient Israel families lived in large, intergenerational groupings, today the basic family unit is a mother, father and children. Many children in America will spend at least a part of their lives in a family unit lacking one of their biological parents. An increasing number of children may live with neither of their biological parents but with grandparents or other relatives. Grandparents seldom occupy the same home as their grandchildren, and many live a long distance away and are seldom seen by the children. Children are not regularly exposed to the wisdom of the eldest and most experienced members of the family. This is a great loss to children and grandchildren as well as to the elderly. This statement is not meant to shame anyone. It is meant to alert us to the need as a church and as individuals to find ways to impart wisdom to children in our own day and time.

Marriage: The Key to Family

IMG_0053The main reason that families are weak in America today is that marriages are weak in our society. In our society, people marry for love—what we call “soul-mate marriage.” We take this for granted. We also think that somehow it is wrong to marry for other reasons, though a lot of people do. It is helpful to observe that people in traditional cultures did not always or even often marry for love. Marriage was a family affair. Frequently, parents chose the spouse for their children. In almost every case, a spouse was someone who lived fairly close by because people did not travel.

Some people ask the question, “Does the Bible approve of love, and especially the love of a man and a woman?” A complete answer to this question is beyond the scope of this Blog. In Path of Life, I devote en entire chapter to Song of Solomon and God’s endorsement of human love. It is fair to say that the Bible clearly teaches that love is important; that families are important; that God created human beings, male and female, with families in mind; and that sex is important as that biological way in which we human beings continue our existence and reflect our love in our physical relationship with a spouse. Marriage is especially important because family is the way in which the moral, spiritual, and practical part of our human nature can best be developed.

Just outside of Fithian Illinois there is a cemetery at the edge of my great grandfather’s farm. On my mother’s side, I am related to almost everyone in that little cemetery, all of whom married into our family in some way. This happened because all those people farmed little farms around that cemetery. One of the people buried there was a very difficult person. I think that today the spouse would have divorced that person. At the time they lived, divorce was unknown and the marriage survived. I am personally glad it did, because if it had not, I would not be here.

Friendship: The Key to a Full Life

My parents are now both dead. My Dad’s friend, Bob Schmidt, is now dead. Only Pat is still alive. Three times now, Tim, Mark, and Chris have made the long trip to Springfield, longer for Tim and Mark than for me, to attend a funeral service at the little church in which we grew up, say goodbye to one of our parents, go to the veterans cemetery for a burial, and share a meal. Someday, you will come to church and find that I am not here because I must make one last trip to Springfield to say goodbye to the last of the generation before ours. The friendship of Bob, Pat, George, and Betsey, and the friendship of Tim, Chris, Mark, and Mark’s sisters, continues to this day. This friendship, which is now half a century old, has been important and continues to be important, even though we do not see each other very often. I would certainly not be who I am without my family and this essential friendship from the past.

Proverbs 24 contains a verse that reads like this, “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24). It is good to have a lot of friends. I admire people who do. Friends are great. However, we all need a few friends who are as close as family. We need friends who will warn us when we go astray, who will rally to our side when we are hurting, and who will be with us through thick and thin. The philosopher Aristotle said that there was no truly good life without friends, and my experience is that Aristotle is right.

The great British missionary theologian, Leslie Newbigin, famously and frequently commented that when Christ came to earth to dwell among us, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), he did not write a book. He created a community. [5] It When the God of Relationships desired to save the world, he did so not through power, politics, or intellectual intimidation, but through friendship. He came among us and loved us in the form of specific people he met on his earthly sojourn. In particular, he called out a small group of people who were to be the church, his special body to witness to his grace and truth after he was gone.

Jesus-My-friend,jpegDuring his last night on earth, Jesus made the following incredible statement to his disciples:

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other (John 15:9-17).

 God, when he came to be with us, made friends with us. God, today, wants to gather around himself a group of friends—people he calls the “Family of God.” He wants this group of friends to show the world just how important healthy relationships are. He wants us to show this in our families, in our marriages, and in our friendships and other relationships with people.

Copyright, 2014, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, john D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion (Crestwood NY: St. Vladimir’s, 1985).

[2] There is a vast body of literature on this subject. See for example a fine article, Richard Boyd, How Early Life Attachment Affects Adult Intimacy and Relationships Energetics Institute, Perth, West Australia at (2011).

[3] As is often the case in this series, a large part of this sermon is from G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014).

[4] See, Barbara Defoe Whitehead & David Popenoe, The State of our Unions: Social Health of marriage in America in Theology Matters vol. 10. no. 2 (March April, 2003), 1-8.

[5] Newbigin frequently repeated the following observation: “It is surely a fact of inexhaustible significance that what our Lord left behind Him was not a book, nor a creed, nor a system of thought, nor a rule of life, but a visible community. He committed the entire work of salvation to that community. It was not that a community gathered round an idea, so that the idea was primary and the community secondary. It was that a community called together by the deliberate choice of the Lord Himself, and re-created in Him, gradually sought – and is seeking – to make explicit who He is and what He has done. The actual community is primary; the understanding of what it is comes second.” Leslie Newbigin, The Household of God (New York, Friendship Press, 1954), 20-21.

“Choices, Choices: Choosing the Path of Life

Listen, my son, accept what I say, and the years of your life will be many. I instruct you in the way of wisdom and lead you along straight paths. When you walk, your steps will not be hampered; when you run, you will not stumble. Hold on to instruction; do not let it go; guard it well, for it is your life. Do not set foot on the path of the wicked or walk in the way of evildoers. Avoid it, do not travel on it; turn from it and go on your way. For they cannot rest until they do evil; they are robbed of sleep till they make someone stumble. They eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence. The path of the righteous is like the morning sun, shining ever brighter till the full light of day. But the way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know what makes them stumble (Proverbs 4:10-19).

Many years ago as a Boy Scout, I forgot my flashlight and had to make my way at night across a ridge and through a valley while returning to the main camp. Once down in the valley, there was barely any moonlight. It was difficult, even impossible, not to make wrong turns and become lost. It was a nervous and harrowing hike—and I was very glad when I saw the light of the dining hall in the distance. The memory of the small amount of fear and danger of that evening, when I might have lost my way, has never left me. Imagine then the terror a person might feel in the vast wastelands of the ancient world.

imgresLife is a series of choices. Sometimes in unclear situations, day in and day out we decide what course of action we are going to take—what path we are going to follow—in a variety of situations. The character of our decisions depends not only on what we know but also upon our experience and our character. C. S. Lewis describes the importance of the decisions we make this way:

[E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. [1]

Choices are important, because our choices determine who we are and what kind of person we are going to be now and in eternity.

This morning, we are talking about the importance of choices—and in particular about the importance of the fundamental choice we make concerning how we will approach life. Proverbs describes the basic decision we make in life as a decision among fundamental path we might take to guide our life. There are basic choices we all make in life. Those basic choices determine, for better or worse, our future. [2]

The Two Paths.

 One constant theme of wisdom literature is that we all make a fundamental choice concerning how we will live and what will guide all the choices we make in life. Everyone has a basic orientation in life. We have a basic way of seeing the world. Human beings always make motivated decisions. That is to say, we decide what to value and what to do based upon our perception of the advantages and disadvantages of a particular choice. We normally choose the path we think will lead to our happiness, one way or another. Many of the motivations for our choices are unconscious and may involve our human brokenness. Consequently, it is important for us to be conscious of our motivations and control them.

Wisdom literature presumes that there are basic orientations we all have that guide our decision-making. Often, this basic orientation is described as a decision between two paths or ways of life. Sometimes, these two ways are described as the choice between the Path of Wisdom and the Path of Foolishness. On other occasions, they are described as the Path of the Righteous and the Path of the Wicked. On occasion, they are described as the Path of Light and the Path of Darkness. Finally, frequently the two paths are characterized as a Path of Life and a Path of Death. The first path (the path of wisdom) leads to life, wholeness and happiness; the other path (the path of foolishness) leads to frustration, failure, and death.

Psalm 1 is a kind of poetic meditation on the two paths. It reads as follows:

Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers.

 Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

 For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

Psalm 1 beautifully portrays the results of two paths. Those who love wisdom and righteousness are like trees in a fertile field by a stream of water growing strong, healthy and fruitful. Those who love the way of wickedness and foolishness are like grass planted in the desert. When the winds of life blow, they dry up and die. Our basic choices in life matter because our ultimate happiness depends upon our basic choices.

Listen to the Voice of Wisdom.

Years ago, I had an opportunity to backpack across Europe. One day in Athens, I had an experience that has impacted my life in a big way. For some reason, I was left alone for a long time. I sat on a bench in a museum and stared for close to an hour at a statute of Athena, the Greek Goddess of Wisdom. Athena, if you know of her, was a lovely maiden and an athlete—a huntress as well as the patron of wisdom in Greek culture. The ancient artist who carved the statute I was looking at did a wonderful job. Athena was presented with one arm and hand outstretched as if offering someone standing across from her a gift. The brilliance of the sculptor was shown in the expression on her perfectly lovely, composed face. Somehow, despite portraying Athena as quiet, calm, and composed, he or she left an impression of sadness upon her face, as if the goddess were offering the human race a gift she knew they would not take the gift of wisdom.

Over and over again in wisdom literature, two ladies are portrayed as vying for the attention and devotion of the human race. The two ladies are Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly. For example, in Chapter 9 of Proverbs, Lady Wisdom is pictured as preparing her home for a party:

Wisdom has built her house; she has set up its seven pillars. She has prepared her meat and mixed her wine; she has also set her table. She has sent out her servants, and she calls from the highest point of the city, “Let all who are simple come to my house!” To those who have no sense she says, “Come, eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways and you will live;  walk in the way of insight” (Proverbs 9:1-6).

This image of wisdom as a lady crying out from a prominent place in an ancient city urging human beings to follow her path and enjoy the riches she offers appears over and over again in wisdom literature (Proverbs 1:20-33; Proverbs 8:1-11). Even more frequently in Proverbs, wisdom is portrayed as a parent urging a child to follow the path of wisdom and good behavior. Always, financial security, honor, peace, long life, and blessing are promised to those who follow the path of wisdom and resist the always-popular path of foolishness and immoral behavior.

Do Not Listen to the Voice of Folly.

imagesThere is another lady Proverbs presents to us over and over again. It is the voice of Lady Folly. Lady Folly is portrayed as a seductress, luring human beings into a life of infidelity, violence, foolishness, darkness and evil (See, Proverbs 5:1-23; 7:1-27; 9:18-18). Proverbs 9 is interesting because it begins with a description of Lady Wisdom and ends with the following description of Lady Folly:

Folly is an unruly woman; she is simple and knows nothing. She sits at the door of her house, on a seat at the highest point of the city, calling out to those who pass by, who go straight on their way, “Let all who are simple come to my house!” To those who have no sense she says, “Stolen water is sweet; food eaten in secret is delicious!” But little do they know that the dead are there, that her guests are deep in the realm of the dead (Proverbs 9:13-18).

In this little passage, Lady Folly is seen seducing passers-by into a life of thievery. In other passages, she is pictured as enticing human beings into a life of infidelity (Proverbs 7:1-27). In still other passages, folly is seen as enticing a person to violence (Proverbs 1:10-19). In all cases, the result is pictured as punishment, destruction, and death: physical (See, Proverbs 1:18; 2:18-19; 7:27; 9:18) and moral (4: 19; 6:33).

I am afraid that the voice of Lady Folly is loud in our society—so loud that she often drowns out the voice of wisdom and reason. The media constantly portrays the pleasures of illicit sex, and seldom pictures the ruined lives that too often result. The media often glorifies violence as a solution to human problems, and seldom pictures the terrible results violence always brings with it. [3] The media often glorifies illegal behavior and a person who takes advantage of others because of their intelligence, and seldom the human suffering that results in real life. We may think we have outgrown the wisdom of the ancient world, but the voice of Lady Folly is the loudest voice of all in our culture today—and listening to her seductive voice ruins many lives. Unfortunately, the young are always the most vulnerable to the voice of Lady Folly.

Walk on the Path of Life.

Pinecrest Rainbow-1 5.46.07 PMThis has been a Great Banquet Weekend, so I could not help myself from sharing the picture I have on the screen for the final slide this morning. Just as I was finishing the first complete draft of Path of Life last fall, we had a Great Banquet at Camp Pinecrest. One evening, it rained, and then the sun came out. Several of us had just left the Dining Lodge when we turned around and saw the loveliest rainbow you can imagine. It seemed to cover Camp Pinecrest. Kathy took a picture from a bit down the road entering into the campground looking towards where the guests were located with a tree, which could be the Tree of Life illuminated in the background. You could see the road leading towards this vision of life. I wanted to use it as the cover for the book, but the publisher thought it was too busy. Nevertheless, to me it symbolizes the Path of Life.

We all want our children and grandchildren to have happy lives. Almost all parents want their children to avoid some of the mistakes they have made. Unfortunately, our society is not taking the steps that are necessary if our hopes and dreams are to come true. We have come to believe that it is easy to make good decisions, that if we live pretty much like our friends and neighbors we will find the joy and happiness we seek. Unfortunately, the evidence is to the contrary. Americans today are more worried, have more emotional problems, are in more financial bondage, and feel less hopeful about the future than ever before. The key is to stop being like everyone around us and to start being like Jesus—to start being attentive to the voice of the wisdom of the ages in Christ. It is true, as Jesus said, “…wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).

It is easy to walk on the Path of Foolishness, at least at the beginning, and hard to walk on the Path of Wisdom, at least at the beginning. However, in the end, it is hard to walk the path of foolishness and it leads to a kind of death and destruction. The Path of Wisdom, on the other hand, leads to life. In Deuteronomy, Moses asks the people whether they will choose to follow the Lord or other gods. He describes the choice they will make as a choice between life and death, and then urges them to “Choose Life” (Deut. 30:19). We all make fundamental choices. Wisdom literature urges us over and over again to “Chose Life.” [4] It this message we need to give to our families, our friends, our nation, and our world in these troubled and dark days.

[1] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London, England: Collins Fontana Books, 1952), 82.

[2] Most of this sermon is taken from my book, Path of Life (Eugene, OR: Wipf&Stock, 2014).

[3] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love (Cordova, TN: Shiloh Press, 2010). The Bible and Tao of ancient China warn frequently about the danger of violence.

[4] Moses puts it this way, “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live (Proverbs 30:19).