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Of course, part of the answer was given in Robinson Crusoe’s text, namely, that God gets glory as the all-sufficient Giver. But this is only part of the answer, because there can be a misuse of things even when we thank God as the Giver.
The rest of the answer is expressed by Thomas Traherne and Saint
Augustine. Traherne said:
You never Enjoy the World aright, till you see how a Sand Exhibiteth the Wisdom and Power of God: And Prize in every Thing the Service which they do you, by Manifesting His Glory and Goodness to your Soul, far more than the Visible Beauty on their Surface, or the Material Services, they can do your Body.4 And Augustine prayed the following words, which have proved immensely
important in my effort to love God with all my heart:
He loves Thee too little Who loves anything together with Thee, Which he loves not for Thy sake.5 In other words, if created things are seen and handled as gifts of God and as mirrors of His glory, they need not be occasions of idolatry—if our delight in them is always also a delight in their Maker.
C. S. Lewis put it like this in a “Letter to Malcolm”:
We can’t—or I can’t—hear the song of a bird simply as a sound. Its meaning or message (“That’s a bird”) comes with it inevitably—just as one
4. Thomas Traherne, Centuries, Poems, and Thanksgivings (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), 14.
5. Saint Augustine, Confessions, in Documents of the Christian Church, ed. Henry Bettenson (London:
Oxford University Press, 1967), 54.
can’t see a familiar word in print as a merely visual pattern. The reading is as involuntary as the seeing. When the wind roars I don’t just hear the roar; I “hear the wind.” In the same way it is possible to “read” as well as to “have” a pleasure. Or not even “as well as.” The distinction ought to become, and sometimes is, impossible; to receive it and to recognize its divine source are a single experience. This heavenly fruit is instantly redolent of the orchard where it grew. This sweet air whispers of the country from whence it blows. It is a message. We know we are being touched by a finger of that right hand at which there are pleasures for evermore. There need be no question of thanks or praise as a separate event, something done afterwards. To experience the tiny theophany is itself to adore.6 If our experience of creation becomes an experience of the heavenly orchard, or the divine finger, then it may be worship, not idolatry. Lewis says it
yet another way in his meditations on the Psalms:
By emptying Nature of divinity—or, let us say, of divinities—you may fill her with Deity, for she is now the bearer of messages. There is a sense in which Nature-worship silences her—as if a child or a savage were so impressed with the postman’s uniform that he omitted to take in the letters.7 Therefore, it may or may not be idolatry to pray for the mailman to come.
If we are only enamored by the short-term, worldly pleasures his uniform gives, it is idolatry. But if we consider the uniform a gracious bonus to the real delight of the divine messages, then it is not idolatry. If we pray for a spouse or job or physical healing or shelter for God’s sake, then even here we are God-centered and not “self-centered.” We are agreeing with the psalmist: “There is nothing on
6. C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, in A Mind Awake: An Anthology of C. S. Lewis, ed. Clyde Kilby (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968), 204.
7. C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1958), 82–3.
earth that I desire besides you”! That is, there is nothing I want more than You, and there is nothing I want that does not show me more of You.
GLORIFYING GOD NOT BY SERVING HIM, BUT
BY BEING SERVED BY HIMBut now back to the main train of thought. I said a moment ago that Robinson Crusoe’s text opened for us a great discovery. (And just then someone objected that all this is self-centered.) The discovery was that we do not glorify God by providing His needs, but by praying that He would provide ours—and trusting Him to answer. Here we are at the heart of the good news of Christian Hedonism.
God’s insistence that we ask Him to give us help so that He gets glory (Psalm 50:15) forces on us the startling fact that we must beware of serving God and take special care to let Him serve us, lest we rob Him of His glory.
This sounds very strange. Most of us think serving God is a totally positive thing; we have not considered that serving God may be an insult to Him. But meditation on the meaning of prayer demands this consideration.
Acts 17:24–25 makes this plain:
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.
This is the same reasoning as in Robinson Crusoe’s text on prayer:
“If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine.… Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” (Psalm 50:12, 15)
“Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them.”
HOW IS GOD DIFFERENT ALL OTHER GODS?
FROM THE To be sure, we are called servants—and that no doubt means we are to do exactly as we are told. But the wonder of this picture is that the “master” insists on “serving” even in the age to come when He appears in all His glory “with his mighty angels in flaming fire” (2 Thessalonians 1:7–8). Why? Because the very heart of His glory is the fullness of grace that overflows in kindness to needy people. Therefore, He aims “in the coming ages [to] show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7).
What is the greatness of our God? What is His uniqueness in the world?
From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides thee, who works for those who wait for him. (Isaiah 64:4, RSV) All the other so-called gods try to exalt themselves by making man work for them. In doing so, they only show their weakness. Isaiah derides the gods who
need the service of their people:
Bel bows down; Nebo stoops; their idols are on beasts and livestock;
these things you carry are borne as burdens on weary beasts. (46:1)
Jeremiah joins the derision:
Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. (10:5) God is unique: “For of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear...” And His uniqueness is that He aims to be the Workman for us, not vice versa. Our job is to “wait for Him.”
GOD WORKS THOSE WHO WAIT HIMFOR FOR To wait! That means to pause and soberly consider our own inadequacy and the Lord’s all-sufficiency and to seek counsel and help from the Lord and to hope in Him (Psalm 33:20–22; Isaiah 8:17). Israel is rebuked that “they did not wait for his counsel” (Psalm 106:13). Why? Because in not seeking and waiting for God’s help, they robbed God of an occasion to glorify Himself.
For example, in Isaiah 30:15, 16 the Lord says to Israel, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” But Israel refused to wait for the Lord and said, “No! We will flee upon horses.”
Then in verse 18 the folly and evil of this self-initiated frenzy is revealed:
“The LORD waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the LORD is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.” The folly of not waiting for God is that we forfeit the blessing of having God work for us. The evil of not waiting for God is that we oppose God’s will to exalt Himself in mercy.
God aims to exalt Himself by working for those who wait for Him. Prayer is the essential activity of waiting for God—acknowledging our helplessness and His power, calling upon Him for help, seeking His counsel. Since His purpose in the world is to be exalted for His mercy, it is evident why prayer is so often commanded by God. Prayer is the antidote for the disease of self-confidence, P R AY E R which opposes God’s goal of getting glory by working for those who wait for Him.
“The eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him” (2 Chronicles 16:9). God is not looking for people to work for Him, so much as He is looking for people who will let Him work for them. The gospel is not a help-wanted ad.
Neither is the call to Christian service. On the contrary, the gospel commands us to give up and hang out a help-wanted sign (this is the basic meaning of prayer). Then the gospel promises that God will work for us if we do. He will not surrender the glory of being the Giver.
But is there not anything we can give Him that won’t belittle Him to the status of beneficiary? Yes—our anxieties. It’s a command: “[Cast] all your anxieties on him” (1 Peter 5:7). God will gladly receive anything from us that shows our dependence and His all-sufficiency.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN UNCLE SAM
AND JESUS CHRISTThe difference between Uncle Sam and Jesus Christ is that Uncle Sam won’t enlist you in his service unless you are healthy and Jesus won’t enlist you unless you are sick: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Christianity is fundamentally convalescence (“Pray without ceasing” = Keep buzzing the nurse). Patients do not serve their physicians. They trust them for good prescriptions. The Sermon on the Mount and the Ten Commandments are the Doctor’s prescribed health regimen, not the employee’s job description.
Therefore, our very lives hang on not working for God. “To one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:4–5). Workmen get no gifts. They get their due. If we would have the gift of justification, we dare not work. God is the Workman in this affair. And what He gets is the trust of His client and the glory of being the benefactor of grace, not the beneficiary of service.
Nor should we think that after justification our labor for God’s wages begins: “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?
Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:2–3). God was the Workman in our justification, and He will be the Workman in our sanctification.
Religious “flesh” always wants to work for God (rather than humbling itself to realize that God must work for it in free grace). But “if you live according to the flesh you will die” (Romans 8:13). That is why our very lives hang on not working for God.
Then shall we not serve Christ? It is commanded: “Serve the Lord”!
(Romans 12:11). Those who do not serve Christ are rebuked (16:18). Yes, we must serve Him. But we will beware of serving in a way that implies a deficiency on His part or exalts our indispensability.
SERVING GOD IS ALWAYS RECEIVINGHow then shall we serve? Psalm 123:2 points the way: “Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maidservant to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he has mercy upon us.” The way to serve God so that He gets the glory is to look to Him for mercy. Prayer prevents service from being an expression of pride.
Any servant who tries to get off the divine dole and strike up a manly partnership with his heavenly Master is in revolt against the Creator. God does not barter. He gives the mercy of life to servants who will have it and the wages of death to those who won’t. Good service is always and fundamentally receiving mercy, not rendering assistance. So there is no good service without prayer.
HOW DO YOU SERVE MONEY?
Matthew 6:24 gives another pointer toward good service: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” How does a person serve money? He does not assist money. He does not enrich money. He is not the benefactor of money. How then do we serve money?
P R AY E R Money exerts a certain control over us because it seems to hold out so much promise of happiness. It whispers with great force, “Think and act so as to get into a position to enjoy my benefits.” This may include stealing, borrowing, or working. Money promises happiness, and we serve it by believing the promise and walking by that faith. So we don’t serve money by putting our power at its disposal for its good. We serve money by doing what is necessary so that money’s power will be at our disposal for our good.
The same sort of service to God must be in view in Matthew 6:24, since Jesus put the two side by side: “You cannot serve God and money.” So if we are going to serve God and not money, then we are going to have to open our eyes to the vastly superior promise of happiness God offers. Then God will exert a greater control over us than money does.