Friday, June 28, 2013

The Heart of the Matter is the Matter of the Heart

I have always been captivated by this verse, The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance but God looks at the heart I Sam 16:7b. God’s leaders are not necessarily to be equated with characteristics of people that our world system elevates. This verse shows it so. Israel's King Saul had disappointed God. He started well enough but succumbed to folly and arrogance. He was no longer God’s man and God had taken away whatever hold he had on Israel. So Samuel is sent to anoint a new king: “you are to anoint for me the one I indicate” (1 Sam 16:3).
Samuel obeys – “then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice” (1 Sam 16:5). Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely he is the one?" But the Lord said "No. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” God makes it clear in this passage that the people he chooses to do great things for him are called on the basis of inward character, not on the basis of outward impressiveness. In fact, the things that impress us aren’t impressive to God. The thing that God looks for is the quality of the heart.
Why is the condition of a person’s heart such a big deal? Don’t we often hear that the leader’s private life has no bearing on his ability to perform well on the job? However, the leader’s private life does matter to God regardless of his ability to perform well in leadership. Look at Solomon – he started well but ended badly. He became half-hearted in his devotion to God. So the Lord said to Solomon, “Since this is your attitude and you have not kept my covenant and my decrees, which I commanded you, I will most certainly tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your subordinates” (1 Kings 11:11).
Whatever else qualifies people for leadership, no one is qualified for greatness – by God’s standard – until his or her heart is ready. The leader’s prayer and focus of effort must center here – in his or her own heart to be wholly devoted to God. Skills, intelligence and hard work are all a part of the package but God reminds us that, in the final analysis, one thing makes the difference. God looks at the leader’s heart.
David had a heart wholly devoted to God. Because he was a man after God’s own heart, David never gave up on his relationship with God. This is precisely what was godly about David’s heart. God did not give up on His relationship with David, either. Nor does He give up on us. No matter where we are, or what we have done, or where things appear to be headed at any point in life, He is calling us to move on. All we have to do is follow.
In the end, we become what our own desires make us. This is why Jesus stressed the importance of the pure heart and the clear eye (Matthew 5:8; 7:5). Success in life is to be focused on one thing – Jesus called it as “seeking first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33). If this is not first, we end up a divided heart, with divided loyalties. We end up not knowing where to turn or where to move to.

Monday, June 17, 2013

God’s Sheep are to be Fed, not Fleeced.

The pastor, specifically one who desires to please God by ministering to God’s people, must always examine that what he preaches and teaches is the Gospel truth. At the same time, his actions and thoughts are to be beyond reproach. Both the message (visible) and the motive (invisible) of the pastor must be pleasing to God. That’s why Paul emphasized in 1 Thess 2:5-6a that the pastor’s heart must not have mercenary motives when it comes to preaching the Gospel, “you know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed, God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from men, not from you or anyone else. As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you.” Paul may well have been challenging the Thessalonian Christians to examine his life for any mercenary motives in bring the Gospel to them. Even though he had the right to financial support from them, he did not avail himself to this right, out of love for his flock.

Preaching the Gospel can be a cover for greed as 1 Thess 2:5 reminds us. Even the right message of the Gospel can still be preached with the wrong motives as Phil 1:14-19 shows us. More than that, God’s Word is clear that greed is a sign of a false teacher, “but there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them, bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping” (2 Peter 2:1-3). In those early days of the New Testament church, they had itinerant preachers who went around preaching and teaching because the Greeks loved philosophy and debate. These preachers had rich patrons who paid them well for their flattering messages. However, the pastor must be careful not to compromise on the Gospel message just because he desires not to offend the rich members of his church. Paul was careful not to take advantage of his brethren by accumulating wealth through them. He challenges the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:33-34 with, “I have not coveted anyone's silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions”. The same words are echoed to the Corinthian church in 2 Cor 12:13-14, “How were you inferior to the other churches, except that I was never a burden to you? Forgive me this wrong! Now I am ready to visit you for the third time, and I will not be a burden to you, because what I want is not your possessions but you. After all, children should not have to save up for their parents, but parents for their children.

In Singapore, Christians are free to practise their faith without much scrutiny from the authorities. There is very little to hamper the propagation of our faith. Although that is good, it also means that anyone with great charisma can actually preach a ‘gospel’ that draws people to him to make a lot of money from it.

Paul was above reproach in money matters and that was why he could challenge the Ephesian, Thessalonian and Corinthian congregations to examine him and show if he had profited in any way from being their pastor. He never displayed any semblance of manipulating his sheep for gain. The Christ-serving pastor should emulate Paul’s example to avoid any semblance of taking advantage of fellow Christian brethren for financial gain.  In my former ministry to drug addicts, I realized that in helping people, especially rich people, there arise situations that can ensnare us in greed. When I ran a halfway house in the Philippines, I had a Singaporean staff who requested his salary be paid as an honorarium. This was innocently granted but he twisted the facts by playing on the words. He told many Filipino Christians that we did not give him a ‘salary’ and that he had to depend, by faith, on ‘love gifts’ from our ministry. By doing so, he ended up getting many times over and above his regular salary from rich and well-meaning Filipino Christians who assumed wrongly that he got little or nothing from his ministry labour. When I found out, I told him that he would get a regular salary in SG$ and I made sure the local churches knew that all our Singapore staff were paid a salary in SG$. On another occasion in the Philippines, I once made the chance remark to the mother of an ex-addict resident of our Christian ministry about liking a well-known dim sum restaurant. That very Sunday after church, the parents asked me to join them for lunch. I thought this was no big deal and that I wouldn’t mind a nice home-cooked lunch. However, they told their driver to drive straight to the dim-sum restaurant that I had mentioned a few days earlier. There, they ordered enough food to make sure I had a feast. Since then, I have learnt to be careful about expressing my likes to the people I minister too, although sometimes I forget. Some years back, I posted on my Facebook seeking to buy a used Ipod Nano that I could listen to as I took my walks. A few days later, a church member dropped into my office to give me a new Nano that she had bought online for me. Wow! I was so stunned I almost forgot to thank her for that lovely gift. I still have it, using it to listen to mp3 sermons. J Christians are very inclined to love their pastor and to want to ensure his needs are met. Therefore, all the more the Christ-serving pastor should exercise his self-control and ensure that he does not manipulate the goodwill of his people to get his material wants.

Paul did not demand support from the Thessalonians, “As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you” (1 Thess 2:6b). In fact, Paul worked to support himself rather than demand support from the Thessalonians, “For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you” (2 Thess 3:7-9). Those with apostolic authority had the right to make monetary claims upon those that they led but as we examine Paul’s life, we can see that he was very sensitive about money matters preferring to work to support himself. He wanted to be sure that no one could accuse him of being just a religious salesman like those who sold talismans, snake oil and healing plaster. Of course nowadays, pastors receive a salary and I find nothing wrong in that. Nor am I saying that pastors should be paid a pittance to keep them at poverty level. That would be another disaster in the making and I will share on that at another time. However, the pastor must always understand that he has been placed in a church to shepherd God’s flock. The one who is a faithful steward will not run away when the going gets tough because he is a shepherd of the sheep and not just a hired hand.

As I said earlier, Christians are gracious people with the tendency to love their pastors and be generous to ensure their pastors’ needs are met. There is nothing wrong in that. However, that is why all the more pastors should be Christ-serving men of God who exercise Christ-like self-control and godly wisdom to ensure that they do not manipulate the goodwill of their people to get their wants. The Bible cautions all leaders "Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the Lord will take up their case and will exact life for life" (Prov 22:22-23). While it is in the nature for real sheep to be fleeced, the sheep that God entrusts to his shepherds are to be fed, not fleeced.