Determining What Is Gain

Christian friend, how do you make big decisions? You will probably tell me that you pray about them. You may tell me that you seek out counsel. But I have two questions.

First, do you? Do you really go to the Lord with your cares and desires, asking him to reshape your mind to match is desires? Do you actually lay what you want down before the Lord and ask if what you want fits best his plan and his kingdom? Do you speak with other believers, wise believers, godly believers, and ask them to help you to know if what you want is best? Do you go to the word and ask if the desire of your heart violates the commands of Scripture or the principles of Scripture?

And secondly, how big, in the light of your decisions, is the church of the Lord Jesus? When you consider something like moving to a new city, taking a new job, building a new house, going on an extended vacation, investing in the future, getting married, or any other such thing, does the church figure in your mind at all? No, I’m not suggesting that you seek your pastor’s permission to take a trip out of town. But, when you make a plan, especially a big plan, does the good of the local body with which you have covenanted even begin to niggle at the back of your brain?

What I fear is often the case in our world today is that many believers assume that all of our decisions are our own. WE think that we have every right to go where we want, do what we want, change how we want, and no person has a real right to speak into us. We think that we are to consider our own wellbeing, that of our family, that of our portfolio, and those things make us let go of any local church body without much by way of concern for the people we will leave behind. Sure, we may miss some old friends, sure, THERE may be no solid church where we will move, but this or that reason makes our move the best idea for us.

Many of these thoughts came to the surface for me while reading a new printing of an older D. A. Carson book. Carson takes us to Philippians 1, and he points out how Paul considered the good of the local church above his own personal desires.

Philippians 1:19–26 – 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.

Paul knew that it would be for the good of the church that his deepest desire not be met, at least not yet. Paul wanted to depart and be with Christ. He had served many painful years. He had been through more than many of us will ever dream of. And, with all that said, Paul knew that his life was for the good of other believers and not merely for himself. And convinced of that, Paul knew that the right thing was that God use him for the good of the church first.

Do we think like this? Do we make decisions like this? I truly wonder.

See how Carson writes about this topic, and ask the Lord to help you think in a godly way. Ask if God will help you to, as a Christian, value the local church to the glory of God even above the typical factors in your major decision-making process.

***

What is striking about Paul’s evaluation is how deeply it is tied to the well-being of other believers, rather than to his own. Even in this respect, Paul is imitating his Master. "Convinced of this"—convinced that my remaining alive will be best for you—"I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith . . (1:25). Or better translated, "I know that I expect to remain and expect to continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith." And even this progress in the faith that Paul covets for the Philippians, he construes as a cause for their joy: "so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me" (1:26).

The lesson to be learned is startlingly clear: put the converts of the gospel at the center of your principled self-denial. Paul’s deepest hopes for his own immediate future turn neither on the bliss of immediately gaining heaven’s portals nor

on returning to a fulfilling ministry and escaping the pangs of death, but on what is best for his converts. Often we are tempted to evaluate alternatives by thinking through what seems best for us. How often do we raise as a first principle what is best for the church? When faced with, say, a job offer that would take us to another city or with mortal illness that calls forth our diligent intercession, how quickly do we employ Paul’s criterion here established: What would be best for the church? What would be best for my brothers and sisters in Christ?

There is a kind of asceticism that is frankly idolatrous. Some people gain a kind of spiritual "high" out of self-denial. But the self-denial that is motivated by the spiritual good of others is unqualifiedly godly. That is what Paul displays.*

*D. A. Carson, Basics for Believers (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018), 35-36.

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God’s Priorities or Ours

If you want to know a person, really know them, you must get to know what is important to them. Typically, in friendships and good relationships, we will find that the high priorities of one person will be somehow shared by another. Those things help us get along.

Consider a business. IF one leader in a corporation says that the number one priority he has is creating the highest quality product possible while another says that her top priority is making money, there will be problems in the board meetings. When decisions arise as to whether or not to cut a corner on the product for a higher profit margin, there will be conflict. The two priorities are not the same. Solid businesses know that they must share top priorities in leadership.

But I wonder if many of our churches today share high priorities with the Lord our God. I know, that might sound a little edgy to say, but consider what the verse below says is exalted above all.

Psalm 138:2

I bow down toward your holy temple
and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness,
for you have exalted above all things
your name and your word.

What is top priority to God? Many would love to say people. Many would love to say church growth. Many would love to say making an impact on the fallen world. And those things all matter to the Lord.

But the word of God tells us that his top priority is his name and his word. God’s honor, God’s reputation, God’s glory, God’s worship is number one. Right there with it is the word of God, his commands, his Scripture. These are tops. These are the things that his followers must share with him as top values if we are to really please him.

Consider what this must say to us about what we do as churches. First and foremost, honoring his name and lifting high his word is central to all we are. If we decide that we are going to be about something else, we are going to mis worshipping our God in a way that pleases him. There are many things that exalting his name and word will lead us to do. But we cannot be wise and lose sight of the fact that his name and his word are first priorities.

Just think of the worship service here as one example. What is it for? If you think that God’s top priority is the salvation of the lost, you will be tempted to make the service as showy and entertaining as possible. You will change the messages to be things that people who do not know God will still enjoy. You’ll develop a combination concert and Ted Talk. But, if you see that God’s name and God’s word are number one, your music will be first and foremost about speaking the truth about the Lord in a beautiful way. You will see that ceremonies that feel odd to the world around us will be vital. You will see that the direct preaching of the word will be more important than the entertainment value of the message. That is not to say that you will intentionally be dull. Rather, it is to say that your focus will be to achieve the result of exalting God’s name in accord with God’s word.