Sometimes an entire theological discussion can hinge on a single word, so it's good to think carefully about the words you use, and consider how others are using them as well.
The words "worth" and "worthy" are two words which, while they are very similar, and come from the same root, have vastly different meanings.
The word "worth" means "value."
The word "worthy" means "deserving."
One of the words (worthy) is a binary - either you are or you are not worthy; there is no middle ground. The other is a spectrum with "worthless" at one end of the spectrum, and increasing in value from there.
It is important to note that "worthy" is an objective binary, clearly defined in scripture:
"Worth" on the other hand is a subjective scale, which varies from person to person. For example, if I had a piece of artwork which was painted by an ancestor, and had been in my family for generations, I would probably not sell it except for a significant amount of money. On the other hand, that same painting might be of very little worth to anyone else.
As an example of these words in daily life, let's see how they play out in my relations with my students. Suppose one of my students repeatedly cheats on homework and tests. When the next test day comes, I'm going to watch that student like a hawk through the entire test. Why? Because she has proved herself to be unworthy of my trust. Her behavior has not measured up to the standard for which I would give my trust.
But despite that, if that same student came to me and said, "Mr. T, if I come in before school, will you help me get my homework assignment done?" I would reply, "Absolutely!" Why? Because that student is worth a great deal to me.
One does not have to measure up in order to be of great value. Or, to put it another way, one can be of great worth, while still being unworthy.
This distinction is at the heart of the Gospel. We are not worthy of salvation and eternal life, but despite our unworthiness, we are of great value to God.
Paul emphasizes our unworthiness in verses like Romans 3:23, and we find this spelled out dramatically in the book of Revelation:
On the flip side, in two different places in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus emphasizes our great worth to God by pointing out how much he cares for the birds, and then comparing that to our worth to God:
The Old Testament also emphasizes our worth to God; Psalms 8:3-5 points out the high regard God has for humanity within the scope of his creation, and when God speaks out against murder, the value He places on humanity is at the heart of his instruction:
It's interesting to note that some dictionaries and thesauri list "value" as a synonym for the verb "to love." To love someone is to value them. Although people might not consciously think of love in those terms, at a deep level, we all understand that what we love we consider to be of great worth.
Thus, we could answer this question: "How great is our value in the eyes of God?" by answering: Our worth (value) is so great that He sent His one and only Son to face death on the cross on our behalf, in order that we might have salvation in Him, even though we were not worthy.
So why does it matter that we understand the difference between "worth" and "worthy"? Because when we, as teachers, state that we are not worthy, our listeners may very well hear us as saying that they are worthless. This is the antithesis of gospel; we are of great worth to God. The notion of human unworthiness must be held up as distinct from our value in the eyes of God. The Gospel melds both of these concepts into one beautiful message of hope. Leave one out, and you have a message of false hope (God accepts me because I'm good enough); leave the other out and you have a message of an unloving God, which leads to despair.
In addition to being an itinerant preacher, I also work as a high school math teacher. This year I'm teaching (for the first time) a Pre-Algebra course for middle school students. One of the things I've been doing with them as an "enrichment activity" is to play my sum-and-product game. In the sum and product game, I say, "I'm thinking of two numbers that add to ____ and multiply to ____." The students' job is to find the two numbers. For example, if I say I want two numbers that add to 14 and multiply to 48, the students will answer "six and eight."
Why am I doing this with my students? There's nothing in the Pre-Algebra curriculum that suggests this would be a good activity to spend time on. But because I'm an algebra teacher, I know that this ability is going to be very valuable to my students next year when they start learning factoring. (How do you factor x^2 + 14x + 48? It factors into (x + 6)(x + 8) - notice how my sum-and-product game is embedded in that solution!)
So here is an important principle that I have learned over my years of teaching: if you want to be a good teacher, you need to know your material more deeply than your students are ready to handle. Imagine if I tried to teach factoring to those middle school students - there is no way they are ready to comprehend that! But because I know the material deeply, I'm able to give them what they do need right now to prepare them for what comes next. To be a good Pre-Algebra teacher, I need to understand Algebra. To be a good Algebra One teacher, I need to have a good understanding of Algebra Two. I need to always have pushed myself further than I expect my students to understand.
The same is true in my teaching of scripture. When I am preaching, I spend a lot of time researching word meanings, word origins, commentaries, cross references to other parts of the Bible, cultural context, and more. But when I preach, most of that work stays in the background. If I taught the congregation everything that I had studied, everyone's lunches would be burned to a crisp by the time they got home from church! And I probably would not have accomplished a lot in the process.
As I do with my math classes, I take the things I know, the things I've studied, and I pare them down to the essence, peeling away all the layers of things that might have been interesting to me, but will probably not benefit my students. Sometimes that requires a bit of hard-heartedness to take some things that I have learned and know, and trim them out of my sermon.
But it's not wasted effort to have spent all that time preparing; it was of value to me, and it helped to carefully inform and shape my teaching.
One of the important end goals for me is that my messages will be emminently understandable. I don't care about sounding scholarly in my presentation. I don't care about sounding academic. I don't care about having people think that I "know a lot." I care about whether or not they understand what I'm saying.
One time after I finished preaching at a church, I was visiting with one of the elderly ladies of the church. She is one of the matriarchs of the church at 90-something years of age, and has been attending the same church for her entire life. She said to me (and remember, this is someone who has spent her entire life in church), "I like it when you come to our church. When you preach, you make it so I can understand what the Bible says."
That's a life-long churchgoer who has sat through at least ninety years worth of sermons. If she needs it taught simply, don't we all?
This morning I had the song "He owns the cattle on a thousand hills" running through my mind because tomorrow I will be preaching on giving. The song references Psalm 50:
That verse raises the question "Why do we give? After all, it's not like God needs my money!" By extension, we could also expand that question to "Why do we serve? After all, it's not like God needs my help in doing His work in this world!"
The short answer (and a perfectly legitimate answer) is "Because God commanded it!" But that answer is not sufficient, since Paul, in 2 Corinthians 9:7, tells us that we must not give "under compulsion." And fulfilment of a command is a compulsion, or responsibility.
Why do we give? Why do we serve? Because God is doing a great and wonderful work in this world, and we delight to be part of that work. Further, because He is our Father, He delights to have us join in that work with Him.
I have a three year old daughter who likes to draw with me. She'll come down to my office where I'm working and say to me, "Daddy, draw a picture with me!" So I'll pull out my art supplies, sit her in my lap, and we'll begin.
"What should we draw?" I'll ask.
"A silly creature!"
She will begin telling me what the silly creature should look like. Four arms, seven heads, three horns, and on the list goes. She laughs as I draw, and I smile as I listen to her next instruction.
When the picture is drawn, we take colored pencils in hand and work side by side on it. When the picture is complete, we sit back and admire it, and she takes it upstairs to show mama.
Here's what we all know about this activity: I don't need my daughter's help when it comes to drawing silly creatures (or anything else, for that matter). I'm perfectly capable of doing it on my own. So why do I involve her in the process? Because she's my daughter, and I delight to work side by side with her.
And why does she want to draw pictures with me? Because I am her father, so it is also her delight.
So it is with us and God. He is our Father. It is our delight, and His, to work side by side in the wonderful work He is doing in this world. Not out of compulsion, but cheerfully, for the sheer joy of working with our Heavenly Father.
When I was a teenager, I painted a picture of a snowy scene with trees in the foreground and a farmhouse in the background. It was not a masterpiece, but even today when I look at it, I'm surprised at how good it was for a teenaged dabbler!
It was painted on canvas board, and on the back of it I wrote my name. I gave it to my grandparents as a Christmas gift one year. Fast forward about 20 years to when my grandfather had passed away, and my grandmother needed to downsize - that painting came back to me.
Around that time, I had some students who were trying to raise money for a missions trip. They were doing a yard sale, and were looking for donations of items to sell. I had just received this painting back, and thought, "Well, they might be able to get some money for it." So I gave them the painting. They sold it, and that was the end of the story...or so I thought.
A few years later I got a phone call from an elderly lady, and the call went something like this:
Her: "Is this Douglas?"
Her: "Are you an artist?"
Me: "Well, I wouldn't call myself an artist, but I do dabble in drawing and painting. Why?"
Her: "I think I have a painting of yours here." (She then went on to describe the painting, which I recognized as the winter scene)
Me: "Yes, that sounds like one of mine."
The conversation got a little odd at that point; the woman suggested that I might like to buy the painting from her. It took me awhile to figure out what was going on, but eventually she admitted that she goes around to yard sales looking for local artwork, figuring that the artist might be interested in buying their artwork back from her. Apparently she made some decent money doing this. I assured her that I had already given the painting away twice, so I wasn't exactly attached to it, and I was perfectly happy to have her keep it.
At that point, she decided that since she wasn't going to make any money off the painting, and she hadn't purchased it to display in her home, she might as well just give it back to me. So we arranged for me to pick it up the next day when I was passing by her home.
So now that picture, like a boomerang, has returned to me twice. It is now displayed in my office where I see it on a regular basis. Not because it's a masterpiece, but because it serves me as an object lesson of a verse in Ecclesiastes 11:
This is generally regarded as a symbolic picture of sowing seed; the word "bread" used here is a word which is also used for seed, and seed was often broadcast into the soil during the flooding season in low-lying areas. Thus, the meaning becomes, "Liberally toss seed, and you will be rewarded with a harvest."
I wonder if Jesus was thinking of this verse in Ecclesiastes when he said:
I'm not going to pretend that it always works like I described above; we can't expect that if we give object X away, we will get that exact thing returned to us, but it serves as a reminder to me that God treasures our generosity, and rewards it.
A couple verses later in Ecclesiastes 11, Solomon writes:
Understanding this to be a follow-up to verse one, we recognize that, if we watch too closely our own life circumstances, those circumstances may prevent us from the kind of generosity God desires. The picture is of generosity that is reckless and confident. Reckless because it takes no thought of our own circumstances, and confident because of our faith that God our provider is taking thought for our circumstances.
We had an interesting experience at supper-time yesterday. We were having a rather spicy pepper-steak meal. I've told the kids that if they're eating something spicy, and it's too hot for them, instead of drinking water (which can make the spiciness even worse), they should eat some bread, or drink some milk.
While we were eating, Laura and I simultaneously realized that our son was sitting in his seat with his leg propped up and his foot resting on the edge of the table. We gave him a quick rebuke and reminded him that putting his feet on the dinner table was not acceptable (which he already knew). He removed his foot, and dinner continued on in peace.
But a few minutes later, our son emphatically announced, "Mama! I asked for a glass of milk! I've been waiting for you to get it!"
Laura and I looked at each other, puzzled. Neither one of us could remember hearing him ask for anything. Certainly it was possible that we were both in our own little worlds and not listening, but as I thought back on the last few minutes of mealtime, I realized something - what had drawn our attention to the foot on the table was the fact that he had spoken to us. In fact, he had asked for a glass of milk, and as soon as we looked at him, our attention went not to his question, but to his foot on the table. We didn't even realize he'd asked us a question!
As I thought about that little experience, it reminded me of this verse from the Psalms:
David recognized this interesting dynamic between himself and God. When there is something wrong in his heart, God's first and highest priority is dealing with that which is inappropriate, rather than in granting David's requests.
I love music. I've always loved music. But when I started playing a musical instrument in fourth grade I had no sense of rhythm. In fact, it took me many years to develop that sense. My mom and I would drive a half an hour to my private violin lessons with Mrs. Small, a tiny lady who used to be my mother's music teacher when she was young, and who insisted that now that she was over 85, she was allowed to subtract a year from her age for each birthday. I can still remember her asking me, week after week, "Are you counting this?" and "You didn't count this week, did you?"
The truth is, counting was something I reserved for math class, and I found the process of counting to four repeatedly, while playing the violin, to be very difficult. My mind didn't seem to want to do those two things simultaneously, and honestly, I didn't really see the point of it.
I was well into my high school years, I think, before I really began to develop a sense of rhythm. How did I survive all those years of playing recital pieces, and playing in an orchestra?
I used external cues. If Mrs. Small was accompanying me on the piano, I would listen for her to play a specific note/chord, and then I would know it was time for me to come in. If I was in an orchestra, I would often wait for the violinist next to me to lift her bow, and then I would know it was time to start playing. Of course, neither of these techniques were very good, and often resulted in me starting a fraction of a second too late, because I would hear, and then play.
As my sense of rhythm developed, it was not because my mathematical abilities improved (I was an award-winning math student and competitor, so counting to four over and over produced no mathematical challenges for me!), but because I started to feel rhythms internally. My toes started tapping, and my fingers started drumming, and my head started bobbing. And the more I felt those rhythms physically, within my body, the less necessary it became to count.
When playing with an accompanist, I didn't need to listen for a note to happen; I could predict when it was going to happen. If I was in an orchestra, I wasn't watching and listening for my neighbor to come in; I could feel the right time within my body.
Counting, under these circumstances, becomes something you do to help you understand the structure of a particular piece of music, rather than something you do because it's the only way to keep time.
I realized that this is very similar to my life as a Christian in this world. At first, nothing comes naturally. My behavior is not internalized. To know how I ought to behave, I watch the people around me to see what they do, and I take my cues from them. It's not internalized.
But God wants the Christian life to be internalized. This is why there are repeated statements within the Bible that say God wants to "write his word on our hearts, rather than on tablets of stone."
The process of internalizing the Christian life is very similar to the process of internalizing a beat. At first, it all feels unnatural, and you end up mimicking others in order to "fit in," but as God does His good work in your heart, what was once externally motivated becomes internally driven, because your character and your heart are more and more aligning with the one who was born with a perfect moral rhythm.
Where are you in this process? I'm not talking about what your behavior is; I'm talking about what drives your behavior. Is it driven by a follow-the-leader mentality? Is it driven by a desire to fit in? Or is Christ steadily (albeit perhaps slowly) transforming your heart, writing the rhythm of his own heartbeat onto yours?
Oh Lord, change my heart, make it ever true. Help my heart to beat in perfect synchrony with you!
This morning my son and I were planting trees again. The first part of the process was to dig eighteen holes, and pour a bucket of water into each hole. So right after breakfast we got a wagon, filled two five-gallon buckets of water, added a spade, and headed for the field where we're planting.
While I dug the holes, my son scooped water and poured it into holes so there would be plenty of moisture in the soil when we planted the trees. The temperature was already on the rise, and I was dripping with sweat, so I wasn't in a good mood to argue with my son when he told me, "Daddy, I don't want to do this. The grass is wet, and it's getting my feet wet."
"Well, it needs to get done," I said.
"Why do we have to do it now, when the grass is so wet?"
And here's where I was tempted to use that famous line, "Because I said so." It's quick and easy to say, and doesn't even interrupt the work I was doing. After a moment's thought, though, I put the shovel down and said, "Do you know why the grass is wet here?"
"Because of the dew?"
"Mmm hmm. Come here," I said, as I walked up the hill, and out of the shade. "The grass isn't wet here. That's because it's not in the shade, and it is really hot here, isn't it?"
Then I pointed back down the hill at the tree holes, which were all in the shade. "If we wait for the grass to dry off, then all of that will be in the sunlight, and it'll be hot, and that'll make the work twice as hard."
Armed with that understanding, he agreed that it was better to do it now.
Don't get me wrong, I think that there are times that "because I said so" is a legitimate answer; I do think that children should be taught and trained that obedience is important even when they don't understand the reason for it. But I also think it makes sense, in most cases, to explain my reasoning to my children when I'm able to do so.
This is a very common pattern in scripture, and if you look for it, you'll find it everywhere. God gives an instruction, and then he explains the reason for it.
Every time you find a "for" or a "therefore" or a "because" in scripture, think about it carefully. It's likely that you'll find that God is explaining himself and his instructions to his children.
To illustrate this, I randomly opened my Bible to Philippians 4, where I read this:
The command is to stand firm, but the word "therefore" precedes the command, which suggests that in the previous verses Paul explained the reason for the command:
Why stand firm? Because we have a citizenship and a glory ahead of us that outweighs any burden or struggle that faces us now.
I encourage you to read scripture looking for these kinds of pairings, and express your gratitude to God that he didn't just say, "Because I said so," but took the time to explain his commands. And, of course, always be ready to obey, out of trust and submission, whenever an explanation is not given.
My life is controlled by a clock. School begins at 8:00 a.m., and I am there at 7:30 to work with students. First period ends at 9:30, and new students arrive. And so on, through the day. Then, when school is over, I have my first music student at 3:00. My first math tutoring session is at 3:30. And on it goes.
On Sundays, I preach at 8:00 a.m. at a nearby church that is pastorless, and I'm expected to be there on time, ready to go. Some Sundays I preach at two churches, and then I have to leave the first church at 9:00 a.m. in order to get to the next church by 10:00 a.m.
Day after day, week after week.
The strange thing is, I never realized just how regimented my schedule is. I never gave it a thought. It was simply part of how life works.
Then I went to Argentina. And I discovered that not everyone operates the way we do here in the United States. When does church start? When everyone gets there, and has had a chance to greet everyone. When is supper? Sometime in the evening when it's ready.
We're doing an after-school program? Great! What time is that? 3:00. Or maybe 3:20? Or 4:00? Well, no, not everyone is here yet, so we'll get started around 4:15.
And all of a sudden, for the first time, I realized just how much my life centered around the ticking of a clock.
Now, my point in sharing this is not that one way of approaching life is better or worse than the other (there are positives and negatives to both approaches). My point is: centering my life's activities around the movement of gears and clock hands is something I was virtually unaware of, to the point that it never occurred to me that there was another way to approach life.
The same was true of how I greet people. I grew up in a culture where a greeting goes (almost without fail) like this:
Me: Hi, how ya doing?
Them: Fine, you?
And that's it. Fast forward to the time I spent in northern Africa, and discovered that every greeting involves a plethora of questions like "How is your wife?" "Is business going well?" "Are you parents well?" and you are actually expected to answer these questions, instead of just saying, "Oh, fine."
I was never aware of how shallow our greetings are until I went somewhere that they did something very different, and suddenly I became very conscious of the manner in which I greet people!
So what does this have to do with the Christian life? Believers in Christ have (or should have) a culture all our own. We speak the truth without fail (Matthew 5:37). We speak with grace no matter the circumstances (Colossians 4:6). We are gentle with those who are weak and failing (Galatians 6:1). We give generously to those who are in need (2 Corinthians 9:6-7). We treat others as more important than our own selves (Philippians 2:3). These, and so many other things, define a culture that is extraordinarily beautiful and winsome.
This is the hope, the goal, and the ideal. But we live in a culture where these things are not the norm. All you have to do is visit social media to discover that people speak with neither truth nor grace. All you have to do is consider the corporate world to realize that generosity is not a standard feature of our culture. So here's the problem. If the culture I'm steeped in day after day is a culture of dishonesty, graceless communication, selfishness and pride, these things become part of who we are, without us even realizing it. (Again, all you have to do is visit social media, and you will easily see that many many Christians have chosen the way of false, proud, and graceless communication).
Romans 12:2 is all about a culture, or a way of life. Paul is telling us that the culture around us will influence us and control us without our even realizing it, unless we proactively take measures to renew our minds -- to refresh the ways of our own Christian culture. There are many ways that we do that -- the reading of scripture, and listening to the teaching of the Word are two ways. But in addition to these, we must remember that the only way to become acclimated to a culture is to immerse yourself in it. We must deliberately spend time in the company of our fellow culture-members, so that the Christian culture will permeate not just our actions, but our thought process.
If you've spent much time browsing this site, you've probably figured out by now that I'm a fan of hiking. Some of my best times of thought, meditation, and prayer happen on a quiet trail through the woods to a mountain peak.
But my priorities in hiking have changed quite a bit in the last few years. For a long time I set as a goal for myself to hike all the four-thousand-foot peaks in the state of Maine. What? Maine has four-thousand-footers? You bet! We have fourteen of them. And I intended to hike all of them. So far I've hiked ten of the fourteen. The last time I bagged a new four-thousand-footer was about seven years ago.
So what happened? Well, there were a couple things that happened. The first was that I hiked some mountains like Redington Mountain and Spaulding Mountain, which -- despite their impressive heights -- had little to no views. When you are used to hiking mountains with nice views, an eight-mile hike with no views is a bit off-putting.
The other thing that happened was: I got married and had kids. Now when I go hiking, most of the time I'm trying to find mountains that a five-year-old (and sometimes even a three-year-old) can do.
Suddenly, I don't even care about bagging four-thousand-foot peaks. The truth is, I'd rather hike mountains I've hiked ten times already, like Mount Chocorua, or Kearsarge North, or Tumbledown, or Bald Mountain -- mountains that I know and love for their beautiful views -- than to hike a mountain I've never done, no matter how big, if I know there are no views at the top.
My priorities changed a bit during the last few years. I still love hiking, and get out to hike when I can, but it's less important to me now than it was.
In Luke 12, Jesus said:
This is a bit of what I've experienced. More and more, my treasures are found right in my own home, rather than on a list of mountains to check off. And where my treasure is, my heart follows.
The context of this verse is not about children and mountains -- it's about the treasures of heaven:
The principle is this: if your treasures are in heaven, you will prioritize the treasures of this life far more lightly. Why is the believer willing to sacrifice and give with generosity, not seeking anything in return? Because the believer sees a treasure far beyond the riches of this world.
Whenever we find something greater our heart follows that greatness, even if it means leaving the lesser behind.
Years ago, when I was in college, I participated in a Bible study group for college students. The object lesson I'm sharing here is not mine; I first heard it from Lenny, the leader of that Bible study group. I found it helpful, so I thought I'd share it here.
Imagine that you get a phone call from a friend who says he has a gift to give you. Curious, you ask him what it is. He tells you that he has received a van Gogh painting, and he would like to pass it on to you. You are stunned, knowing that any van Gogh painting is worth millions of dollars.
Your friend tells you that you need to make arrangements to come pick up the painting and bring it home. Imagine how you feel at this moment. How are you going to collect the painting? Will you drive your car there and pick it up yourself? Will you hire a moving van? Or maybe even an armored truck? And what about once you've received the painting? What will you do with it? What kinds of security systems will you have to install in your house? What about UV protection for the artwork?
As you pick up the painting, and as you install it in your home, you approach the entire process with "fear and trembling." Not because you are afraid that your friend will take back his gift, but because you understand how precious and valuable it is, and how easily damaged it is. It is a treasured possession, and you want to guard it and protect it.
In Philippians 2, Paul writes:
Paul is not telling us that our salvation is ours to earn. No, like that van Gogh painting, it is a gift beyond value or belief. But now that it is ours, we treat it with all the care and regard that a priceless gift deserves. We understand that the gift of God's grace is fully ours, but with that gift comes a grave responsibility.
And in the midst of this, Paul offers this reassurance -- you're not on your own. As he had already promised in Philippians 1:6, God is, and will be at work in you.
As an added note to Lenny's object lesson, it's interesting to note that the phrase "work out" in this verse comes from a compound Greek word: katergazomai. Kata has a variety of meanings, so any compound word built from it also may have many possible meanings. Kata has these likely meanings in this verse: "toward the completion of," "in the direction of," or "according to." Gazomai simply means "work." Thus, we could alternately translate that phrase as "work according to your salvation," "work toward the completion of your salvation," or "work in the direction of your salvation." That fits nicely with the next verse which assures us that God is working in the same direction!
Not work for it, but work according to it, and toward its fulfillment at the day of the Lord. My life now, in this world, should be aimed toward that future day of glory.