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Emptying Barns

“God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:20-21)

The verse above is the conclusion to Jesus’ parable of the man who built bigger and bigger barns for his wealth, often referred to as the Parable of the Rich Fool. In this parable, a man is blessed with productive land and an abundance of crops. His response to this blessing was not to share with those less fortunate than himself, or to invest the money in a manner that would help his community. Rather, the man decides to pull down his existing barns so that he can build larger ones, so that he would have more room to store up his goods for himself.

Having not been acknowledged (or even mentioned) previously in the story, God suddenly shows up to speak directly to the man. God calls him a “fool” and tells the man that what is required of him is his soul – his whole life – which belongs to God himself. The things that this man thought he possessed were nothing compared to what God himself owned, the claim that God has on all of us as his possession.

Today, as I write my article for this issue, I face the prospect of picking up my household and moving to another part of the country. I realize these days, this is something fairly common for people to do. But it forces me once again to take stock of all the “things” I claim as my own.  I remember back to the first days, when my wife and I were newly married, it seemed as if each time we moved — from seminary to internship, then back to seminary and on to my first call — the moving truck kept getting larger and larger. By the time I moved to my second call, my children were just reaching school-age when we moved into the church’s parsonage. Not long after, we bought own house in the town of Maple Lake, where I served most of my ministry. Again, the amount of “things” continued to grow.

It was not until I shifted from parish ministry to full-time in the publishing ministry, that my wife and I became so-called “empty nesters.” While it was true that the birds had grown and flown off, the nest itself was still filled with many things. Not until the next move did we have our first experience with down-sizing.

It was more difficult than I would have imagined. Though the new house to which we were moving was about the same size as the one we were moving from, the amount of storage space available went from plentiful to minimal. Hard decisions had to be made, and we were not entirely successful in our attempt to divest ourselves excess inventory.

But now, as we prepare to move again, I am surprised to find this process far less difficult. I would like to think it is because I am older and wiser, and am better able to travel light. I would like to think that I have learned the lesson of not building bigger barns, having a greater faith and trust that “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). But I am not sure that this is the case.

Rather, I think it has more to do with the experience of loss, and how God shapes us by what he takes away. Like the Vinedresser, pruning the branches of the vine, I have come to understand that God’s blessings are not just in what he gives, but perhaps even more visible in what he removes.

As one who believes in a Savior who “takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29), I recognize that there are many other things that God has taken away — hard experiences by which he has shaped me in faith. The things that I once thought of as my own now seem somehow less tangible, compared to the value I find in the unseen things of faith.

After a lifetime of praying, “Lord, give us this day our daily bread,” I have learned not only the value of what God gives, but also the value of what he does not give. Perhaps that is why God does not promise us our yearly bread, our monthly bread, or even our weekly bread. What he promises is daily bread. Having the Lord empty my barns has made me more conscious of my dependence upon him every single day. For that I am grateful.

In teaching the Word, I have often compared the life of faith to a candle that begins tall and slowly burns down as we mature. I have suggested that our prayer as disciples should be that when our time on the earth has ended, there would be nothing left but a nub, for we would have given all we have and all we are for the sake of Christ.

In my own life, what I have found is that this is the only way his light will shine in us. Only by the burning of the candle is the light of our Savior made known to the world. For only by his Light is the darkness of this world overcome.

So I give thanks that God came to me in Christ while I was still a fool, while I was building my barns. I give thanks that he has opened silos and poured out the grain I thought was my own, and instead, has claimed me as His own.

— Pastor Steven E. King

Competitive Gospel

Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. (Philippians 1:15-18)

I have often wondered about the verses above. I wonder exactly what it was that Paul was referring to, and why he would apparently affirm those who preach the gospel with ulterior motives? Paul always did have detractors. He spoke often of those who contradicted the message of grace in Christ, seeking to reinstitute the law as the basis for Christian faith. There was a sort of rivalry between him and those who preached “a different gospel” (2 Corinthians 11:4), and Paul often warned of those who would “nullify the grace of God” (Galatians 2:21) by encouraging believers to trust in their own righteousness. Paul was an evangelist, first and foremost, and for him the gospel itself was at stake in these matters.

Throughout my ministry, I have had a particular interest in evangelism. Like Paul, it has been at the forefront of how I understand the calling God has placed on my life. I served as a mission developer in my own congregation, and over the years, I have helped to support a number of new church plants. I have come to recognize that God has given me a heart and passion for making known the gospel.

But I have to say, I never really questioned whether there was any hidden motive underlying my interest in evangelism — beyond wanting to serve as a faithful follower and ambassador for Christ.

So when I read what Paul writes about those who “preach Christ from envy and rivalry,” it gives me pause. I wonder if there is not a bit of my own competitive human nature that has driven this aspect of my ministry, and the desire I have to do evangelism. Knowing the way I am, I realize it is not simply that I want to preach the gospel, but that I want to do it “right.” That is to say, I want to proclaim Christ in a way that has biblical and theological integrity.

Unfortunately, I have too often been on the receiving end of badly done evangelism. Whether it be those who used a carrot or a stick, I have often experienced the “sales pitch” of people who have tried to sell me Jesus. I never wanted to do that to others. I never wanted to give in to the temptation of preaching a human-centered view of faith, as if trust in Christ were a human work by which human beings save themselves. I believe that the gospel is something that comes from outside of ourselves — something that we do not control — wherein the Holy Spirit uses God’s Word to lay hold of our hearts. “By grace you have been saved through faith,and this is not your own doing…” (Ephesians 2:8). That verse has always been at the center of how I understand the gospel.

But I must admit, there have been times that I have felt that those with a more synergistic view of salvation have a much easier job. There are many evangelists who unabashedly teach that salvation is in our human hands, and that “being saved” is the result of our own human work or decision. Apparently, that strategy “works.” All around me I see people who try to make the gospel more attractive in ways that appeal to human will and desire, who often seem to be much more “effective” in their evangelism.

I can’t help but think that some of my own evangelistic fervor has been to prove that evangelism could be done in a way that focuses on Christ alone, and his gracious act of salvation, rather than giving credit for our salvation to our human cooperation or acceptance. Does this mean that my preaching the gospel has been out of envy and rivalry, and not of good will — as Paul said of his opponents? Or does it mean that I simply want Christ proclaimed, as clearly and purely as I can?

Maybe, in the end, it doesn’t matter. As Paul said, the important thing is that “in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (Philippians 1:18). Maybe this is where the gospel speaks to us as the evangelists, as Christ releases us from our bondage to motives and rivalries, and works in us despite our weaknesses and failings. He gives us the opportunity to serve in his name, regardless of our covetous and competitive nature, and assures us that even what we may do for the wrong reasons, he is able to use for his glory. Knowing in the end that “it is not about me but all about him,” was the message of Christ from the beginning. Though we may be people who fall short in motive and intention, the promise is that Christ is at work in us nevertheless. And in that, I rejoice

– Pastor Steven E. King