Who Owns Your Life?
February 5, 1995
My subject today—and for the next two Sundays—is money. Contrary to popular belief, most preachers don’t enjoy talking about money. No matter how hard you try, someone is almost certain to misunderstand what you are saying. What I say and what you hear are not the same thing. Sometimes that doesn’t matter. When you talk about money, it matters a great deal.
Most of us are of two minds about money. We’re delighted to talk about other people’s money—how they make it, how they spend it, how they waste it—but we’re not comfortable talking about our money—how we make it, how we spend it, how much we give to worthy causes. That’s private and personal, between us, God, and our accountant. No one else needs to know about those things.
The Bible has more to say about money than it does about heaven or hell.
So it’s not easy to discuss these matters openly, but I’m going to step into the breech and do it anyway. We need to talk about money because God has a lot to say about it. The Bible has more to say about money than it does about heaven or hell. It talks more about money than it does about prayer. (That doesn’t mean that money is more important than prayer, or that you shouldn’t pray about your financial needs. It simply tells us that God is concerned about you and your money.)
Very frankly, I am preaching this sermon (and the two that will follow) because of our current financial situation. Rather than bore you with numbers, the easiest thing I can say is that for about six months now, our situation has been quite difficult. We’ve been living close to the edge and now we’ve got two wheels over the edge and a five hundred foot drop-off underneath. Said another way, if money is like gas in the tank, we’re down toward empty and the red light is flashing.
Five Fast Facts
In order to give you an understanding of the situation, let me share five fast facts with you:
1. Since we are an independent church, we receive no financial help from any outside sources. We are 100% dependent on the giving of our congregation. We receive no subsidy from anywhere—no denominational giving and no government funds.
2. We’ve been operating on that principle for eighty years right here in Oak Park. We are a faith ministry dependent on God and the generosity of his people.
3. Last year our giving to all causes topped the $1 million mark.
4. Our budget has stayed level at $960,000 for three years in a row.
5. Three years ago we decided to stop borrowing money to pay our bills. Since then we haven’t borrowed a cent from anyone for any reason. That brave decision meant that we must build up cash reserves to carry us through the lean times of the year. Our decision not to borrow money has never been seriously tested … until now.
Good Ministry Costs Money
As we speak of these things, it’s important to keep a balanced perspective. God has been very good to us and we praise his name.
On one hand, our church is flourishing as never before. We have more people coming to church than ever—over 1000 most Sundays. All our ministries are doing well—Awana, Caraway Street, Power Connection, Allied Force, Sunday School, Sanctuary Choir, the Contemporary Service, Children’s Choir. Oh, we can always do better, but God’s blessing is clearly on our church. People are being saved, baptized, growing in Christ; we’re sending out new missionaries every year.
Our missions giving this year will reach $200,000. In the last year or so we’ve sent out three new missionary families—the Caugheys to Swaziland, the Carpenters to Zaire, and the Edwards to Costa Rica. We’ve got three or four in the wings: the Kirschners later this year to Nigeria; after them, Ryan and Heidi Hannah, possibly Joel and Sharon Eland, possibly Tom and April Drost. Right now two of our high school graduates, Elizabeth Morris and Sarah Mondello, are at the YWAM training schools in Arkansas and Texas.
What’s the problem, you say? Good ministry costs money. Helping people costs money. Leading our children to Christ costs money. Counseling troubled families costs money. Having a choir costs money. Everything we do to help people costs money.
The last twelve months have been great for ministry and quite difficult financially. To give just one number to hang on to, think of this:
At the beginning of 1994 our cash reserves stood at $54,000.
At the beginning of 1995 our cash reserves stood at $6000.
You don’t have to be a CPA to understand those numbers. Six thousand dollars is not much of a cushion in a million dollar budget.
A Six-Point Plan
Here’s our plan. First, we want to be up-front about the needs of the church. That’s why I’m preaching these three sermons. Second, we’ve cut expenses already and we’re prepared to do it again. Third, we’re asking everyone to pray about this serious financial crisis. Fourth, we’ve decided to challenge our new people to begin giving sacrificially. Fifth, we’ve set aside Sunday, March 5, as Tithing Demonstration Day. Sixth (and this is personal), if you have a story about how God taught you about the joy of giving, about God’s faithfulness to you when you didn’t have much money, about how you learned to tithe, please write me a letter this week and tell me about it. I’d like to share your story with the congregation in the next two Sundays.
Money is Not the Problem
Having said all that, I want you to know that money is not the problem—it never is. The problem is inside the human heart. I’m reminded of the story of the man who was about to be baptized. Just as he started walking into the water, he grabbed for his wallet and said, “Here, take this. I don’t want it to get wet.” How true it is. Our money is always the last thing to get baptized. We keep it dry as long as we can.
Money is not the problem, it never is. The problem is inside the human heart.
The real issue is not the crisis of money; it’s the crisis of ownership. We don’t understand who owns our life. That’s why we don’t give more than we do.
Crisis at Caesarea Philippi
I take you back 2000 years to a place called Caesarea Philippi, a Roman city built in the Golan Heights northeast of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus and his disciples had gone there to retreat from the growing opposition in Israel.
It is a critical moment for Jesus. All Israel buzzes with word of this man from Galilee. Who is he? By what power does he perform his miracles? What is he really after? After a wave of early popularity, the nation is now divided. True, he has a wide following among the common people. It is also true that among the rich and powerful, opinion is slowly crystallizing against him. In the distance, the drums of angry opposition are beginning to beat. Before too many months, their sound will become a deafening roar.
It was time to choose sides. The disciples were hand-picked men. Jesus had personally trained them. They knew him better than anyone else on earth. They had seen him work miracles, watched him heal the sick, marveled as he confounded the Pharisees. But had they grasped the meaning of it all?
Jesus had to know the answer. It is here at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus asks the question, “Who do people say I am?” Mark 8:27. And it is here that Peter gives his confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” Matthew 16:16.
What’s the Best Deal?
But the conversation does not end there, for Jesus is seeking for more than a confession; He is also seeking a commitment. “Now that you know who I am, are you willing to commit your life to me?” This is how Jesus puts the issue before the disciples:
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” Mark 8:34-37.
If those words fail to move you, it may be because we have all heard them too many times. Let’s paraphrase them in order to bring out their deeper meaning in contemporary terms:
Now that you know who I am, are you ready to take up your cross and follow me? Before you answer, let me warn you that to follow me will seem, in the eyes of the world, as if you are wasting your life. The people of the world will never understand what you are doing. It will seem to them that by following me, you are throwing your life away.
You always have another option. You can try to save your life by following your own desires. Lots of people do that. They live as if their careers were all that mattered. But the people who live only for this life in the end will find that they wasted it on things that don’t really matter. They tried to save it by living for themselves, but in the end they will lose it. They have wasted their lives on trivial pursuits.
What good will it do if you become the richest man in the world, only to find that at the end of your life it was all wasted?
After all, what good will it do if you become the richest man in the world, or climb to the top of the corporate ladder, or rise to the highest salary level in your company, or win the applause of the world? What good will all that do if in the end you find out it was all wasted? What good will that shiny new sports car do for you then? Will you be able to trade it in for another life? No, you won’t. But if you want to live that way, go ahead. Millions of people do. In the end they will be sorry, but by then it will be too late to do anything about it.
So what will it be, men? The way of the cross or the way of the world? You’ve got to invest your life somewhere. What’s the best deal you can make?
Four Crucial Questions
Let’s make this very personal with four crucial questions for you to consider:
1. Who owns your life?
As long as you think you own your life, you’ll be stingy with your resources because you think it all depends on you. Whenever you discover that God owns everything, giving will be no problem.
2. What’s the best deal you can make?
You’ve got to invest your life somewhere. Jesus said,
“What will it profit you to gain the whole world and lose your life?” All of us must sooner or later make our own choice.
3. What’s your definition of success?
This week I ran across a great quote from Erma Bombeck. She said, “Don’t confuse fame with success. Madonna is one, and Helen Keller is the other.” That’s a good comparison, because Helen Keller was a Christian who understood that her life was a gift from God. For a Christian, there can be only one definition of success: Success is knowing and doing God’s will for your life. Nothing else really matters.
4. Where is your cross?
Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” In the Bible, the cross represents three things: It’s a sign of suffering, a sign of rejection by the world, and a sign of obedience to God. What is “your” cross? Your cross is accepting God’s will for your life and doing it cheerfully. Your cross will always include suffering, always lead to rejection by the world, and always involve obedience to God.
Jesus Paid It All
I ask one final question. What does this have to do with giving? The answer is, everything. How much did Jesus give when he died on the cross? He gave it all. He held nothing back. He offered his very best to God. The words of the invitation hymn come to mind: “Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe.” What vast truth is contained in those two lines.
Jesus paid it all—He paid for your sins and purchased your salvation. He paid it all because you couldn’t pay anything. Your debt was so big that Jesus paid it and God canceled it.
All to him I owe—You owe him everything in gratitude for what he did for you.
Let me say it very simply: If you ever discover who owns your life, giving will be no problem to you. Giving is hard only when you think you own it all. When you realize that he owns it all, and that he paid it all, the little bit you give is the very least you can do.
The Rubber Check That Didn’t Bounce!
I close with a story that came in on the fax machine this week. Many of you know John and Jean Sredl. John is our Director of Buildings and Grounds and Jean is a contemporary worship leader. About five years ago, when the Sredls had just started coming to Calvary, I challenged the congregation to begin tithing. Jean wrote a letter to tell me what happened:
“Dear Pastor Ray,
I keep reading about the financial difficulties we are in this year. You may know that I’m a CPA with an MBA in Accounting. I’m telling you this because I’d like to share my tithing story with you.
You gave your first 90-Day Tithing Challenge in 1990. At that time, I had been a member for two years and gave what I could, when it was ‘convenient.’ As we all know, it’s not often ‘convenient.’ So here I was, sitting in the balcony, listening to you. The Holy Spirit spoke to me, ‘JEAN, IT’S TIME TO PUT YOUR MONEY WHERE YOUR FAITH IS.’ Immediately I felt like Moses and started arguing, ‘But Lord, I only work part time. I hardly make any money. What difference will my two cents make?’ Again came His response, ‘JEAN, NOW IS THE TIME.’ So I pulled out my trump card and played it before the Lord. ‘But God,’ I reasoned, ‘There is no money in the checking account!’ The Holy Spirit patiently replied, ‘JEAN, NOW IS THE TIME.’
Now, as any good financially-trained Christian, I started thinking, ‘Well, if I write the check today, Vern won’t deposit it till Monday, and it won’t get to my bank in Riverside until Wednesday, but the bank is closed on Wednesday. I’ve got till Thursday morning to come up with the cash.’ ‘Okay, Lord, we’ve got until Thursday,’ and I tossed the bad check in the offering plate. When I came home from church that day, I balanced our checkbook. John had forgotten to write in a deposit. The money was there, lots of it. I was stunned.
It may seem like a small miracle to some. But to me, God had shown me his strength in a powerful way. We have faithfully tithed ever since that day. You have seen the work God has done in our family. John and the children coming to Christ, a career for John that he loves, I could go on and on. I know first hand that obedience to God brings blessings beyond measure. God can use anything, even a rubber check!!”
The Joy of Obedience
Have you ever discovered the joy of obedience to God? Have you ever learned how much fun giving can be when you understand that it’s not your money but God’s that you put in the offering plate? Or are you still trying desperately to hoard your money and save your life?
It was the martyred missionary Jim Elliott who said, “He is no fool who gives up that which he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” If you live for your money, what difference will it make ten seconds after you die? If you put your life in the service of the kingdom of God, ten thousand years from now you’ll still be happy with your decision.
The bottom line: God owns your life. All that you have comes directly from him. God owns it all and Jesus paid it all. The little bit that you give represents the least you can do in gratitude for all the Lord has done for you.