The Barnabas Ministry

Jumping off the Temple
The tradition of trusting God to take care of us is well established in the Judeo-Christian heritage. But in the midst of pursuing spiritually-oriented priorities at the direction of forceful spiritual leaders or from other compelling reasons, sometimes Christians can lose touch with the balance and perspective that Jesus himself brought to this matter. This article will discuss God's providential protection, the Christian response to that protection, and a few common areas where it seems that Christians may need to re-examine their teachings and priorities on this topic.

God's Providential Protection
There are many passages that discuss God's providential protection. First, the Scriptures teach that God provides for all men:

He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:45)

He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy. (Acts 14:17)

... he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. (Acts 17:25)

Even with this, Christians are said to have special blessings as a result of their relationship with God:

And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. (1 John 4:16)

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32)

Christian Responses to Providence
Some have taught that the Christian response to God's protection and provision is to not tend to any of the things of the world. One passage often cited to support this is from the Sermon on the Mount:

"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

"And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, `What shall we eat?' or `What shall we drink?' or `What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:25-33)

In the hands of some spiritual leaders, this text is a tool to demand that Christians attend every single event and service and make every single church matter a number one priority, without regard to any other matters. Followers are told to make all church things the top priority and that God will take care of them. In some cases Christians are chided, rebuked or marginalized for tending to other matters.

Even if not taught in an extreme way, the idea that Christians should "just focus on church things and everything else will work out" is an incorrect understanding of this passage and others like it.

Going into an extensive exegesis of this text is beyond the scope of this article. But it is evident that God has established several other principles that argue against this interpretation of this text. There are many of these in Scripture, only a few will be cited here:

For example, Christians are commanded to work in order to eat and survive:

For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: "If a man will not work, he shall not eat." (2 Thessalonians 3:10)

Christians are also reminded that they will reap what they sow:

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. (Galatians 6:7)

Christians are also warned to care for themselves:

Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses. (1 Timothy 5:23)

The point here is that Christians are to balance reliance upon God's providence with their own prudent and wise actions.

Jesus himself was faced with this issue on at least one notable occasion, as part of the temptation from Satan in the wilderness:

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. "If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down. For it is written:

  " `He will command his angels concerning you,
    and they will lift you up in their hands,
  so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.' "

Jesus answered him, "It is also written: `Do not put the Lord your God to the test.' " (Matthew 4:5-7)

The promise Satan cites, from Psalm 91, is quite amazing. The reader is encouraged to read it in its entirety. Satan's argument was that, if Jesus trusted the Lord, then he would be their heir to the blessing of protection discussed in Psalm 91. So why not just jump off the temple and prove both the Lord's protection and his own righteousness?

Jesus responds with a point of balance and responsibility-- do not test God. This is a reference to Deuteronomy 6:16, which discusses how the Israelites tested God. They did this by demanding that he provide some specific care immediately, not trusting his promise to bring them into the land flowing with milk and honey.

As is true in many theological questions, there is a tension between God's provision and man's faithfulness and responsibility.

Christian Misuses and Abuses of Providence
There are several areas of life where I have seen teachings that have not handled this principle responsibly. In some cases, it is simply a well-intentioned but imbalanced perspective that has brought harm. In other cases it may be instances of testing God by effectively "jumping off the temple" in various areas of life.

In regards to our daily work and provision, too often Christians are not taught to value school, work and careers. For example, many young minister candidates are encouraged to work dead-end jobs below their abilities without regard for future developments while they pursue ministry training (to many, this is the ultimate "seek first the kingdom" decision). Yet the Scriptures encourage us to keep options open:

Sow your seed in the morning,
    and at evening let not your hands be idle,
  for you do not know which will succeed,
    whether this or that,
    or whether both will do equally well. (Ecclesiastes 11:6)

For many who remain in ministry, the stories are told of how they worked in this or that ridiculous job before they went into the "promised land" of full-time ministry. But nobody seems to talk much about those who did not remain in full-time ministry and how their attempt to be faithful ended up hurting them for a long time. The irresponsible approach that led them to disregard their career development ultimately harms their faith, their careers, their future ability to provide for themselves and their families, and (ironically) even the work of the church through their ability to give.

In regards to finances, Christians are often taught to "give first to God" and after that to tend to other things. Giving is a good thing, but when taught in this manner it is a particularly troubling teaching.

First, it ignores the differences between giving under the Law of Moses and giving in the church age. (For more on this, see the Barnabas Ministry article Tithing.)

Second, giving to a local church or parachurch organization is not the same as giving to God.

Third, giving to the poor or other worthy causes that help the poor is also blessed by God (ref. Proverbs 14:31).

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, other Scriptures plainly place responsibility upon the individual Christian to take care of things that he and no other is responsible for. For example, Christians with aging relatives are commanded to care for those parents:

But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God. (1 Timothy 5:4)

If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Timothy 5:8)

This certainly takes precedence over giving to a church. In fact, the practice of neglecting family to "give to God" was condemned by Jesus:

And he said to them: "You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, `Honor your father and your mother,' and, `Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.' But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: `Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban' (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that." (Mark 7:9-13)

Christians are also taught to focus their attention on the things necessary to provide for themselves, both now and in the future:

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12)

In addition, Christians are taught to save for the future-- not as a replacement for trusting God (ref. Luke 12:16-21) but as an expression of that trust, respecting God's order of creation:

Go to the ant, you sluggard;
    consider its ways and be wise!

  It has no commander,
    no overseer or ruler,

  yet it stores its provisions in summer
    and gathers its food at harvest. (Proverbs 6:6-8)

Churches have at times taught that members should go into debt or liquidate retirement funds to meet contribution goals. This practice seems to goes against the teachings of Scripture. And encouraging Christians to remain in situations that do not have the potential to provide for themselves and their families long-term prevents Christians from being faithful in this area.

To be sure, Christians are stewards of their finances. But it is testing God to think that the law of sowing and reaping will not apply to Christians who neglect things they are responsible for when it comes to personal finances.

With respect to health, it is astonishing how little is taught to Christians about caring for their health. Of course, most churches talk about avoiding sexual promiscuity, smoking, drugs and excessive drinking. These certainly bring health benefits. So there is a good foundation here, but unfortunately many church cultures stop there.

For instance, many churches praise those who come to the services while they are sick-- never mind that these sick saints are harming their own recovery to health and likely making others sick in the process. How about praising people for taking care of themselves when sick and not subjecting others to their germs? (Germ-spreading handshakes are a whole other matter, but it reminds me that the late Paul Harvey suggested a nice salute instead of the handshakes that are a part of many services. As it is, many people are cleaning up with hand sanitizer after "greeting their neighbor" in services.)

Additionally, many church cultures have a high-speed, packed-schedule lifestyle. This may include unhealthy eating choices as the norm- imbalanced diets, fast  food, a lot of eating out (or the traditional pot-luck meals where excessive portions are consumed). It may also include early morning and/or late night events as well. Time for regular and appropriate exercise, rest, and necessary sleep are not a priority. Some church cultures have a high-pressure, high-anxiety approach to ministry as well. These stresses and pressures serve to reinforce this high-speed lifestyle as well.

In these types of settings, much is made of "extreme" things in the life of Jesus-- once rising early to pray (Mark 1:35), another time staying up all night to pray (Luke 6:12). But even Jesus took naps (Matthew 8:24) and got away for rest and relaxation. And the whole concept of the Sabbath, a day of rest, is instructive in this area as well. How many Christians would say Sunday is a "day of rest" for them when it comes to church things?

Churches should teach Christians to care for themselves (1 Timothy 5:23). This brings benefits both in the short and long term. Yet, too many churches seem are too interested in the "now" to be concerned with the "later." Some may be taking the future for granted, others may impulsively want immediate gratification for the things at hand. Worse, some teach that this life does not matter, that it's better to "die and be with the Lord" anyway, and the like. But if this life is degraded in importance, does that not degrade eternal life as well? This life matters.

A sign in the office of one of my doctors says, "If you don't take care of your body, where are you going to live?" Yet the connection between high stress and unbalanced living and numerous health issues is well established in the medical community. If a Christian has good things to do with his or her life, then it is in the best interest of the kingdom for that person to be able to do those those things for as well and as long as possible. This means making good choices now that will pay off later.

It is a mixed message to provide food and medical care for the poor for their temporal benefit, and yet to disregard our own temporal benefits with bad food and health care practices.

Now some churches go to excessive lengths on this-- mandating certain diets or prohibitions of certain foods. This may be well-intentioned but usually ends up becoming a law. These laws are not in line with Scripture; all foods are "clean" (Mark 7:19).

The point is that we will reap what we sow with respect to our health. To not care for our health and to expect God to sustain us anyway appears to be another way of "jumping off the temple" and testing God.

Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him; for God's temple is sacred, and you are that temple. (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)

One last area of concern is the issue of personal safety. Many of us have heard of Christians who were in bad car wrecks but were "saved by the Lord" from serious injury or death. But then we come to find that the Christian driver was being careless, driving too fast, fell asleep while driving back from some late event or the like.

Subsequent discussions of these matters often seem to focus on God's blessing of protecting people from serious harm in these cases. Thanking God is always a good thing, and I'm thankful when someone has a wreck and escapes serious injury. But, these discussions need to also include warnings about how we should be careful and not test God with irresponsible or unsafe behavior.

Further, how many of these accidents could be avoided if schedules weren't packed too tightly, if people were not humiliated for occasional lateness to some events, or if people got proper rest and weren't driving tired all of the time?

A Personal Word
The idea for this article has been percolating for more than a year. There have been several personal events that have prompted it.

Last year I went to funerals of two men who died of heart attacks. Both were younger than me, and their children, approximately the same ages as my own, are now fatherless. Unless you have experienced something like this, you have no idea how close to home this hits.

Like many Americans, I take cholesterol-lowering medication. But in light of these two deaths, I went in for a heart scan earlier this year. Though my cholesterol and triglyceride levels were better than average, I found that I had already sustained some heart damage. The blood tests I was taking every year were showing I was above average with respect to cardiac event risk, but those tests were not capable of showing this damage. Subsequently, I went through an additional battery of tests. As a result, my medications have changed slightly, and I have made significant lifestyle changes as well. I hope to do now what should have been done many years ago-- take care of my cardiovascular health. The exam was a wake-up call.

I encourage everybody who has been a part of a high-demand church (or high-demand job or other circumstance, for that matter) to get checked out physically. Stress, bad diet and lack of sleep can all contribute to hurting your health and the ability of your body to manage itself. You can't change the past, but you can make efforts to be healthy starting today.

As I thought about my condition, I wondered how and when all this happened. Was it that couple of years in college where I lived on loads of pizza and beer and other unhealthy foods and gained a lot of weight? Was it the go-go-go lifestyle I experienced in a high-demand church? Was it in years after that, those years when you still eat like a young adult but burn calories like an older adult? Or has it been cumulative, building up all this time? There are no certain answers; it could have happened at any of those times. But-- one thing did come to mind. Having spent my entire adult life in fairly devoted involvement in churches, I can see that churches need to do a better job with these issues. Let me illustrate with my own experiences.

In the ICC, I was periodically criticized for my weight, but this was almost always because of my appearance and how some perceived this as damaging to my (and their) credibility. Another aspect of this was usually present-- the technique of pointing out a flaw or fault merely to put me on the defensive and control me, a common practice in control-based churches. What more obvious flaw does someone have than being overweight?

While those of us in the ICC tended to think of "discipling" as great and necessary, there was little or no concern for my actual health. It was simply not a church priority.
Despite all the talk about how we should work out and get in shape, the church culture encouraged me to continue to live a high-anxiety, go-go-go lifestyle that ensured I would remain overweight and unhealthy.

In other churches I've been a part of since then, I'm having a hard time remembering when this has ever been discussed from the pulpit. It just isn't on the radar.

This is not to blame the church for my choices;
I am the one who lives with the fruit of my choices, long after the conferences, "pushes" and other short-term church goals are forgotten, long after the praise for living the go-go-go lifestyle is over.

I would hope that churches and Christians today can learn from these lessons.

I can see where some might argue that all that really matters is eternal life, and that any sacrifice in temporal well-being to get others to heaven is worth it.

This sounds really good on the surface, but there are some problems with this view.

First, recklessness is not a sacrifice.
Those who sacrificed in biblical times for the good of others generally suffered at the hands of persecutors or as a result of genuine hardships (such as the elements), they did not suffer for their own recklessness or at the hands of careless leaders. It is one thing to sacrifice health or die an early death due to persecution or necessary hardship; it is another to die or suffer those things due to recklessness.

Second, rarely are these sacrifices directly responsible for getting people to heaven. More often, they are about creating a church culture or movement that might be helping people get to heaven. But a high-demand church also loses a significant percentage of the people it reaches, so the net effect is not so great as one might think. Further, if the church did a better job with these long-term sowing and reaping things, it might also retain a higher percentage of its converts. In other words, this short-term approach might be part of its problem, eroding that which it tries to build. Maybe churches need to find better ways to do things instead of trading the future for the now.

Third, the principles of sowing and reaping still stand; they are as much a part of creation as gravity. How is it that we can mock God's ways in one area of life (sowing and reaping) to honor him in another area (winning souls)? This sounds like the old "let us do evil that good may result" argument that is condemned in Scripture (Romans 3:8).

While there are times where true sacrifices may be necessary to advance the kingdom, equating recklessness to sacrifice (and expecting God to cover it) is a form of testing God.

A Word Concerning Young People

Young people are especially vulnerable to not taking any of these concerns seriously. Young people have always generally considered themselves indestructible and not subject to the law of reaping and sowing. They always think they will work it out "later."

As a former young person, I can only say "later" comes sooner than you think, and there is no time like now to do the right things. You will begin reaping the benefits of taking responsibility for your actions immediately.

Because young people typically don't take these things seriously, they are ripe for being mistreated or ill-served by spiritual leaders in these matters. They don't know any better. In a local church, there needs to be some more mature people involved looking out for them.

Often, young people look to spiritual leaders as parent figures, often giving them more authority in their lives than they give their own parents. Thus, leaders of young people cannot just focus on "spiritual issues." They must reinforce teachings about life lest they undercut or minimize what parents have already provided. In cases where young people may not have received this teaching from parents for a variety of other reasons, this point even more important.

Young people who are sowing to please God are already showing they can appreciate the big picture of life and eternity; it really isn't that much of a stretch to teach them to also have the same perspectives on life on earth.

A Word Concerning Leaders and Teachers
Leaders need to watch what they teach and how their followers live:

Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Timothy 4:16)

Thus, it is vitally important that teachers explicitly teach followers that the law of sowing and reaping is always in effect. Trusting God for deliverance in times of trouble will always be a part of the Christian experience, and well it should be. But God has also established the law of sowing and reaping and it must be respected. It is an implicit part of God's law since it is a law of creation.

Church leaders should teach Christians to honor God by sowing good choices in terms of careers, finances, health and safety (and there are probably more areas). These things glorify God because they glorify how he has created us and the world we live in. These involve trust and submission to Him. Do not trade the long term for the short term; to God both are important. (And frankly, a good case can be made that the long-term things are the more important of the two).

Church leaders should never teach that God can be mocked or tested by disregarding the law of sowing and reaping. Not many may do this explicitly from the pulpit, but many do it by encouraging church culture and lifestyle choices that are bound to reap undesirable or bad things. We might not ever teach people to "jump off the temple" but we often encourage it by rejoicing when it happens.

It is fashionable to teach about "God's promises." But saying God has promised something that he hasn't is more like Satan in Matthew 4 than a caring shepherd. Church leader-- teach people to trust God and rely upon him and his promises, but also teach that sowing and reaping is one of his promises!

Many church leaders live for the short-term-- this month's goals, this year's initiatives, etc. This is what secular management techniques have done to the church. But leaders are entrusted with caring for God's people. They are his, not yours. You must lead and teach them in a way that prepares them for the future. To use them to make you and your program look good for the present without regard for preparing them for their future is spiritual abuse.

Remember, you are building for the long haul:

But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames. (1 Corinthians 3:10-15)

Some practical ways to look at this-- how much sleep are people getting? Are some people "too involved?" Are they sowing for the long term and not just the short term? Are church events with food abused? Is moderation encouraged? Is rest and relaxation encouraged? Are children and spouses getting the time, attention and support they need?

Pay attention to those who are the most involved, the most reliable. Lay leaders are especially at risk. Are they maxed out? (And don't expect them to tell you that they are-- they want to please you.) Also pay attention to those who are not involved-- are they living balanced lives?

A Final Word
A generation ago, a singer spoke of this topic in a poetic sort of way. He said, "So lean upon him gently" (Ian Anderson).

We know and rely on the love God has for us. In him we live and move and have our being. But let us also realize he has created a world with rules, and living according to those rules is also living according to his ways.

We will all need God's provision when our own choices have been bad; we are sinners. But let us not deliberately or recklessly make bad choices and in so doing test God. Let's "lean upon him gently" as we respect the law of sowing and reaping.

And, take those health symptoms seriously. See a doctor if you need to.

Copyright © 2009 John Engler. All rights reserved.

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