I want you to know that the Devil hates what you’re doing. Any time the people of God gather to worship God, to give him glory and hear the gospel preached, he loses; and so he’ll do anything in his power to prevent it. On an individual basis, he’ll try to prevent it by convincing people not to come. There was a gospel quartet in my church growing up—they called themselves “The Master’s Four”—and one of their signature songs was called “Excuses, Excuses.” I could probably sing about half of it even now, for all that it’s been twenty years and more since the last time I heard it, but I’ll spare you my attempts to play tenor. The verses are lists of the various sorts of excuses people use to get out of going to church—“Oh, the weather, it’s too hot; or maybe it’s too cold. In the springtime, when the weather’s just right, you have someplace else to go”—and the chorus sums it all up: “Excuses, excuses, you hear them every day; oh, the Devil, he’ll supply them if from church you’ll stay away. When people come to know the Lord, the Devil always loses, so to keep those folks away from church, he offers them excuses.”
Obviously, though, that works on some, but not on everyone; for all the Devil’s best efforts, a lot of people do still show up on Sunday mornings. So what’s he going to do? Yes, he’s doomed to fail, but he’s going to take as many people as he can down with him, and you should never underestimate his cunning. If he can’t keep us from worship, he’s going to try to neutralize our worship by turning our hearts away from our Lord and getting us to worship something other than Christ.
Tim Keller, of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan, talked about this at the conference last month, that we all have our idols and our temptations to idolatry—our spouses; our kids; our reputations; our jobs; our possessions; anything of real value to us, anything that’s truly meaningful to us and that truly matters in our lives, can become so important to us that it takes God’s right and proper place in our lives. The church can become an idol—usually the local congregation, but I know folks for whom I’d say their denomination has become an idol—and so can our nation and our patriotism. For many churches, of course, style of music is an idol; for some, the building becomes an idol. That was a problem in Colorado, for example. (It probably still is.)
These are all good things which we rightly love and value. We ought to love our families, we ought to love this church and be grateful for this building, we ought to love our nation and thank God every day for blessing us to live here, and certainly we ought to value the work he has given us to do. We ought to love music, which is a wonderful gift from God, and naturally we will prefer some kinds to others. But every last one of these things must—must—come second in our hearts to God; it’s not that we need to love them less, but that we need to love Jesus Christ more than any of them, and our first and foremost desire should be to serve and honor and glorify him by giving him pleasure, with our love for all those other people and things falling in order behind our love for him.
What we need to realize, and what we need to remember, is that God has shared his victory with us not for our glory but for his own. One of the chief reasons that his victory in our lives often doesn’t look like what we would expect it to look like is that it isn’t our victory for our purposes, but his victory for his purposes. As such, his victory is not about us getting what we want, or making us look good, or keeping us from hard times, or things going the way we think they should; that’s the mistake all those folks made who were prophesying that McCain would win back in November, because they were sure they knew what God’s victory had to look like. Some of them, their faith was shaken when they turned up wrong.
For my part, I agree with them that Senator McCain would have been a better president than Senator Obama, but that’s not the victory God intended, and not the victory toward which he was working; if we identify our own preferred causes with God’s, if we think that God’s glory requires that we get rich or that our church have more people, if we forget that America is not the kingdom of God to which we pledge our highest allegiance, we’re going to get those kinds of unwanted surprises, because we’re going to build up expectations that have nothing at all to do with what God’s actually on about. God may be intending to do what we want him to do, but then again, he may not—and even if he is, it might not come the way we expect, or look the way we think it will look. He does not promise to fulfill our expectations, he promises to glorify his name, and what glorifies him in our lives isn’t always what we think of as glorious.
That’s one reason why God allows us to suffer. We’ve talked about some of the reasons for that over the last couple weeks, but here’s another one: it’s often in our suffering that God is most glorified in our lives. John Piper captured this well in a sermon he gave some time ago, in which he launched into a full-throated assault on the so-called “prosperity gospel”; in the course of that, he said this [Note: video below]: “When was the last time that any American, African, Asian ever said Jesus is all-satisfying because you drove a BMW? Never! They’ll say, ‘Did Jesus give you that? Well, I’ll take Jesus!’ That’s idolatry! That’s not the gospel. That’s elevating gifts above Giver. . . . God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him in the midst of loss, not prosperity.”
God wants us to know, even in the moments of the deepest agony our hearts could ever conceive, that he is enough; that he is good, that he will take care of us, that he will get us through it—and to be able, even through our tears and our pain, to affirm that in faith. As Dr. Piper says, it is that more than anything else that makes God look glorious as God, “not as giver of cars or safety or health,” but as God, because that shows his real power in our lives. The gods of this world can give us prosperity, though they are hard and demanding and fickle; they cannot sustain us in times of pain. Only God can do that. As Howard Vanderwell of the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship put it in discussing 1 Peter 1:1-9, “God had in mind to use [our trials] as an exhibit of genuine faith. The exhibit of such genuine faith lifts others, defeats the schemes of Satan, and brings glory to Christ.”
This is a strange thought to us, that God would want to be glorified in our suffering; but I think it’s strange in part because of the ideas the world gives us about glory. For God to be glorified means that he is seen and recognized for who he is in his true nature and character; this is why the Bible talks of Christ being glorified on the cross, because on the cross he showed the depths of his love for us, and how far he was willing to go and how much he was willing to endure and bear for our sake. It’s in his death on the cross that we see most clearly the nature and character of our God.
Similarly, what is the greatest thing God does in our lives? What shows his power and character and love most clearly? It isn’t the good times, because most people have good times, and they come for a lot of different reasons. It isn’t the times that nothing bad happens, because we quickly grow accustomed to that—we think of that as “normal life,” and don’t see all the bad things that could happen that he prevents. We don’t see the times that we don’t get into a nasty traffic accident because that driver over there took a different route across town this morning, or maybe called in sick with a bad cold instead of trying to fight it off and go to work, and so we don’t give God credit for those times. It isn’t our successes, because we usually take them for our own—we may thank God for them, but most of the time we really believe that we made them happen ourselves, and so does everyone else (both of our successes and their own). In all these things and all these times, there is really nothing to distinguish the people of God from those who are not his people, for as the Scriptures tell us, the rain that gives life to the crops falls on the just and the unjust alike.
Where we are distinguished from those who do not walk with Christ, where we see the power of God and the work of his Holy Spirit in our lives most clearly, is in the hard times in our lives, in our times of loss and suffering and struggle, as we see him lift us up and support us. This is when we see his character most clearly, because we can see that his goodness to us goes beyond giving us things to caring for us when we’re in need, when we’re in pain, when we’re hurting and blaming it on him, when we’re angry at him for allowing us to suffer. We can see that God doesn’t return anger for anger and blame for blame, nor does he expect or even want us to lie to him and tell him things are fine when he knows as well as we do that they aren’t. Instead, he takes it all, and he loves us and cares for us and supports us—directly, by his Spirit, and indirectly, through his people—and he gives us hope that there is a better future coming, when all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well, as Julian of Norwich wrote. He enables us to sing songs of praise at funerals, because we know by his faithfulness that pain and death and grief and loss do not have the last word, for there is a resurrection. He enables us to overcome, to find his victory in the midst of our circumstances, and to keep going, finding comfort in him as we journey through the valley of the shadow of death, trusting that we will emerge at last on the other side.
It is in this, most of all, that God is glorified in us, because it’s in this that his hand is most clearly seen; it’s in such times that we have the least temptation to give anyone or anything other than God the glory. When things are going well, we’re especially vulnerable to those efforts of the Devil that I mentioned earlier to turn our hearts away from God and toward anyone or anything else. It’s easy in good times to focus on our gifts rather than on the Giver—not that we forget about him, exactly, we just don’t think about him all that much, because let’s face it, we don’t really have to. We can just kind of cruise along at our own speed, under our own power, and things go pretty well, and let the world pull us into the consumer mindset as we go along building the life we want at a price we can afford.
It’s even easy to let that infect our view of the church—and so over the last quarter-century or so of prosperity, we’ve seen a lot of churches and other organizations grow large and rich appealing to religious consumers, playing off the unexpressed but potent assumption that church exists like everything else does, to give us what we want. We’ve seen churches come to assume that worship is a product which is consumed by attenders, and that it should be marketed and sold like any other product; the gauge for whether worship is successful or not is whether people enjoy it and feel it meets their desires and expectations, and thus whether or not they want to come back and consume it again the next week.
Biblically speaking, that’s not worship, and that’s not what worship is about. Our worship shouldn’t merely express where we are now, it should also form us to be what Jesus calls us to be—namely, his faithful followers—by inspiring in us love for him and gratitude for all he has done for us. It is a discipline in which we engage and to which we submit—one which is, yes, rewarding and fulfilling, but not because of anything we do, but rather because of what God does in us. True worship moves us toward the understanding that all of life is to be lived to and for the glory of God.
As I’ve said before, I believe gratitude is the key element in that. I know people who try to live the Christian life by main effort, as a matter of duty—or because they’re terrified of going to Hell—and that doesn’t work, because there’s no joy in it; God is glorified in us when we’re responding to him and thanking him and praising him not out of fear or duty, but because we love him and because we truly appreciate and are grateful for all he’s done for us. And as with anything important, we learn by doing. We learn to love God better by loving him, by expressing our love to him and devoting time to worship and honor him and him alone; we learn gratitude by remembering what he has done for us, telling the stories over and over to ourselves and to each other, and by thanking him for his blessings. We learn as individuals to live life to the glory of God by coming together as his people to glorify him, to give our time over to him and let him work in us as he will. Doing this together here trains us to do it out there—which is why, as I said, anytime we gather together and worship God, the Devil loses, and why he’ll do anything he can to keep us away or undermine our purpose; because if he can keep us from giving glory to God and God alone in here, he can stop us from doing it out there. May it never be so for us.