A Theology of Vacations

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In the near future my wife and kids and I will join the other members of our family at a cabin on a clear Minnesota lake for a week of fun, rest, and relaxation. I can’t wait.

A yearly week at a cabin is a tradition our family has held for about a decade now, and it is always one of the best weeks of the year. It’s one that we look forward to with longing and anticipation, and one that we look back on with fond memories and laughter.

But sometimes vacations are hard to take. The stress of preparing for the trip, or the extra work you have to do before the vacation, and the catch-up you have to play when you get back can sometimes seem to drain away the rejuvenation you received on vacation. But we should not let these things hinder us from taking time to enjoy our families and the earth God has created. In fact, I believe the Bible teaches that it’s a good, godly, and wise thing to take a vacation!

Created to need rest
God created us to need rest. He designed our bodies to need a recharge every 16 hours or so. And so, every night we go to sleep to rejuvenate our bodies for the coming day’s work. In fact, a full one-third of our lives (give or take) is spent resting. This is by God’s design. God knows that if left to ourselves, we would work ourselves to death, trying to get ahead, “eating the bread of anxious toil” (Psalm 127.2). It is not good for us to be at work all the time, so God ordained sleep, and he commanded us to take a regular time of rest for our own good.

But there’s more to just maintaining our health that makes resting a good idea. There’s also a spiritual reality at work. By taking the time to rest we remind ourselves that we are not God, that our work is not ultimate, and that we need him. It is not good for me to work, and work, and work, constantly trying to get ahead, because I never will. By resting, I acknowledge God’s sovereignty over my work and my dependence on him to accomplish the things that my own efforts at work can’t. If you struggle to go on vacation because you keep thinking about all the work that’s not getting done while you’re away, you need to remember that you are not God, and the world will go on without you because God is God. In fact, if you struggle to go on vacation because you are vexed by work left undone, that’s a sign that you need to go on vacation! Reorient yourself to the reality of God’s sovereign control with a week of vacation.

Jesus rested, and so should we
In Mark 6 we read about Jesus’ disciples going out on a mission trip and returning exhausted. When they get back, Jesus says to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” Jesus, perhaps more than anyone, knew what hard work was all about, and he knew the value of rest. Jesus himself would often retreat to get away from the crowds and craziness of his work, and he also invited his disciples to take time to relax and recharge. In doing so, they would be better equipped to fulfill the work that God had given them to do.

The same is true for us. We are to do all things for the glory of God, and we are to work as unto the Lord, not men. If Jesus knew the value of taking time to rest, we should learn from his example and not shun times where we can enjoy rest and relaxation, and times that will re-energize us for carrying out the work that God has given us to do.

Vacation Salvation
Rest and relaxation in this life is a fuzzy shadow of the rest that we have in Christ. This is the purpose of God’s commanding a Sabbath day of rest. It operates as a foreshadowing of the rest that we will have in Christ at our ultimate salvation. We do not have to work to please God, because Christ has pleased him on our behalf; we no longer work to offer sacrifices and atone for sin, because Christ became the perfect sacrifice and, once offered, he rested from his work. Now those in Christ rest in the security of their salvation.

This, the Bible teaches, is the spiritual lesson that we are to learn by observing a Sabbath day in our regular work-week. By resting from our labors, we are reminded that Christ’s work is finished and complete. It cannot be added to, nor should we try to do so. Jesus’ last words on the cross were “It is finished,” referring to his work as a perfect sacrifice for all who would believe. Christians rest in that finished work, and a weekly Sabbath reminds us of that spiritual reality.

I believe that a good vacation can remind us of that same truth. We can relax and enjoy times of rest because our spiritual work has been completed. We need not spend our time obsessing over how we can please God and stave off his wrath, because that work is already done. Imagine if you had to work to maintain your standing in God’s good graces. I’m sure you wouldn’t be spending any of that time at the lake! But those in Christ do not work to maintain their standing with God, so we can rest. Let a good vacation remind you of the rest you have in Christ.

A little slice of Heaven
One of the reasons we so enjoy our yearly cabin retreat is not just that we get to enjoy one another as a family, but we also get to enjoy God’s creation in a unique way that is different from any other experience we have all year. Our week at the cabin is filled with swimming, fishing, cookouts, late nights outside around the campfire, tubing behind the boat, knee-boarding, failed attempts at water skiing, boating, kayaking, frog-catching, sitting under the sun, wildlife watching, and a whole host of other activities that are designed for us to delight in the things God has made.

As much as we enjoy God’s creation now, it will pale in comparison to how we enjoy the new heavens and new earth that God will one day create. When this world passes away, God will create a new one that will be unaffected by sin and death (an ever-present reality when playing on the water with little ones who still need life jackets to protect their safety). We cannot even conceive of the glories of this new world that God will create, let alone our delight in it.

While on vacation at the cabin, enjoying family and creation, we often ask, “Can it get any better than this?” The answer is, “Yes, it can. And it will!” As much as we delight in God’s creation now, we will delight in it all the more when it is remade. Allow the “little slice of heaven” of your vacation time to fill you with a longing for the consummation of God’s creation, and for the new heavens and the new earth that will soon be a reality.

What About Those Who Have Never Heard?

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Many years ago our church partnered with Steve and Carol Jean Gallagher and sent them to Papua New Guinea among the Bariai people in order to translate the Bible into their language. As of this writing, their translation project has been completed and the Bariai people now have the scriptures in their own language and can read the gospel for themselves and know God through his revealed word.

But that begs a question: what about all the Bariai people who lived and died before the scriptures existed in their language? Will they be held accountable on judgement day simply because they were unfortunate to live during a time when there was no Christian influence in their culture and language? Will they be condemned to hell because they did not have the Bible and the story of Jesus and the gospel made available to them?

Many people have wondered what God will do with those who have never heard of Jesus. Certainly, we think, God cannot be so capricious as to punish people for not believing in a God they’ve never heard of. This question has also confounded seekers who have considered the Christian faith and have found it wanting: “If Jesus is the standard of salvation,” they think, “then I would not believe in a God who would send people to hell simply because they’ve never heard of Jesus. To do so would be unjust.”

What does God do with people who have never heard of Jesus? Will they be condemned to hell? And is it wrong for God to do so? Thankfully, the Bible helps us think about and answer this difficult question.

First, we need to be clear about what it is that condemns a person to hell. What condemns a person to hell is not whether or not he has heard about Jesus, but whether or not he has sinned. So if those in the darkest jungles on the earth do go to hell, it will not be because they have never heard about Jesus, but because they have sinned against a holy God. It is our sin that separates us from God, and this truth is apparent to all people - even to those who have never read one word of scripture. Romans 1 says that all people are aware of God’s existence through the things that have been made. In other words, creation reveals that their is a Creator. This is a self-evident truth that can be understood by the wealthy businessman in the highest skyscraper, and by the lowliest tribe member in a far-away jungle. We all know that God exists, and if we know that he exists then we also know that he demands something of us.

But how can we know what he demands of us without the Bible? Romans 2 tells us that we can know that God demands righteousness from us (even if we don’t have a Bible) because God has given us a conscience. In other words, we know that there is a universal right and wrong because God’s law has been written upon our hearts, no matter who we are or where we live. The commonality of all human beings across time and across the face of the earth has been that we all know in our hearts that God exists, and we know the difference between right and wrong. And our conscience testifies to us that we are sinful, that we have done wrong. So it is not the lack of hearing the gospel that condemns a person to hell, but his knowledge of God and willful sin against the law that God has written upon his heart.

But this does not mean that those who live apart from the influence of the Bible and the good news of Jesus are automatically damned to hell. The Bible teaches us that God uses a sliding scale in his judgment of people (see Luke 10.13-15 and 12.41-48). This means that we will be held accountable for the amount of truth that we have been exposed to. For those of us in the West, and especially in the United States, we have been exposed to much of the truth of God. We have instant access to scripture, preaching, churches, freedom of religion, and so on. There is absolutely no reason why we should not be able to hear and respond to the truth of God, and we will each be held individually accountable by God for what we have done with the truth that he has revealed to us.

In other parts of the world, however, there is considerably less access to the truth of God. Some countries are closed off to religious freedom and do not allow people to have Bibles or to profess faith in Christ without dire consequences. Other countries, such as numerous current people-groups in Papua New Guinea, are so remote that the name of Jesus has never been claimed or taught to its people. Scripture teaches that these people will be held to a lower degree of responsibility because of their lack of knowledge of the truth. Does this mean that they will escape judgment for their lack of knowledge? We can’t know for sure, but we do know that God will judge them more leniently than those in developed nations where the truth of God is freely accessible to all.

Finally, we know that whatever God does will ultimately be what is right and just. God is perfectly just and inherently merciful. It would be contrary to his nature to unjustly condemn people. We may not be able to know precisely what happens to people who have never been exposed to the truth of God, but based on what we know about God from the Bible, we can be confident that whatever God does will be right and fair. He will not unjustly condemn anyone. And he is more than willing and happy to overflow with mercy.

For instance, if there is someone who has never heard the name of Jesus, yet acknowledges God’s existence (Romans 1), and who knows their sin (Romans 2) and desires to get right with God as a result, I believe that God is merciful and he will be faithful to send a missionary to them to preach the gospel to them, or to send that seeker to a church where he or she can hear the gospel. God is not looking for reasons to condemn people - his desire is to save people (2 Peter 3.9)!

Rather than this question causing us to accuse God of injustice, it should instead cause us to question our own zeal in seeking out the salvation of the lost. We know that there are people in the world who have never heard about Jesus and who are destined to meet God on judgment day, lost in their sin. Regardless of how leniently God might judge them, our desire should be for them to come to life and blessing through the gospel of Jesus Christ. So if there are people in the world who have not heard of Jesus, we shouldn’t blame God - we should let the fate of the lost inspire our zeal to reach them with the good news of Jesus!

400 Billion Birds

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At the heart of all worry and anxiety in our lives are two lies that we are prone to believe: either God doesn’t care about me, or he does care but is powerless to do anything about it. If I am believing one or both of these lies, then I will definitely worry about the circumstances of my life.

But Jesus refutes these lies in Luke 12.22-34 by using two examples to show us that God does indeed care, and he is absolutely powerful to help his people (see also Matthew 6.25-34). These examples are God’s care for and ability to provide for birds and flowers and grass. Jesus’ argument is that, if God cares for birds and flowers, then he certainly cares even more for the crown jewel of his creation - human beings - who have been made imago dei (in the image of God).

Ultimately, Jesus says that this boils down to a faith issue. If we are overcome by worry in our lives, it is because we are believing these lies more than we are believing the promises of God to care and provide for his special creation. In fact, Jesus says that if we are overcome by worry over the details of our lives, we are people of “little faith” (Luke 12.28).

Why is this a faith issue? Think about it like this: have you ever had a pet? I’ve had several in my life time. As of this writing, in fact, there are three animals in our house living as pets. Caring for them can be draining, especially as it regards our cat, Martha. She’s getting older and has some special health concerns. Caring for her in her old age is becoming more and more difficult as time goes by. My kids also have pet rats. They’re much easier to care for, but they still need their cage cleaned on a regular basis, and need to be fed and watered - all things that seem to be difficult for my kids to remember to do! It can be challenging to care for and maintain pet animals.

Now compare the care of our pets to God’s care for his creation. Jesus says that God cares for the birds - all of ‘em. He gives them food and provides for them. How many birds is that, exactly? A quick internet search reveals that science’s best guesstimate as to the total number of birds on the planet at any given time is about four hundred billion (400,000,000,000). That’s about 53 birds for every human being alive on the planet. And God cares for each one of those birds. He provides food for them and watches over every single one. Not one bird falls from the sky without God’s notice. And God says that we are far more valuable to him than many birds (Matthew 10.29-30). In this sense, the notion that God can care for 400 billion birds, but not me, is almost insulting!

Or consider the flowers. Jesus also says that God cares for and clothes the flowers of the earth (Luke 12.27-29). It’s hard to nail down firm estimates of the number of flowers on earth, but most scientists agree there are about 250,000 different species of flowers on the planet. That’s not 250,000 flowers, but species of flowers, of which there are probably millions of each species. And God cares for every. Single. Flower. And you really think that he won’t care for you, O you of little faith?

Worry is a faith issue. We are prone to believe the lies that God doesn’t care or that he is powerless. But Jesus refutes those lies with evidence of God’s ultimate sovereignty and providence. There is no one who escapes his notice; there is no situation over which he is not powerful.

But knowing and believing these truths won’t immediately remove all worry from our lives. We will still struggle with worry, and we will still be tempted to obsess over the small details of life. The difference is that when we are believing the truth of God, we have the weapons we need to be able to battle worry. We battle worry (unbelief in the promises of God) by preaching the truth of God to ourselves. When we are prone to worry, we remind ourselves of God’s promises: that he is powerful and that he cares for us (1 Peter 5.7).

If you struggle with worry, it doesn’t mean that you’re a failure of a Christian, but it does mean that you need to learn to battle your worry using the truth of God’s promises. Also, simply believing the promises of God doesn’t mean that all of your worries and fears will simply magically disappear - they won’t. But if you’re believing the truth of God’s promises, you’ll have the tools and weapons you need to fight back against worry.

The next time you are prone to worry about the details of your life, and the next time you are tempted to believe the lie that God doesn’t care about you, or that he is powerless to do anything about your situation, just remember those 400 billion birds that God has his eye on, and remember that he’s watching over you, too.

A Mother’s Day Reflection

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Yesterday was Mother’s Day, and it was my privilege to honor the two mothers in my life: my mom, and my wife. My kids and I treated their mom to a Twins game, and my mom to pizza (and a fancy ring with the birthstones of all of her grandchildren).

This Mother’s Day has a special significance for my wife and I, as we thank God for our five children. Now, to readers who are familiar with the demographics of my immediate family, you may be questioning my counting skills, as you’re only aware of my nine year old daughter and eleven year old son. But my wife and I have three other children of which most are unaware.

When Betsy and I first considered having children, we were told by doctors that we may have some issues with fertility because of some underlying medical conditions. It was recommended that we undergo fertility testing to explore our options. But before we could even make the appointments for such tests, it was discovered that we were expecting our first child - a boy. He gave us a bit of a fright by coming six weeks early, but he went on to grow and overcome the physical challenges of being one who was early born.

Less than two years later we were blessed by God to be new parents again, this time of a daughter (who arrived right on time). We were the happy parents of two, and wanted more.

But none came. For seven years. We began to think that the warnings about fertility issues that we received early on in our marriage had come to fruition. But even in light of this suspicion, we believed (and still do) that God determines the course of these things (1 Samuel 1.6, 19), and so we trusted in him and his wisdom regarding having more children.

Then, about two years ago, my wife discovered that she was expecting again. But problems with the pregnancy quickly followed, and the child was lost early on. We grieved and mourned, as this kind of pain was fresh to us, having never experienced it before.

Last August, we were expecting again. Still somewhat fresh off the loss of our third child, we timidly went to the doctor for an ultrasound appointment where we learned that the child my wife was carrying measured at six weeks and two days gestation. We were told not to worry, as it’s not typical to be able to discern a heartbeat before seven weeks, and that we should come back in two weeks for another ultrasound. We did, and at that second ultrasound we were told that the baby measured at…six weeks and two days gestation. There had been no growth since previous checkup. This meant that the child my wife carried was not alive, and sooner or later, nature would take its course.

During the time of this second miscarriage, Betsy and I clung to the truths in the lyrics of the song “Counting Every Blessing” by Rend Collective. The pertinent lyrics are as follows:

I am counting every blessing, counting every blessing
Letting go and trusting when I cannot see
I am counting every blessing, counting every blessing
Show me in this season you are good to me

You were there in the valley of shadows
You were there in the depth of my sorrows
You’re my strength, my hope for tomorrow
I’ve been blessed beyond all measure

By this time, Betsy and I had two children who were with us on earth, and two who are waiting for us in heaven. Although we were saddened by the loss of those two babies, we took great comfort in the Bible’s teaching that infants who die (including those who are never born) are among God’s elect and have joined him in heaven. What a comfort it is to know that someday we will meet them and rejoice with them.

Earlier I noted that my wife and I have five children, but as yet I’ve only given an accounting for four of them. This is because the fifth is yet to be revealed, and is why this Mother’s Day has a special significance for us. Betsy is expecting yet again and is at this time more than nine weeks into the pregnancy, and so far things are looking good. Because of our fresh experiences with miscarriage, we are still trepidatious, but remain confident in the sovereign goodness of our God, and we trust his will completely, regardless of what is to come. We know that God is good, and that each of this child’s days were written in God’s book before there was yet one (Psalm 139.13-16), even if he or she never sees the light of day.

Don’t get me wrong: there is still much that we are concerned about. There are the obvious physical and biological challenges, considering our history of miscarriage. But there are other challenges, such as having older children, the least of which will be 10 years older than this one at the time of this child’s birth (!), and the prospect of being “older” parents to this child (I’ll be almost 60 when this child graduates from high school!). But again, we trust not in the metrics of man, but in the name of the Lord our God (Psalm 20.7), and we anticipate his sovereign goodness to us in the coming weeks and months.

So this Mother’s Day is special, because on it my wife and I remember that we are now the parents of five children, two that are a delight to us on earth, two that will be a delight to us in heaven, and one that will be a delight to us, Lord willing, sometime in early December. But this, too, is why Mother’s Day can be such a confounding and difficult holiday to celebrate. On the one hand, all of us “owe” our mothers at least some measure of gratitude, for without them we would not have life. On the other hand, motherhood is fraught with so many joys and sorrows that we need to acknowledge its complexity. We must understand Mother’s Day and motherhood in light of God’s sovereign will. This is something that Betsy and I have been trying to do ever since we got the news about potential fertility issues many years ago, and as we have gone through the ups and downs ever since. But throughout that process I think it’s safe to say that our trust has grown, and we have learned to, as the song says, count every blessing, and to let go and trust God in every season, for he is indeed good to us.

What Should I Give?

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Did you know that Jesus talked about money and material possessions more than any other topic in the gospels? Did you know that one out of every six verses in Matthew, Mark, and Luke has to do with the right handling of money and possessions? And half of Jesus’ parables deal with the same topic. Clearly Jesus thinks that the way we handle our money and possessions as his followers is important.

When I was a kid and I made a little money doing odd jobs, chores, or mowing the lawn, my parents always encouraged me to give some of what I had to the offering at church. The truth is, I liked to give money. I always saw the adults at church putting money in the plate as it went by, and I wanted to do it too. Actually, I was probably more happy at the fact that I was able to put money into the offering plate at church because I had more money at home that I was keeping for myself.

Giving is a part of the regular Christian life. The Bible is clear that Christians sacrifice of themselves and are generous with one another and with others even outside the church. The amount that we should give, however, is never spelled out for us by the Bible. But we can see from scripture that sometimes people gave their last cent, saved up in order to give, and even sold possessions in order to give the money away. God loves it when his people give generously.

Many Christians follow the principle of the tithe in order to determine the amount that they give, which is generally 10% of their income. The principle of a tithe comes from the Old Testament, in which the Israelites were to give God 10% of their harvest for the support of the priests. But this was on top of other gifts that the Israelites were required by law to give. And after those gifts, they were encouraged to give whatever was in their heart. Christians today have carried over this principle and typically give 10% of their gross income as a tithe.

While a tithe of 10% is certainly convenient and probably reasonable as a guide for how much to give as a Christian, we should realize that the idea of a tithe is an Old Testament concept, and Christians are not held to giving 10% of their income. Rather, the New Testament connects our giving much closer to the desires of our hearts rather than by percentage points.

In 2 Corinthians 9 Paul says, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Rather than making sure his readers were giving a certain percentage, Paul was more concerned about the condition of their hearts as they gave. He said that people should not give if they are reluctant. It should not be a chore to give to God. Similarly, no one should ever give because they think that they have to give in order to be a good Christian, or in order to live up to some manufactured, man-made expectation placed upon them. Paul doesn’t want his readers to stroke a check out of obligation, or because it’s expected of them to give 10% of their income.

Instead, Paul’s desires for his readers is that they simply give as they have decided in their hearts. In other words, Christians should give whatever they want to give. If that’s 10%, fine. If it’s 5%, fine. If it’s 20%, fine. Whatever amount it is, it’s between you and God. It’s a decision that you need to make in your heart. Don’t let other people tell you what to give, and don’t feel obligated to give a certain amount. You do you.

The key for making the decision on what to give is in the last part of the verse: “…for God loves a cheerful giver.” Can you give and be cheerful about it? That’s what God wants, regardless of how much you give. And if you can come to understand the high privilege of partnering with God in his work in this world, and contributing to that great work by giving some of your resources towards that end, what more could you ask? It is a high calling and privilege to partner with God in his work in this world. Hopefully whatever you give to that end can bring a smile to your heart and face.

So how should Christians decide in their hearts what they should give? Thankfully, Jesus gives us some principles for how to do that, which you can find here. In general, whatever you give to God, it’s not about the amount you give, but the heart attitude that inspires your giving. In fact, we could go so far as to say that God doesn’t really care how much you give, but rather he cares why you give.