In this second part of our new teaching series, Gravity: Overcoming the Weight of Our Stuff, we begin talking about some of the ways to do just that. The first way we can make our stuff small in our lives is to begin to develop an attitude of gratitude about it. For the whys and hows check out the text below. Thanks, as always.
You Don’t Own Me
Have you ever experienced the change of attitude that can come from being grateful for something? Whether they knew it or not, when your parents and grandparents and teachers and any other busy-body adults you’ve had in your life taught you to say, “thank you,” when someone has done something for you, they were not just teaching you good manners. They were actually giving you some powerful spiritual advice. There’s something about developing a grateful heart that can cause changes in our outlook on just about everything. Think about it like this: Have you ever had a really bad attitude about something? Of course you have. The better question is when was the last time you had a really bad attitude about something?
Let’s get personal with this. We’re in a season, parents, when we are running kids to ball practices and ball games multiple times a week. When you’re trying to do that on top of homework and everything you actually want to spend your time doing—come on, parents, you either know or remember this—it’s easy to have a bad attitude about it. You’re giving up your afternoon or evening or even your entire day so you can go sit in the sun and cook for several hours (or perhaps freeze for several hours depending on the weather)…again. Meanwhile, the list of things you have to do at home is as long as your arm. And your passenger has the nerve to fuss at you about something along the way. Not that I have any personal experience with this. You know the feeling that often comes with all of this: Bad attitude.
And when you get a bad attitude like this, the thing about which you have your bad attitude begins to have a kind of power over you. It controls you. It controls your thoughts. It controls your actions. It controls your reactions to the people around you and the situations you are in. As long as that bad attitude is in place in your life, it has a gravitational pull on you that can overwhelm any other attachments you might have. But—and you’ve experienced this too, I hope—when you begin to change your attitude from one of selfishness to one of gratitude (and though it sometimes takes some work to find things to be grateful for, a little work and creativity can always find at least a few things), all the power this thing had over you vanishes. When you have a grateful heart, suddenly, you are the one in control of your life again. You are in control of yourself and how you will respond to and interact with the circumstances you are in. In other words: Gratitude causes a kind of shift in gravity.
Well, this morning we are in the second part of our new teaching series called Gravity: Overcoming the Weight of Our Stuff. The big idea for this conversation is that our stuff—no matter how much of it we happen to have—can loom large enough in our lives and in our hearts that it begins to exert a kind of gravitational pull on us. As we talked about last week when looking at the story of Jesus interacting with a wealthy young man who came to ask Him a question about eternal life, if we are not careful, the gravitational pull of our stuff can keep us from Jesus.
And that’s kind of where we left things last week. It felt sort of incomplete, didn’t it? I mean, one of the early lessons they teach you in preaching class is that you don’t want to leave any tension hanging at the end of your sermon. I pretty much ignored that lesson and left you dangling right out there on the end of the branch. One of the last things I said was that the way we overcome the gravity of our stuff is to make it small. This morning, I want to talk with you about the first way to do that. And just in case Jesus comes back before the end of the message, let me give you the big idea right out of the gate. The first secret to making your stuff small in terms of the place it occupies in your life is this gratitude we were just talking about. When you’re grateful for something it can’t own you.
So then, how can we become more grateful for our stuff? Well, we can try and force ourselves into a posture of gratitude, but that doesn’t ever work very well. Faking it only gets us so far. A much better approach is to be reminded that it isn’t ours to start with. Because, if it isn’t ours, then someone else has given it to us. And if we lean a bit into the manners-programing of our youth, being made aware that we’ve been given something—particularly something we don’t deserve—should result in at least a little gratitude in our hearts.
In order to help us get our minds around this fact, come with me to the Psalms. In particular, look with me at Psalm 50. What makes Psalm 50 such an important text to help us understand the gratitude we should have for the stuff we call ours is that it sets before us so firmly the fact that, to quote Psalm 24, the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it. Listen to this starting right at the beginning of the psalm.
“The Mighty One, God the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting. Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth. Our God comes; he does not keep silence; before him is a devouring fire, around him a mighty tempest. He calls to the heavens above and to the earth, that he may judge his people: ‘Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!’ The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge!”
So, what’s going on here? What does this have to do with God’s ownership of the world and the gratitude we should have for it? Well, not very much right here. I’ll grant you that. Instead, these first few verses of Psalm 50 serve as a kind of attention-getter. It’s kind of a divine, “Ahem!” God comes down in glory and with the full weight of His splendor shining forth, says, “Hey, come here. I’ve got something important to say.” And notice that He’s saying this to His own people. He says, “Gather to me my faithful ones.” He’s like a father calling for a family meeting in order to make an important announcement.
Actually, this is more than an announcement. What’s coming next is a rebuke. You see, the people haven’t been doing right. And it’s not like they have some big, earth shaking sin going on. No, from the outside looking in, everything seems to be fine. They’ve got all their religious ducks in a row and are checking off all the right boxes. But, just beneath the surface, there’s more to the story. The thing we have to realize and, frankly, be reminded of fairly frequently, is that simply having all of our religious ducks in a row doesn’t ultimately bring us anything in the way of benefit in either the long or the short term. God doesn’t need our going-through-the-motions effort.
Now, for us, going through the motions with God doesn’t look quite the same as it did for Israel. For us, it might consist of things like showing up at worship, but not really engaging with the service. It could be serving with a discontented heart. It could be agreeing to serve on some ministry team and then always having a reason we can’t actually fulfill our duties. It could be lots of different things. For Israel, as centered as their worship practices were on animal sacrifices, their going through the motions looked like bringing their sacrifices with only half a heart. It looked like living as if once they made their offering the rest of their lifestyle didn’t really matter (incidentally, that can be a problem for Christians too). It looked like bringing sacrificial animals that didn’t meet with the clear standards laid out in the Law.
And because their worship was so tangibly concerned with their stuff—to bring an animal you owned and participate in its death as a way of worshiping the Lord made the sacrifices they were making feel a whole lot more sacrificial than our throwing a few bucks in the plate as it comes around does—God’s message to them when they had veered a bit off course was to remind them that it was all His to start with. Giving Him back what was His to start with as a mere religious exercise wasn’t benefiting anybody.
Check this out, picking back up at v. 7: “Hear, O my people, and I will speak; O Israel, I will testify against you. I am God, your God. Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me. I will not accept a bull from your house or goats from your folds. For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?”
Do you see what He’s saying here? Everything belongs to God. He has access to a limitless storehouse of resources. If He actually needed something, He could just get it. In the ancient times people often believed that they worked and grew food and made sacrifices in order to feed the gods. The gods either couldn’t or wouldn’t provide for themselves and the role of the people was to do this for them. The idea, though, was that we had things the gods didn’t have, and they had things we didn’t have. They needed our stuff in order to eat and have places to live (temples), and in exchange we got their protection from the various threats of life. The people were in danger of thinking in those terms, of believing they were almost doing God a favor with their sacrifices. God’s point here is pretty clear: No, you’re not. “It’s all mine,” God says.
Now, think about this with me for a minute because it’s a pretty huge idea. If everything is God’s, what does that mean? Well, it means it’s not ours. None of it. I’ll let that sit on you for just a minute. Everything we call “mine,” isn’t really. It’s God’s. Sure, He’s given it to us to use and manage for Him, but that doesn’t make it any less His than your money becomes the property of a financial advisor when you give it to him to manage. If this is indeed the case, then, the implications of it are pretty profound.
For starters, it means that to use His stuff in a way other than He desires isn’t something we can do lightly or flippantly. Blown money isn’t just something that’s, “Aww, too bad.” It’s a sin no less capable of separating us from God than murder. And if that makes you uncomfortable where you’re sitting…it’s supposed to. This is serious business. If “our” stuff really belongs to God, then technically, He can take it away anytime He wants. Do you ever think much about that? If the stuff we normally call “ours” really belongs to God, then He’s not beholden to give any of it to us. Anything we have within our possession is really a gift. Anything. There is not a single thing you have that didn’t come from God and He didn’t have to give you any of it. If this truth doesn’t begin to change the way we look at our stuff, I really don’t know what could.
You see, as long as we think we are the owners of our stuff, we will bear all the weight of ownership. And, being the owner of something sounds really good until you actually are. My dad has a picture hanging somewhere in his office with a caption that reads, “Finally the boss.” The picture is of a guy pushing a broom. When you are the final authority on all your stuff, then its proper care and maintenance falls entirely on your shoulders. Getting more stuff is entirely dependent upon your efforts. Losing more than you can afford is a direct reflection of your failure. Eventually, rather than you being the owner, it starts to feel a bit like it has started to own you. You’re running around like a sugared-up toddler doing what it wants rather than the other way around. That’s quite a burden to bear. It’s a burden that can weigh heavily enough on our shoulders as to give us a bad attitude about the whole situation—have you ever known a grumpy boss? It’s a weight that can cause our stuff to loom large enough in our lives as to rein us in pretty tightly whenever we try and sneak away from the responsibilities.
If God is the real owner, though, all of this fades away like a morning fog. It may have seemed thick enough that you couldn’t see more than a little ways down the road, but now you can see for miles. And the reaction this should cause in our hearts is one we’ve already talked about this morning. It’s one that God, through the psalmist, points us to in the very next verse. Look at this in v. 14 now: “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vow to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” Got it? When your stuff is looming large in your life because you are tying to bear the weight of ownership and the whole situation is giving you a bad attitude (not to mention leaving you merely going through the motions in other areas of life), the best solution is to realize that it’s not yours to start with. It all belongs to God. He shared it with us. Our reaction is to be grateful for it. When you’re grateful for something it can’t own you.
Now, put all of this in the context of our larger conversation. If you have stuff in your life—and we all have stuff in our lives—that stuff is going to pull on you. It’s going to pull you in its direction and away from Jesus. The larger it looms in your life, the harder it’s going to pull. It’s going to need you to protect it. Sometimes stuff gets lonely and so will send you out to get more of it. It likes to get exercise and not always at times convenient for the rest of your life. When you least expect, it’ll demand to be spent. Then, you have to go and get more stuff to make up for what you lost. You have to go into debt as you borrow stuff in order to make ends meet from your stuff wanting to go and play when you really needed it to sit and wait. It can leave you running around from place to place like a parent playing taxi to a bunch of busy kids. You know what comes out of all of this? A bad attitude. Anxiety. Fear. Anger. Jealousy. You’re being controlled. You’re being owned. You’re so focused on playing caretaker for what you have you can’t enjoy it. You thought you were the owner of your stuff, but in your most honest moments, you’ve realized that it owns you. Gratitude can break this power. When you’re grateful for something it can’t own you.
The first way to overcome the gravity of our stuff is to become grateful for it. Become grateful for what you have. Don’t look at it with anxiety or resignation, look at it with a heart filled with thanksgiving that you have what you do. Don’t look jealously at what other people have and the experiences they seem to be enjoying. Don’t compare what you have with what they have—you always lose in those efforts anyway. Be grateful for it. When you’re grateful for something it can’t own you.
As for how to do this, start by simply saying thanks. Every time you use something you have, offer God a quick prayer of thanks for sharing it with you in the first place. Thank you, Lord, that I have an alarm clock to wake me up so I can get to the work you have given me to make an impact on your world. Thank you, Jesus, that I have a toothbrush and toothpaste so that I can engage in close relationships with the people you have placed in my life. Thank you, Father, for providing breakfast so I have the energy for today. Should we keep going? Every time you swipe your card or pull out your wallet or even open a bill in the mail (or at least see the notification that some utility has dipped their ladle into your account again this month), say thanks. Even—let’s get a little crazy here—when your tax bill comes, say, “Thanks,” because for all of its flaws, you live in a nation that preserves for its citizens a standard of living many times beyond that of pretty much every other nation in the world. Get into a habit of gratitude because when you’re grateful for something it can’t own you. And when your stuff doesn’t own you, Jesus can.