In this third part of our series, Gravity: Overcoming the Weight of Our Stuff, we talk about another way to reduce its pull on us. Once we know who is the real owner of the stuff we normally call “ours,” what comes next? Simply put: We have to learn how to use it like He would. To find out how that is and what we should do about it, keep reading.
We recently watched the Oscar-nominated film, The Martian, starring Matt Damon. It really was a great movie. It’s about a team of astronauts who have established a little outpost on Mars. During their research, however, a wild storm moves in and they have to abandon the post, at which point they decide to begin their year-long return to earth. In the chaos of trying to get on their escape vessel as the storm rages around them, however, Matt Damon’s character gets separated from the group. Presuming him dead, the group’s leader makes the agonizing decision to return without him. I’ll stop the synopsis there so as to not give anything away if you haven’t seen it, but needless to say, the film includes quite a few scenes of the astronauts doing life on their enormous ship. With the exception of a section of the ship in which they have somehow simulated gravity, all the movements about the ship take place in the weightlessness of space. In order to film most of the scenes the actors were put on wires or else pantomimed being weightless in outer space while balancing on one foot.
Watching it reminded me of another of my favorite outer space films: Apollo 13 (in my opinion the better of the two). Filming the various weightless scenes in there was a bit more complicated an affair. Director Ron Howard got NASA’s permission to use a KC-135. They set up a studio inside the plane and skilled pilots flew a pattern that created 23 seconds of simulated weightlessness during which they filmed in bits and pieces as they floated about the cabin during what amounted to a period of free fall.
Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to be totally weightless? We get a bit of an idea of this in a swimming pool, but I would imagine that being totally and truly weightless in outer space is a somewhat different experience. In water there’s still some resistance to your movements. In space there’s not. In space gravity just doesn’t have the pull on us that it does down here. Well, technically that’s not true. In space, the astronauts are indeed still experiencing earth’s gravity—90% of it in fact. They feel weightless because they’re in free-fall. They just happen to be falling toward the earth from such a height that they are following the curve of the earth as they fall so they just keep falling…and feeling weightless.
Now, in physics and popular vernacular, the pressure of gravity is sometimes abbreviated by talking about “G’s.” In normal circumstances we experience one “G.” This is normal gravity. There are various thrill rides that allow us to experience more than that. When you get to the bottom of a tall rollercoaster, the force you feel trying to push you to the bottom of the car is some multiple of the normal force of earth’s gravity. For instance, if you ride The Flying Cobras at Carowinds, you’ll experience over five times our normal force of gravity. On the other hand, while you’re going down that big hill, you will feel the apparent effects of weightlessness because you’re functionally in a free fall.
Keeping these same basic physics in mind, but shifting our focus, there are things in our lives that can have an attraction on us a little like the gravity that keeps us on earth. If we are going to break from these so that we are able to experience the freedom of moving according to the rhythm of God and not our stuff, we’re going to have to figure out how to create enough space so that as we are naturally pulled back toward it, we keep falling past it and on toward the end God has in mind for us.
This morning we are in the third part of our teaching series, Gravity: Overcoming the Weight of Our Stuff. The big idea for this journey has been that just like the earth’s gravity keeps us from flying off into space, our stuff can have a kind of gravitational pull on our lives. If we’re not careful, though, the pull of our stuff can become so strong on our lives that it can actually keep us from the kind of relationship with God we want and which brings us the life that is truly life. Indeed, as we saw in the first part of this conversation, the pull of our stuff can become sufficiently strong that it can even render us unable to respond to a personal invitation from Jesus Himself. Nobody wants that. I don’t. You don’t.
So, last week we set out to examine some ways to break this power. The first, as we were reminded in Psalm 50, is to put our stuff in the right perspective. The truth about “our” stuff is that it’s really all God’s stuff. He’s simply shared it with us. Understanding this, rather than feeling pressured and pulled by it, we can begin to develop a heart of gratitude about it. The power of this is that when we’re grateful for something it can’t own us. When our attitude toward our stuff is fundamentally one of gratitude, its pull on our lives begins to weaken considerably.
So then, what else can we do to reduce the pull of our stuff’s gravity on our lives? Paul offers us some pretty sound advice in his first letter to his young protégé, Timothy. Timothy was serving as a pastor in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus. Ephesus was an interesting place. It was most famously the site of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This reminder of the effusive presence of the paganism of the Roman Empire loomed largely over the landscape. The city itself was a center of culture and art. It was a pretty cosmopolitan place where a number of different ideas all came together and tried to figure out a way to mingle. Paul had planted the first church there on his third missionary journey and the disruptive innovation of this new religion on the local economy caused quite a stir. All that is to say, Timothy had a big job and Paul wrote him at least twice that we know of to encourage him. Pastoring a people with absolutely zero background on which to build and who mostly saw religion as a way to advance their own interests when it was convenient meant working through issues that are only recently beginning to again pose challenges to the church like they were then.
Near the end of the letter, Paul begins to wrap up his advice-giving and goes into a kind of summary round. He begins with some final advice on how to deal with some of the difficult people in the church, offers Timothy one last encouragement to stand firm in his confession, and rounds things out with some advice for rich people which seems totally out of place, but we’ll connect those dots in just a minute. Along the way, we find two attitudes to avoid and one to take up to help us reduce the gravity of our stuff. Let’s take a look at this starting in 1 Timothy 6:2.
Paul writes: “Teach and urge these things.” Notice the extra oomph there. Grammatically, the Greek sentence construction here is called a hendiadys. This is where two different words are connected by “and” in order to make one, stronger statement. You could translate this with something like, “Passionately teach these things,” with “these things” being the rest of what he’s spent the previous five chapters talking about. The reason for this emphasis Paul gets to in the next verse: “If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing.” Those are pretty tough words, but then Paul is never one to mince words when it comes to the proclamation of the Gospel over and against the various false teachings that were popular in his day (and ours for that matter). Anyone who would preach something other than the truth in Christ, Paul says, has “an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth…” In other words, they keep lost people lost.
Now, those are again pretty harsh words, but think about it for a minute because Paul’s about to give us that first attitude to avoid. If someone is doing the Christian thing but without a relationship with Jesus firmly in place, why are they doing it? Odds are it’s because they want to try and use it to gain something for themselves they figure isn’t going to be otherwise available to them. Indeed, that’s exactly what Paul says next. He says they are “imagining that godliness is a means of gain.”
Let’s stop there for just a second. Is godliness a means of gain? Well…in a word…yeah, it is. There’s great gain to be had in godliness. People who strive to live the life of Christ and behave according to the pattern of the Scriptures tend to have better life outcomes than those who don’t. I mean, think about it. Whose life is going to be better? The person who is consistently honest or the one who regularly deals in falsehoods? The person who is kind or the one who is cruel? The person whose character is consistent internally and externally or the one who bathes in hypocrisy? Of course there’s gain in godliness. The trick is how we approach that gain. We can approach it as something that is a natural outcome of the path we are on, or we can treat it as an entitlement due when we’ve checked off the appropriate boxes.
Listen to how Paul puts this in v. 6 now: “Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” That makes sense, right? Again: If we embrace godliness as a way of life and receive what comes along with that with graciously humility, recognizing that anything more than nothing is bonus, we will benefit from that. But you see, not everyone does that. There are people who believe that godliness ought to produce gain in their lives. There are not a few preachers who tell their congregations that godliness should lead to gain in their lives—specifically material gain—and that if it isn’t, then they aren’t doing it right. This is where we run into trouble. Check this out: “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.”
This first attitude to avoid is this very idea that godliness is a means of gain. When we start thinking that our efforts to be more like Christ ought to result in more, we begin to develop a heart of entitlement. We come to believe that we are owed something for our efforts. But, if this is the case, by whom should we be owed? Who is our debtor? It’s God, isn’t it? If we’re striving to be like God and these efforts are what we believe should bring these good things into our lives, then God is the one from whom we must expect them to be coming. But, if God owes us something, is He still someone worthy of our worship? Hardly. No lender ever fell to worshiping the one who owes her money. When someone owes you something—it makes not a bit of difference what that something is—you have a power over them that will not fade until the debt is repaid. If God somehow owes us material or any other kind of gain because of our efforts toward godliness, then He is not a God who is worthy of our worship. Instead, we are worshiping our stuff and treating God as our “go-fer.”
But, before you scoff at this idea, look around. Our culture is awash in a modern version of this nonsense sometimes called the Prosperity Gospel when it manifests itself among Christian circles. The Prosperity Gospel teaches exactly this: that godliness should lead to gain in our lives. This same idea was popularized by the bestselling book, The Secret, a few years ago. It’s present in just about every get-rich scheme ever advertised on a late-night infomercial. It’s there on the lips of big name folks in the religious world; folks like Joel Osteen, Paula White (one of Trump’s spiritual advisors), Joyce Meyers, Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, and many others. And the reason it is so popular is because it taps into our natural yearning for what is just and right—a yearning that has been corrupted by sin. If I do something good, I expect to get something good in return. And if God is really just, then He should be the one to give it. And, we are indeed promised rewards for our faithfulness. It is when our rewards become overwhelmingly material and the end themselves rather than the bonus that we can get ourselves into trouble. What kind of trouble? Paul doesn’t specify exactly, but I’ll bet it won’t take you long to think of an example of someone who ruined his life with a pursuit of stuff. When stuff is the goal, it quickly becomes a god, and gods have gravity.
“But as for you,” Paul says to Timothy in v. 11, “as you for, O man of God, flee these things.” Run from this stuff. These ideas are poisonous. Don’t go anywhere near them. Instead, “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” In other words: Stay on track. You started out walking the path of Christ, not stuff. Don’t leave it. Paul actually goes beyond that and in doing so connects together both of the attitudes to avoid and refutes them rather decisively all the while pointing us toward the second way we can reduce the gravity of our stuff. Paul says, “I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will display at the proper time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.”
So, what’s Paul doing here? When he makes this second, stronger charge to Timothy, he does it in part in the name of Jesus who made the good confession (that would be, the confession of…well…His own Lordship) before Pilate. Why does this matter? Think about what Jesus was doing before Pilate. Up until just before the end of his brief time with Jesus, Pilate was actively trying to let Him go. He knew Jesus hadn’t done anything wrong. Jesus knew He hadn’t done anything wrong. In that moment, Jesus could easily have used His godliness as a means of gain, specifically, the gain of His life. He didn’t. He stood firm on His confession even though it would cost Him His life because He was aiming higher than mere stuff as His goal. As a result, He is now, as Paul gloriously declares, the one “who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see.” That’s a mouthful, but it’s essentially a description of Christ in His glory pretty well along the lines of John’s vision at the beginning of Revelation. Such a one as this is the proper locus of our confession and our hope; not our stuff. This leads us to that second attitude to avoid.
You see, some people don’t connect those dots, so Paul made it more explicit for Timothy in the next verse. “As for the rich in this present age…” We might put that, “As for folks who have stuff now.” That’s a bit broader a declaration that unquestionably includes all of us. “As for the rich in this present age, charge them,” command them, impress upon them, drive this idea into their brain so that it can’t escape, “not to be haughty.” That is, don’t let them think they have one up on anyone because of their stuff. More than that, though, command them not “to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches.”
Here we are. This is that second attitude to avoid. The thing about stuff that’s so deceptive is that we can see it. If you go to your bank and ask for your money, they can go to their vault and fill you up a bag totally full of cash, and you can walk out with it. That’s physical. Then, you can go somewhere and buy something you need with it. You take the cash, give it to the cashier, and walk out with some thing you’ve bought and now own. You can see it. You can touch it. You can perhaps even taste it. That all feels very real to us. It’s in our hands and will be there for us if we ever need it. It’s so easy to begin to quietly build the worldview belief into our broader worldview framework that tomorrow will be better than today—the substance of hope—because of this thing we have which we were able to obtain because of our stuff. In other words, we start to put our hope in our stuff. And we can say we know it’s not true. After all, didn’t we just receive a rather wet reminder of how uncertain stuff can be? But actions tend to speak louder than words. The thing we hope in tends to pull us in. If we put our hope in our stuff, guess what’s going to hold us tightly.
Okay, what should we do instead? Well, we can start by placing our hope “on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy,” as Paul tells us in the second half of v. 17. But it’s bigger than that too. A whole lot of people put their trust in God and yet still get pulled in by their stuff because it’s hold on them is just so strong. Just ask the rich young ruler. He was all ready to go with Jesus until he found out just how strong his stuff had a hold on him. What we need is a plan. We need a plan to see our stuff move from the prize of our path to the substance of our serving.
Look at how Paul puts this in what comes next: “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.” So, what’s Paul saying here? Let’s approach it like this: How does God use His stuff? Think about that. If what we said last week is the case, and everything—all the stuff in the world—is really God’s, then how does He use it? Well, do you have any of it? Of course you do. You are wearing clothes this morning after all. You probably drove here in a vehicle you own (or will own when you finish paying the bank). You bought that vehicle with money you have (well…used to have). You have some of God’s stuff. What does that mean? Think about it. It’s His and now you have it. That’s called sharing. If you have more than the absolute basic amount you need to get by, then He’s shared generously with you. And if you enjoy the stuff He’s shared with you, it would seem He’s done something good with His stuff. That’s certainly the case with my family and me. And as I look around the room, I see a whole lot of folks who are in the same position. It would seem, then, that God hasn’t done this good work of sharing generously for the sake of someone else’s enjoyment once, but many times over. We might say that He is rich in good works.
In other words, what Paul is describing here is how God uses His stuff. If we want to break the gravity that our stuff so often has in our lives—gravity that comes in particular when we start looking at it as either the fitting reward for our work or else the proper locus of our confidence in tomorrow—one of the ways we can do this once we understand whose it is in the first place is to use it after the pattern He’s already set for us. Or, to put that another way, if we want to decrease the gravity of our stuff, we need to use it like God would. Getting even more specific with you: God uses His stuff for others and so should we. God uses His stuff for others and so should we.
Here’s why: When our stuff begins to pull on us, if we have already marked it out as for someone else, it can’t pull on us as hard anymore. Rather than sucking us back in, doing this kind of slings us around in a way that increases our momentum toward God. Do you remember how the astronauts were going to be able to get back home in Apollo 13? They didn’t have enough fuel to slow their ship, turn it around, and start from scratch back toward home. Instead, they stayed on course and rather than entering the moon’s atmosphere and landing, used it to hook around and give them a boost toward home. They leveraged the gravity in their favor rather than simply letting it drag them down. When we set ourselves on the course God has already blazed with His stuff, we’ll be able to similarly leverage its natural pull on our lives to keep us moving forward. God uses His stuff for others; so should we.