Commentary

Why do we Christians do what we do?

Rev. Richard Stadler

We show up for church services, attend Bible classes, volunteer to usher, count offerings, serve funeral dinners, fix broken equipment, teach Sunday School, chaperone youth activities, prepare newsletters, serve on committees at church, or sing in the choir. Why? We give generously to support our local congregation, charities, and missions around the globe. Why?

Outside of church, we rake the leaves for an elderly neighbor, shovel the sidewalk for a disabled couple, visit a lonely aunt in a nursing home, build homes for the homeless, donate to dozens of charities and agencies working to alleviate suffering and injustice. Why? We could have used the money we gave away to buy new golf clubs, a fancier car, or a more elaborate vacation. Instead, we gave it to the church and to charities.

Why?

Do we do it to earn a place in heaven? As Lutheran Christians, we know it doesn’t work that way. Eternal life is a free gift by grace paid in full by the sacrifice of Christ.

Do we do it as an “investment program,” suspecting that it will increase our chances for a “good life”? Hardly. We know too many generous, sacrificing Christians who have been stricken with cancer or some other sad reality.

Some people seem to be motivated by the “investment incentive.” They seem to think that if they invest a lot of time, money and energy into “serving the Lord” and “doing unto others what they would like done to themselves,” it should immunize them from pain, suffering, and heartache. Even if they don’t say it aloud, they secretly suspect that it ought to offer them some advantage. And when they do suffer illnesses, setbacks, and injustice, they feel robbed, betrayed, and cheated by God. “Shouldn’t all my efforts have counted for something?” “After all I’ve done, after all I’ve given up, is this what I get?”

Christian giving and Christian service are not a tit for tat investment program that promises us a guaranteed return on our investment from God.

Our simultaneous state

Then why do we do what we do? “The Love of Christ compels us,” (II Cor. 5:14). It almost sounds naïve and simplistic, doesn’t it? But the “Gospel is the power of God unto salvation” for our sanctified life of generosity. The Holy Spirit produces our generous responses as fruits of our faith in Christ. We who know Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb who takes away the sin of the whole world, ours included, also know that he has claimed us as his own. He has “laid down his life for his sheep.” That good news provokes a response in us.

But as Lutheran Christians we also know that we are simul justus et peccator, “simultaneously both saints and sinners.” We are born with a sinful nature which we will have until we die. At our baptism we are given a new nature to struggle against that sinful nature. So, there will always be a tension between the yearnings of the new nature and the selfish, self-serving desires of the sinful nature. The presence of that sinful nature contaminates even our finest Christian behavior. We say with Isaiah, “All of our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.” But even our contaminated good works are acceptable to God because they are covered by the righteousness of Christ. Paul reminds us (Gal. 3:27) “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ.” So, even when our motives are mixed and not pure, we give, we serve, and God sees Christ, not our self-serving, self-indulgent motives.

Do we do it to earn a place in heaven? As Lutheran Christians, we know it doesn’t work that way.

As ultimate realists in a fallen world, we respond to his embracing love by living as he lived, forgiving as he forgave, and giving as he gave: recklessly, freely, lavishly. It is our way of displaying our thanks to him for giving us life and the chance to share his life with others.

“Here, Jesus, use this money to get your Good News out to more people so they can know you as I know you as savior, Lord, and friend.”

“Here, Jesus, use my energy, my talent, my expertise to help others. Help me to follow your example, Jesus. You came not to be served, but to serve. Show me how I can do it, too.”

Our giving is anchored to what Christ has done for us. That is the starting point. He compels us to “let your light shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify (not us, but) your Father in heaven.”

We give to our local congregation, to Metro Lutheran, and to other worthwhile enterprises because they are carrying out vital work we believe in, right? We might be tempted to motivate ourselves with the stick or the carrot, which many are convinced produce results. But we Christians have a more radical motive, rooted in Christ: His cross, his love, his grace. As sinners/saints, we will never have 100 percent pure motives, but we give and we volunteer trusting “it is God who works in you the desire and ability to do his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).

One counselor advised: “Don’t give till it hurts. Give till it feels good.” God did both in Christ. He gave, even though it hurt. He gave and he felt good doing it because he offered us what we could not produce for ourselves. That is why we do what we do, right? And when we do, to God be all the glory!

Richard Stadler is the pastor of St. James Lutheran Church (independent), West St. Paul, Minnesota. After three years as president of Metro Lutheran’s Board of Directors, Stadler will serve as vice president starting this month.

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