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God is bigger than my job
“And my God shall supply all of your needs, according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”
Philippians 4:19 (NASB)
“Yet he commanded the skies above and opened the doors of heaven, and he rained down on them manna to eat and gave them the grain of heaven. Man ate of the bread of angels; he sent them food in abundance.”
Psalm 78: 22-25 (ESV)
If we think the goal of our finances is simply to pay cash for all our purchases or to ensure we have a sufficient emergency fund, we can lose touch with the fact that God, not budgeting, meets the needs of our lives.
Time: Late 20s to early 30s AD, depending on whose calendar you read.
Place: The court at the Jewish temple, right beside the offering plates. (We can surmise they did not use buckets from the Hummus Hut.)
Participants: Jesus, His disciples, a bunch of rich people, a destitute widow.
The following is how this story might have been relayed before the inspired writers, Mark and Luke, penned their records.89
I made this up…obviously.
“Anybody seen the Lord in the last few minutes?” Peter asked the other eleven disciples.
“Not since He tied that last group of Pharisees in a knot,” replied Andrew. The other disciples nodded their agreement as to the Lord’s effectiveness in dealing with challengers. They shielded their eyes against the sun, deciding to wait until He made His way back to them.
Had they known where to find the Lord, they would have seen Him in the temple complex sitting over by the offering box, also called “the treasury.” Since Jesus never did anything by accident, it was with purpose that He watched to see how the people gave.
“Hey, guys. Come over here a minute.” The disciples could hear the voice of the Master over the shuffling and murmuring of the worshipers.
“Anybody see Him?” asked Thomas.
“I hear a voice, but I see no man,” replied Andrew, bringing a head slap from someone behind him.
“Over here,” came the voice of Jesus again. They looked to see His hand above the crowd and navigated toward Him.
“Is He over by the offering plates?” mused Thaddeus.
“Man, I hope this isn’t another tithing sermon,” said someone else who forever escaped identification. No one heard Judas say, under his breath, “I hope it is. My house payment is due.”
The twelve men arrived beside Jesus. “What is it, Lord?” they wondered aloud.
“OK. I want you to watch this. You see all these people putting in their tithes and offerings?” He asked.
For the next few minutes they stood in silence as the worshipers filed by putting in their various amounts. Finally, Jesus said, “What do you see?”
They struggled to make any distinction. “Well,” began Peter haltingly, “a lot of people are bringing their offerings and putting them in the treasury.” He looked around for a little moral support from his compatriots. “Yeah,” added Matthew, the former tax collector, “and some are putting in a LOT.”
“Notice this,” said Jesus. “Those you see putting in a lot of money also have a lot of money left over. Now, watch that widow.”
They listened as the slightest tinkle of copper rattled against the money already in the box. With somewhat puzzled, sideways glances, the twelve semi-shrugged their shoulders as they tried to figure out the Master’s point.
“It might not have looked like much,” the Lord resumed His teaching, “but those two coins were all that she had. It was her entire living in this world.” Looking slowly from face to face He finally said, “She gave more than any of the others.”
A matter of perspective
The historical record of Jesus and the widow’s mites is outstanding in its simplicity. The widow gave all that she had—two copper coins worth less than almost nothing. We are given nothing about her history and the Lord tells us nothing of her future. The only insight we are given into her life is this single act and, like the woman who washed and anointed Jesus feet, this sacrificial act has been a memorial to her since.
What we are told in this story is the evaluation that God gave regarding her gift. In God’s economy, this “pauper widow”90 gave more than all the others who contributed. As a result, it becomes clear the “how” of their giving for which Jesus watched: a percentage of the whole. He was interested to see not what was given, but what was kept. In the case of the crowds, much was kept; in the case of the widow, nothing was kept.
If this was anyone other than Jesus Christ as the point man in this story we might think them prone to hyperbole, just an exaggeration to make a point. But for Jesus not only to say it, but to doubly emphasize it (“out of her poverty”, “all she had to live on”) is no teacher’s ploy. The widow literally had nothing left. Paul described the giving of Macedonian believers in a similar way, “Out of their extreme poverty, they abounded in generosity.”
Randy Alcorn makes an interesting observation91 about how we might respond in a situation similar to the widow’s coins. If a widow in our church came to the offering plate with everything that she had, we would likely try to talk her out of giving it based on her extreme need. But Jesus did not do this. He knew that His Father would bless this woman’s obedience and used her sacrifice as an example to us all. When it comes to missional giving, we cannot compare what we are accustomed to giving with what God might require in a specific opportunity. His call for financial sacrifice is not likely to make sense to our materially satiated Western appetites.
God’s beating heart
Without a doubt God has a special spot in His heart for widows. Multiple times in the Law of Moses we read of God’s design to make sure that widows have their needs met or are otherwise protected. In Exodus 22:22-24, God said, “You shall not afflict any widow or fatherless child. If you afflict them in any way, and they cry at all to Me, I will surely hear their cry; and my wrath will become hot and I will kill you with the sword; your wives shall become widows, and your children fatherless” (NKJV). God’s retribution on those who destroyed widows was to put their own wives in the same situation. In the second giving of the law, God said, “The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe. He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing” (Deut. 10:17, 18; NKJV).
Perhaps the most poignant, prophetic love story in the Old Testament is in the book of Ruth. God provided for Ruth and Naomi, her mother-in-law, through a near relative who adhered to a specific part of the law given so the needs of the widows in Israel might be met (Deut. 24, 29-21). At a different time, when harsh judgment was being announced on both Israel and Judah, God’s repeated warnings through the prophets were focused on lack of justice, including the mistreatment of widows. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Malachi92 all contain prophecies of God’s anger with the people and their leaders. David wrote that God, “in His holy Habitation,” is a “defender of widows” (Ps. 68:5; NKJV).
It really should not surprise anyone that when God wanted to give an example of missional giving, He used a widow. And when He wanted to use powerful demonstrations of His ability to provide, He used a widow.
The sky is falling!
We are introduced to the prophet Elijah as abruptly as a safe falling from ten floors up onto the sidewalk in front of us. No mending nets with his father or sitting under a fig tree for Elijah. He springs onto the pages of Scripture fully formed in the throes of prophetic warning: “As the Lord God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, except at my word” (1 Kings 17:1; NKJV). Well, “top o’ the morning to you, Elijah.” I can only imagine how the king’s press secretary was hustling to spin that particular pronouncement.
We are told that Elijah is a Tishbite from Gilead and that he is speaking to the vile, wicked, pathetic king Ahab of Israel. Scripture records in the verses immediately preceding that “Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him.” Further, he married the woman whose name has forever since described vile, despicable, ungodly women: Jezebel. Ahab built a temple to her god, Baal, in Samaria, even worshiping this false god himself. He also built an Ashera pole93 for worship as if God’s people needed any more encouragement to turn from Him. Had Ahab known the ultimate severity of the drought—it lasted more than three years—he might have fired up a chainsaw himself and done some pole-cutting.
Dry, dry, and more dry
Summers with little rain are not uncommon where I live in Georgia. In the past decade we have experienced two separate droughts that saw lake levels drop to dangerously low levels and four Southern states involved in intramural squabbles about water supplies. Many trees and bushes used in southern planting have been bred to be drought resistant, but week after week of scorching sun and little rain leads to the death of much plant life. These periods of drought have come with their attendant warnings that it will take twenty years to return to normal water levels (it never took that long). Thankfully, we have never experienced three years with neither rain nor dew!
After Elijah delivered his warning, God immediately removed him from Samaria into the wilderness where ravens brought his daily meals and his water supply was provided by the brook Cherith, east of the Jordan River. As is the normal result of a drought, the brook that supplied Elijah’s needs eventually turned to dust. So that Elijah would not be left “high and dry,” so to speak, God gave the prophet instructions to travel to Zarephath, where He had commanded a widow to make provision for him. Zarephath (Sarepta) was outside Israel, being located in a narrow plain between the range of Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea.94
Upon entering the city, Elijah found the designated widow collecting sticks for a fire. Doubtless parched and hungry after the walk, he asked for some water and bread. She responded, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. When I finish gathering these sticks, I’m going to cook a little something for myself and my son, then we will wait to die.”95 This is a pretty sad tale, like something from Cormac McCarthy’s book, The Road, or the Denzel Washington movie, The Book of Eli. At this point Elijah makes what must seem, to any reasonable bystander, an absurdly selfish request: “That’s cool. Do just what you’ve said. But before you cook that last loaf of bread for yourself and your son, make a cake for me. Then make something for yourself and your son.” In other words, “I know you’re starving to death and all, but give me your last morsel of food first.”
And we wonder why preachers have such bad reputations!
The reality behind this self-serving statement was that God was using Elijah’s request to test her faith. If God had already commanded her to provide for Elijah, then this was the last hurdle she had to pass through before God intervened on her behalf and enabled her to do so. This became clear as Elijah continued, “For thus says the Lord the God of Israel, ‘The jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty, until the day that the Lord sends rain upon the earth.’”96 The Bible further records that she, her son and Elijah lived for many days from the never emptying jar and jug. As Matthew Henry notes, “One poor meal’s meat this poor widow gave the prophet, and, in recompense of it, she and her son did eat many days (v. 15), above two years, in a time of general scarcity.”97
This miracle is an instance of the owner (God) redirecting His supplies to bless an anonymous widow and her son. The widow had undoubtedly seen others die; from her conversation it is obvious she had come to expect it herself. Few, if any, are the famines that do not see death in great and terrible numbers.98 In His grace, God had other plans for her. In response to her obedience and faith, she and her son were able to experience the power of God in a magnificent way and bless a weary prophet as well. This blessing was returned unexpectedly after the boy contracted an unidentified illness and died. In an action unprecedented in biblical history, Elijah stretched himself atop the corpse three times while crying out to God for a miracle. God heard Elijah’s prayer and revived the boy.99 So, God thus supplied not only her immediate physical needs, but restored the one whose responsibility it would be to meet her future needs. Thankfully, God did not stop meeting needs when Elijah left this place with a whirlwind fueling his chariot of fire.100
Back to the beginning
A few years into our marriage I became incapacitated and unable to work. Wow, is that an understatement. Allow me to skip back a few songs…
When we first married, we made a commitment that Sonya would work until we had kids, then she would exit the job place and be a fulltime homemaker. After two whole months of wedded bliss, she was found to be with child and it was not of the Holy Spirit. Quite apart from our master plan she was going to be exiting the work force after less than one year of marriage. This was after I had already asked my boss for a raise from $6.00/hr to $6.50/hr just so I could get married in the first place.
A budding Bill Gates I was not.
Despite the fact that she accounted for about one-third of our small income, we were determined to be obedient to what we believed God was leading us to do. One day on the job, I struck up a conversation with a homeowner where I was working. He was a delivery service owner that subcontracted with a major overnight package carrier. As a result of that conversation, I left my initial employer for his delivery company. I started the week that Sonya left her job and enjoyed an increase in salary that compensated for our loss of income. In addition, I would have increases in responsibility and salary that I would never have had.
After about a year, I suffered a career-ending knee injury. No, not the delivery career—my Sunday afternoon, after church, tackle football career. Playing with a bunch of church guys, I went out for a pass from the wide receiver position. It was a play I had run a thousand times since I was a kid, but this time when I made the out cut, my left knee made an in cut. The not-so-pleasant result was a torn medial-collateral ligament, anterior-cruciate ligament, and a rupture of the capsule surrounding the knee joint. It was a college or pro level knee injury. Not such a good idea for a man who walked miles every day delivering overnight packages.
I’m sure everyone in my family saw job loss and moving in with parents as the new next step in the master plan, but it never crossed my mind. I had a scalpel to deal with. And IVs. And shots. I approached the impending surgery like Captain Kirk had just said, “Set phasers to stun.”
While still in the hospital recovering, my boss stopped by to see how I was doing. To my surprise, he dropped my paycheck on my bed and said, “Don’t worry.” I didn’t, and he paid my salary through my extensive physical therapy and months of limited working ability. He was not a believer, but God used him to meet our needs at a time when we were still a young family with a small daughter. In a strange way he was Pharaoh to my Joseph.
Fool me once…
Over the next few years, another of our employees had severe enough injuries away from the job that a new company policy had to be instituted: Any injuries sustained off the job (especially related to playing sports) would result in the loss of employment. It was very clear that hyperbole was not the order of the day. The boss meant what he said.
I had given up Sunday afternoon football for Sunday afternoon basketball. So much less stress on the knees and all that. Since my orthopedic doctor has prescribed a Lenox Hill knee brace for me (“The same kind Joe Namath had,” he said), I thought I was safe. Chasing down a loose ball, however, I suddenly felt a strange pain in my other knee. Not quite as damaging as before, but I was facing surgery again; and missing more work.
My boss knew I had injured my knee again, but was willing to wait for the diagnosis. I was a good employee and he wanted to make sure it was not merely a sprain. When the morning of the great summit arrived, the news was broken that I was facing yet another knee surgery with a loss of time. My boss looked at me and said, “Marty, I’ve already talked to the workman’s comp people and told them you may have injured your knee while you were out on the dock working. I could file with them and we could probably save your job.”
Now my boss had known virtually since the first day that I was a believer, and knew I tried to live that faithfully across all phases of the job. I also knew what would happen if I acquiesced to his suggestion. A smile came across my face. “Boss,” I said, “I really, really appreciate what you are trying to do. But you know I cannot do that.” He half smiled and said, “I know, but I thought I’d throw it out there.” I left without the job but with testimony intact.
Of glue guns and God
Sonya’s creative streak had really blossomed during the time she had been home with our daughter. Specifically, she had learned to make all kinds of decorative craft items for people’s houses. She had participated in one or two craft fairs and done well; besides that, it was something she really enjoyed.
Remember that part in the story about being incapacitated and unable to work? For the second time in the first five years of our marriage I was unable to work, had a full leg-length cast and, this time, out of a job. With no other options, I went through on-the-job-training on how to use a hot glue gun, cut plastic flowers, spray paint wicker baskets, and other things that would hurt my masculinity if I were to confess them.
It was during this time that we first truly learned about God’s ability to provide for us and His willingness to do so. Our pastor had always been faithful to teach our church about giving, even having stewardship revivals with preachers who taught from Scripture about trusting God to meet our needs. Some of the stories were incredible, straining the edges of credulity for this newly married couple.
I remember a moment of frustration, probably owing as much to my Percocet prescription as not, that Sonya said, “You know, I think those guys just make up those stories. Do you think that God really does that for them?” We were talking around our makeshift workbench (a broken ping-pong table) not long after my surgery, facing an immeasurable uphill struggle to pay bills by selling wall hangings, table décor, and knick-knacks. No Fortune 500 companies were beating down our door.
At this point, we took the biggest step of faith we had experienced since bringing our daughter home from the hospital as two too young parents. We decided to give 20 percent of our “profits” as our regular offering. We had no unemployment income, no other salary, no stock dividends, and no derivatives. Our logic was impeccable: We are going to starve to death anyway, we might as well give as much as we can and see if God will be good to His word. Did I say “impeccable”?
Before long, God began to provide through more different avenues than we could count. Every time we took crafts to a retail shop, they paid exactly what we were asking without batting an eye. Every craft show was a success; we only did Saturday shows, reserving Sunday for the Lord’s Day. God seemed to give us two days worth of sales every time. We received anonymous offerings. On two different occasions I found money in our car, once the exact amount of our rent when it was a few days past due.
One day we received a phone call from a friend. “We just bought some beef from the butcher and they cut too much of it into ground beef. We don’t eat that much ground beef. Can we bring you some?” “Sure.” Really, what else are we going to say? Later that day, she pulled into our driveway with ground beef, steaks, roasts, and whatever else you can cut off a cow not counting the horns and udders. Another time she called and said, “My dad works at a company with a big, big food pantry. Can I bring you some food from that?” “Sure.” This far along we do not remember all she brought, but one thing has always stuck out: Cocoa Pebbles. We had so many boxes of Cocoa Pebbles that our cabinets and freezer were full of them. There were some days that we ate Cocoa Pebbles for two meals a day! The funny thing is we never, ever got tired of them and like them to this day.
When God promised to meet our needs, I do not think He specified a great variety, necessarily. The children of Israel had manna, manna, manna, then quail, quail, quail. It seems, “Don’t talk with your mouth full,” as our parents always said, is applicable here.
God supplied our needs for months, from around February to July of that year, with neither of us having a regular job. Then, suddenly, like Elijah’s stream, the supply started to dry up. We did not really know all of what was happening, but we believed that God was about to move us in another direction; that He did. One day I received a phone call from the president of a Bible college I had attended. He was doing an interim pastorate and wanted to recommend me to the church. By the end of July, I had accepted the pastorate, moved into the pastorium (parsonage) and started receiving a full-time salary again. During this entire turn of events God always met every need that we had.
There are many, many more stories that could be told from our experiences with God’s provision, from expenses for mission trips, an unexpected check to finish work on our house that was within one dollar of what we needed, to college expenses always being covered. How we came to trust God’s provision was a learning process; a process based in Scripture.
One of the most important instances of provision in the entire Scripture was a ram provided for Abraham in place of the son, Isaac. Following the call of God to sacrifice his son as an offering, the father of faith stood with knife held high over Isaac ready at any moment to plunge it into his heart. It was at this fail-safe moment when God revealed this to be only a test, that Abraham spied God’s intended victim: a ram caught in a thicket. Abraham renamed the mountain where this drama took place, “The Lord will provide,” a confirmation of his earlier declaration of faith, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Gen. 22:8, 14; ESV). Referring to the underlying Hebrew Old Testament text, Nelson writes, “What we learn from Genesis 22:8 and 14 is that God is both ‘the God who sees and who will “see to it.”’101 When God “sees” the need of His child, He “sees to” meeting that need.
God just knows how
Prior to the provision for Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, God provided daily for dietary needs of wandering Israelites whose number surely exceeded a million people, then later for more than five thousand in a crowd of Jesus’ listeners, for Paul in ministry and for Jewish believers in Jerusalem. In each biblical study my wife and I could find, God provided for the needs of His people. We became convinced that God could provide for us as well.
During those days of job loss and craft fairs, we never prayed specifically for Cocoa Pebbles (who would?) or ground beef. We only asked that God would show Himself strong for us and provide for our needs and believed that He would do so. I wonder sometimes if what we timidly call “faith” is more often “fate” instead. Some expect God to intervene without asking Him for His aid, while others never consider the possibility of His action on behalf of His children. I believe completely in God’s absolute sovereignty, but this does not mean that we are locked out of participating in the world He has created. The late pastor William E. Sangster addressed this when he said,
“It may be felt…that no room has been left in the scheme of things for any ‘special’ Providence at all. It will appear to some that if we are not pawns of chance we are prisoners of law, and they will wonder if half our petitions are not a waste of time.
“Yet that would be a sad and false conclusion, and one unwarranted by the facts. If the relationship between God and His human children is best conceived as that of Father and child, it may safely be assumed that God has not so made the world that He cannot make a Father’s response to a child’s plea.”102
This is true, of course, and one of the reasons we are encouraged to pray. We have no reason to believe that God is no longer looking the world over to show Himself strong for those whose hearts are completely His!103 When we act in faith, God responds.
OK, God can meet my needs, now what?
Understanding God’s power to provide is a major step in the life of every believer. Those who have not learned this have only the deep insecurity brought by trusting things for security. Possessions cannot bring safety because it is not in their nature to do so. Assurance of God’s provision does more than give us security for our groceries; it is the ground of faith for missional giving.