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All that matters in life

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: 2 Chronicles 7:11-16

While you have been listening to great preaching and enjoying wonderful worship services, I’ve been “across the pond” in the land where it rains nearly daily, trying to figure out cricket on the “telle” and enjoying British hospitality immensely.

And I’ve come back to discover that John Bolton is at the United Nations. Rafael Palmeiro, the man who condemned steroid use in baseball, is on suspension for steroid use. Our space shuttle astronauts are repairing their space shuttle so they can come home this week. But while the news changes, human nature does not. We still want our lives to matter–we each want to be successful with our time on earth.

That’s why some of you are caught up in football practices, band camps, cheerleading and drill team drills, finishing (or starting) summer reading.

It’s why others of us are back from summer trips to the pressure of fall performance. It’s why our church is gearing up for fall programs, the garage opening, preparations for the Community Life Center to open in a year, and all that is ahead of us.

None of us wants to fail. All of us want to succeed. Here’s how. Here’s what the Lord has said to my heart during my time away: what God wants is all that matters in life. Not what I want, or what you want, but what he wants.

His word is clear: if we save our lives, we lose them. If we lose our lives to his purposes, we save them (Matthew 16:25). If we try to make our lives matter, they don’t. If we give all that up and seek what God wants, he does far more with us than we can do with ourselves.

Rick Warren, speaking to the Baptist World Alliance in Birmingham, England, said it well: “Stop asking God to bless what you are doing, and ask him to help you do what he is blessing.” If you want to be blessed, to be successful, do what he is blessing.

So, what is he blessing?

Choose to seek God’s face

David wanted to build a temple for the Lord, a permanent place where God would meet with his people, receive their sacrifices, and hear their prayers. But his will was not God’s will. He had shed too much blood, and his son Solomon would build the temple in his place (1 Chronicles 22:7-10). Not the greatest king Israel ever knew, but the son of his adulterous liaison with Bathsheba. A man who would win no battles and accomplish nothing of significance first.

How would such an untested leader accomplish the greatest building project in Israel’s history? Where God leads, he provides.

The king had accumulated 100,000 talents of gold (3,750 tons) and a million talents of silver (37,500 tons; 1 Chr 22:14). I ran the numbers this week: at gold and silver prices as of last Tuesday evening, that’s a total of $60,504,000,000. Solomon would inherit a net worth 25 percent greater than Bill Gates’. And that doesn’t count the “quantities of bronze and iron too great to be weighed, and wood and stone” (v. 14). With this disclaimer: “And you may add to them.”

Who would use all these riches? His father had enlisted tradesmen in every kind of work (vs. 14-15). Who would help him organize this massive effort? David had enlisted “all the leaders of Israel to help his son Solomon” (v. 17).

So it was that a man who had never won a battle, never built a kingdom, never built anything that we know of, was called to build the most important structure in human history. And succeeded. When God calls, he provides–always.

Now David’s son is finished with his task. It would seem that he has achieved success for the ages. But success in his eyes or that of his nation’s is immaterial. God is clear: only “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways” (2 Chr 7:14a) will he bless this Temple.

“Humble ourselves” means to submit ourselves to his plan, his will, his glory. It’s not about us–it’s all and only about him.

“Pray”–turn to his power and purposes, not our own.

“Seek my face”–no perfunctory prayers, these; honest, heart-felt, intentional, intense, soul-giving prayers. Seek a personal, daily, intimate relationship with him.

When we do, we must “turn from our wicked ways.” The closer we draw to him, the more our sins are exposed by his light. You don’t see the dirt on your hands in the dark.

Only then will he “hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (v. 14b)–the purpose of this Temple. Only then will his eyes be open and his ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place–the purpose of this Temple. Only then will he use the efforts of men for the eternal glory of God. Only then.

Only when nothing matters but what God wants. Not what I want. Not what you want. Only what he wants. Then he gives our lives more joy, power, purpose, abundance than we could ever have imagined or accomplished for ourselves. Here’s the paradox: when nothing matters but what God wants, we get more than we want. Every time. When we seek first the Kingdom of God, all these things are added to us (Matthew 6:33). Every time.

Adopting the motto, “It’s not about us,” is the best thing for us. The best way to redeem your life is to ignore it. To ignore any definition of success but his. And he says the successful people on this planet are the people who humble themselves and pray and seek his face and turn from their wicked ways. The people who decide that what they want doesn’t matter; what the world wants doesn’t matter; what God wants is all that matters in life. I want what God wants–that’s best for God and best for me.

Those are the people who succeed, now and forever. That’s the point today. Does history prove it right?

Do what he is blessing

I have spent the last two weeks in England, attending the Baptist World Alliance meeting in Birmingham and taking part in a Baptist history and heritage tour of the country. There I was reminded of our beginnings, as Protestants and Baptists.

In the mid-16th century, Bloody Mary tried to take England back to the Catholic Church. Protestants by the hundreds were martyred, among them two men named Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer.

On October 16, 1555, Ridley and Latimer were lashed to the stake in the center of Oxford University, and set afire. The flames were so hot that they singed the doors of a nearby Oxford college. The queen had the singed doors removed and thrown into a field; a few years ago, they were discovered and returned to their place.

I saw the very spot where Ridley and Latimer were burned, now marked with a permanent gold cross. I saw the singed doors. And I could almost hear Latimer’s last words. As the flames rose, he shouted to Ridley, “Be of good comfort, Mr. Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace, in England, as I trust never shall be put out.”

And they did. Mary was succeeded by her sister Elizabeth, and the Protestant Reformation was made permanent in England. Latimer and Ridley never saw the results of their faithfulness. But last week, I did.

Traveling through England, I remembered our Baptist beginnings in that land nearly 400 years ago.

In 1609, a man named John Smyth and his followers had fled to Amsterdam to escape religious persecution in England. He came to the conclusion that the true church is composed of those who have made Christ their personal Lord, and that the best symbol of that conversion is believer’s baptism. So he baptized himself, and then his tiny flock. In 1611, his associate Thomas Helwys would bring their “Baptist” movement back to England; in 1639, Roger Williams would bring them to America.

Today we are the largest Protestant denomination in the world. The Baptist World Alliance meeting in England welcomed our Baptist sisters and brothers from 120 countries, part of 110 million Baptist Christians around the world. Smyth and Helwys never saw that their tiny movement would create an Alliance which would reach the globe. But last week, I did.

In England we visited the cottage of William Carey and remembered his amazing story. Carey preached his trial sermon for ordination, but his church turned him down–his sermon was too boring. The next year they finally consented to ordain him.

They sent him to a nearby pastorless church. He preached there, but the people voted him down. They had no one else, so he stayed on as a shoe cobbler and interim preacher. Finally they made him their pastor.

There, in his cottage, God gripped his heart for world evangelization. There the modern missions movement was birthed. Carey was its first missionary, spending the rest of his life in India. He never saw Baptist missionaries spread around the world with the good news of God’s love. But last week, I did.

We traveled to the church where John Bunyan was pastor until he was imprisoned for 12 years because he would not stop preaching the gospel. While in prison he wrote an allegory called Pilgrim’s Progress. He never knew it would become the best-selling book of all time next to the Bible, or saw it in 200 translations. But standing in the museum dedicated to him, I did.

At the Baptist World Alliance we heard President Carter speak. The young peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia had no idea that God’s will would take him to the most powerful office in the world, and that he would one day teach the Bible to the entire Baptist World Alliance Global Congress, comprising the largest Sunday school class in Baptist history. But I saw it happen.

Rick Warren spoke to the BWA on Saturday night. He told us his now-familiar story. After graduating from Southwestern Seminary, he felt God’s call to Southern California. He did not know a soul. He arrived in the Los Angeles area at rush hour one afternoon.

He found a real estate office, went inside, and said to the man he met there: “Hi! I’m Rick Warren. I’ve come to start a church. I have no one to sponsor me, no money, and no place to stay. Can you help?” The man said he’d see what he could do. Then Rick asked the man if he attended church anywhere. The surprised man said that he did not. Rick said, “Great! You’re my first member.” And he was, and still is. And Rick’s church now numbers some 84,000 names.

He didn’t know when he followed God to Southern California how the story would turn out. But we do.

Conclusion

Most of my life I have struggled with issues of significance. My father dealt with heart disease all my life, until it took his life when I was a senior in college. Somehow I grew up not trusting the future, not being sure what will come of tomorrow. So I’ve lived my life with an urgency, an intensity, a drivenness to make every day count.

As I’ve told you before, my greatest fear for my life is that I will stand one day before God and hear him say that I missed his purpose for my life. Many of you know that fear.

In England, through two weeks of returning to the beginnings of our faith, God reminded me that what he wants is all that matters. Not what I want, or what you want. Not any plans or strategies I might devise for myself or for us. Being a man who humbles himself and prays, who seeks God’s face and turns from his wicked ways, who belongs to God every hour of every day–that’s all that matters in life. Then God will do far more with us than we can ever do with ourselves.

One final proof that it’s true, and we’re done. In England we visited a church which John Newton pastored for many years. You remember his story: a slave trader who was converted to faith in Christ, worked to abolish slavery, and wrote the best-known hymn in the England language, Amazing Grace.

Last Tuesday I visited his gravesite. On the back of his raised marble tomb I found inscribed these words:

John Newton–Clerk.

Once an infidel and libertine

a servant of slaves in Africa, was

by the rich mercy of our

Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ

preserved, restored, pardoned

and appointed to preach the faith he

had long labored to destroy.

His life motto said it well: “I am not what I ought to be; I am not what I want to be; I am not what I hope to be; but by the grace of God, I am not what I was.” Amazing grace, indeed.

Now that grace can be yours. You know all that matters in life. The next step is yours.