Let me begin by giving credit up front to the thoughts of Gordon MacDonald in his excellent little book, The Life God Blesses. I will be drawing on many of his ideas and some of his wording as I try to communicate what I found in his book that has profoundly challenged my life, and I hope will be a blessing to yours.
There is a biblical word that we use too often in the wrong way and too infrequently in the right way. It is the word “blessing.” The God of the Bible is a God who not only blesses lives, but desires to bless the lives of his people. When Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly,” he was talking about the abundant blessings of God that he came to give.
Now, if you are thinking blessing equals financial prosperity, material abundance, good health, families and relationships without problems or struggles, then you will probably take exception with me. God does at times provide us with some or all of those, but other times, those things seem absent or out of our reach, and if we have the notion that those equal God’s blessing we will feel like we have been overlooked or ignored.
But God’s blessings are of a different sort. In fact, some of the most blessed people I know or have ever encountered are lacking in some of those very things I just mentioned. And despite their lacking in some of the physical or material fortunes of life, they count themselves among the most blessed.
God has been blessing lives since the very beginning. He has done it in so many different ways, to so many different people and at so many different times and places that one would be a fool to claim to be able to understand the whole process or reduce it to a simple formula. And so, in the things I say this morning, and in the Sundays to come, don’t look for pat answers and formulas for securing God’s blessings. Instead, I want us to look closely at the kind of life that God blesses.
As we look through the Bible we see an ancient who’s who of lives God has blessed. And they are not all of one type or temperament. There are men and women, older and younger, calm and retiring or feisty and aggressive. Think of someone like Joshua, the leader who took God’s people into the promised land, or Timothy the gentle, almost shy pastor. Or tough, calculating Esther or reflective, responsive Mary, Jesus’ mother. How about Peter, the outspoken, rough-around-the-edges fisherman, or calm and brilliant Daniel. They are as different from each other as people can be, and yet there stamped in each of their lives is the unmistakable blessing of God.
So, where do you begin this inquiry into the life that God blesses? What does it mean to be blessed? And what must I do to invite the blessing of God?
Now, if we talk about lives God blesses, we’re headed for trouble if we stay at the surface of personality and activity. Blessing rarely seems tied to things that are visible. If we remain there, we will probably not learn anything helpful.
But if there are universals or commonalities in these ancient men and women God blessed, and if there are connectors between them and us, you’ll probably find them only in the interior sectors of life – the deeper part of every one of us that no one but God can see with the eye, hear with the ear, or touch with the hand. The deeper levels of who we are – at the level of the soul. There at the soul level is where we will begin to find the keys to the life God blesses.
Is there a sense in which you can look at your life and say, “God has blessed my life?” I hope everyone of you can emphatically say, “Yes!” But have we even scratched the surface of what it means to live an abundant life? That’s where we are going to have to head deeper, deeper into the soul, where true abundance resides.
The soul is the deeper part of all of us that others cannot see. It is the quiet part where people are most apt to connect with God. In the Gospels, Jesus uses the word soul quite frequently. When he does, he seems to interchange it with two other words that he also uses frequently, heart and spirit.
The word “soul” seems to find its way into the language of all sorts of people: sociologists, philosophers, theologians, artists, and ordinary preachers like me. But even though it is a familiar word, the soul is unfamiliar territory for many of us. We acknowledge its existence, but we spend as little time there as possible.
Now, we love the mind – we want to learn and accumulate information. When we read the Bible, it is often as a fact finding mission or a confirmation of what we already believe. But when we delve into areas of the Bible where it is concerned with issues of the soul, we move quickly on because it makes us feel uncomfortable and inadequate.
Only when events become scary and out of control, do people cast a momentary glance in the direction of the soul. A biblical case in point: As the fate of Jerusalem seemed headed toward destruction, only then did King Zedekiah send a message to the prophet Jeremiah saying, “Please pray for us.” Then later, when Jeremiah was arrested, he summoned him into the his royal presence and asked, “Is there a word from God?”
Those are soul-oriented comments and questions, and they suggest that Zedekiah was smart enough to know that when all else fails, you turn to men and women who have spent time developing the “muscles” of the soul. And, unfortunately, that’s where we often find ourselves: when all else fails, in times of crisis, hopeless and helpless. But what if, instead of waiting until we’ve exhausted all other resources, we learned to turn there first. What if we learn to live comfortably in the soul level and develop those muscles so that when the storms come, and they will, we will be able to ride through the middle of them, feeling the abundant blessings of God?
It is in the soul, this strange part of the “inner space” of a person that exists beyond the body’s limitations, beyond physical death. This mysterious entity that can be filled with the presence of God, can burst into praise (as the psalmist cried out, “Praise the Lord, O my soul”), can also feel miserably empty and abandoned (as when David lamented, “Why are you downcast, O my soul?”)
There are people whose lives are filled with material abundance, but who have no connection to the soul. Consider the story Jesus told of the rich man who had so much that he tore down his old barns to build bigger ones, but ignored the things of God, and on the last night of his life, he heard the voice of God say, “Tonight your soul shall be required of you.”
Too many people try to live their lives only on the surface level – enough food, enough pleasure, enough stresslessness, enough mental toughness, enough external support, and they think they can make it through life without ever having to deal with the soul. And the tragedy is that the soul is the one thing that will transcend this life. It is the one thing of inestimable worth.
And so, in this brief study, I want us to think about the soul. What it is, how it functions, what it needs. The soul is unique, God-created, and eternal, but it can be neglected and ignored so that the soul becomes dark and battered and God’s image becomes unrecognizable. And unless we nurture and care for our soul, we will find it unable to sustain us in times of trouble and stress.
Having said that, let me close with a parable:
Once a foolish man built a boat. His intention was that it would be the grandest, the most talked-about boat that ever sailed from the harbor of the boat club of which he was a member. And so he determined to spare no expense or effort in the building of this masterpiece.
To be sure, he was a skilled builder and a hard worker. His commitment to build this grand boat became his obsession.
As he built, he outfitted his craft with colorful sails, complex rigging, and comfortable appointments and conveniences in its cabin. The decks were made from beautiful teakwood; all the fittings were custom-made of polished brass. And on the stern, painted in gold letters, readable from a considerable distance, was the name of the boat, the Persona.
As he built the Persona, he could not resist fantasizing about the applause and admiration he would receive from the other club members at the launching of his new boat. In fact, the more he thought about the praise that was soon to come, the more time and attention he gave to those aspects of the boat’s appearance that would attract and amaze the crowd who would be there.
Now – and this seems reasonable – because no one would ever see the underside of the Persona, the man saw little need to be concerned about the boat’s keel or, for that matter, anything that had to do with the issue of properly distributed weight or ballast. Experienced sailors might wince at this, but one must remember that the boatbuilder was acting with the perceptions of the crowd in mind – not the seaworthiness of the vessel. Seaworthiness doesn’t seem like an important issue while in dry dock.
On one of those occasions when he was sorting out his priorities of time and resources, he said to himself, “Why should I spend money or time on what is out of anyone’s sight? When I listen to the conversations of people at the club, I hear them praising only what they can see. I never remember anyone admiring the underside of a boat. Instead, my yachting colleagues are always talking about the color and shape of a boat’s sails, its brass fittings, its cabin and comforts, decks and wood texture, speed and the skill that wins the sailing regattas.
So, driven by such reasoning, the foolish man built his boat. And everything that would be visible to the people began to gleam with excellence. But things that would be invisible when the boat entered the water were ignored.
When the day came for the boat’s maiden voyage, the builder’s suspicions were confirmed. The people of the boat club oohed and ahhed over the sails, rigging, decks, brass and staterooms. He overheard people whisper that this grand boat would someday result in his selection as commodore of the boat club.
A bottle of champagne was broken over the bow and the moment came for the man and his boat to set sail. As the breeze filled the sails and pushed the Persona for the club’s harbor, he stood at the helm and heard what he’d anticipated for years: the cheers and admiration of envious admirers who said to one another, “Our club has never seen a grander boat that this. This man will make us the talk of the yachting world.
There were soon other boats that joined him and formed a spectacular flotilla as they moved out beyond the breakwater and into the ocean. Soon the Persona was merely a blip on the horizon. And as it cut through the swells, its builder and owner gripped the rudder with a feeling of fierce pride. What he had accomplished! The sea was his to control!
But a few miles out to sea a storm arose. Not a hurricane, but not a squall either. There were sudden wind gusts and fifteen foot waves began to rise and fall. The Persona began to shudder, and water swept over the sides. Bad things began to happen, and the confidence of the captain began to waver. Perhaps the ocean wasn’t his after all.
He looked around and found himself alone. The other boats had seen the storm arising and had returned to harbor, but he had been too self-absorbed to notice.
Within minutes the Persona’s colorful sails were in shreds, the mast was splintered and the rigging was draped across the bow. The beautiful teakwood decks were awash with water, and suddenly an enormous wave, bigger than any he had seen hurled down upon the Persona, and the boat capsized.
Now, this is important. When most boats would have righted themselves after such a battering, the Persona did not. Why? Because the builder had ignored the importance of what was below the waterline. There was no weight there. In a moment when a well-designed keel and adequate ballast might have saved the ship, they were nowhere to be found. The foolish man had concerned himself with the appearance of things and ignored the issues of resilience and stability in the secret, unseen places where storms are withstood.
Even more tragic, the foolish man had such confidence in his sailing abilities that he had never contemplated the possibility of a situation he could not manage. And so, when the wreckage was later discovered, they found no rescue devices aboard – no raft or life jackets or emergency radio. When the members gathered around the wreckage, only then did they see the folly of the builder. “There is no keel and all the weight is above the waterline. A man who builds only above the waterline has built less than half a boat. He was doomed before he ever set sail.”
You might wonder, “What does the story mean?” And like Jesus’ story of a man who foolishly built his house on the sand, it has to do with the foundation on which we build. What is below the surface and out of sight is far more important than what we do that everyone can see.