I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no power, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection.
I sang these words unwillingly, with puzzled brow. This was Nichole Nordeman’s version of “How Deep”. Surely she has a boastable gift? It’s written by modern hymnist Stuart Townend – surely with boastable wisdom? I am a woman of moderate ability, and I like my abilities. Could I sing this song sincerely? What’s wrong with bringing out the gifts God’s given me? Don’t we have an obligation to shine? Why does Paul say in Philippians 3, “If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more … But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ … I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.”
I’ve grown up in the church, and most of what I was taught about gifts centred on “find your gift, bring your gift, fan into flame your gift, use your gift wisely and appropriately to serve God and His Body”. None of that is wrong, per se. But what happens when you bring your gift to the Body, and the Body isn’t at all sure it can accommodate that gift?
I have wrestled and struggled and striven to make my gift an acceptable offering. I’ve told myself that while I’m not the best or most fashionable or most popular, I’m still responsible to develop what I’ve been given. When all the investors are doubling their money, nobody expects the guy with $2k to transform it into $10k as the guy given $5k has done. No, I would be satisfied to proudly show my boss $4k. I believe I’ve made a good start.
I will not boast in anything …
It comes to me now that I have brought my gift to God to boast before Him of how well I’ve done. We all want to hear, “Well done, My good and faithful servant!” I want to make Him proud. But what I’ve done is make ME proud. I really, really want to impress God. Am I trying to get Him to love me more? Impossible. Have I missed the dreadful, humbling things that happened to the last guy God was proud of? But yet here I am, coming before Him with full hands and a hopeful, slightly anxious expression.
Full hands. Full of what?
Perhaps … my hands are full of vegetables.
A little backstory. The first case of sibling rivalry recorded in the bible is the story of Cain and Abel, who each brought an offering to God. Cain the horticulturalist brought “some produce”, and Abel the stockman brought the “first and best of his flock”. God was pleased with Abel & his gift, but not with Cain or his gift.
There are many insights and hints as to why the lambs were pleasing but not the produce, the most obvious being that the sacrificial lamb foreshadowed Christ, the Lamb of God. But today for me, the strongest clue is in Hebrews 11. “By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous…”
You can harvest fruit & veg, ferns & flowers without shedding any tears. With a bit of work, there will always be more where that came from. But harvesting a lamb from a flock … that’s harder. Especially if you’ve given each sheep a name, and noted its particular temperament. It’s a life lost. I think that’s why God uses sacrifice – bloodthirsty as it is – to symbolise atonement. We are meant to recoil from the idea of killing and bloodspatter. The recoil itself should speak to us of the horror we ought to feel toward sin. Sacrifice shows us the full wrongness of our wrong. And it reminds us that it costs God as well as costing us. For the priest in his once-beautiful raiment, now stained, it brings new meaning to Isaiah’s words, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”
I see Cain’s plant-offering as an attempt to win points with God through some of his hard work. Abel’s animals, on the other hand, were God’s work.
When I stand before God and say, “Look at the gifts I’m bringing You! What a good girl am I,” then I am asking God to take me on my merits. This would be, if any could ever actually achieve it, “a righteousness that comes from the Law”.
He says to me, “I’m not interested in your sacrifice of vegetables. The only sacrifice I’m interested in seeing, is the Lamb I provided. When you come before Me in nothing but your faith in that sacrifice, My grace, My unmerited favour welcomes you and celebrates you – because I’ve asked you to BELIEVE, and to obey that is better than any sacrifice you can concoct! Come to Me on the level playing field of what I have done where all of you could not. And in that humility and gratitude, you will find you can let go of all your anxiety about whether your veges are as good as the next guy’s. There has already been an acceptable sacrifice. Live in it.”
“Without faith, it’s impossible to please God.” My gifts, power, wisdom – they’re still at God’s disposal. But they are a response, not a ticket. Next to what He sacrificed for me, they are indeed rubbish. It doesn’t really signify whether my rubbish is flasher than your rubbish. What matters is the Lamb sacrificed for my atonement. I could have the power to banish demons – but my source of joy and boasting should always be awestruck wonder that by GOD’S efforts, not mine, my name is in black & white in Heaven.
Your grace has found me just as I am: empty-handed, but alive in Your hand. – Delirious