“For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” 1 Corinthians 4:7
Is theology important to the practical Christian life?
One of the greatest mistakes of believers is to separate theology from practical Christian living (let us call it sanctification).
Many preachers and teachers downplay theology and prioritize the practical Christian life. Many of these teachers veer off into mysticism and the search for the ‘deeper life.’ Theology for them is all head knowledge and useless controversies.
“Didn’t Paul warn us to stay away from endless myths and genealogies that promote controversies?” (1 Timothy 1:4).
You don’t need to be a theologian to recognize how wrong headed this idea is.
Theology is the foundation of sanctification. Our worship of God (doxology) can only grow as deep as our knowledge of God (theology).
Jesus rebuked the Samaritans for worshipping a God they did not know (John 4:22) and Paul was bewildered that the Athenians had a temple to an unknown God (Acts 17:23).
While theology is not a sufficient cause for sanctification, it is a necessary cause. We can know so much about God (theology) and not know him (worship and sanctification) but we cannot know God (worship and sanctification) without knowing about him (theology).
The deeper our understanding of who God is (as he has revealed himself in Scriptures), the holier we become. Didn’t Paul tell us that it is by beholding that we become changed? (2 Corinthians 3:18).
To illustrate this point (the importance of theology for sanctification), let’s consider how the doctrine of God’s sovereignty cures our pride and envy (two sins we don’t like to admit we commit)
The Sovereign God
The sovereignty of God is a broad theological topic that we cannot explore in one article. Let us focus on one aspect of God’s sovereignty – his distribution of his resources to whomsoever he wants.
God owns everything because he created everything. Every animal of the field is his and the cattle on a thousand hills (Psalms 50:10). As a friend of mine likes to put it, he owns the cattle on the thousand hills and the hills themselves.
Since God created and owns everything, he has the absolute right to distribute everything as he wishes.
The statement of the landowner in Mathew 20 testifies to God’s sovereignty: “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”(Verse 15) God is the owner of the whole universe and he has every right to do what he wants with his creation.
In James 1:17, we learn that every good and perfect gift comes from above. God is the giver and distributor of every good and perfect gift.
Paul teaches us in 1 Corinthians 4:7 that God is the one who makes us different from one another. Whatever any man has by which he is different from another comes to him from God. If a man has a gift that another does not, God is the one who made it so.
John the Baptist adds his testimony when he said that no man can receive anything except that which is given him from heaven (John 3:27). Why did Paul work harder than the other apostles did? He received the grace of God (1 Corinthians 15:10). God made him different from the other apostles.
In 1 Samuel 2:7, we learn that “the Lord sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts.” Job also reminds us that “the Lord gives and takes away” (Job 1:21) and this is a cause to praise him (blessed be the name of the Lord).
In Jeremiah 27, he sent Jeremiah to the kings of Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre, and Sidon to deliver this message: “I made the earth and the people and animals on it by my mighty power and great strength, and I give it to whomever I see fit.” (Jeremiah 27:5). Because he made all things, he can give it to whomever he sees fit. Such is his divine prerogative.
If a man is wealthy and another is not, God made them differ. No wonder he warned Israel that they should never forget that he was the one that made them rich. (Deuteronomy 8:10-20). He is the potter and no one can strive with him or confront him (Isaiah 29:16; 45:9).
So God is sovereign over the universe. He distributes his gifts and resources as he wills. To a man, he gives abundance and to another man he gives little. He is the reason why we differ from one another whether that distinction concerns wealth, position, influence, intelligence, etc.
He owns everything and we cannot confront him. In his wisdom and for his glory, he has made all things well. He is the sovereign God.
Pride and the Sovereignty of God
God Opposes the Proud
Though pride is one of the sins that bible writers confront the most (perhaps second only to idolatry), no one likes to admit they are proud. Pride is always the other person’s problem.
But God did not inspire his people to condemn a sin that does not exist. Perhaps the problem is that we are too proud to even acknowledge our pride.
God opposes the proud (James 4:6). Though he looks upon the lowly, he knows the proud from afar (Psalms 138:6). God mocks proud mockers (Proverbs 3:34) and he hates haughty eyes (Proverbs 6:16, 17). A man’s pride will bring him low. One of God’s judgments is that he brings low the pride of men (Isaiah 2:11) and humbles the proud in heart (Daniel 4:37).
How God’s Sovereignty cures our Pride
The Corinthian church was guilty of taking pride in one man over against others. The members of the church identified with either Paul, Apollos, or Cephas (Peter). Everyone was taking pride in his ‘party leader.’ The party spirit was eating deep into the fabric of the church.
Because of this party spirit, one man who belonged to Paul’s party (for example) counted himself more privileged than the one in Apollos’s party (vice versa). But this spirit of superiority does not belong in the church.
After establishing that their ‘party leaders’ are nothing apart from Christ, he then sought to help them understand that they are not to take pride in one man over against another.
How did Paul solve this pride problem?
He pointed them to the sovereignty of God. He reminded them that everything they have that differentiates them from another is God’s gift. Everything they have, they received from God. Why should they then boast if everything they have is a gift they received?
When we understand that everything we have is a gift, we are humbled. Why do you think people like to emphasize that they worked for all they have (I am a self-made millionaire)? Because it allows you to boast and glory. The man who got an inheritance from his father or a gift from a relative do not raise his voice in the party of (self-made) millionaires.
When all you have is a gift, you cannot boast; instead, you will rejoice and glory in the giver of the gift. Recognizing that God bestows all we have humbles us and removes the ground for boasting. What do we have that we did not receive? Wealth? Influence? Intelligence? They are all the gifts of God.
Nebuchadnezzar was one hell of a proud man. He looked at Babylon and praised himself for building such a city. God pronounced judgment upon him for his pride. He would end up living with the wild animals and eating grass like cattle. What was the purpose of this punishment? “Until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes.” (Daniel 4:30-32)
The only way Nebuchadnezzar’s pride will be conquered is when he acknowledges the sovereignty of God and recognizes that he is the one who gave him the kingdom. Because he is the one who gave him this great kingdom, he can take it away from him and give it to anyone he wishes.
Once he understands that his kingship over such a great kingdom is a gift from God, he will become humble. God also judged Belshazzar because he did not “honor the God who holds in his hands your life and all your ways.” (Daniel 5:23)
In Acts 12, God struck down Herod because he “did not give praise to God” (12:23). Herod did not acknowledge that his position and influence are gifts from God. He would not have received the judgment of God if he stopped to admit that everything he had was God’s gift.
Hezekiah fell into the same sin. He showed the envoys from Babylon everything in his house (2 Kings 20:12-21). He was drowned in his own self-importance. He forgot the God who had just delivered him from a fatal sickness. He forgot that everything he had was due to God’s benevolence. In his pride (2 Chronicles 32:36), he brought judgment upon Judah and Jerusalem.
Humility comes when we recognize that everything we have is a gift. Everything that puffs us up is a gift of God – he is the one who made us to differ from others. No one is a ‘self-made’ millionaire or self-made anything. Whomever we are, God made us.
Acknowledging God’s sovereignty is the cure to our pride and boasting (and all its attendant ills like selfishness).
Envy and the Sovereignty of God
The Root and Fruits of Envy
Envy and jealousy are the first sins we encountered outside of Eden. As early as Genesis, Cain killed his brother out of envy. Cain was envious because God accepted Abel’s sacrifice and rejected his. ‘Why will God choose to accept him and not me’, he thought.
Cain could not accept that God would make a choice that distinguishes him from his brother. Murder was the fruit of that envy.
Joseph’s brothers were envious of him (Genesis 37). ‘Why will he be the favourite child of our father?’ they thought. Why must he have privileges (I hope that word sounds familiar) that we do not have. The fruit? They conspired to kill their brother and ended up selling him to slavery.
Saul was envious of David because he was the recipient of the people’s praise (1 Samuel 18). “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” “How can another man have the people’s praise?” he thought. He became the sworn enemy of the one who saved the nation from destruction.
The Pharisees and Scribes handed Jesus over to be crucified out of envy (Mathew 27:18). “How can so much a crowd follow this Galilean carpenter?” they thought. They crucified the savior that God sent to them out of envy. The result? The destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.
Indeed, “anger is cruel and fury overwhelming but who can stand before jealousy?” (Proverbs 27:4)
Jealousy/envy is one of the primary cause of discord in the church. Those who covet and cannot have end up quarrelling and fighting (James 4:1-3). No wonder James said that the kind of wisdom that produces such bitter envy is earthly, unspiritual, and of the devil (James 3:13-16).
How God’s Sovereignty heals our Envy and Jealousy
Since God is the one who sovereignly distributes his gifts and resources, envy is an attack on God’s wisdom. When we are envious of another person, we are telling God that he is not governing his universe aright. In essence, we are telling God that he is lacking in wisdom.
Qoheleth exposed the reality of our hearts when he insisted that ‘all labour and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor” (Ecclesiastes 4:4). James also approves of this point. Our desires are at the root of our quarrels and fights. When we cannot have what we desire, we quarrel and fight.
The elder brother in the parable of the lost son had a similar problem. He was envious that his father will give to his brother what he had not given him – the obedient son. He lost sight of all that are his (Luke 15:31) and was consumed in envy of his brother.
The workers in the vineyard had no problem with their wages until the master decided to give the same wage to the person who had worked for lesser hours (Mathew 20:8-12).
All our envy and jealousy is a failure to acknowledge God’s sovereign right to distribute his resources as he pleases. We believe we deserve more and the other person deserves less. We do not mind privileges when we are at the receiving end, but we hate it when someone else is. “Why should he be richer?” “How come he got married before me?” How will he finish on top of the class when he does not even read as much as I do?”
God’s words to those workers speaks vividly to us, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous.”
You cannot envy your brother because God decided in his sovereignty to bless him. You cannot challenge him for molding one clay one way and another clay another way.
This sovereign act of God extends to believers and unbelievers alike. In Mathew 5:43-47, we learn that he causes his sun to shine on the good and the bad. He does with his sun as he does with his rain. Paul told the pagans in Lystra that God gives them rain from heaven, crops in their seasons, plenty of food, and joy to fill their hearts. (Acts 14:17)
God’s people in the Old Testament (from Asaph to Malachi) struggled with God’s blessings upon the wicked. However, God always warned them not to envy the wicked (Proverbs 23:17; 24:1; 3:31; Psalms 37:1, etc.). He is the one who decides in his sovereign determination of all things to bless the wicked. (We should not confuse this temporal blessing – what theologians call common grace –with the special grace of revelation and salvation that he gives only to his sovereignly elect people)
We cannot envy anyone- neighbors, fellow workers, relatives, and friends – because God is the one who chose to give them what they have.
In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul instructed the saints in Corinth to stay in the place where God has placed them. The uncircumcised should remain uncircumcised; the slave should not be troubled by his position (though he should get his freedom if he can).
Christian contentment (that great virtue that prevents envy and jealousy) is rooted in our understanding of God’s sovereign ordering of all things (the good and the bad – Ecclesiastes 7:14).
None of us deserves anything from God. For one reason, we did not create the world and so we do not own it. Secondly, we are rebel sinners who deserve nothing but God’s wrath and condemnation. Everything he gives us is a gift of his grace.
We cannot command or demand grace. We can only rejoice in what God gives to us and be content with it (irrespective of what he gives to others). God’s sovereignty is the cure for the envy in our hearts and the multitude of ills that attend it.
God is good. God is wise. God is free. He is the potter, the clay cannot dictate to him. We cannot be envious because he is generous. Understanding God’s sovereignty turns our murmurs into gratitude.
There are two types of wisdom: the earthly wisdom and the heavenly wisdom. The earthly wisdom is the source of pride and envy (James 3:13-16). Earthly wisdom believes that we are self-made and unleashes pride and ingratitude. Earthly wisdom believes that we deserve more than others and others less than we deserve and unleashes envy and jealousy.
The heavenly wisdom is pure, peace loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.
Those who live by the heavenly wisdom are humble because they know all they have is from God. They are also free from envy and jealousy because they know that all that others have (and they do not) is from God.
Heavenly wisdom leads us to joyfully surrender to the sovereign God of the universe who ordains all things for his glory and the good of his elect people (more on that someday).