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“Two things I ask of you; deny them not to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.”
So the wisdom of Agur, found in Proverbs 30, reminds us. Though sin knows no tax brackets — the poor can be greedy and the rich envious — peculiar circumstances tend to produce peculiar temptations. Agur fears that should God lead him into poverty, he might be tempted to steal and thus profane the name of God. He fears in turn that should God lead him into great riches, he might forget God. He asks God to protect him, through His providence, from both temptations.
Many of us, oddly, are in both categories, at least in some sense. In a culture driven by dissatisfaction, we can all at least feel poor. The Joneses stay always ahead of us, pushing us onward. A rocky economy feeds our economic insecurities, and we are tempted, if not to steal, at least to cut some moral corners. Virtue and integrity can be expensive, and we can always buy them back when better times come. On the other hand, we are not the 99 percent but are in the 99th percentile. That is, by world historical standards, compared to all the people who ever lived on this planet, even if we are among the most poor in America, each of us is in the top one percent in terms of comforts, luxury, ease and wealth. Our poor are wealthier than kings of old.
There is no shame in being poor. There is no guilt in being wealthy. There is, however, shame in stealing and guilt in failing to give thanks.
A God-centered life, then, is not found in feeding a constant craving for more, better, newer. Neither, however, is it found in embracing an ascetic aesthetic, eschewing the good gifts of God. He is the giver of every good gift, both contentment in abasement and a shiny new car. He is not impressed with our piety if we accept the former but turn up our nose at the latter, thinking ourselves too pure for such crass blessings.
The issue, then, isn’t the size of our bank accounts or the square footage of our homes. The issue is the perspective of our hearts. A God-centered life is one that gives thanks in all His providences. It was one of the wealthiest men of ancient antiquity who spoke these wisest of words: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
The issue isn’t in what we have but in what we want. What do we long for? What do we daydream about? How do we measure ourselves and the success or failure of our efforts? Who do we look up to, and what is it about them that we admire? The broader culture is obsessed with the rich and the famous. Tabloids at the grocery store, tabloid television, Internet gossip sites — these all feed our insatiable desire to know what they are like, how they live.
The evangelical world, as is so often the case, has its own version of the cultural phenomenon. We have rock-star preachers, Lollapalooza-like conferences and concerts, and, as well, Internet sites complete with all the latest gossip on who is hot, who is not, and the reasons why.
We, however, are in the world but are not to be of the world. We are called to aspire for not just something better but the one needful thing. We are called, in living a God-centered life, to seek God’s kingdom, to pursue God’s righteousness.
We are blessed to be shown the way to the one thing that will satisfy. A God-centered life, in the end, isn’t self-denying. It, instead, is how we find ourselves. Jesus said we would find our lives in losing them. Augustine said our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Him. And John Piper reminds us that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him. The glory of the contentment, the blessing of the car, is not found in the contentment nor in the car, but in the Giver of these good gifts.
Our calling is to look through every good gift to the One giving it. He is the goodness in which the gifts live and move and have their being. He gives Himself. This is the path of life. Our end is that we would be in His presence, that we would rejoice to be there. His promise is not only that we will find pleasures at His right hand, but that we will find them forevermore (Ps. 16).
Whether grasping for more or turning up our noses at what He has given, we miss Him. The Lord blesses us and He keeps us. The Lord makes His face to shine upon us and He is gracious to us. The Lord lifts up His countenance upon us and gives us peace, now and forevermore (Num. 6:24–26).