God has given us a mouth to speak, a heart to feel, and gospel joy to share. He has taken away every excuse for not spreading gospel grace in our words every day to those around us (Ephesians 4:29).
So what corks the flow of grace speech to others?
One answer is grudges. Not always big grudges, like the ones we hold towards those who have wronged us personally. The kinds of grudges that hinder our generosity are typically subtle ones, grudges towards those who seem less significant than us, or grudges towards those who seem more significant than us. Either way, we like to compare ourselves with others. We withhold grace like a miser withholds money. We are natural-born begrudgers.
The Roots of Grudges
Jonathan Edwards pulled out a gospel spade and dug up the roots of grudges in his sermon “The Terms of Prayer.” He discovered three reasons why we withhold blessings from others: envy, contempt, and resentment.
Envy. Envy is withholding blessings from others in order to preserve my own joy-stature. It is “a spirit of opposition against another’s comparative happiness.” We like to be distinguished. We like to be superior to others. We want to stand out. We seek happiness and that often means we want to be happier than others, so we begrudge others, lest they match or exceed us in happiness. Or we can twist our envy in the other direction. Others have more happiness than me already, so what need is there for me to share? Either way, envy chokes off generosity.
Contempt. Contempt is more personal, a withholding of blessings from others because they are too lowly, or too unworthy of the blessings I have to offer them. It is revolt at the thought of my blessing resting in their unworthy hands. Of course, we would never say it that way. This subtle contempt, this looking down on others, chokes off generosity.
Resentment. Resentment is withholding blessings from others because they have wronged me or, merely by some known offense or guilt, are unworthy of my generosity. Once we have been wronged, we may not look for opportunities to return wrongs, but we often stop looking for opportunities to bless. Thus resentment is effective at cutting off generosity.
We are “naturally selfish and pernicious in our benevolence,” writes Edwards. We are quick to begrudge.
We could beat up on ourselves all day long. We are envious, contemptuous, sinners quick to resent, and we find it hard to let go. But Edwards is not interested in beating us up. He’s interested in gospel theology, and in turning our attention to the God who holds no envy, contempt, or resentment against his children. And to that end, he lets our eyes adjust to the darkness before turning our heads to the glory.
God’s Unfettered Generosity
Edwards’s points about envy, contempt, and resentment are all about theology.
God is not envious of his children. He holds no contempt towards us. He holds no resentment towards us. We are poor, desperate, and shortsighted, but God's generosity to us is not stopped.
At this point in the sermon, Edwards centers on the grand display of God’s generosity in the gospel. The gospel is the work of God to which all of God's other works are subordinated, even the work of creation. And here in the gospel we see the riches of God's abundant grace (Ephesians 1:7–8). The gospel is intended to show us God’s infinite and boundless grace.
Thus, for Edwards, “The doctrines of the gospel teach us how far Jesus Christ was from grudging us anything which he could do for or give to us.” Edwards gets his gospel logic from Paul: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32).
So, let me ask: if you are truly convinced that God withholds nothing from you out of envy (he doesn't want to share his joy), or out of contempt (you are too small for his joy), or out of resentment (you have wronged him and are therefore unworthy of his joy), would you pray differently?
Edwards thinks so.
Once we discover the unfettered generosity of God, we are prepared to turn where Edwards was leading us the whole time, into a deeper experience and expectation in our prayer life. His sermon text is taken from David’s autobiographical words in Psalm 21:4.
He asked life of you; you gave it to him,
length of days forever and ever.
David’s request: Life.
God’s answer: Eternal life.
Edwards wants us to see two things. First, life here is more than the ability to draw in breath. David asked for life and he got abundant, overflowing life, joy, and blessing extending out in eternal dimensions.
Second, Edwards wants us to see the superlative goodness of the answer in comparison to the request. God is eager to bless his children. He is “more ready to open than we are to knock.” His hand is on the doorknob before our knuckles hit the wood.
Yet we are begrudging people, and we project that on God, making every excuse in our head for why God will withhold his blessings from us. We knock with timid knuckles.
Edwards summarizes the sermon takeaway in one sentence: “God never begrudges his people anything they desire, or are capable of, as being too good for them.”
There is nothing you can ask of God that is too good for you. Nothing! You want life? How many years do you seek? One more year? Or 10, or 30, or 60, or 80 more years? How about eternal life that stretches to infinity!
Or have you ever asked him for inexpressible joy full of glory (1 Peter 1:8)? We all have huge appetites for personal happiness. “Godly men’s desires of happiness are no less large than others,” Edwards writes, “Godliness regulates men’s desires of happiness, and directs them to right objects; but it doesn't diminish and confine them, or reduce them to straiter limits.”
Added to this, our mountain of de-merits before God are covered in Christ. “And wherever there is that that seems to be any obstacle, any meanness, or any unworthiness [in us]; all is overtopped, overwhelmed, and swallowed up in this infinite deluge [from God].” God’s generosity — his “infinite deluge” — drowns out all our unworthiness like ocean waters drowned the mountaintops in Noah’s day.
Does that mean we get everything we want? No. God withholds from us whatever gets in the way of our ultimate and eternal happiness.
Does that mean we are guaranteed 80 years of life here? No.
Does this mean we will never suffer? No.
Does this mean there will never be periods of darkness in our lives? No.
But it does mean that if you are a child of God, there is no envy, contempt, or resentment in the heart of God towards you. Therefore no blessing you can receive from God, and no request you can make to God, is ever too good for you.
Knowing this will make us a praying people, a bold, praying people in pursuit of full joy in God.
Jonathan Edwards's sermon, “The Terms of Prayer,” was preached in May 1738. It was published in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 19, Sermons and Discourses 1734–1738 (Yale: 2001), pages 771–91, and can be read online here.