Well, there’s never a shortage of questions about our delight in God in relation to the gifts he gives us. It was only two months into the life of this podcast we addressed the question “How do I know if I love the gifts more than the Giver?” That was APJ 55. We’re back on the theme exactly eight years later with a related question from a listener named Robert in Fairbanks, Alaska. “Hello, Pastor John. I’ve heard you talk about the importance of loving God more than the gifts that God gives us. I believe the spirit of that statement is certainly true. But it doesn’t explain everything I see in the Bible. Particularly, how does this square with Psalm 103:1–5, which seems to suggest that we love God more because of the benefits? Can we diminish God’s glory by being too unconcerned with inventorying the gifts he has given us?”
I’ll start with the conclusion and then try to back it up. Conclusion: it is not inconsistent — indeed, it is crucial — that we both love God more than we love his gifts, and that we love God more because of his gifts. That’s the conclusion, and I’m saying amen to Robert.
So, I am agreeing with Robert’s suggestion that God’s gifts may not just compete with our love for God, which they certainly can and do, but they also deepen and intensify our love for God himself. And I agree with the flip side, which Robert also suggests — namely, that we can diminish God’s glory by being unconcerned, to use his phrase, with inventorying God’s gifts.
Forget Not God’s Gifts
He gets that idea, rightly, from Psalm 103:1–5, which indeed does inventory at least five of God’s gifts, maybe six, depending on how you count them. Here’s what Psalm 103 says:
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name!
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
That’s amazing. He’s so right. That’s an inventory of some of God’s countless gifts to the psalmist. Let’s notice three things from this passage, these five verses.
1. God commands us to remember all his benefits.
First, we are indirectly commanded not to forget the benefits of God, both the spiritual gifts and the natural gifts. He commands his own soul. He says, “Soul, don’t forget all God’s benefits.” So, Robert is right to insist that we inventory them, that we do that. It’s a duty; it’s a divine expectation. Don’t be neglectful in your affections or in your thanksgiving of God’s countless good gifts.
2. God’s benefits are both spiritual and natural.
Here’s a second thing to notice from these verses. I mentioned it, but I’ll stress it. They are both spiritual and natural. He forgives all our iniquity. That’s a spiritual work of God. Then it says he heals your diseases. That’s a miracle, to be sure, but it’s a miracle that shows itself up in a very natural thing like, “I got well.” So, both kinds of blessings are lavished upon us, and both kinds are to be remembered.
“We love God more than we love his gifts, and we love God more because of his gifts.”
As I was preparing and thinking about this, Tony, I couldn’t help but think that this is one of the best arguments in the Bible for keeping a journal. Because I’ve been rereading recently some of my journal entries from forty years ago, when I was in Germany as a grad student. I’m sitting there in my chair downstairs, loving God. I’m just thanking him and loving him because of how sweetly faithful he was to Noël and me. We didn’t know what we were doing in those days. He came through for us over and over again. Anyway, that’s a little sidenote. If you’re going to obey the command to not forget the benefits of God, how are you going to do that? One way would be to keep a journal.
Now, the biblical pattern of remembering the mercies of God in Psalm 103, that’s not isolated.
- Psalm 77:11: “I will remember the deeds of the Lord.”
- Psalm 105:5: “Remember the wondrous works that he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he uttered.”
- Psalm 143:5: “I remember the days of old; I meditate on all that you have done; I ponder the work of your hands.”
- Then there’s a warning about the opposite. Psalm 106:7: “Our fathers, when they were in Egypt, did not consider your wondrous works; they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love, but rebelled by the sea, at the Red Sea.”
So, those are two things to notice in Psalm 103: (1) that we’re commanded not to forget the gifts of God, and (2) that his gifts are both spiritual and natural.
3. God’s benefits lead us back to him.
Now, here’s the third thing that I think may be the most important thing to notice in those five verses in Psalm 103. What do the blessings, the gifts, five or six of them, what do those gifts of God do in the heart of the psalmist? What do they actually do?
Here’s the answer: they cause the psalmist to praise God, not to praise the gifts, though they are beautiful, wonderful, great, glorious, satisfying — oh, how wonderful to be healed and to be forgiven! Here’s what he says: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul.” Now, this gets at what Robert was saying when he says that we diminish God’s glory by neglecting the inventory of his gifts. That’s right. The psalmist shows both of those insights because he clearly is giving God glory because of the gifts, not in spite of the gifts. And this is clearly coming from his heart, a heart of love, his soul: “Bless the Lord, O my soul.” His soul is being stirred up for God by God’s gifts.
Test Your Treasure
Why would I even mention, let alone emphasize, that his gifts are dangerous, that they might lure us away from God? Well, first, because that’s what we see happening to millions and millions of people every single day. They take God’s gifts from God’s hands and feel nothing for God. It’s called idolatry. And second, because texts like Philippians 3:8 say, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”
“We can diminish God’s glory by being unconcerned with inventorying God’s gifts.”
So, how in the world do we put that together? We put it together like this: when Paul views the healing of a disease, for example, as a competitor with Christ in his affections — that is, if he sees it as a rising temptation to love health and life more than he loves Christ — he counts it as rubbish. And that’s how he fights for genuine faith: by comparison to Christ, they are rubbish. He preaches that to himself, and he counts them as rubbish so that Christ remains Christ, and God remains the treasure in his life.
And I would say this to all of us: Test your heart to see if you can say that. Can you say, “In comparison to Christ, all is rubbish; if I must choose, I choose Christ”?
But when he views the healing of his diseases as a blessing from God, and for the glory of God, and for the advancement of God’s saving purposes in the world, Paul will soar with the psalmist, “Bless the Lord, O my soul. Don’t forget any of his benefits.” He does it at the beginning of almost every letter he writes. He just erupts with thanksgiving for the gifts of God’s people.
‘Great Is the Lord!’
Here’s a test case that we can all use to discern whether the gifts of God are having the wrong effects on our souls. The test is in Psalm 40:16 and Psalm 70:4. And the tests go like this:
- Psalm 40:16: “May those who love your salvation say continually, ‘Great is the Lord!’” — not “Great is the gift!”
- Psalm 70:4: “May those who love your salvation say evermore, ‘God is great!’”
I’m asking, Is that the effect that the gifts of God have on you? Do they cause you, me, to feel and to say, “Great is the Lord! God is great!”? That’s the test.
So, thank you, Robert, for pressing in on this. I think you’re absolutely right, and I’m glad for the clarification. Conclusion: we love God more than we love his gifts, and we love God more because of his gifts.