As you know, Pastor John, conferences are costly. And you have spoken at scores of conferences over the years, and many that dwarf our Pastors Conference when it comes to its size and venue cost and musical experience and lighting and production and frankly by the sheer budget. A listener to the podcast, Sean, writes in to ask this: “Pastor John, I’ve attended three Passion conferences as a student and have now volunteered at five other Passion conferences. God used Passion to turn my life right-side-up and to call me to the nations. I was introduced to the ministry of Desiring God through Passion, too. It is obvious to me that God has used these conferences for great good. I know Louie Giglio is a Christian Hedonist, and I think Passion has remained a Christ-centered movement. However, having seen the conferences now ‘behind the scenes’ as a volunteer, part of me has honestly been a little appalled at the sheer magnitude of expense, equipment, and labor that goes into an event of this size. Is there a biblical way to think about and support large conferences, that do so much good but, at the same time, at least on the surface, look somewhat out of character with the simplicity of Jesus’s wartime lifestyle?”
The first thing I would say is how thankful I am when anyone is wrestling in America, or in the west, with the question of whether our western prosperity, in any of its forms, is a good reflection of the life of Jesus and what Jesus calls us to live.
Now my own sense of this is that none of us has conformed every aspect of our lifestyle to the beauty of Christ and his radical orientation on God and heaven and people rather than self and this world and material possessions. None of us has arrived at conforming our lives to Jesus’s way fully. So I don’t begin to claim that I occupy a position at this moment that I could confidently hold up in every aspect as exemplary for everyone in America. Compared to the vast populations of the developing world, all of us in America, no matter how simple our lifestyle, are wealthy.
When the New Testament addresses the rich, we should think it is addressing us, not just the millionaires on Wall Street. In other words, it isn’t just large conferences or concerts or crusades that attract tens of thousands of people and may cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. It isn’t just them that look out of character when compared to the first century Palestinian simplicity.
Everything looks out of character. Everything in modern life looks out of character with Jesus’s way of life. Simply to have a car looks wildly out of character. To live in a house with central heating, indoor plumbing, no outhouse, drinking water flowing out of every faucet in the house, electricity lighting every room with wonderful light any time of day or night, refrigeration, keeping all our food from spoiling for weeks, communication devices to put us in touch with the police if we need police within five minutes or medical help. It is just incredible! I can just punch three numbers into my phone and somebody will show up to save my life in three minutes from Hennepin County Medical Center. I have seen it done. Hundreds of books on every shelf in my house. Computer software that lets me examine any part of the Bible or any book anywhere in the world within seconds. All of these are stunningly different, out of character, feels out of character with the lifestyle of a first century Palestinian peasant.
Nothing is to be taken for granted! Sometimes we think of lifestyle in terms of denying ourselves a few things here and there, failing to realize everything in our life is a mark of wealth and prosperity and just incredible advances scientifically and other ways.
So amen to Shawn for asking the question. And my approach now to lifestyle issues of this sort is to try to take the main aim of Scripture and pursue it by balancing two guidelines. So here is what I mean. The main aim of Scripture is to magnify the supreme truth and beauty and worth of Jesus Christ. That is the ultimate aim of all things, to magnify the supreme truth and beauty and worth of God in Christ or Jesus Christ to the glory of the Father.
To live to show that Jesus is better than life is the goal of life. To spend money in a way that shows Jesus is better than money is the goal of money.
To buy or rent a house to show that Jesus is better than a house is the way you are supposed to buy a house.
To get an education to show that Jesus is better than education is the way to get an education — and on and on and on.
So the ultimate aim of the Bible, of Scripture, of history, of life, of the universe, of God in all things is to magnify the supreme truth, beauty, and worth of Jesus. Now there are two guidelines with regard to lifestyle that guide me in pursuing that goal.
1) God gives us good gifts of creation to be enjoyed as expressions of his own all-satisfying nature. First Timothy 6:17 says, “As for the rich in this present age” — that’s us! — “charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.” In other words, enjoy God’s gifts in creation without experiencing them as more satisfying than God or separated from God. Be thankful to God for them and taste God in them.
2) We are not yet in heaven. We are not in paradise. We are not yet beyond death. We are not yet beyond sickness or sin or depression or hunger or genocide or injustice or poverty or crime or addictions or divorce or ethnocentrism or hatred. And, therefore, to think of maximizing earthly comforts and securities and pleasures now is a fundamental misreading of the age we live in. We are at war with the god of this world and the stakes are eternal and the weapons are spiritual and how we live should reflect this wartime mindset.
So those are my two principles to keep in balance: a world to enjoy as a gift of God and a world to save in the power of God.
My way of sorting through lifestyle issues — including very expensive conferences, or mission trips, or church buildings — is not to think merely in terms of simplicity, but in terms of wartime effectiveness. In wartime you may not change the tires on your car because the front line needs the rubber for the jeeps. And in that sense you are radically simple, but you may also build a $50 million B-52 bomber to deliver the knock out blow to the enemy that ends the war.
Jesus presses us toward a wartime lifestyle for the sake of others, not merely for the sake of simplicity in itself. “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens” (Luke 12:33). Or Luke 16:9: “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” Or Luke 12:29–31: “Do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.”
So the aim is always the great eternal good and advance of the kingdom in people’s hearts and lives. A wartime lifestyle does not romanticize about simple living as if the world in its lost condition benefited from my growing vegetables in the back yard or my having only two pairs of jeans I wear every other day. That does no good for the world at all, necessarily. A wartime lifestyle may spend a great deal of money to accomplish some great good for the world and, in the process, that expense may look like something Jesus never did. In fact, he didn’t. But that difference, I think, is incidental if the deeper commitments are the same: God and heaven and people over self and this world and material possessions.
So here is my counsel to all of us. Whether you have a small influence over one other person in your life or a huge influence, say, a $100,000 salary or a $500,000 salary does not have to be accompanied by a corresponding $100,000 or $500,000 lifestyle. That’s the American lie. God is calling us to be conduits of grace and resources, not cul-de-sacs. Our danger today is thinking that the conduit has to be gold-lined. It shouldn’t be. Copper will do. Copper will do as we channel a $500,000 salary into good for others while we live at a $60,000, $40,000, $50,000 lifestyle.
And here is the great reason. Now I am trying to respond to prosperity stuff here. Gratitude for luxury impresses no one with our Savior. No matter how grateful we are, lining our lives with gold will not make the world think that our God is great. It will make the world think that our god is gold. That is no honor to the supremacy of his worth — none. But his supremacy, his being infinitely more valuable than gold, is why we live.