Landon, a seminary student, writes in to ask, “Pastor John, I struggle with envy toward a brother and dear friend in Christ who has received abundant gifts and opportunities from the Lord in this life that I simply don’t have. Many times, it can become very difficult not to question whether God loves my friend more than me. Does God delight in some of his children more than others?”
Well, I am going to answer that with a “yes” or “no” in just a minute, but let me say a bit at the beginning. I think there is a good deal of confusion about this because of an unbiblical overplay or overextension of the doctrine of justification. — that is, drawing out inferences from justification that the Bible does not draw.
Justification vs. Delight
Here is an example: Since God sees me in Christ and his perfect righteousness as his child, he therefore sees all his children the same with the same emotional response to each one because each one is perfect in Christ. Now that, I say, is an unbiblical overextension — an overplay of the doctrine of justification. It needs to be corrected by Scripture instead of logic. God does not have the same emotional response to all his children. What the imputation of the righteousness of Christ means is that God does not see my sin as any longer condemning me. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). My sins are all forgiven. And the perfection that God’s standards call for are met. And I will never come into condemnation. That is what justification means.
“The faithful use of a small gift elicits more delight in God than the poor use of a huge gift.”
That does not mean that God does not see my sin and my obedience and feel differently about each one. God is pleased with my obedience, and he is grieved by my sin. That is abundantly clear in the language of the New Testament letters. “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God” (Ephesians 4:30). Or positively, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (Ephesians 6:1). Or, in 1 Thessalonians 4:1, Paul urges “how you ought to walk and to please God.” There are justified people who please God more or less.
So, the answer to Landon’s question, “Does God delight in some of his children more than others?” is, “Yes.” And he delights in you some days more than he delights in you other days. And we should heed Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 5:10: “Try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.” That is, try to discern what delights the Lord so you can be as fully delightful to him as possible.
Mercy, Not Merit
But Landon’s question went in a different direction: “When a brother has superior gifts to mine, is this a sign that God delights in him more than me?” That is a different question. And the answer to that is, “No.” That is not what those gifts mean. God chose the worst man he could find on the planet to give the greatest gift of apostleship to — Paul, the murderer — so that it would be clear these gifts were owing to mercy, not merit.
“God chose the worst man he could find to give the greatest gift of apostleship to so that it would be clear these gifts were owing to mercy, not merit.”
When Paul describes the gifts that Christians have, he is at pains in 1 Corinthians 12 — along with the writer of Hebrews 2 — to show that the gifts are owing to his free sovereignty and not to our superior delightfulness. Here is 1 Corinthians 12:11: “All these [gifts] are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.” And the point is, He is free. He apportions gifts in ways that are above what you can think. Don’t try to figure him out — why he gives to one this and to one that. Here is Hebrews 2:4: “God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.”
And if we start to ask, “But can’t a person with greater gifts please God more than one with lesser gifts?” the answer is, “Absolutely not.” Why? Because what pleases God is not that one can preach and another can pray, or one can write and another can work with his hands. What pleases God is how we use our gifts, not which ones we have. That is the point of the parable of the talents. “Well done, good and faithful servant” is not reserved for the man who got the most, but for those who were faithful.
Trust the Giver
Here is an illustration. This moved me deeply years ago; it so helped me as a younger pastor. Billy Graham came to town here. His headquarters used to be here in Minneapolis. He came here, and he gave a chapel address to all the employees over at the Billy Graham Association. A lot of those folks went to our church, and so one of them, a secretarial person, told me this story. In the chapel address, Billy Graham said to the employees that he expected some of them would receive greater rewards in heaven than he would. When they responded skeptically — which they did; he could see it on their faces — he became very serious, and he said, “Do you not understand that God rewards faithfulness, not fruitfulness?” Oh, that line just made a huge difference for me. The faithful use of a small gift elicits more delight in God than the poor use of a huge gift.
So envy — that is the question here, how to get over this envy — is a trust issue. Do we believe that God is good and strong and wise and gives gifts in the very best, wisest way for his glory and for our joy? Or do we want to say to God, “Well, I would have given them out differently and done a better job of it”? No. We don’t want to say that. It is a trust issue. And he is worthy of our trust. Preach to yourself the sovereign goodness and wisdom of God in the gifting of his people, and preach the freeness of his grace in doing it.