Publication: Pastoral Letter, October 2007

Dear Friend in Christ:

You will notice that that the title of this letter is “The Necessity of Life,” not the Necessities of Life. That is a very important distinction. I was told early in school that the necessities of life were food, shelter, and clothing. But, there is one issue that comes before those, and that’s what I want to write about.

I recently had a conversation with a friend who was engaged in numerous ministries and projects. We were trying to sort out the priorities for the immediate future. All of his agenda seemed so necessary.

My mind turned to a conversation I had with my father when I was sixteen years old. I was over-involved in activities, sports, friendships, speaking contests, and a singing quartet. The stress in my life was becoming apparent. “Charles, you think that you are necessary to all of this and do not realize that life could go on without you. If you want to know how necessary you are to all these activities, get a bucket of water and stick your finger in it. Then, jerk it out real fast; as long as the hole remains in the water, that is how long you are necessary to all of that!” I heard from God.

I’ll never forget that conversation or the analogy. It is easy to overbook our schedule and agenda with things that seem so necessary, but really are not. Sometimes it takes a crisis to force us to sort it out.

It used to be food, shelter, and clothes; now it is cars, TVs, phones, iPods, and whatever else others may have, or what we are told that we must have. Ours is an “entitlement” society. We believe we are deserving, and that our children deserve everything that anyone else has. As a result, things that are relatively unimportant become “necessities.” And in our pursuit of “life to its fullest,” we don’t really live at all.

Our measure of life has sadly become what we or others have. We measure nations by what they have. The ones that get the most win. Of course, that measure ignores the words of the One who we worship; He said, “Life does not consist in the abundance of the things one possesses” (see Luke 12:15).

So what is necessary, and how do we sort out the difference between the real necessity and what really is not? Here are a few stories that tell us the difference:

JACOB

Jacob, son of Isaac, was a conniver. He and his mother, Rebekah, conspired to steal his brother Esau’s birthright or blessing. In so doing, he earned Esau’s hatred and had to flee to his mother’s relatives who lived far away. Jacob then got into business with his Uncle Laban, who was also a conniver. The two of them spent years deceiving each other. In the end, Jacob had to flee again, but not before marrying both of Laban’s daughters and gaining large herds of livestock.

Now Jacob decided to go back home. But, he would have to deal with Esau,whose hatred for Jacob remained. As Jacob approached home, word came that Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men! That was a clue. So what did Jacob do?

Jacob did two very significant things. One, he began to divest himself of all he had. He began sending his flocks, servants, and even his wives as gifts to Esau. All of those things seemed unnecessary to him at that moment. Next, Jacob resumed his prayer life. He not only prayed; he got serious. He “wrestled” with God. In the process, God changed Esau’s heart and Jacob’s name. Jacob became “Israel,” a prince, one who rules. In giving up what wasn’t necessary, he
found what was necessary, and the rest was a gift from God.Striving gave way to trusting. But it took a crisis to sort it all out.

MICHAEL VICK

Like millions of Americans, I listened to Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick’s apology and admission of guilt in regards to his dog-fighting activity and extreme cruelty to the pit bulls that were trained to fight. It was a sad episode. Vick was a very highly-paid football player who had become a celebrity. But because of an activity unrelated to his career, he lost it all.

In Vick’s apology, he stated that he had found God and would redeem himself. I hope so. But it took a crisis to sort out what was really necessary. It wasn’t dog-fighting or football; it was God. Had he found that out earlier, his life would have been understood as a gift from God.

MARTHA

Martha’s story is famous but worth repeating (see Luke 10:38-42). She and her sister Mary were close friends of Jesus. What a privilege! On one occasion, Jesus is visiting their home. Mary is sitting in front of Jesus absorbing each word. But Martha is busy with hosting, preparing meals, and housework.

Finally, Martha becomes agitated at Mary’s lack of help and Jesus’ willingness to allow it. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?”

Jesus replied, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part which will not be taken away from her.” His statement put it all in perspective and that is what he wants to do for us.

Having been a “Martha” for most of my life, I can appreciate her position. So much seems necessary, but only one thing really is. That moment was an opportunity not to be missed. It would never come again. The unnecessary often causes us to miss these moments.

SHIPWRECK

Perhaps the most graphic account of sorting out the necessary from the unnecessary is given in Acts 27.Paul had been arrested and was being transported to Rome by ship. Paul perceived that a disaster lay ahead, but the soldier in charge believed it necessary to continue the journey.

At first the weather was clear, but soon it grew stormy. Then the next day, the storm got worse. As the storm worsened, the crew threw cargo overboard to lighten the ship. But the sun continued to be hidden by storm clouds. And when you would think that it couldn’t get worse, it did.

Paul was of course praying. He heard from God that no lives would be lost. Since he had previously warned the soldiers and crew, they were listening. They were all seasick and despairing of life. Paul’s instruction was to cut the life boat loose and run aground on an island. So they cut the life boat loose. There was no escape_and that is a crisis.

Then Paul did something unusual: in the darkness and horror of the storm, he gathered the 276 passengers and broke bread_a kind of communion service on a dark night. Then he instructed them to stay with the ship until it ran aground.

As the dawn came, they saw two realities: the ship had run aground in the shallows near the island; and second, the ship was breaking up. Some swam ashore, and some held onto a plank and floated there. No one was lost.

In the end, the cargo, the life boat, and not even the ship were necessary.What was necessary was that they heard from God. For some, one single plank was enough for their survival. The storm had sorted it out for them.

MALACHI

Israel had confused priorities and morals during the days of Malachi. They had kept their religious forms but traded away its substance. They offered sick and lame animals on God’s altar. God got the leftovers from other priorities in the process. They ignored their marriage vows, neglected their children, mistreated the poor and needy, and then wept because God wouldn’t listen to their prayers.

Malachi warned Israel that the Lord would send “the Messenger of the Covenant” to them and that He would be like a refiner’s fire. A refiner’s fire burns away the impurities. It separates the necessary from the unnecessary. Fires burn whatever will burn.

In Malachi 3:18 the prophet said, “Then you will again discern.”After the fire, the people would be able to see the difference between the real necessity and what was not important at all. Moral confusion had blinded Israel, but crisis would cause them to “see the light!” Indeed, the crisis came in the form of invading armies.

LESSON

In each of the above stories, we see how difficulty can cause us to see what is really vital. And what is that? It is hearing from God .Jacob, Martha, the ship’s crew, and yes, even Michael Vick can say the same. Jesus said it this way, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and these other things will be added to you.” In Matthew 4:4, He told Satan, “Man, shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”The enemy tried to tempt Jesus with power, food, fame, and sensationalism. But Jesus knew what was really necessary.

Jesus warns us that life does not consist in what we have or what others think; it consists of seeking God’s will and government in our lives. Does that mean that we need not be diligent in our pursuits? No. It means that He directs our diligence into the necessary areas where we become effective and productive. As He directs us, our efforts are backed by His grace and protection. By getting rid of the unnecessary and enjoying His provision, we eliminate anxiety and fear.

Does all of this apply to our churches or to our nation? I think so. I remember the lesson in World War II, but I fear that it has been forgotten by many. May God help us.

If your life’s “ship” is being driven by uncontrollable winds, let me remind you of the One who calms the sea. If you are about to meet the result of a past mistake, let me point you to the One who changes hearts. If you are troubled about many things, let me remind you of the one thing that is needful.

And by the way, don’t give God the leftovers. That represents a confusion of priorities that will have to be sorted out later. A crisis is not necessary for everyone. For those who continually listen to God’s voice, life can be peaceful even in the storms. The apostle Paul could tell us that. Jesus demonstrated the ability to sleep through a storm. I’m not there yet, but I’m working on it.

Our prayer for you is that you will hear Him say, “This is the way; walk in it.”

In Christ,
Charles Simpson

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Scripture Reference: Luke, Acts, Malachi,