Bad Christian Tippers and a Theology of Grace

Christians are bad tippers. At least that’s what the Internet is telling us these days.

I’ve never worked as a waiter or host at a restaurant, so I can only take the word of those who have. And they’re saying that Sunday is the worst time for tips, and that the church crowd is stingy and mean. Actually, it’s an accusation that’s been around for many years, long before the Internet; I remember hearing it repeated by preachers when I was a kid.

A few Christian bloggers have responded quite strongly to the “Christians are bad tippers” concept. I’ve seen a few articles to this effect: “How dare we claim the name of Jesus Christ when we only tip 5% or (gasp!) not at all!”

Fair enough. Stingy people probably don’t represent Jesus as well as they (we?) could.

But…what if the very same attitude that motivates us to publicly shame our fellow Christians is also responsible for poor tipping? Let me explain.

When you are tempted to tip poorly, what is your reasoning? You probably feel on some level that the server doesn’t deserve your money, right? Perhaps he or she failed to serve you well. Or maybe you just don’t think the whole tipping system makes any sense. These people should just be paid a decent salary to begin with. So you give a measly tip as a way to punish the server, or the restaurant owner, or the entire industry.

But generosity springs from a heart of grace and kindness. Generosity requires, at times, that I give people the benefit of the doubt. True generosity means that sometimes I give a good tip despite the performance of the server or the flaws in the restaurant business. That’s actually what gracious generosity entails.

Those who receive grace and generosity are more likely to extend grace and generosity.

So let me make the connection explicitly now. How does the attitude that publicly shames bad Christian tippers create the very problem we hope to destroy? By communicating that our value in God’s economy is based upon our performance! We continue to perpetuate the lie that something like the size of a restaurant tip separates “good” Christians from “bad” Christians.

“Are you saying it’s OK for Christians to tip poorly?” Of course not. I’m just saying there’s a better way to address it. Instead of grabbing the nearest blunt instrument with which to beat our fellow believers, what if we consistently told them about the lavish generosity and grace of Jesus Christ? For that matter, what if we actually showed the grace of Jesus even to bad tippers?

We can be generous because God was so generous toward us! We aren’t generous because we’re afraid somebody will disapprove – the server, some blogger, our pastor. We’re generous because God has lavished His love on us.

So the next time you see or hear about a fellow Christian giving a lousy tip, try a new approach. Leave a good tip on the other person’s behalf! If you walk by the table and see a fifty-cent tip for a twenty-dollar meal, why not drop five dollars on the table? Don’t do it because it makes you a good boy or girl. Do it because that represents the generous heart of God.

Don’t bother to take a picture of the lousy tip and post it on Facebook with a scathing response. Instead, just right the wrong. After all, that’s what Jesus did for us, isn’t it? He walked by and saw how pathetic our little offerings were, how utterly weak and inadequate our attempts at goodness and righteousness. And He decided to go ahead and pay the tab for us.

And if you need to do so, in the context of your (real life) friendship with a bad Christian tipper, explain why you do what you do. Explain that the mercy and grace of Christ extends to the worst of waiters, the poorest of tippers, and the vilest of sinners.

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There is no Thanksgiving Without God

Thanksgiving only works if you have Someone to thank. 

Without God, you can be happy about your family, your health, or your stuff, but you can’t be thankful. Thankfulness means that you recognize the source of your blessings.

I’m always baffled by the TV specials and advertisements that promote “thankfulness” without any acknowledgement of God. Who are we thanking? Without God, Thanksgiving is nothing more than a day off work, a chance to overeat and watch football. Without God, the Thanksgiving holiday becomes, ironically, a perfect illustration of Romans 1, in which we worship the creation rather than the Creator. We worship idols on a day explicitly set aside for thanking God.

I don’t think it’s only atheists who forget this principle, though.

I’ve noticed how easy it is for me to fall into the very same trap. I say, “I’m so grateful for my job,” without actually thanking God for my job (or my family or my health or whatever else). It’s even possible to do a month of thankfulness on Facebook, without ever acknowledging the One who gave us everything.

True gratitude is an act of humility in which I recognize that everything I have comes from God. I thank Him, because without Him I wouldn’t even exist. He alone is the Source of Life and Salvation, and the Giver of every good gift (James 1:17).

So this Thanksgiving, let’s not simply say what we’re thankful for. Let’s remember Who we’re thankful to. And let’s actually thank Him, not only for earthly blessings, but for heavenly ones as well. He made us, He knows us, He loves us, and He saves us. Our blessings prompt us to thank God, but they ought never replace Him in our hearts and minds.

Because without Him, there’s no such thing as true thankfulness.

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Do You Need to Be a Scholar to Understand God’s Word?

Sometimes during a sermon, your pastor might refer to the meaning of a word or phrase in the original Greek or Hebrew language. For some Christians, finding out that our English Bibles have been translated from other languages is a little bit troubling. Is it possible that some significant doctrine was lost in translation? And if you don’t know Greek or Hebrew, should you worry that you’ll never really understand the Bible?

If those questions trouble your mind, let me put it at ease: Knowing Greek or Hebrew is not a prerequisite to knowing God or understanding His Word. I spent a great deal of money and several years of my life studying Greek and Hebrew (along with theology, church history, and a variety of other pastor-y topics). I am immeasurably grateful for my training. The knowledge I gained in seminary is a useful tool, one that I think makes me a better preacher. I strongly encourage those who are considering a teaching or preaching ministry to spend time building that kind of biblical and theological foundation.

That said, I don’t think that you have to be a scholar to be a thoughtful Christian. You don’t need a seminary degree to faithfully read, interpret, and apply God’s Word. Why do I say that?

First, in most cases, knowing the original languages doesn’t change my understanding of the basic meaning of a biblical text. No major Christian doctrine changes as a result of reading the Bible in Greek or Hebrew. The translations we have available to us (especially in English) are excellent. Even in situations where the Greek and Hebrew help illuminate a text’s meaning, they don’t change the primary point of the passage.

Second, God has provided us with teachers and scholars who do understand the original languages. Here’s the secret your pastor might not tell you: most pastors don’t have a deep or exhaustive understanding of Greek or Hebrew. Imagine traveling to China with a friend who has lived there for 3 months. Because your friend knows some basic phrases like, “Where is the bathroom” and “I am wearing yellow pants,” he sounds fluent to you (because you don’t know a single word of the language). But your friend isn’t fluent; there are people much more skilled with the language. The same is true of your pastor. We’ve studied the original languages for a couple of years, but we rely on scholars who have devoted their lives to the study of Greek or Hebrew.

Why do I tell you that sordid little secret? Because I don’t feel the least bit ashamed when I read commentaries or consult scholars to help me interpret the Bible. I think God gave scholars to the body of Christ to help me understand His Word. In the same way, don’t feel ashamed that you learn about God’s Word from preachers and teachers.

I’m not endorsing a medieval Catholic understanding of interpretation, in which one person simply hands down the “right” understanding of the Bible from on high. Instead, I’m saying that different people have different gifts within the body of Christ (see Ephesians 4:11-13 and 1 Corinthians 12:4-31). No one person possesses all of the gifts, and that’s alright. Some people are teachers, others are evangelists, others are encouragers, and so on.

(This is indirectly related, but if you think about it you’ll probably remember several Christian doctrines that you believe because you were taught them, not because you just figured them out from the Bible. One such doctrine that immediately springs to mind is the Trinity. It is true, and it is biblical, but it took the entire Church quite some time to understand it and articulate it well. Now, we hand it down from generation to generation, rather than expecting each new era of believers to just figure it out).

There is no shame in relying upon the gifts of other people, as long as I recognize that their gifts will never replace my own walk with God. When I was in college, I heard Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade, talk about evangelism. Sharing the Gospel was as natural to him as breathing. I left his talk feeling discouraged rather than motivated. That wasn’t his fault, though. I had a faulty view of the body of Christ. I believed that if I wasn’t a natural evangelist like Bright, then I would never know God as well as He did. I thought I was a subpar Christian, in other words. The reality, however, is that I ought to be able to appreciate someone else’s gifts — and learn from them — without feeling discouraged that mine are different.

What this means in relation to understanding the Bible is this: It’s alright to learn from skilled teachers, while still studying God’s Word for yourself. You should feel free to (kindly) question your pastor’s interpretation of the Bible, because he isn’t infallible. You should also seek a variety of voices to help you understand and grow in God’s Word. Also, don’t forget that walking with God is more than simply knowledge. Walking with God involves the whole person — mind, body, and spirit. I can’t even quantify how much I learn about character, godliness, love, evangelism, and walking with God, from members of my own church who are not teachers. I’m learning to rejoice in their contributions rather than feel threatened by them.

So you don’t need to know Greek and Hebrew to know God or understand His Word. God gave you more than enough when He gave you the Holy Spirit and the body of Christ. We don’t walk alone, but together the entire body builds itself up in love, to faithfully know and serve Jesus.

Do you ever feel worried that you need to be a scholar in order to know God? Do you ever feel saddened that you don’t share the gifts of another person? How do you deal with that? 

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Random Kindness and the Image of God

One of my Facebook friends shared an article today, about a man who was photographed last week on the subway allowing a young stranger to sleep on his shoulder.

It’s been shared more than 20,000 times on Facebook and liked more than 97,000 times on the original page where it was posted. It’s hard to say why a picture like this would go viral — some have suggested that people are intrigued by a seemingly random connection between two men of starkly different races and backgrounds. Whatever the reason, people are clearly moved by what Mr. Thiel, the Jewish man in the photo, viewed as a very small kindness. I was more intrigued, though, by the statements Thiel made when he was interviewed:

“There is only one reason that I didn’t move, and let him continue sleeping, and that has nothing to do with race. He was simply a human being who was exhausted, and I knew it and happened to be there and have a big shoulder to offer him.”

Without stating it directly, Mr. Thiel made it clear that he was motivated (consciously or not) by the fact that both men share the image of God. He was kind, simply because this was a fellow human being, one who needed a soft place to sleep. In the same interview, Mr. Thiel said he can remember many times when his own head bobbed onto a stranger’s shoulder on the way home from work. He felt it was right to extend the same sort of kindness to a fellow human being in need. Such empathy stems from an understanding of our shared humanity, a humanity that is endowed with God’s image — even though that image is broken by sin.

One of the foundational concepts in the book of Genesis is that mankind is made in the image of God. If this had been a picture of a man and a monkey, it would have been cute, but it wouldn’t have been deeply moving. It’s moving because we recognize that we are called to treat fellow human beings with dignity, respect, and selflessness. We don’t treat people with kindness because they look, think, or believe like we do. We treat them with kindness because they are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27).

As Christians, we have the chance to reflect the perfect kindness of Jesus Christ. We know that the God of the Bible defines perfect love (1 John 4:8). That love is perfectly and completely reflected through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It’s in Jesus that we clearly see God’s image (Hebrews 1:3) and know what it looks like to reflect the Father.

Other than the fact of his Jewishness, I know next to nothing about Mr. Thiel. I do know that you and I are called to serve and care for other men and women because of what God has made them to be — image-bearers, made to worship Him, with the potential to reflect His glory to the rest of Creation.

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