Words of Life
Do you long to find a deep sense of inner peace and well-being that transcends anything this material world has to offer? If so, you are not alone in this desire. After many years of pastoral ministry and counseling troubled people, I have come to the conclusion that, whether they know it or not, this is what all persons are seeking. That being said, I can also declare with equal certitude that God also wants all persons to experience that peace that passes understanding, and unlike the world, He is more than able to deliver the goods. If then we long for profound rest in our souls and God offers it to us, why is there such an incredible disconnect and falling short in this matter? That we are missing this coveted mark is undeniable.
Americans today are the most medicated society in history. The prevalence of antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, muscle relaxants and sleeping pills more than attests to the fact that we have failed miserably in our quest for inner rest and peace. It concomitantly demonstrates how earnestly we are pursuing a solution for our emptiness. You can see a similar effort being played out in Americans’ penchant for escapism as reflected in their addiction to myriad forms of fantasy—practiced through movies, videos and digital gaming—as well as the pursuit of vicarious highs as spectators of an unending lineup of sporting events.
I don’t mean to be creating a “straw target” argument, but the root problem here is in failing to recognize that our inner rest and peace should not be an end in itself but rather the result of a greater priority. The peace that passes understanding cannot be found in the things of this world, but rather emanates from a proper pursuit of God which includes a scrupulous adherence to his Word. As persons created in the image of God, we were created for fellowship or communion with our heavenly Father. It is that ever deepening relationship that brings us into a constantly fuller sense of rest and peace, of quietness of soul.
Our faithful response to God’s Word is absolutely critical in establishing and growing our relationship with him. The beginning of that relationship is through our first act of faith in accepting Christ as our personal savior and committing ourselves as followers of him. Once we have taken this step of eternal life we have crossed a threshold entering into a journey of spiritual maturation that leads to conformity to the image of Christ. Paul expressed to the church at Philippi exactly what should be resident in every believer’s heart after taking that initial step of salvation. Having been confronted by Jesus on the road to Damascus and surrendering his life to him, Paul was filled with a deep abiding desire to know God in the fullest sense.
I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:10-14 NIV).
The phenomenal experience of meeting Christ on the road to Damascus wasn’t an end-all or epitome event for Paul. Rather it was a launching event that commenced his journey in pursuit of knowing the fullness of Christ in his life. The “knowing” that Paul referenced had nothing to do with intellectual knowledge. He wasn’t interested in knowing about Jesus, he was insatiably hungry for a progressively deepening relationship that in essence would never culminate. The New Testament verb for “to know” has the connotation of deepest intimacy and is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament with reference to the husband/wife relationship.
And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth (Gen 4:25 NKJV).
We need now to consider more definitively the place the Word plays in our relationship with the Lord. In a very real sense God’s Word acts as a catalyst in the transformative life we are called to in Christ. In the final analysis it is our response to the Word that determines whether God’s Word is informative or transformative in our lives. Making faithful responses means we are cooperating with God as he makes us his workmanship in Christ Jesus. To do this we must learn to read the Bible transformationally rather than just informationally. In reading this way, we are seeking to discover in what manner God desires to conform our lives more to the image of Christ. Understanding this, we make conscious decisions consistent with the revelation God is giving us. We must be careful never to treat God’s Word legalistically. The Bible is not a set of rules or do’s and don’ts. Certainly there are many imperatives in Scripture such as the Ten Commandments. However, legalism is a function of the heart. If we truly desire communion with God, we will gladly embrace the Word regardless of how deeply it cuts into our fleshly nature.
It is a sad commentary on the lack of Christian maturity when believers respond to the Word as if God is somehow trying to curtail our fun or rob us of the joy of life by placing onerous restrictions upon us. If we were to reflect on our respective childhoods, we could no doubt recall numerous occasions when our parents impeded our aspirations and actions with what we deemed to be unwarranted intrusions. As children we tended to be mostly myopic regarding our direction, intents and desires failing to appreciate the grander scheme of things. Now with hindsight we can more fully value the “restrictions” our parents employed through our developing years no doubt securing for us richer opportunities in life. Although parents sometimes explain the rationale for their prudence and guidance, most feel no sense of obligation to do so. Part of growing up and being properly under the authority of one’s parents is learning to honor and trust not only their judgments but even more importantly their motives.
Fast forwarding to adulthood, it is easy to see the parallels as we learn to accept and esteem the Lord’s providential ways in our lives. God’s design is always eternal in nature and motivated by his unfathomable love for us.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope” (Jer 29:11 NLT).
One of the greatest marks of spiritual maturity is in accepting the “discipline” of God. In the letter to the Hebrews, it is made abundantly clear that it is God’s discipline in our lives that validates our sonship in Christ.
But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons (Heb 12:8 NASB).
One of the things that makes spiritual discipline problematic to many Christians is that they never experienced in their natural life discipline within a loving context. The experience of most is having received discipline accompanied by severe anger. This is most tragic since the true biblical intent of discipline is never realized. The Bible is clear in that God disciplines us for our own eternal good and when he does it is out of a motivation of love, never anger. The failure of parents to comprehend and practice this does great damage to their children’s relationship with God.
The word “discipline”—translated chastisement in the KJV—has a rich meaning in the original Greek. According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, the Greek word “paydeea” is describing the whole training and education of children; it includes the employ of commands, admonitions, reproofs and punishment; it is defined as instruction which aims at the increase of virtue. Understanding this biblical perspective, it is easy to see how futile and damaging the harsh, angry discipline of so many parents truly is. We can also understand why so many believers are predisposed to resisting God’s loving discipline in their lives.
These concepts we have been discussing are wonderfully illustrated in the Old Testament account of Moses’ leadership with Israel in the wilderness journeying. As the children of Israel are completing their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, Moses takes the occasion to reiterate for them the crucial sayings, commands, rules and instructions given once before to the nation. In this reiteration, Moses makes an incredibly profound statement which is as germane for believers today as it was for the Israelites of antiquity.
These instructions are not mere words—they are your life. By obeying them you will enjoy a long life in the land you will occupy when you cross the Jordan River. (Deut 32:47 NLT).
The title of the fifth book of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy, literally means second law or the second giving of the law. The entire book only represents a brief span of time as it is simply a reiteration, a re-giving of the law to Israel following their 40 year wilderness peregrination. This giving again of the law was basically occasioned by the fact that Moses was now addressing a second generation of Israelites as the original people—all those who rebelled—had died off during the wilderness journeying.
In thinking about the spiritual significance of this second generation of post-Egypt Israel, it brings to mind being given by grace a second opportunity to make a faithful response to what God is speaking into one’s life. Very often we are guilty of making faulty or sinful knee-jerk responses to that which affronts our sense of what we think is right or what it is we want for ourselves. Knee-jerk responses are often accentuated with anger, impatience, intolerance, self-centeredness and thoughtlessness. I believe God in his unfathomable wisdom and grace gives us space to back up and reconsider our initial faithless, disobedient responses. I tend to categorize responses as either knee-jerk or chosen. The first represents those decisions made sans reflection and consideration and the second is our purposeful, thought-out chosen response reflecting faithfulness and obedience to God’s word. I’m not saying there might not be consequences for our knee-jerk responses, just that I believe God allows us a second chance to demonstrate our trust in him for whatever it is he is doing in our lives. In between knee-jerk and chosen responses something in us must completely die out, just as that first generation of Israelites also died out. Chosen responses are very often second generational responses.
Israel was given the grace to make a second and more faithful response to what God was doing in their lives. Moses—in going back over all that God had spoken to Israel—was ensuring that they were equipped with God’s promises and commands as the proper context from which they would make all their decisions. Lacking the written materials we so take for granted today, Israel—like many other nations of that day—had developed an oral tradition. This means that ostensibly the narrative of God’s providence in their national life would be known by the people. The great story of their deliverance from Egypt, the miraculous provisions of food and water, the shoes and clothes that didn’t wear out, the military exploits over greater nations than themselves, all would be common knowledge either through personal experience or related narratives. Therefore as Moses painstakingly worked his way through all of the Lord’s instructions for Israel, he felt compelled to reinforce to them how imperative God’s word for them truly was. “These instructions are not mere words…they are your life.”
For Israel many of these precepts were carved in stone further signifying the imperativeness of what God spoke to them. For Christians, in addition to having the advantage of the Bible readily available, God’s word is meant to be written on our hearts. However, it is not just that which we already have recorded as our Bible that is of prime interest to us. We have a living relationship with the Lord through Christ that positions us to hear God’s word to our hearts on a day to day basis. That which God speaks daily to our hearts is completely consistent with the truth he has already given us in the Bible. Daily words from God are simply a working out of the eternal truths recorded in the Bible. The Holy Spirit—understanding our spiritual state and needs—carefully tailors the Word day by day in such a manner that calls us onward more and more into the fullness of Christ. It is these daily words from God that are not “mere words” for us but are our very lives. This practice is the very thing that brings the Bible out of a static, legalistic state into living words.
Jesus spoke more than once about “having ears to hear.” His messages to the seven churches of Revelation all concluded with this warning:
He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God (Rev 2:7 KJV).
Overcoming and partaking of the fullness that Christ died to give us is totally predicated on our willingness to heed God’s daily words into our lives. It should go without saying that developing a consistent devotional life of prayer and word is paramount in this process. Hopefully we will be committed to make second generational responses as the Lord makes us his workmanship in Christ Jesus.
These instructions are not mere words—they are your life.