Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A life worthy of the Lord—part 2

[continued from my earlier post]

Thinking about Colossians 1:9-12 and what it means to live a life worthy of the Lord and to please him in every way, I mused on the question of how we grow in the knowledge of God. Various teachers say that knowing God is different from knowing about God. Could we say that knowing about God is kind of superficial? Maybe we'd say that knowing about God would imply the ability to list a bunch of adjectives: eternal, all-knowing, etc., whereas knowing God himself implies knowing what kinds of things he does and doesn't do, what he likes and dislikes, what he cares about and so on.

If that's a helpful distinction, I suppose the latter is more relevant. Would it please God if I had a clear understanding of what he would and wouldn't do, what he cares about, what he likes and such? The short answer would be "yes," and it's not hard to find passages in the Bible that support this. Jeremiah 9:23–24 for example—let not the wise man boast of his wisdom (etc.) but let him who boasts boast … that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these things I delight.

And Jeremiah 31:34—I was going to just give you a link, but I just saw something that's got me so excited that I want to give you the text here. Look at the last verse (34):

31“The time is coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. 33“This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
Jeremiah 31:31-34 (NIV)
Do you see it? What is it that makes it possible for them (or us) to know the Lord? He doesn't say "They will all know me… for they will reach that place in their cultural and intellectual evolution…" Nor does he say, "for they will finally decide to provide universal education." They (or we) will all know him, “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

How does that work? He forgives his people and somehow they automatically know him? I think something else is probably involved. Prophets often speak elliptically and this is no exception. This reminded me of the time Jesus visited the home of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50), where he explains that people love much when they're forgiven much, but “he who has been forgiven little loves little.”

As even a casual reading of Matthew 5 will show, every one of us stands in much need of forgiveness, because we sin in various (numerous) ways: we're angry unreasonably (5:22), we nurse inappropriate desires (5:28), we divorce each other (5:32), we ignore the poor (5:42), we don't love our enemies (5:44). If all our sins are forgiven, then much has been forgiven. So what does Jesus mean in Luke 7:47?

I think it's this: the more I understand just how much I've been forgiven, the more I'll love and know God. I find it fascinating that when God talks about knowing him, the first thing he talks about is knowing his great mercy: did you notice the order of attributes the Lord uses when he talks about himself in Jeremiah 9:24 above? … that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the Lord. Note the first word: kindness. This is the way God identifies himself throughout the Bible in the overwhelming majority of cases.

The so-called “sinful woman” in Luke 7:37 knew that her sin was great, and when she experienced forgiveness she knew that the forgiveness was great: she knew something about God's kindness and mercy that Simon the Pharisee did not.

Two more things on this topic, both from this weekend as it turns out: first, the sermon recounted a conversation Moses had with the Lord in Exodus 33:18-19. Moses says, “Now show me your glory,” and the Lord replies, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you”—I find this remarkable. His glory, he says, is shown in his goodness. The very next thing he says is, “I will proclaim my name… in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy…” Again: goodness and mercy are the first things he talks about.

The second thing from this weekend is that we had someone come to our church and say he wanted to follow Jesus. Why did he decide to follow Jesus? Because he understood that Jesus was kind.

So: one way—not the only way, but an important way—we grow in our knowledge of God is by remembering and thinking about his kindness and goodness and mercy. Of course the Lord has other attributes; as we read in Jeremiah 9, he “exercises kindness, justice and righteousness,” and he has many other attributes. But kindness first.

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