By Thomas Lambrecht –
We human beings do not like to be told what to do. Our DNA was formed in disobedience and rebellion in the first garden, when Adam and Eve decided they knew better than God.
We sometimes feel bound or restricted by the law. We tend to obey those laws that we think are appropriate or those for which we can understand the reason. We can understand why we need to go 30 mph in a crowded city street, but out in the country on a deserted road, we are more likely to disregard the speed limit.
We often take the same approach when it comes to God’s Law, as taught in Scripture. Those laws we can understand and affirm gain much more willing obedience than those laws that contradict our desires or do not make sense to us. The vision of God as an eternal traffic cop actually brings out a bit of the rebellious streak in all of us.
From Law to Instruction
That is why it is helpful to reframe our understanding of God’s Law. The Hebrew word for law (torah) more accurately means “teaching” or “instruction.” The purpose of God’s Law is not punishment, but teaching us God’s way of living.
This fits in well with our contemporary understanding of mentoring. We are encouraged to seek out mentors who can teach and guide us in our career or work life, and even in basic life skills, as well. (Previous generations looked to “Dear Abby” and Emily Post.) We look to models and instructors who can help us learn the ropes of life and work, marriage and parenting.
The ultimate mentor, however, is the Lord God of the universe. He created us and knows us intimately, having formed us in the womb. He knows how life is supposed to work, since he designed it. And he knows all things. He does not need to be taught anything. His knowledge is complete and expert beyond human knowledge.
Even more important, our mentor God loves us unconditionally and wants us to succeed in living a fulfilling and purposeful life. He is for us, not against us. He longs for us to fulfill the purpose for which we were made. Who better to teach us how to live life?
Psalm 19 describes for us this teaching function of God’s Law, reminding us that we have access to God’s mentorship through his written Word in Scripture.
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.
The decrees of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.
The commandments of the Lord are right, bringing joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are clear, giving insight to life.
Reverence for the Lord is pure, lasting forever.
The laws of the Lord are true, each one is fair.
They are more desirable than gold, even the finest gold.
They are sweeter than honey, even honey dripping from the comb.
They are a warning to those who hear them; there is great reward for those who obey them.
(Psalm 19:7-11 NLT)
Basis for the Instruction
The psalm describes the nature of the laws and commandments of God, so that we know we can trust them. There are six characteristics:
- “Perfect” – without fault or flaw, pure
- “Trustworthy” – we can lean on them without fear that they will prove false or lead us astray
- “Right” – upright, straightforward, and just, not crooked or deceitful
- “Clear” – pure, free of guilt or blame, morally uncompromised
- “Pure” – clean, refined like gold, unmixed with sin
- “True” – reliable, stable, faithful, rooted in reality (this is the Hebrew word from which we get “Amen”)
If God’s instruction is all of these things (and more), would we not want to learn from it and put it into practice in our lives? Is not this teaching to be trusted more than any human wisdom, which is tainted by error or moral compromise?
Effects of the Instruction
Even more encouraging are the ways that God’s instruction is meant to affect our lives:
- “Reviving the soul” – God’s teaching provides life to the inner person. It addresses not just the physical, but also the human spirit and mind. It brings refreshment, like a cup of cold water on a hot day.
- “Making wise the simple” – God’s teaching allows us to live with wisdom. The “simple” are the uninstructed, the naïve. We can live (as my father would have put it) like “a babe in the woods” (knowing nothing), or we can live as we are taught to live, as God made us to live.
- “Bringing joy to the heart” – God’s instruction is not meant to discourage us or oppress us. Some people think living the Christian life takes all the joy out of life. On the contrary, living God’s way frees us from many of the worries and cares that suck the joy out of life.
- “Giving insight to life” – Literally, it says, “giving light to the eyes.” God’s instruction enables us to see clearly how to live. Where there is moral compromise, things quickly become foggy and confusing. People express various opinions about what is right, and there is often pressure to go along with what people advocate. God’s instruction enables us to cut through the fog and see clearly the way God wants us to live.
- “Lasting forever” – going on for perpetuity. God’s instruction never goes out of style. It applies in all times and all places. We can count on it always being true.
- “Each one is fair” – Literally, it says, “altogether righteous.” If our goal is to be righteous in life, God’s instruction is the way to get there. His instruction, taken as a whole, leads us to live a righteous life.
God’s instruction is more desirable than the finest gold. It is more valuable than any material possessions.
God’s instruction is sweeter than the freshest honey. It is more valuable and satisfying than any worldly pleasure.
God’s instruction warns us away from unproductive or destructive thoughts and behavior. Instead, it steers us toward great reward. We experience that reward in this life, as living God’s way leads to much joy and a lot less heartache or anxiety. But we also look forward to the greatest reward, which is eternal fellowship with the Lord.
To experience that divine fellowship, we need to become holy and righteous (Hebrews 12:14). God’s instruction helps us learn how. Of course, in our human strength we are unable to completely live by God’s instruction. We keep being distracted and led astray by temptations and circumstances, as well as self-will. That is why God sent the Holy Spirit to live within us and empower us. As God through Ezekiel promises us, “I will give them singleness of heart and put a new spirit within them. I will take away their hearts of stone and give them tender hearts instead, so they will obey my laws and regulations. Then they will truly be my people, and I will be their God” (Ezekiel 11:19-20).
When I was learning how to play piano as a child, my piano teacher taught and showed me how to do it. She taught me how to hold my hands, how to place them on the keys, which finger to use on what keys, and all the various techniques of playing the piano. I could have argued with her, thinking I knew better, or I could have resisted because I didn’t like to do it the way she wanted me to. By doing that, I would have forfeited my ability to learn to play the piano. She was a good teacher and taught me the right way to play. Learning from her enabled me to mature in music.
In the same way, God is a good teacher. He is the one to be trusted above all others. His Word sets out how to live a godly life. Living that way yields a lot of benefits and enables us to mature as a person. We can resist and rebel, but we are then hurting mainly ourselves and those we love. By cooperating with the Holy Spirit, we can learn and put into practice God’s instruction.
We can start with the Ten Commandments: honor and respect God, give him our highest allegiance, observe a day of rest and worship, honor our parents, do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false testimony against another, and do not covet what belongs to someone else.
We can go on from this foundation to explore the breadth and depth of God’s wisdom in all of Scripture, learning from the examples of the lives recorded there, as well as from the teaching found in its pages. We have a lifetime, and perhaps an eternity, of learning to live God’s way and being transformed into the likeness of Christ. Only so can we become all that God made us to be.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.