To whatever extent we follow God’s perfect commands we will benefit from following them. I believe wholeheartedly that His commands were meant to bless us; however, as fallen creatures in a fallen world, we are unable to follow them with any degree of consistency, and, as a result, we will never experience by our own obedience in this life the fullness which God originally planned for us.
The heart of the matter is that, as a result of sin, our priorities are irreparably disordered. We know that God should be first in our lives. Scripture is clear that we should love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, strength and mind, then our neighbors as ourselves; and, as Christians, we want that to be the case; but, the reality is, it is not. Therefore, because God is not our first priority nothing else falls into place; particularly our relationships.
We go into our relationships intending to do our best to love our neighbors as ourselves; we want to be good spouses, faithful friends, devoted parents, honorable children. We plan to live out God’s commands. But we don't. Despite our desires and best efforts, we will not fully surrender any area of our lives to God, much less every one of them. So deep is our love of self that we will inevitably put ourselves first; even when we aren't aware that we are doing it.
What is the answer to this dilemma? Many pastors have taken the position that the answer lies in preaching more sermons telling us that God should be our first priority; followed by suggestions as to how that can be achieved: Putting structures into place like daily quiet time, more Bible study, accountability groups, etc.. This position optimistically assumes that, with an understanding of the problem combined with hard work, determination and the watchful eyes of friends willing to confront us, we can finally get our priorities straight.
I grew up with those sermons, and I clearly remember repeatedly leaving the sanctuary armed with my notes, my resolve and my youthful optimism, ready to get my life in order. All these years later, I have a different perspective. As David Zahl of Mockingbird pointed out recently in an interview on Steve Brown, Etc., it’s us “blue hairs” who seem to most easily grasp the problem with this approach. I can tell you from personal experience, if that is the case, it is because, after many failed experiments with many different structures, plans and programs to help us finally live up to God’s commands, our optimism has died. If we are completely honest with ourselves, for all of our good intentions and efforts, we have seen little to no change; and the changes we think we might see are likely a result of being too tired to actively disobey as we did when we were younger.
Counterintuitively, this place where optimism dies, where we have given up on our own ability to structure our lives and our priorities, and we stand bereft before God, is the very place where God can meet us with the good news. It is not until we accept the futility of our own efforts to be blessed on the basis of keeping God’s commands, that we are finally ready to receive all of the blessings God is ready to freely give us on the basis of Christ’s obedience in our place.
Finally, rather than mourning my failure to be the person I always thought I would eventually become, I can find relief and rest in the imputed righteousness of my Savior. Once I have let go of the rigid expectations I had for myself, I begin to learn to let go of my rigid expectations for those around me. To whatever extent I grasp that only Christ’s priorities were straight, only he loved God with all of his heart, soul, strength and mind, and only he loved his neighbor as himself, will I find freedom and be enabled to offer that freedom to others.
The growth I experience as a result will come first in the form of delight in God and what he sent his beloved Son to accomplish for me on the cross and then a heightened awareness and hatred of my continued sin in the face of the grace being given to me, and this will continue to drive me back to the cross. As the cycle repeats, typically without my awareness, my empathy grows and my relationships begin to change. I recognize that we are all sinners reckoned by God as saints, on account of Christ; wholly loved because of the obedience of another, and as such I have no basis to put myself above you and vice versa.
But this transformative cycle can never take place while I am still optimistically grasping at the straw that with determined effort I will one day get my priorities straight. It is not until the optimist within me dies that I will be enabled to say, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness.” And that is the only safe place to put my hope.