THE LAW AND THE HEART SET FREE
If the OT Torah wasn't an exhaustive blueprint, spelling out every step believers were to take, how were they to know how to obey God? Maybe part of the answer is that they did what Christians do every day of their lives; they "winged" it. The first issue, always the first issue, was this: did Yahweh have the believer's heart? If he didn't, it wouldn't make a bit of difference if there had been an exhaustive blueprint for every thought or deed. But if he had the believer's heart, the rest could be worked out to God's glory and honour because that's what the servant would be bent on giving God—glory and honour.
The freeing of the heart
Yes, yes, very pretty, but if there's no exhaustive blueprint then everything is up for grabs. This isn't true and what's more we know it isn't true. Within the parameters of some foundational, non-negotiable truths that are made known to us, we work out how to live with our families, friends, societies and even enemies. We don't have to have a specific answer to every ethical question to know the direction we are to travel.
Just as important as the necessary information, there is the shape of the heart, there is the love for the family, and there is the moral and emotional commitment to our fellows. The hunger to please, the desire to be of service, the sense of gracious obligation that comes with the relationship all that feeds on the basic and profound truths, and finds new ways to serve when new situations bring new responsibilities.
So it isn't true that "everything is up for grabs" if there is no exhaustive blueprint. There are the parameters which have been given to us and there is the devoted heart that seeks to honour God and bless the neighbour within the scope of those parameters. We hear this from Paul in Romans 13:10: "Love does no harm to its neighbour." He doesn't give us an exhaustive discourse on how love will react in every possible situation because love will not always express itself in the same fashion. He does make one grand insistence: love will never seek the harm of a neighbour.
He makes the same point at greater length in Galatians 5:13-26 where the issue is the abuse of moral freedom. In essence he tells them: "If anyone is living in wickedness, defying moral goodness, and tells you he is following the Spirit that makes him free, don't believe him. The fruit the Spirit produces is love, joy, peace, and the like. Behaviour contrary to that is the work of the flesh." There is nothing exhaustive about the lists in Galatians 5 and even the lists need to be worked with; but the direction and drift of life is made abundantly clear.
Some glad soul just had to sing about it! "You have set my heart free," he said to God (Psalm 119:32). This psalm that takes 176 verses to praise the Torah that God has given to Israel is not a case of bibliolatry. The singer doesn't worship the Torah and bow down before the text of the Torah—it's God he worships and exalts. But while he knows the difference between his Bible and his God, he doesn't sever the connection so that the Torah is "lifeless" words.
He believes what every thinking person believes: truth is not the absence of God, it is not a substitute for God; it is God making his presence known and felt! If truth sets the heart free (John 8:32) it's because that's how God bestows freedom! The Torah can make alive only because it's inseparably connected with the sovereign Lord. Christ reminds us of the life-giving force of his words in John 6:63 when he says, "The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life." He isn't identifying the spoken truth with the person of the Spirit; he's insisting that the Spirit makes himself present and active in and through the words.
So when the psalmist says (119:50, 93) "This is my comfort in my affliction that thy promises give me life...I will never forget thy precepts; for by them thou has given me life." (RSV for "preserves" his life, as in other versions) he combines the notion that the word of God is the instrument by which God gives him life.
Of course, the psalmist doesn't atomize the Torah into "legal" or "promissory" or "rehearsed truth" sections—he sees it as a single gift of God designed to give and sustain life in Israel. If we had asked him, "Do 'commands' set free or bind?" he would have said they do both, and would probably have been mystified by the need for the question. And had we listened to him sing the psalm which extols the goodness, grace and love of God expressed in the Torah, we wouldn't have had the nerve to ask him if he thought he was setting himself free by obedience. God sets the heart free!
What a heart set free will do:
The psalm takes 176 verses to bubble out delighted praise of God's Torah. The psalmist, spinning like an ecstatic Snoopy in a Peanuts cartoon, cries out in his pleasure (119:97), "Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day." Does that sound like someone who thinks the Torah is a galling yoke he wishes he were free from?
In verse 32 he sings: I run in the path of your commands, or you have set my heart free." He sees himself running free in some roomy place, pleased to be at liberty, careering down paths that lead to everywhere and shouting, "I run in the paths of your commands, for you have set my heart free."
The psalmist sees himself as no longer hemmed in. InGenesis 26 Isaac is having trouble with Abimelech's herdsmen. He keeps digging or re-digging wells and the Philistine herdsmen continue to claim them as theirs. Finally, Isaac moves far enough away from them that they made no claim to the new well (26:22) and Isaac names the well Rehoboth (a form of the word here). The word has notions of "room," more room, less of that sense of being hemmed in, enlargement.
Some versions have the psalmist praising God because "you have enlarged my heart." Whether we take the heart as "the understanding" or the whole person viewed from a specific angle, they all agree that the psalmist is enjoying a new sense of freedom; old partitions are torn down, narrow thinking, restrictive fears are removed and he can breathe and roam free. And when God has liberated his heart by making it bigger, what does he do? What does this big-hearted, liberated man do? Complain that he doesn't have enough information? Dismiss the Torah? Outgrow scripture? Find the commands of God beneath him? No! The opposite's true! With a bigger and freer heart he makes a bee-line for the way of God's law and runs down that road like a child who's just finished school for the summer (note 119:35).
James Moffatt rightly insisted, "There will always be the law of the Spirit of life. Lawlessness is not a road, it is a bog, even though the bog looks solid and is covered with bright marsh-flowers." (1) He goes on to contrast the mechanical doing of God's commands with a cheerful response. "That is where the change comes, not simply in finding out what we ought to do but in discovering a new spirit in the following of the Lord. Once...we did not leave the road, but we did not love it."
The psalmist may not worship the Torah, but he fully understands that that's what reveals God to him as nothing else does. Because of the Torah he is able to interpret life and its experiences, because of Torah the world, for all its complexities and mysteries, becomes a world in which God is operating and continuing to reveal himself. Without God's self-revelation in Torah (which includes a rehearsal of his past historical acts and his continuing blessing) there would be no up or down, backwards or forwards; existence would be without drift or direction.
So what will the heart set free do? It will run in the path of God's commands. But how will it run in the path of God's commands if it's duty isn't spelled out with exhaustive precision?
The Path Laid Out Before Free Hearts
We've made the point several times that the Torah was no exhaustive blueprint for life, so the path that lies before those whose hearts are made big by God is uncovered as well as acknowledged. But it's more than that because the path before them has to be created as much as anything else. God trusts the believing heart to make a way where there is no clear path.
The Torah opens his eyes and heart, and with his heart enlarged and set free he follows the Torah only to find more freedom and more understanding about the God he adores. It's this kind of benign circle Paul has in mind when he says: "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is his good, pleasing and perfect will." (Romans 12:2) Becoming like God enables the believer to know more of what God is like and broadens the horizon for further service.
In Romans 12:2 the verb is a passive imperative, making it clear that the believer doesn't transform himself it's the work of God. Nevertheless the believer isn't a mindless sponge; he wants the transformation (thus the imperative). The psalmist makes the glad confession that it is God who enlarges or sets his heart free and with that freedom he becomes even more of a servant to God. (Compare Romans 6:17-18.)
The call in 12:2 is not based on a sheer leap in the dark. It follows the "therefore" of 12:1 which is based on the rehearsal of non-negotiable truth. Ancient Israel wasn't simply throwing wishful words skywards in the hope that some god or other would be impressed and adopt them. No, some noted modern scholars might think the historicity of Israel's faith is irrelevant, but there's no sign of that thinking in the texts themselves.
Based on information passed down by those who saw and heard and experienced profound events, information that the community took to be truth, worshipers of Yahweh believed he was present with them and shaped their lives according to his revealed character and purposes. All this to say, to dismiss revealed truth completely and depend on "a sweet spirit" to serve God is silly. If we know absolutely nothing about God then of course we wouldn't even know what a "sweet spirit" was nor would we know that God cared one way or another.
Here are a few illustrations of how this works out in obeying some specific commands of the Torah. Here's Leviticus 19:9: "When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest." It was to be left for the poor and needy (19:10 and Deuteronomy 24:19-21).
If God had wanted to close the door against heartless behaviour he didn't speak with enough precision in the commandment. And even if the command had been exhaustively defined an evil heart would not have gone along with it. But as the text sits it isn't difficult to imagine a miserly farmer harvesting as close to the edge as possible, while still claiming he was keeping the commandment. Nor is it difficult to see a person like that debating who, precisely, are "the poor". Lexicons don't settle the matter, slide-rules won't help. He could humiliate and keep the poor hungry with stony lexical work and lawyer-like slickness. And how are we to answer him? The mean man could drive a truck through the loopholes in the wording. The commandment is clear: cater to the needy and vulnerable. But how does the farmer know what is meant?
The answer is in the phrase that occurs everywhere in connection with laws: "I am the Lord your God." There lies the hope for the poor. And there lies the path for the big-hearted. These words spell out in a clause the whole ground of Israel's existence. "You were rebels and I loved you. You were destitute and I provided; you were helpless and I gave help; you were hungry, thirsty and vulnerable and I supplied; you were exploited and I rescued you. I saw meanness and judged it; I saw injustice and righted it."
In the light of who "the Lord their God" was, Israel was to respond to those who were now in the state they had been in. The basis of their response was the nature and character of the God who was their Lord. "Is my thinking like God's? Is my attitude toward the marginalized people like the Lord's? Am I generous as well as wise?" Life's questions are sometimes settled by explicit statements from God. Humans need some express guidance, they're too prone to wander all over creation; but so much of life's responses are dictated by the shape of the heart, the sharpness of our memories and the awareness that we have been richly blessed despite ourselves.
The path for those with enlarged hearts is not simply a correct response to a code but the living out of a family relationship. Deuteronomy 14:1 tells Israel why they are to behave in certain ways; it's because: "You are children of the Lord your God." That makes Yahweh their Father in whose image they are created and it makes them brothers and sisters in God. Paul takes this direction, too, in Ephesians 5:1 when he says, "Be imitators of God as dearly beloved children and live a life of love..."
There's more in these texts than command; there's the implied fitness of such a lifestyle. As if Paul and Moses had said: "This is who you are! Let who you are God's beloved children shape your response."
A few years ago in Britain a leading Haydn scholar (or was it Elgar?) decided he would complete some of the unfinished scores the composer had left behind. This man knew Joseph Haydn's work inside and out. He wasn't simply familiar with the technical aspects of Haydn, he loved the music; listened and played, conducted and promoted, taught and rejoiced in it. It was a central element in his life.
His love of Haydn's work had grown in knowledge and discernment so he was better equipped to follow the spirit and direction of Haydn more closely than others. Something of this truth is seen in Philippians 1:9-10 where Paul says, "And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best..." He has in mind more than a choice between good and bad; it's a choice between good, better and best.
It's clear no one can ever know how Haydn himself would have finished these scores. But we can be sure of this: what this brilliant devotee of Haydn produced was a Haydn-like conclusion. We can be sure that Haydn was honoured by the end result because it came from the heart of a man who ate, slept and drank the composer's work. If the scores had been finished by a mediocre talent who had no special feeling for Haydn, who spent little or no time immersing himself in that man's music, whose "imitation" of Haydn was nothing but a mechanical reproduction of the obvious patterns then we wouldn't expect a grand and glorious result.
Knowing the mind of God for people isn't determined simply through lexical, syntactical, cultural, sociological, rhetorical, literary or other studies. Requirements would be understood differently depending on the measure of the heart's generosity, one's experience of grace and favour and the like. Which is why it is important to have loving leadership to model life before the less experienced and mature. The loving leaders become the torah for those of us who are weaker and less experienced or humbled followers of God. The very existence of God-centred, wise, righteous, community-loving leaders to whom the people came to settle disputes tells us that rich experience with God resulted in greater understanding of the Torah and God's mind. These people were thought to have insight that was greater, loyalty to Yahweh that was deeper and more consistent, a love for the community that was broader and richer than those who looked to them for guidance. Having the mind and heart of God opened up the scriptures and showed how they were to be applied.
James Packer in Law, Morality and the Bible, page 180 reminds us: "Thirdly, we should note that God's law in both Testaments, full as it looks, is actually quite open-textured. It is not a minutely-detailed code of practice for all our actions every moment...; it is rather, a set of broad guiding principles with sample applications to set us going...they are not so much models for mechanical imitation as cartoons of required attitudes."
All the above has the potential to help us get rid of some needless stress as we live out our lives in God. If two people are genuinely committed to each other it doesn't matter if they don't have all the answers so that behaviour will be "just right". A freedom develops between lovers who are friends. They don't have to suffer daily angst about hurting one another's feelings, about being misunderstood or things like that. They don't have to fine tune the relationship to the point where they're endlessly examining it with too great an intensity. Of course they wish to please one another but true friends know the commitment's there and love covers a multitude of social blunders ranging from forgotten birthdays or turning up late or the like.
The Spontaneity & Joy of the Heart Set Free
There's a spontaneity to life when people learn to love one another. There's the capacity for joy that comes not only because each one is able to experience it, but comes as a result of the way they are together. They can live with some structure but they can live without a lot of it. And it's the freeness of the response that adds zest to that kind of living; which is why God wouldn't want us to live a life in which every nanosecond is exhaustively programmed. That life wouldn't be life; and even if it were, it would be a dull affair without creative impulses; it would be a life spent searching endlessly for an explicit verse to cover the immediate situation. We wouldn't have time for anything else but text-hunting.
There's something unhealthy about this ceaseless pursuit of "God's will" in every single situation that faces us. It's certainly right to seek to glorify him in all that we say and do—we have scripture that expressly encourages us to do that—but that isn't the same as believing that God has a specific response in mind that we have to go rummaging through heaven and earth for or waiting paralysed for some sign from God that one of the several options we set up is the one he wants us to follow. God isn't concerned about laying our lives out second by second and having us to figure out what is on his heavenly chart for us for each day.
We're not talking here about a choice between obvious right and wrong, but a choice between various goods that are open to us. Were God anxious to spell out his will in exhaustive detail he's more than capable of doing it but since he hasn't seen fit to do it, it must be to his glory and our benefit that we live without such a daily chart. To teeter on the brink of a nervous breakdown every time we have to make a decision, wondering if we are going against the will of God (a will he hasn't informed us of) makes no sense at all. In a life like that were we to take it very seriously we would range between a sickening worry that we were defying God's plans or throwing up our hands in despair because we felt we wouldn't know how to please him.
At one and the same time we humans take God too seriously and too casually. Too casually in that we think, or often act as if we think, that he is an amoral loving machine who will call anyone "righteous" no matter how they rejoice in evil. On the other hand, we take him too seriously when we see him lacking in joy and having only one concern—damning sin and sinners too, if need be. You'd think we hadn't heard the word, "God didn't send his Son into the world to damn the world but to give it live through him!"
The path of those whose hearts have been set free is one that revels in life. You only have to read Psalm 119 (especially in some modern speech version) to sense the vitality and exuberance of the man who dances about in a world that has been shaped and made alive by the existence of the Torah of the gracious God who delights to make himself and his will known to humans.
The Torah comes saying, "You have been loved by God despite the fact that you are unlovely. Isn't that a marvellous thing? Now listen, God is trusting you and you have committed yourself to him in trust. Think of what he means to you and you to him and live in light of that. Don't worry yourself sick over not having all the answers. It isn't all the answers you need, it's a realization of who and whose you are that you need. Grasp the big picture and live within that. Outside the parameters I lay down is only chaos and loss. You'll never find me narrowing your life because I am created by the sovereign Lord for those whose hearts have been enlarged. I present some non-negotiable truths about God because without them there is no life but what I call you to is deeper and richer than you'll ever be able to fathom. The truth I bring to you is not mere information, it's transformation, it's the sovereign God making his holy and gracious presence felt, it's the holy Father exerting his wholesome influence, it's the living Lord imparting life."
It's clear from all this that the Torah wasn't the only thing God gave his worshipers. That is, he didn't lay before these sinners a mass of commandments and say, "There, do the best you can with your own sinful limitations because you'll get no help from me." This would miss the point at the two levels mentioned above. The Torah is not lifeless truth—it is truth that makes alive! And two, Torah did not stand independent of the holy and gracious Lord, it was one of his instruments through which he enriched and quickened them.
The Exodus & Sinai belong together Psalm 119:32 "Let my people go...to serve me." [But see love's refusal in Exodus 21:1-6.] Your freedom is shaped by your holiness. In the very act of freeing Israel God was separating them so that their freedom and holiness are two sides of one coin. The One who frees them separates them, makes them holy. The same is true of the NT church. To wrestle against God's holiness to gain freedom is to wrestle against freedom itself.
"The law of Christ is not an alien thing to which, in slavish dread, a Christian man submits himself; it is the character of his Lord whom he loves and who lives in him..." (2)
(1) His Gifts and Promises, T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1934, page 64
(2) W.M. MacGregor, Christian Freedom, Hodder & Stoughton, 1913, page 367. See also page 350, note 1.
(2) W.M. MacGregor, Christian Freedom, Hodder & Stoughton, 1913, page 367. See also page 350, note 1.
©2004 Jim McGuiggan. All materials are free to be copied and used as long as money is not being made.
Many thanks to brother Ed Healy, for allowing me to post from his website, theabidingword.com.