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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A Horse Plunging Headlong

I’ve been listening to unhappy people this week: people that have sinned, have hurt others and have hurt themselves.

It’s refreshing when someone gets it; when they realize that their own choices and desires took them places they do not want to be, and that these patterns need to be changed. It’s a good thing to see correctly the relationship between cause and effect, between actions and consequences.

But it’s even better when it dawns that our most significant sins are the inevitable consequence of refusing to take the Lord at his word.

What Have I Done?

Jeremiah spoke against Israel for God in his day. He complained:
“… no man relents of his evil, saying, ‘What have I done?’ Everyone turns to his own course, like a horse plunging headlong into battle.”
Those who do not know the Lord are rarely capable of the sort of self-awareness required to ask “What have I done?” Plenty of people wonder “Why is this happening to me?” or “Why doesn’t she love me anymore?” If it’s just capricious fate that is to blame for our sorrows, then why not turn to our own course? Why not plunge right back into the same mess of bad decisions and selfish choices? If we are only victims, what else can we do?

There is a big difference between sad and being sorry. There is a bigger difference between being sorry and repenting. As Paul tells the Corinthians, mere worldly grief produces death. It leads nowhere good. But sorrow that is “according to the will of God” produces repentance without regret. In other words, real repentance is a change of heart (and actions) that is not primarily driven by concern for how my sin has impacted me. It is an unselfish state of mind that focuses on the wrong done to others and to God.

In any case, failing to take the Lord at his word is a problem that spans time and culture, and it is amazing to see people who know the word of God react to the very predictable consequences of sin as if they are surprising. As God said through Jeremiah, “my people know not the rules of the Lord”.

The “Rules” of the Lord

We have examples of such rules in the same chapter, laid out with an almost syllogistic precision before and after the word “therefore”:
  • You insist on trusting in your own wisdom THEREFORE I will give your wives to others and your fields to conquerors.
  • You are not ashamed at committing abominations THEREFORE when I punish you, you will be overthrown.
These are the sorts of “rules” the Lord seems to be talking about; rules that included the Law of Moses but were not necessarily limited to it. After all, the literal wording of the Law did not address states of mind like trusting and shame as specifically as they dealt with the actions that proceed from such attitudes. The early chapters of Jeremiah are very much about the consequences in this life of disobeying the principles derived from the character of God wherever they might have been spelled out: “If you insist on doing ‘x’, the result will be ‘y’ ”, and so on.

Rules and Laws

Now of course for believers there is no “law” in the sense it existed in the days of Jeremiah. But there were “rules” before the law, and there are “rules” after the law (though of course we understand that obeying them cannot merit salvation, which is always and only on the basis of our relationship to Christ). Such rules do, however, make this life easier or harder for us, depending on whether we choose to follow them or ignore them.

Proverbs is full of these statements, such as: “The wise will inherit honour, but fools get disgrace”. It’s a rule; a good, solid general principle based on the character of God that in most cases works itself out in this life. By the grace of God there are occasional exceptions to such principles. But generally they hold true, and supply a solid source of wise choices for living.

Intellectual and Experiential

The Christian life, to me, seems sometimes like a long trek from what I know to be true intellectually to a place of living out that truth experientially. I recognize a principle in the word of God. Naturally, because he is God and I believe in him and trust his judgment, I acknowledge that rule intellectually to be a Very Good Thing That, Generally Practiced, Would Make the World a Better Place. And then I go and do something different until circumstances whack me in the head. Which they will, eventually, assuming I live long enough to experience the consequences of my actions.

How many times have you given scriptural advice to a younger Christian and heard the comeback, “But this is different”? Usually it isn’t. Usually it’s painfully familiar. Such objections are often voiced in defense of romantic relationships that, to everyone but the persons in question seem doomed to end miserably, whether because of an unequal yoke or another principle of scripture that the would-be romantics are currently unwilling to acknowledge as applicable.

So down the road they go until they find out, sadly, that they’re just like the rest of us. There’s a reason these things were written and that reason, I believe, originated primarily in God’s heart of love for each one of us, not merely in his desire for order.

Relief cannot come until we ask ourselves the question, “What have I done?” When we do so, the Lord is always gracious in restoring us.

Plunging Headlong

How can a young man keep his way pure? The same way this old guy has to go about it: by “guarding it according to your word”.

Diving into obvious trouble seems to be a feature of youth (which, thanks to our society, is rapidly extending itself into early middle age). But the remedy is the same whether we are twenty, thirty or seventy.

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