Monday, February 29, 2016

Beyond Baseline Obedience

The specs for the Ark are so clear
even Hasbro made a model of it.
Words on paper are rarely enough.

Hey, there’s nothing wrong with the written word. I wouldn’t be blogging daily if I thought written communication isn’t effective and meaningful. It’s a tremendous blessing, and one for which we should always be thankful.

Still, when the original communicator is no longer on the scene, the limitations of words alone start to become evident.

What’s the Problem?

In some ways, understanding God’s truth is no different from any other subject. The written word is not always entirely adequate to the task. It can be a perfectly accurate representation of everything God said on a subject, with no pages missing and no smudged characters, but something more is needed.

We encounter this difficulty when we try to visualize the things described in the book of Exodus. In some cases the instructions for weaving, smelting or building items related to the service of the tabernacle are so detailed and extensive that you’d have to work very hard to get them wrong: exact measurements, precise specifications, thorough descriptions. For instance, a full 36 verses are devoted to Aaron’s high priestly garments. The consistency with which his robes and accoutrements have been illustrated by careful readers of the Old Testament speaks to the sufficiency and efficiency of the vocabulary God used to describe them.

Make ’em Pretty

But then we get things like this:
“For Aaron’s sons you shall make coats and sashes and caps. You shall make them for glory and beauty.”
“Coats and sashes and caps.” Almost no detail at all. Essentially, “Make ’em pretty”. The details are left to our imagination, and presumably to the imaginations of the skilled craftsmen Moses engaged to create them.

Why would this be? It may have something to do with the fact that some elements of the tabernacle service were more important to get exactly right than others, particularly those that represented unseen spiritual realities. Still, even assembling Aaron’s consecration array required more than just knowledge of the words God gave to Moses. Each individual craftsman involved had to exercise wisdom in his workmanship, and this discernment was God-given as well:
“You shall speak to all the skillful persons whom I have endowed with the spirit of wisdom, that they make Aaron’s garments to consecrate him, that he may minister as priest to me.”
The word of God was very much necessary, and vital to follow. You certainly didn’t want to depart from it in any way. But on its own the written word was only of limited value in preparing an earthly dwelling place for God.

Baseline obedience to the words of God as communicated by Moses was not enough. A spirit of wisdom in the application of the word was a necessary part of the package, and it too was God-given.

Patterns and People

Like these skilled Israelites, Christians are to build the dwelling place of God, and it matters very much that we build it skillfully. The quality of the material we use matters:
“If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — each one’s work will become manifest.”
Bad materials are a problem. Our teaching ought to be accurate, our testimony unblemished and our motives true. We need to be able to distinguish between principles that are eternal and practices that are temporary and merely traditional in order to build anything that will stand the test of time and bring glory to God.

But as anyone who has taught Sunday School knows, it’s also possible to use good materials in a very shoddy way: without preparation or prayer. It’s possible to try to communicate truth one doesn’t really understand and hasn’t even attempted to live out. Therefore, not just the materials themselves but the quality of the work itself will be tested:
“The fire will test what sort of work each one has done.”
The dwelling place of God matters. And just like in the case of the Israelites, following the written word alone in a rigid, mechanical way will not get the job done. Something more than baseline obedience is needed, and it is usually needed at the level of application, not interpretation.

Legalism, Mysticism or Something Better?

You see, no matter how they multiply, enough words can never be written to address every eventuality. This is the error we make so often in government and business: we imagine that by creating pages of legalese we are making our jobs easier and covering all the bases. All that happens is that people stop reading entirely. The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is currently at roughly 33,000 pages of regulations. Printed and stacked, it is seven feet tall. Nobody reads it. Nobody can follow it.

So God didn’t do that. The instructions to Christians about building the dwelling place of God are not pages of annotated clauses and sub-clauses. Anyone can carry the whole thing in their purse or back pocket.

But that necessarily leaves some gaps, just like the priestly garments for Aaron’s sons, and mysticism is no adequate substitute for revelation. Visions like the one Moses had on the mountain are few and far between. If we are reliant on our own mystical experiences or those of others in order to be able to build the church or order our daily lives in a way that pleases God, we’re in big trouble.

Using the written word effectively and productively requires that we apply it with God-given discretion. Just as there is no substitute today for the inspired written word, there can be no substitute for human spirits in tune with the Spirit of God. That’s not mystical or ephemeral, because discernment never supersedes or invalidates the written word; it simply seeks the mind of God in obediently carrying it out. And it’s not legalism, because discernment never applies the word of God rigidly and without due consideration of the particular circumstances in play.

Discernment at Work

I think this is probably what Paul had in mind in writing to the Philippians:
“It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.”
In the word of God we have the source of all knowledge, but it’s not enough if we apply that knowledge ham-handedly and without resorting to prayer. Instead, Paul speaks of “knowledge with all discernment”. The idea is not to squeak out some sort of baseline obedience by a rote application of scripture, but to “approve what is excellent”.

Sadly, in this world, excellence is often the exception.

So what about those who build haphazardly, who fail to read carefully or make necessary distinctions in applying scripture to real world situations, or who approach the Bible with a view to being only as obedient as is absolutely necessary? It would be presumptuous to assume all such are pagans or apostates, and scripture does not say that. These too are trying to build a dwelling place for the Most High. They may read scripture, quote scripture, and and in their own way seek to follow the scripture as they do it.

But without applying the Word with discernment, much of that effort is vain.

To put it another way, it should not be our ambition to merely make it to glory, but to be “pure and blameless” on that day; or to put it yet another way, to build a dwelling place for God comprised of the spiritual counterpart of gold, silver and precious stones.

For the Christian the merely acceptable — even the good, for that matter — should never be enough; we should be striving to approve excellence.

To go well beyond baseline obedience.

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