When it comes right down to it, most of the commands in the Bible should either make us laugh or drive us to despair. The commandment to gouge out my right eyeball when it leads me into sin makes me thankful for, shall we say, selective reading of the Bible. When I read in Deuteronomy which eggs I can take from a fallen bird’s nest, that my vineyard may only contain one kind of seed, or that I can’t wear wool and linen mixed together. . . well, to be honest, I quickly contextualize these commands and then find they strike me as a bit funny. And, I ask, just why can’t I have tassels on the four corners of my garment? (Deuteronomy 22:12).
Do you agree? The commandments we find in God’s Word are either too easy or too difficult. Think about it. Do not murder is within my grasp. Sure, I might like to murder the person who cuts in front of me at Trader Joe’s with a full shopping cart while I only have tortillas and cheese, but the temptation is fleeting, and soon I find myself striking up a friendly conversation with the nearly-deceased. In reality, never once have I caught my sinful self really saying, Lord, why are you so strict? Why can’t I kill that guy who rubs me the wrong way?
And when the book of Deuteronomy tells me that I’ll be cursed if I sleep with my mother-in-law, I can feel quite righteous. When I learn in Leviticus I shouldn’t have relations with my sister, my pride can swell up. I don’t even have a sister! I’m not even tempted, much less prone, to break these commands.
On the other hand, very many, if not most, of God’s commands in Scripture are impossibly difficult to keep. As a matter of fact, they are so hard, so exacting, that we get used to them and miss their potency. Think about some of the commands we read over in our daily devotions without even a pause:
- If I ponder the apostle Paul’s injunction to love my wife as Christ loved his church (Ephesians 5), I realize immediately I don’t have a chance.I have never loved my wife in this way for five minutes, let alone throughout a lifetime of marriage.
- When the same apostle tells me to be anxious about nothing (Philippians 4), I find I have one more cause for anxiety.In the recesses of my soul, I tend to believe that with my anxious thoughts I can cure the swine flu, fix global warming, and settle disputes in the Middle East. And now, after reading Paul’s command, I can worry myself sick about my worry!
- Or how about the command in 1 Thessalonians 4 that calls me to be holy?Sure, I can stay away from some of the juicy sins that are readily available to me. I can abstain from drunkenness and adultery. But holiness? To borrow from a famous preacher who was irritated with a woman who was praising his preaching, If you could see in my heart, you would spit in my face. When I look in my heart, I find sins that would make you want to spit in my face!
So what is an eager disciple to do in the face of the exacting and sometimes humorous laws found in Scripture? It seems I’ve got two, well, maybe three, options.
First, I can curse God and die. Meaning, I can call God’s instructions poppycock and live as I darn well please. Anyone who calls me to be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect must not be serious. And if God is not serious about that one, then neither can he be too concerned about lying and stealing—at least if the lie is white and that which I steal isn’t too big or valuable.
On the other hand, I can adopt a lifestyle of rigidity and legalism, watching my every move and guarding my every step. I can tithe mint, dill, and cumin (Matthew 23:23) and feel pretty good about myself for a season or two. But sooner or later—and probably sooner—I’ll discover I’ve neglected the weightier matters of the law such as justice, mercy, and faithfulness.
But there is a third way. When I consider God’s impossible commands, when I admit to myself that I can’t fully hold to his standards for a nanosecond, I realize my need for a savior. It is not that God bids me to be good and then accepts me when I succeed. Nor is it that God sets me free to do anything I want and then judges me because I have taken him up on his offer. It is that God judges me severely because of my sin, saves me from myself through Christ, and then sets me free to make every effort to live for him. The Christian life involves effort, grit, and determination. To deny this is to deny the obvious. Peter, for example, uses these very words when he urges his readers to make every effort to supplement [their] faith with virtue, and knowledge, and self-control, and a whole bunch of other things that bear witness to the change God has made in their lives (2 Peter 1:5).
So what am I to do with the impossible commands of Scripture? I am to love them. Not because I can keep them perfectly (I can’t), but because they reveal God’s perfect will for my life. I am to love them, not because they lead me to salvation (they don’t), but because they lead me, a person who is already saved, into a fuller, bigger, more exciting life. At the end of the day, sin is boring and righteousness thrills the mended heart. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, holiness is not dull; it is the most exciting thing in the world. And if the church practiced holiness, the whole world would be converted and happy within a calendar year!
I love God’s impossible commands even though I never keep them perfectly. I don’t construe them as burdensome but rather delightful, commandments that simultaneously show me how to live and remind me of my need for grace. G. K. Chesterton got it right when he said, Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried. Let us find ourselves among those who try that which is difficult and love that which is impossible. Our lives will be better for the trying, and we will be blessed in our failures when our sins drive us to the cross where we receive grace upon grace.