March 19, 2009
by Patrick Lafferty
My eyes shed streams of tears,
because people do not keep Your law.
With due credit to Psalm 139:13, every feature of the human body owes its shape, structure, and function to the guidance of the 23 pairs of chromosomes inhabiting every human cell. The 46 chromosomes together are composed of some 32,000 genes, each of which governs a particular expression of a human trait. The genes represent the intricate and delicate synthesis of over 3 trillion DNA molecules.
Though the process of human development occurs innumerable times every moment, that in no way mitigates how astounding it is. And when so much can go so wrong so easily, it’s nothing short of miraculous when formation of the human organism goes right.
The formation of a human soul is no less wondrous and no less susceptible to malformation. Scripture notes several expressions of a soul whose formation didn’t go quite right: there are those who have a zeal for God that is sorely lacking in knowledge (Romans 10:2); there are those in whom godliness seems to be present but who sadly lack the fortitude attendant to it (2 Timothy 3:5); and there are those whose rectitude expresses itself not in merciful love but in condescension (Luke 7:36-40). All these form a spectrum of what can go wrong in the formation of a soul.
What then would a rightly formed soul look like? How would it function? Sunday unfurled for us the Psalmist’s effusive regard for the Law of God and the benefits of submission that accrue to him. Later in the Psalm, in a single verse, he succinctly and elegantly distills one prominent feature of a soul properly formed by that Law:
“My eyes shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law” (Psalm 119:136).
A well-formed soul loves the Law of God; it sees and savors its intrinsic wisdom. But that soul also loves the people that Law applies to—i.e. everyone—a love sometimes expressed in deep anguish over their blindness to its wisdom.
We perhaps know people who know so much about the Law of God but whose hearts are at the same room temperature as the theological books they’ve pored over for so long. Or those whose admirable offerings of help are nonetheless guided by something less than wisdom. Or still others whose efforts at godly guidance seem motivated more by an interest in domineering than serving. Perhaps we’ve seen those dysfunctional inclinations in ourselves from time to time as well.
Yet, one who knows the law will love the Law, and people who love the Law will naturally long for its appreciation, not only in themselves, but in everyone. They won’t seek to coerce another into loving the Law—no love is coerced. But neither will they remain indifferent to their neighbor’s ignorance or intransigence before the Law. The Law isn’t a matter of taste but a matter of truth. How then can one simply look past another’s indifference to the Law as simply “not their cup of tea”?
The loving lament of the Psalmist in verse 136 typifies what our Lord deemed the greatest, two-pronged commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). What He proclaimed He also manifested. The right formation of His soul led him to express vehement anguish toward the Pharisees whose blindness was rivaled only by their arrogance (Matthew 23:27). It led Him to express an unyielding but compassionate directive to the rich ruler who could not part with his many holdings (Mark 10:21), and an impassioned lament over Jerusalem as He neared her for the last time before His crucifixion (Matthew 23:37). His soul was the perfect synthesis of love for the Law and love for the people it applied to.
Paul reminds us that in Christ we have died to the Law, that its demands no longer condemn our failures of compliance, because Christ has satisfied its demands. But though God has done in Christ what the Law, “weakened by the flesh, could not do” (Romans 8:3), the Law remains “holy . . . righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). And with the help of the Spirit in us who believe, we shall appreciate that Law by seeking to fulfill its “righteous requirement” by walking according to the Spirit (Romans 8:4). Even with our new relationship to the Law through Christ, the synthesis of love for that Law and for its expression in our neighbor remains intact.
How goes the synthesis in you? Do you so treasure the Law’s goodness that you long to see it evident first in you, and then also in your friend, your spouse, your child—even your enemy? If that synthesis seems impossible in you, consider Zacchaeus’s encounter with Jesus (Luke 19:1-10): the Lord rejoices at even our embryonic expressions of love for Law and others. Then as you devote it your time and attention, the Law can overtake you with appreciation. By prayer and the Spirit’s strengthening of our inner being (Ephesians 3:14-19) we will be able to love our neighbors with the Law as we ought.