The riches in His rules
by Patrick Lafferty
. . .everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. . . .Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison.
Recently our pastor shared with the Session a new wrinkle to his own spiritual practice—an approach to his time with God that had yielded a sweetness unlike previous efforts at stillness, study, and prayer. Opening Psalm 119 each day, he’d begun focusing his attention on just one of the 22 eight-verse strophes (each beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet). As he filled his mind with those eight verses he’d then narrow his focus further to but one verse within the strophe and meditate on its meaning and implications.
So I followed his lead. Two days in, my eyes fell on verse 14:
In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches.
There I camped—and then wondered: how does one delight in God’s testimonies—one of many synonyms the Psalmist employs to refer to God’s law? Law demarcates between what is good and evil. Warning and woe issue from it unto those who consider breaching it. It reverberates with either commendation or condemnation. You can’t dispute the salutary nature of those attributes of the law. But to take a joy in them as the word delight denotes—isn’t that a little strange? How many of us have perused the Dallas City Code to find the slightest bit of pleasure in its expectations and strictures?
And with respect to what we heard last Sunday, how is it even possible to find delight in precepts that issue severe warnings to those who let anger fester (5:21-24) or delay necessary restitution (vv. 25, 26)? Where’s the potential for reverie in that?
Fortunately, the Psalmist gives us an image in riches to illustrate his meaning. We know riches have inherent limitations and can provoke flagrant idolatry (cf. Jeremiah 9:23, Ecclesiastes 5:13, 1 Timothy 6:10, 17). But those resources can also afford us great good. They allow us to taste and see what is good on the earth, granting access to the earth’s fruit and beauty. Riches may also supply some protection from the world’s instabilities and misfortunes.
Such resources therefore provide a measure and a kind of satisfaction. For as Paul explains to Timothy, “. . .everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4,5). Our hearts’ propensity to make too much of those resources necessitates a vigilant attentiveness to their effects upon us. But if true thanksgiving for God’s bounty to us only compounds our praise of Him, abstention for abstention’s sake is no virtue.
So if the pleasure we derive from what resources afford us is akin to the delight we may find in the precepts God gives us, what in Jesus’ stark and sobering words about anger and restitution can offer us any satisfaction?
The next time you’re at a national park and you peer over some deep chasm toward a seemingly limitless horizon, for just a moment, place your hand upon the railing that keeps you from slipping off into the abyss below—and give thanks. From behind its well-anchored and unassuming posture, you stand protected from peril. Its simple construction sends a clear message: wander beyond its boundary and you risk an unimaginable loss.
When Jesus ups the ante, as it were, about the dangers of unbridled and unrighteous anger, He places a boundary between calamity and us that, if respected, provides a priceless protection. Seeing the damage done by unrighteous anger—whether in others or ourselves—the truth of that necessary hedge around our hearts resonates again. From that we derive a real, if shuddering, gratitude for His warning. And in that gratitude is found a kind of delight.
And what of the alleged delight to be found in the command to make urgent restitution for wrong? When you have a few moments, read the account of Tim Goeglein, former Deputy Director of the Office of Public Liaison during the Bush (43) Administration. Caught plagiarizing news columns in a hometown paper in 2008, Goeglein immediately resigned his position. He felt deeply the weight of his hypocrisy and how it brought shame upon himself, his office, and that of the Administration he served. But he also discovered the freedom in coming clean, owning up, and making amends, rather than keeping up the ruse, and running up the tab on his errors. The command to “come to terms quickly” with those he’d deceived proved itself both true and liberating. It even yielded a quite unexpected kindness. Grace we call it. It was a painful road that led to the delight of seeing the wisdom of God’s Word. But the freedom he found in submission to this enduring precept still led Goeglein to praise. Even in a humbled praise, there is delight.
What of His Word have you stared at in stillness until you delighted in its design?