I am beginning to write a book about the Exodus story being our story, too. My thesis is that it is the template that God left us for how we get out of slavery to the world and into the kingdom of God. As I contemplate the passages in these five books of the Bible—Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua—especially those detailing the laws and commandments, I am struck not by God’s anger at the Israelites, but how his laws have built-in consequences for us human beings, if they are not followed.
I think we Christians assume that God checks out all we do in order to issue punishments for our sins and blessings for our obedience. But I don’t see God like that at all. I think he built a system of checks and balances, so to speak, that tends to limit us going off the deep end when we go against his laws.
Our conscience is the first line of defense, that innate knowing when we have done or are about to do some wrong. So the conscience sends out warnings about a line to be crossed. If we go ahead anyway, say doing harm to another person, thereby overriding the signal of the conscience, we risk going further down the wrong path and doing more and more harm to ourselves and others.
A second line of defense are the laws and the 10 Commandments in the Bible against all kinds of harmful behavior which would stop us from doing an obvious wrong to someone else. A third line of defense lies in how we see ourselves: am I a “good” person or do I care? A fourth line of defense is our moral code, a community’s or nation’s system of agreements about how we treat each other. If I see myself as a good and moral person, then I will forgo all kinds of illegal and immoral behavior. The laws and moral codes of our country are based on the Ten Commandments. If we stay on God’s side of the conscience, the law’s side of the society’s line between good and bad behavior, if we hold to our definition of ourselves as “good” people, if we are on the moral side of behavior, then we’re going to reap the blessings of a clear conscience. We are free to live our lives without the curse of our bad behavior hanging over us.
If we’re on the other side of the God’s laws, the legal system, and the moral code of society and we don’t care whether we are good or not, then we take on the consequences of our illegal, immoral and bad behavior plus God’s curses as he outlined them in Deuteronomy 28. We’re going to have to live with anxiety about being caught by the law, by the person we wronged, by God. We’re going to have to hide; we have no freedom from what we have done. Even if it doesn’t weigh heavily on our conscience, we still know that we are living on borrowed time, looking always over our shoulder for whoever would catch us, or checking to make sure we’ve left no evidence. As we continue down this road, the burden of getting caught only gets worse. There is no joy or relaxation or freedom in our lives. We have constructed our own living hell, filled with paranoia, defensiveness, fear and anger.
I realize that most of us are somewhere in between these opposite choices. So, we live in an in-between state, depending on what we’ve done, closer to the curses or closer to the blessings.
Here is how Moses, speaking for God, puts it in Deuteronomy 30:15-19:
“Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach….No the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it. See I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees, and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.
“But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed….
“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God , listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life…”
Now choose life! If we keep the choice of Life before us—he means life to the fullest– we would define those laws in Jesus’s terms in two parts: to love God with all of ourselves and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Loving God in the Ten Commandments means honoring God as the one God, not worshipping any graven images, misusing his name, keeping the Sabbath holy. In addition there are laws about festivals, rebellion, the Tabernacle, the priests, assigned tasks of the tribes and more. Included in loving our neighbors—that is, all the people in the world– starts in the Ten Commandments with honoring your father and mother and goes on to outlaw murder, adultery, stealing, false testimony, coveting anything belonging to your neighbor, plus other laws about neighbors, animals, crops, purification, camps and families.
Here is just a reminder that when we’re talking about obedience to God’s laws we are not talking so much about a rigid adherence to them as much as having a such a deep relationship with God in which we would not do anything that would offend him. We may have to start with a sense of perfection around the laws being needed, but it will quickly give way to staying in his arms, listening to what he wants for us and doing all that he suggests. And there, in his arms, we can’t, wouldn’t do anything but follow his laws.
We know pretty quickly when we’re off track, just a step or two down a road not meant for us, because suddenly we’re faced with more fear or anger or anxiety in us–this is a signal that what we’re doing is off the mark. If we ignore the signals and continue down that path, we will be mired in curses and not even know that it is our own behavior that called them forth.
That has been my experience. Not that I wasn’t trying to be a good person, I was, but before I surrendered my life to God, I was full of anxiety. Every single thing I ever did, I second-guessed. I was consumed by my own low self-image and what I thought I had to do to make up for who I was. Looking back on my life then I would say I was cursed by my desire to fit in no matter what. There was no time when I could relax and just be myself. There was no time when I was free of the weight of the negativity. These were all consequences of not being in the right relationship with God and being self-centered.
There was no big definable instance in my life after I surrendered my life to God when I moved from curses into blessings, but there was a steady movement towards living a more congruent life as I began to listen more and more to God and to do what he proposed. At every movement towards him, I felt deeply affirmed, that is, deep in my soul. And as my surrendered life gained more and more momentum within me and I began to give up my selfish, world-centered ways, I began to feel more and more blessed. And as I moved into the work I do today of being a spiritual director and then a writer, I have felt more and more aligned with God’s purpose for me, again, more and more blessed.
It is so easy for us to posit a vengeful God intent on punishing us for our sins. But God doesn’t even need to do that; our punishment is built into the system of the universe that we are rewarded for the good we do, for following his laws, for loving him. And cursed for not doing any of that. God, without the burden of punishing us, is then freed to love us and to forgive us when we do turn around and see the error of our ways and attach ourselves to him. And so, in choosing to love him, we are choosing life and life more abundant.
It is not God who holds our errant behavior against us. It is we ourselves. And until we can really understand that God forgives us, we will not forgive ourselves. As long as we hold on to what we’ve done and how unforgivable it is, it is that long that we will not really approach God with all of who we are. And until we can stand before him naked, so to speak, not hiding anything about who we are, we will not enter into his transforming presence that will heal our shame and guilt. When we are able to do this, we are choosing to live life more abundantly.
Questions to ponder over the week: Have I forgiven myself for what I have done or failed to do? Have I forgiven others for what they did to me? Do I believe that God is a forgiving God? Do I understand that not forgiving myself or others will keep me apart from God? Would would be the first step I need to take towards forgiving myself? Or another?
Blessing for the week: May we be the people of God who know deep in our souls that we are forgiven. May we be able to take in God’s forgiveness and love for us deep into our bones and our cells. May we then be the ones who pour out love and forgiveness on a needy world.
There’s one more video to come in the Exodus series which previews my book on the Exodus story. Here is the link: www.youtube.com/results….
My book, “Thy Kingdom Come!”, is up on Amazon in both paperback and kindle versions. Look under Patricia Said Adams to find it.
This week I am asking again a question about your experiences of the Exodus story. Have you had any experiences of union with God or of being in the kingdom of God or of crossing the River Jordan like the Israelites did. It could be a dream or a momentary experience or ??????? I’d love to read your experience. Thank you so much, Pat