- Time and again, the Bible is full of warnings against doing what seems right before God, when our motives are far from Him. Take the way that Gideon was invited to be king over Israel, but he refused, citing the fact that Yahweh is Israel's King. All well and good... but the record goes on to record how he made an idolatrous ephod in his home town, to which all Israel came (Jud. 8:22-24). And he had a son, Abimelech- which means 'my father is king'!. And indeed Abimelech did try to become King of all Israel (Jud. 9:2). Our behaviour smacks of all this time and time again. We do what is externally right, but our inward motives are impure. There's an urgent need for self-examination at depth within each of us... and yet the busyness of our lives, our poor time management and lack of rigorous regime in spiritual life, so easily leads us not to seriously attempt this. And we end up doing things which are only externally right. The way the Bible record is written sometimes seems to state what happened or what was said in terms of what the inner motives of the person were, rather than recording (e.g.) what words were actually said. Thus when the two harlots stood before Solomon, it may be that when the one said " Let (the baby) be neither mine nor thine, but divide it" (1 Kings 3:26), it may be that this is the Spirit's description of her inner attitude, rather than the literal words she spoke. But her inner thoughts were counted as her words (careful re-reading and reflection make this seem most likely here). The Jews left in the land after the Babylonian invasion begged Jeremiah to tell them God's word: " Whether it be good, or whether it be evil, we will obey the voice of the Lord" (Jer. 42:5,6). But when they heard His words, their response was: " As for the word that thou hast spoken unto us in the name of the Lord, we will not hearken unto thee. But we will certainly do whatsoever thing goeth forth out of our own mouth" (Jer. 44:16,17). Their apparent zeal for Bible study came to nothing when the results were inconvenient to them (and we can take a lesson from this). But I wonder whether they actually said " We will certainly do whatsoever goeth forth out of our mouth" ? Maybe they did; but perhaps this is what their rejection of God's word was tantamount to, and therefore this is the way their words are recorded. This approach to the Scriptural record may seem strange at first; but when we come to the Gospel records, it's truth is confirmed. A comparison of the different records reveals that the actual words both of the Lord and those to whom He spoke are sometimes recorded slightly differently in different Gospels; and the differences cannot always be reconciled, if we are to believe that all these words were actually said and recorded verbatim. Surely on these occasions the Spirit is recording the essence of what was said, reading motives and expressing men's words from God's perspective. There are, of course, other places where the words are recorded from the human perspective, with literal accuracy. And so we must search our own motives- or try to. The Israelite had to offer up the most concealed parts of the animal’s body, finding them and cutting them out for himself, and then laying them on the altar.
- In similar vein, God saw David as if he had killed Uriah with his sword (2 Sam. 12:9); even though David's command to Joab to retire from Uriah and let the Ammonites kill him was carefully calculated not to break the letter of the law.
- Rebekah’s apparent zeal against marriage out of the faith was really a cover for her desire to save her son from problems which he had only her to blame for (Gen. 27:46).
- Worship can be performed from a sense of ritual, as a conscience salver...or it can be the real thing from genuine motives. Mt. 28:17 records how all the disciples worshipped Jesus, but at the same time some of those ‘worshipping’ men doubted.
- There is a common phrase in the record of the Kings of Judah which I admit to being unable to conclusively interpret: " He did that which was right in the sight of the Lord" . Many of the men of whom this was said were not very righteous, and some (e.g. Uzziah, 2 Kings 14:3) were punished for their later apostasy. Possible explanations are that they repented at the end, although unrecorded; or that they were initially righteous; or that God counted them as righteous although they did wrong things. I find problems with each of these alternatives. So I am left with the possibility that a man can do (and perhaps this is the word that needs emphasis) what is right in God's eyes, but still ultimately be condemned because his heart is far from God; which is the teaching of 1 Cor. 13; Mk. 7:6-9 and the other Scriptures considered above. Uzziah " did that which was right in the sight of the Lord, yet not like (i.e. he didn't do his works like) David his father" (2 Kings 14:3) must be paralleled with 2 Chron. 25:2: " he did that which was right in the sight of the Lord, but not with a perfect heart" . Working for God as David did, therefore involved doing the works with a perfect heart, the open conscience which David so often displayed in the Psalms. But Amaziah was deceived by the fact he was doing good works, and the real essence of his relationship with God was thereby overlooked. And we too can project a shadow-self to others, an image of spirituality, which eventually we come to believe ourselves; when our heart is far from God. This feature of human nature explains why a man or woman can reach such heights of devotion and then turn round and walk away from it all, out into the darkness of the world.
- The Pharisees did all the works, but in their hearts they never knew God, and finally went and did His Son to death. The Lord plays on the fact that ultimately, in God's eyes, they did not works at all: " Do not ye after their works; for they say, and do not" (Mt. 23:3). We are left to imagine the anger of those zealous men. They did do works, as the Lord observed. But to Him, ultimately they did nothing at all. They had no genuine motives.
The inspiration process uses various puns through which to bring home the subtlty of the difference between true spirituality and fake. Take Is. 5:7: "He looked for justice (mishpat) and found oppression (mishpah), for righteousness (sdaqah) and heard cries of distress (saqah)". The real aim of our life in Christ, our being a Christian, our prayer, our Bible reading, our attendance at meetings, our spirituality- however you want to look at it- the real aim is to develop a character in harmony with that of God, to manifest Him. This means not getting bitter, forgiving others, being quick to overlook, to read the best motives, to be patient with your husband, with your dog, with your cat, to be full of meditation on our peerless Lord Jesus, to love the Father's word as He did... this is what it's really all about. The occasional heights of self-sacrifice and devotion, the complete dedication of one's life and thinking to the things of " the Truth" , our church (or however we want to describe it), this isn't necessarily the same thing as being a really spiritual, Christ-centred person. It often takes new converts a long time to realize this; and the quicker we do so, the better. The essential state of our heart is what God is ultimately interested in. This is why men may perform the same outward actions, but be judged quite differently. Consider how both Cain and Jonah fled from the presence of God; both Peter and Judas denied the Lord; both Samuel and Eli failed to control their apostate sons.
Indeed, Eli did rebuke his sons; but in God’s eyes he didn’t (1 Sam. 2:24 cp. 3:13 AV mg.). He said words for the sake of saying words, but in his heart he didn’t frown upon them. Eli appeared to discipline his sons. But he couldn’t have really done this from his heart, or he wouldn’t have been condemned for not controlling them. He honoured his sons above God, to make himself “fat with the chiefest of all the offerings”. The description of Eli as being fat surely reflects his guilt (1 Sam. 2:29; 4:18). And yet he appeared on the surface to run his family life on a spiritual footing. Jer. 9:25 RV speaks of punishing “them which are circumcised in their uncircumcision”. As Paul makes clear, one can be circumcised physically but not spiritually. A person can be circumcised yet effectively uncircumcised at one and the same time. This is the nature of the spiritual schizophrenia which so afflicts us.
Devotion to preaching and the defence of doctrine is a vital part of our spirituality; these things are part of treading the path of the One who went before us. But when we are first baptized, there is a tendency to make spirituality solely equal to these things; we tend not to see that these are only aspects of a Christ-like life. Self-mastery, real spirituality, from genuine motives, an overflowing and overwhelming love in the face of hatred and coldness...these are down there at the bottom line. Works, especially those involved with preaching and doctrinal contention, can blind us to this, all too easily. Preaching in itself can become an obsession (and the same is true of prolonged prayer); some of the early missionaries of the Orthodox churches caught this disease, as have some Christians. I've known several zealous brethren who fell away to J.W.s and the like, not from any real doctrinal persuasion, but simply because they loved the preaching, the thrill of the fight. Think through 1 Cor. 15:12: “If Christ be preached [by you] that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection...[for] then is Christ not raised”. We can preach something with apparent zeal and yet actually have no real personal faith in the message. I'm not saying, of course, that the works, the preaching, the protracted prayer etc. are irrelevant. But they must be an outcome of our experience of the spirituality of God Himself, not the result of our being driven by obsession or fear or desire for reward. If they are, then the light of God’s truth which is in us will only be counted as the darkness of the world in the end (Lk. 11:35). Our emphasis must therefore be on devotion to spiritual mindedness, to appreciation of the Lord Jesus Christ and the Father whom His cross revealed; and then the works will follow quite naturally from genuine motives.
Time and again we are brought to realize that the same external action can be judged by God quite differently, according to our motives. Uzziah was condemned for acting as a priest; when David did the same, he was reflecting his spirituality. God commanded Jehu to perform the massacre of Ahab's family at Jezreel, and blessed him for it (2 Kings 10:10,29,30); and yet Hos. 1:4 condemns the house of Jehu for doing that. Why? Presumably because their later attitude to that act of obedience was wrong, and the act therefore became judged as God as something which brought just punishment on the house of Jehu many years later. Why? Because even an outward act of obedience, when perceived through wrong motives and feelings, becomes an act of sin and a basis even for condemnation. All our works need careful analysis once we grasp this point.
Bible reading, breaking bread, fellowshipping with our brethren, all these things are inevitably repetitious. Yet they should touch our raw nerve; every recollection of the Lord’s death, every hearing of the Father’s word, should be like running a broken nail down a blackboard [go on, imagine it]. The word of God, as it is in Christ and in the Bible, should divide us asunder, right to the marrow, as the priest’s knife opened up the sacrifices. This is what our contact with the word of God does from God’s perspective- it opens us up. But we can turn away from this vision, turn the other way and hide behind a fake spirituality in every area of spiritual endeavour. The difference between truth and error is often apparently minimal. The difference between the error of the trinity and the truth of God manifestation can appear just words; but there is an important difference there. Paul therefore described a notable false teacher as Satan himself masquerading as an angel of light. Sheep and goats have the same skeleton, and some goats (especially Angoras) look like sheep. The Lord could have constructed His story using a clean and unclean animal. But sheep and goats were both clean animals; but the rejected are only apparently clean. As outlined above, love, faith, repentance, prayer…in all these things we can have an appearance of true spirituality which is only an illusion. Brethren, sisters: we must examine ourselves. We must shake ourselves from our comfortable numbness, realizing that the call of Christ cuts and calls to the heart. It means more than just attending a few meetings, writing a few letters, telling a few people about our church. We must clear our minds before we read, before we pray, before we break bread. Clear them of all that is superficial and extraneous, even if it is based around our church life; and determine to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified. We must let the word bite, the cross of Christ constrain us, feel the cutting edge…and not turn around and pretend we just haven’t seen.