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We read in Psalm 119:8, “I will observe your statutes.” I like the Psalmist’s clear communication of what he “will” do. It is forceful and committed. “I will observe God’s statutes.” Notice he does not write, “I will try to observe God’s statutes.” “Try” is one of those words that we should tune our ear to so that when we use it, we question our commitment.
Sometimes we use this word “try” honestly. Like when we say, “I will try on this coat,” or I will try out for the team.” But more often, we use “try” in self-deceptive and misleading ways. For example, “I will try not to charge another thing on my credit card,” or “I will try to stay sober from now on,” or “I will try to come to church on Sunday.” We can usually substitute the word “fail” for “try” and find out what kind of commitment we have made. For when we promise only to “try,” not anything else, these are usually empty promises and weak commitments.
So the Psalmist speaks with conviction and commitment to live by the laws of God. The reason he makes such a commitment is that following God’s laws brings happiness.
At this point I struggled with this Psalm because I don’t often think of obedience to the laws of God bringing happiness. More often we speak of obedience to Jesus Christ as bringing happiness or God’s love and grace bringing happiness. Yet, Jesus himself said, “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill (the law)” (Matthew 5:17). But which laws did Christ fulfill? Surely not all the dietary laws, Jewish rituals, sacrifices, and traditions that we find in the Old Testament which are not a part of Christianity.
I found some wise insights in Frederick Buechner’s book “Wishful Thinking” that helped me sort out the joy that comes with obeying God’s law. It is helpful to think in terms of two basic kinds of law: law as the way things ought to be and law as the way things are. An example of the first is “No Trespassing.” An example of the second is “The Law of Gravity.”
God’s law is often defined by category one, as the way things ought to be. The thinking here is that God’s law is a series of do’s and don’ts: Don’t drink, dance, or play cards; Do pay taxes, love your country, and go to church. In fact, law as the way things ought to be serves the very useful purpose of keeping us from each other’s throats and keeping law and order.
But the law of God that brings happiness comes more appropriately under category two: the way things are. In order to be happy, there are certain rules we must follow, and if we break them, we do so at our own peril. Love God, your neighbor, and yourself, worship God, seek peace, rid yourself of hatred and envy, and avoid temptations to evil you are not strong enough to resist.
These rules of happiness have always been true, for a third century Hottentot to a twentieth century Ohioan. They describe, not the way people feel life ought to be, but the way they have found life is.
We don’t have to believe in God’s laws. We can put them to the test just the same way we don’t have to believe in the law of gravity, and we can test it. Perhaps stepping out of a ten-story window would convince us that God’s law is worth our total commitment.
Not, “I will try to love, forgive, care, serve others, and worship God,” but, instead, “I will.” Are there any of God’s laws that you are testing right now? How is that working out for you?
Does it seem that there are patterns of destruction and/or failure that you keep experiencing over and over again?
Try asking someone you trust if they have any Biblical insights into your life that might help you avoid these repetitive pitfalls. Better yet, don’t try, decide to ask someone to help you better understand yourself and do it.
Al Earley is the pastor at La Grange Presbyterian Church. The views expressed in this column are those of the writer.