“My whole hope is in Your exceeding great mercy and that alone. Grant what You command, and command whatever You want.” (Augustine, Confessions, 10.29)
The Christian God is no respecter of the contemporary longing that we might be allowed to possess our own “space.” He does limit his inconvenient claims upon us to merely our “public” moments, all the while leaving us to our own individual preferences insofar as we remain enclosed in the privacy of our own rooms with the door shut. The curious fact that the modern construction of both the ideal parent and the ideal government revolves chiefly around this desired quality should not be allowed to sway us from the biblical vision of the normal Christian life.
I’ve been noticing a remarkable trend of late in my devotional reading, a specifically Pauline pattern that can serve as a fitting commentary on Augustine’s famous prayer above. On the one hand, it is obvious that Paul understands the ramifications of the gospel to encompass a univeral level of obligation for obedience. By this I mean the daring conviction that those who belong to Jesus really belong to him in every way imaginable. They are no longer their own (I Corinthians 6:19-20), but every facet of their lives, every sphere of their existence, is to be interpreted as a realm of sacred space in which they offer up devoted service to their Savior. Indeed, the very reason he died and rose again was so that we who have been reconciled to God by his work might no longer live for ourselves but for him who was raised from the dead (2 Corinthians 5:14-15). There is nothing that falls outside the scope of his kingly demand upon us. There is nothing he cannot ask for. Nothing is off-limits.
Ponder the blunt universality of these expectations:
“And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak be patient with all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; /hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil. Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” (1 Thessalonians 5:14-24)
“And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy.” (Colossians 1:9-11)
“And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:14-17)
“And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ…Take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand, therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints.” (Ephesians 5:18-21, 6:13-18)
Who is sufficient for these things? Who, upon the dawning of a realistic comprehension of these commands, can respond with anything but guilty despair?
Of course, this is not all we are given in the gospel–not by a long shot. On the other hand, Paul labors to display before our trembling, fearful eyes a magnificently sufficient God who not only commands everything of us, but who also provides everything that we need along the costly path of discipleship. If the passages above illustrate that we do indeed worship a God who “commands whatever He desires,” then the following demonstrate His absolute provision and merciful help for His fragile and fallible children. Our Father “grants to us what He commands” of us, so that we find in the long run that His commands are not burdensome. C. S. Lewis was once asked if it is difficult to love God. He response was appropriate–it is not hard to those who do it, he said. Indeed, Augustine writes in another place that the Christian life can be summed up along these lines: love God above all else, and then do whatever you want (Psalm 37:4). Listen now to Paul’s reflections on this wonderful provision that undergirds the universality of God’s expectation of his children:
“Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me…My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.” (Philippians 4:11-13, 19-20)
“Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way. The Lord be with you all.” (2 Thessalonians 3:16)
“And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. As it is written, ‘He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.’ He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.” (2 Corinthians 9:8-11)
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose…What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:28, 31-39)
We have everything we need in Christ. God will never command anything of us that He does not first equip us for in His grace. Augustine perceived things aright in this matter. We would do well to reflect at length upon his wisdom as we embark upon the same journey of faith.
This dynamic preserves the glory of our faltering obedience so that it remains with Him alone, never with us (I Peter 4:11). Yet is also reminds us that central to the Christian faith is the confession that Jesus is Lord over all. Nothing falls outside of his dominion in our lives. He is not Lord merely over some of our time or a few of our circumstances or even most areas of our daily existence. He is Lord over everything. He stands as Lord over all of us. Barth affirms that this acknowledgment lay at the very heart of genuine faith:
“We may hold entirely to God’s Word. Faith is not concerned with a special realm, that of religion, say, but with real life in its totality, the outward as well as the inward questions, that which is bodily as well as that which is spiritual, the brightness as well as the gloom in our life. Faith is concerned with our being permitted to rely on God as regards ourselves and also as regards what moves us on behalf of others, of the whole of humanity; it is concerned with the whole of living and the whole of dying.” (Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, p. 21)
Perhaps a fitting conclusion would be to point you to the so-called “covenant formula” of the Bible. From the beginning of creation to the end of redemption, the Scriptures often summarize the overarching goal of God in this world with the phrase “I will be your God, and you will be My people”. The Puritans argued–correctly, I believe–that every promise and every command is included within the purview of this divine utterance. God aims to be our God–that is, all that He is and has and is able to do conspire with unswerving commitment on our behalf, for our good. And He desires that we will be His people–that is, all that we are and have and are able to do belongs utterly to Him in steadfast loyalty, with nothing left over to be wasted on other lovers. He is the God of universal obligation and absolute provision for us.
Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.
Take my moments and my days; let them flow in ceaseless praise.
Take my hands, and let them move at the impulse of Thy love.
Take my feet, and let them be swift and beautiful for Thee.
Take my voice, and let me sing always, only, for my King.
Take my lips, and let them be filled with messages from Thee.
Take my silver and my gold; not a mite would I withhold.
Take my intellect, and use every power as Thou shalt choose.
Take my will, and make it Thine; it shall be no longer mine.
Take my heart, it is Thine own; it shall be Thy royal throne.
Take my love, my Lord, I pour at Thy feet its treasure store.
Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for Thee.