Most of you don’t know this, but I love math—especially geometry. I love the organization of it, the logic, the confidence in repeatable results. I think math is beautiful. I haven’t persuaded my eleven-year-old of this perspective yet, but I’m working on him.
In math, order usually matters. 5 -3 ≠ 3 – 5. There’s an order in which to write the equation and there’s an order to the procedures used in solving it.
Boring!! Okay, I’ve already lost some of you. Here’s the point:
In the Christ-life, order also matters. But we don’t like the specified order. Just like a couple of Algebra I kids who think they can get creative with solving quadratic equations, we think we know better, easier ways to live out our lives.
In this psalm, David begins by asking God who can get close to Him. He says it much more poetically: Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent? Who may live on your holy mountain? (Psalm 15:1). This is a recurring theme with David. He asks essentially the same question in Psalm 24:3. This time, David must have been thinking about Moses, whose face glowed after time spent with God in the tent of meeting or on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:29-35).
Then David answers himself, running down a list of honorable actions (Psalm 15:2-5). It’s not the Ten Commandments but more a list of things to which a basically good person should pay attention. Here’s what’s interesting (well, one of the things): None of these things are about proscribed rituals. They are all about relationships!
Not Ritual but Righteousness
Rituals do not
Here’s David, who once sacrificed a bull and a calf every six steps when they were moving the ark to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:13). This guy knew how to “do” sacrifices! Yet when he considered what it takes to be close to God, it wasn’t about rituals. It was about relationships—specifically, relationships with other people. Long before Amos chastised the “cows” who paraded into religious ceremonies even while thinking up new ways to cheat each other (e.g. Amos 4:4-5), David knew our actions toward each other revealed far more about the condition of our hearts than any number of religious rituals. Wouldn’t Jesus say the same thing to the Pharisees, who tithed their herbs and spices while turning a blind eye to justice and mercy (Matthew 23:23)?
Not Regulation but Relationship
We need to be careful here, though. It would be easy to take this list of actions, hang it on the wall, and think we could be close to God by, for example, never slandering, never doing wrong to a neighbor, and never casting slurs (all from verse 3), along with the rest of the list.
What’s wrong with that? Well…
- It’s straight-up legalism.
- It’s impossible to do for a day, much less a lifetime, and even trying would we exceedingly stressful!
- It misses the whole point.
The actions listed here by David and lived out in relationships, all reflect a certain condition of the heart. They demonstrate kindness, peace, patience, self-control, etc. Wait. That sounds a lot like the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), doesn’t it? Ah ha! The heart condition must come before the demonstrations.
When my relationship with God is good and right, my relationships with others reveal it. This is the definition of righteousness.
Obviously, we no longer offer animal sacrifices. And thank goodness! Think how hard it would be to clean the church every Sunday if we had animals and blood all over the place. But we do try to regulate our Christianity.
We want to make righteousness (remember, that just means a right relationship with God) about what we do and don’t do: church attendance, tithing, not watching R-rated movies, schooling choices for our children, boycotting company X, etc.
We want to make
righteousness about what
we do and don’t do.
Let’s stop for a second here. Why is this? Why do we lean toward the regulations? I think it’s because they are easier and less messy that David’s list in Psalm 15. Honestly, I’d rather skip R-rated movies than try to always speak the truth from my heart (15:2). Such truth-telling might offend someone or it might compel me to do something inconvenient or difficult. A personal, intimate rightness with God (that definition of real righteousness again) will require me to confront my own moral failings, and well, that’s just more than I can handle. Know what I mean?
God has always said it’s our relationships with others that reveal our rightness with Him.
Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. -1 Samuel 15:22
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. -Micah 6:8
And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward. -Matthew 10:42
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. -James 1:27
As you can see, in all three sections of the Old Testament (histories, wisdom literature, and prophets) and in both parts of the New Testament (gospels and letters), it’s our actions in relationships that confirm our connection with God. Never our rituals or regulations. And here’s the good news: We have the Holy Spirit, with His Fruit to both confirm our relationship with God the Father and empower us to live according to His standards. So I don’t worry about the list. I just focus on keeping my relationship with God in good condition.
Later in James,
You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone. -James 2:24
Perhaps this verse is the best to set alongside Psalm 15. The actions David describes are the tangible result of a righteous life, not the prescription for it. This is where the Christ-Life is like math. Order is important. The right relationship with God yields healthy, God-centered relationships with other people, never the other way around.
right relationship with God ⇒ right actions toward others
When your righteousness is revealed through your relationships, you will never be shaken (Psalm 15:5b). Just like my geometry proofs.
Whew! I hope this made some sense. I feel like I just blurted a bunch of stuff onto the page. Let me know what struck you as significant and/or where I missed it. I always appreciate your comments.