The following appeared recently in an issue of The Geneva Courier. This has been slightly edited for a more general audience.
About this time each year, I have the privilege of taking 7th grade students into what I consider the Gospel of the Old Testament: the book of Deuteronomy. Though presented to the Israelites in the form of an Ancient Near Eastern Suzerain/Vassal treaty formula, and though it is filled with history, laws, blessings for obedience, and cursings for rebellion, yet, the Good News is there.
Of course, “good news” presumes “bad” news (otherwise, it’s just “news”!). And there is indeed bad news in Deuteronomy. In the historical prologue (chapters 2-4), Moses reminds the Israelites that the preceding generation (their parents!) all died in the wilderness due to their stubbornness and rebellion even though God was leading them, providing for them and protecting them.
But that is not all the bad news. In a section of the laws commonly called the great commands (chapters 5-12), one section stands out. In chapter 10, there is a restatement that God requires his followers to fear him, walk in his ways, love him, serve him (with all our heart no less!). This is tough enough. But Moses goes on saying that since God set his heart on their forefathers, the Israelites needed to circumcise their hearts and stop being stubborn (Deut. 10:12-16). This is an impossible demand! Using the language of ritual cleanliness, he was saying God required pure hearts – something we are unable to do.
I also believe that this law was meant to bring God’s people to their knees in repentance and trust, saying, “God, is we cannot do. Have mercy!” And God is quick to be merciful and gracious when we recognize our profound neediness before him. And of course, in the following dozen chapters, Israel received again hundreds of more laws as if these great commands were not enough already.
But good news comes later. After detailing the blessings for obedience, and the cursings that would come for disobedience, we come to chapter 30. There, in the context of God’s people coming to him in repentance and faith, God says, “And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deut. 30:6).
This is good news! God requires of us the overwhelming demands of perfect righteousness. But what he requires of us, in lavish and equally overwhelming grace, he offers to do for us . . . so that we may love him as we should (otherwise we cannot) and so that we may live (again, otherwise, we perish).
As the new year begins, I am reminded that as believers, we all called to belong to a community of faith. There are myriad ways we may display images of the grace we have received from God as we interact with one another. But at the same time, in my work at The Geneva School, I recognize that we live in a tension of being an educational institution that measures success (and yes, at times, failure). Our world measures academic competencies and intellectual capacity. As a school, we have standards of dress and behavior that at times allow only so much grace. Students have heard me say (sometimes in kind fun and other times on the edge of frustration) “God’s grace is infinite, mine is not.” This is true. Would that our teachers could provide for their students what they also require of them. Would that all behavior, when accompanied by repentance, could be simply forgiven and forgotten as God does for us. But with one foot in the world, we must help students grow into adults who live in a rather unforgiving world of jobs, relationships, reward and punishment.
So we walk in the already and the not yet. We are already redeemed and live by faith in our community; but we are not yet in fully inaugurated kingdom where the love of God allows us to cancel every sin and transgression. It is a careful tension within which we strive to hold in a balance that honors the God who created us and who sustains and redeems us, and at the same time honors the demands of our educational aspirations toward educational excellence wed with godly virtue.
So as the new year began, I was grateful to hear from Gordon Cloke (one of our Board of Governors at Geneva), a prayer his family uses each new year season to be reminded of good things. I thought it would be good for us as well to read and prayerfully consider. May God grant us much grace in our journey this spring.