Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Dusting off the Mind-Cobwebs: Towards a biblical understanding of Promises and Covenants

Standing on the Promises Part 1

Sin seems to have a cobweb effect on my heart and mind that keeps me from understanding the breadth of spiritual truths. However, the first sign that some light might be making its way in there is when I start to realize there’s a lot more to a truth than I currently understand. That’s how I feel when studying covenants and promises. I’ve been seeing a tiny bit of ice sticking out of the water, but there’s something huge underwater that I know very little about.

It was ten years ago that Chris and I first read Douglas Wilson’s book Standing on the Promises. The main things I took from it back then were: Wow, this author actually know his Bible. Wow, there’s a lot I don’t know about in the Bible. And then just: Wow! I’ve been found recommending it ever since: “You should read it, because: wow!” It wasn’t perhaps the most articulate explanation.

Now we’re reading the book again and after having been in churches that teach covenant theology, I’m beginning to absorb a little more from the weighty book. And yet, I still find myself scratching my head and going, “How does a covenant work again?” I’m finding, I have a lot more to learn.

Covenants are foreign concepts to the American mind, someone astutely pointed out to me recently. And when you add in the spiritual brain fog that sin effects in us all, it’s no wonder we struggle to understand them. However, it’s fun to catch things that I missed ten years ago. Here are my feeble attempts to forge ahead and understand some foreign and weighty concepts.

Of Gardens and Bank Accounts

Wilson frequently talks about keeping covenant with our God. In the old days, my understanding of keeping a covenant was similar to keeping a bank account. This time around, I see keeping covenant more similar to keeping a garden.

When you walk into your bank to make a deposit, you cross a pristine floor and are greeted by an immaculate countertop on which stands one lone container, filled with pens. You hand the banker your deposit, and your balance goes up accordingly. The whole process is so simple that my four year old can understand it.

But keeping a garden is an entirely different sort of task. Everyone has a bank account, but very few people have success with a garden. It takes a certain level of dedication. The tasks involved in caring for a garden are varied. The soil needs preparation, different plants need to be planted at different times, you have to water, prune, protect from frost, ward off pests, weed frequently, fertilize, mulch, deal with disease, and much more. If you want a large garden and want to tend it well, it’s a daily task.

When we are trapped in a small-minded view of covenants, we imagine that we can keep covenant in a bank-account kind of way. We scan the Bible (and parenting books) for what transactions are required of us. We come up with a tidy little list and imagine a recipe that goes like this: baptism plus church attendance plus tithing equals (ka-ching!) we are bona fide covenant keepers. We did it.

But Deuteronomy 5:32,33 leaves us no such room for this narrow thinking. “You shall be careful therefore to do as the Lord your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right or to the left.” For us to take care to live exactly how God has commanded, and not stray slightly, is not a task that can be boiled down to a simple equation. It requires daily examination. It reminds me of a garden. In a heat spell in Colorado, I could go just two days without watering and the plants would be scorched. I have to be careful with that garden, to do everything that 500 page gardening encyclopedia says.

The bent of the human mind is to take something rich and complex and varied and try to reduce it and make it easier on us. Following a formula never requires careful attention. Formulas can be performed while watching T.V. You punch in some numbers and the formula does the rest.

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