Broadman & Holman Publishers
It pays to know the basic stuff.
It was the first day of training camp in Vince Lombardi’s third year as coach of the Green Bay Packers. In the previous two years, the team had done well, winning fifteen games and a conference championship. By the force of his personality, Lombardi had taken the Packers from losers to winners overnight. Yet as practice began in July 1961, Lombardi was scared. He worried that his team had forgotten what it would take to win the championship. He decided to approach training camp as if the players were blank slates who knew nothing at all about the game they were being paid to play. So he began with the most elemental fact of all. Facing the team at the first meeting, he held up a pigskin and said, “Gentlemen, this is a football.” From the back of the room Max McGee called out, “Uh, coach, could you slow down a little. You’re going too fast for us.”1
In any field of endeavor, you must make sure you’ve got the fundamentals nailed down. That applies to the spiritual life just as much as to professional football. Some things are so basic that if you don’t know them, you are doomed to frustration. If you do know those things, however, you have a chance to succeed beyond your expectations. For the last few years I have been putting together a short list of the basic principles of the Christian life—those truths that every believer needs to know in order to have a healthy relationship with God. I wanted a short list that would take a person from their first thoughts about God all the way to heaven. Compiling this list proved to be an ambitious goal that required a lengthy personal journey that took me to all parts of the Bible. Although I am the first to admit that any such list is bound to be imperfect and subject to correction and addition, the final list I uncovered seemed so basic that I call it the Seven Laws of the Spiritual Life.
Before we discuss each law individually, let’s focus for a moment on one vital observation: The Seven Laws begin and end with God. That is as it should be since the Bible is a book about God, and as the answer to the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism reminds us, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” We were made for God. We were made to know God, to serve God, to love God, and to live forever with God. As Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” We were made to glorify God; and in the act of bringing glory to him, we will enjoy him forever. And in enjoying God, we will enjoy (in the truest and deepest sense) the life he has given us.
So where does the spiritual life begin? It all starts with this fundamental truth: He’s God and we’re not. Nothing is more basic than that. All spiritual reality begins with this truth, and if we skip this or ignore it or downplay it, nothing else in this book—or in life—will make much sense.
In order to help us grasp this truth, let’s survey a number of biblical passages. The First Law is so fundamental that I might easily find three hundred verses that teach it. Here are just a few.
“But he stands alone, and who can oppose him? He does whatever he pleases” (Job 23:13). Job understands that he cannot demand anything from the Lord. In and of himself, he has no power to change his awful condition, and he can’t even demand a hearing to plead his case to the Lord. God does what he wants, and Job is powerless to oppose him.
“I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). This verse introduces the final chapter of Job’s saga. It comes after God has given him a theology lesson and a final exam on creation, which Job flunked miserably. He couldn’t answer a single question. Now thoroughly humbled, he confesses that God is all-powerful, that he does what he wants, and that no one stands against him. This confession leads Job to deep repentance for his foolish questioning of God’s plan.
“Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him” (Ps. 115:3). That’s pretty clear, isn’t it? The Lord of the universe does whatever he pleases. Whenever I read this verse, I want to stop and say, “Any questions?”
“The Lord does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths” (Ps. 135:6). The psalmist then goes on to list various proofs that God does what he wants: he makes clouds rise in the sky (v. 7); he struck down the firstborn of Egypt (v. 8); he sent signs and wonders (v. 9); and he struck down many nations (v. 10). The psalm concludes with a fivefold call for everyone to praise the Lord (vv. 19–21).
“Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning. He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him” (Dan. 2:20–22). When King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had a dream he could not remember and did not understand, he eventually asked Daniel to help him. Daniel agreed, prayed to God, and the dream and its interpretation were revealed to him. The verses quoted above are part of Daniel’s response of praise to God. It is God who sets up kings and then dethrones them. He orders the times and seasons. I am especially struck by the phrase “he knows what lies in darkness.” God even sees the hidden things because the darkness is not dark to him.
Let’s run the story forward to Daniel 4. When King Nebuchadnezzar took credit for the greatness of his kingdom, God struck him with a kind of insanity that made him think he was a beast of the field. For seven years he lived among the wild animals. When he finally turned his heart to the Lord, his sanity was restored. This is part of his public praise to God: “Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever. His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: ‘What have you done?’ . . . Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble” (Dan. 4:34–35, 37). Here is a pagan king who discovered the hard way the truth of God’s sovereignty. To Nebuchadnezzar’s credit, he did not hesitate to speak the truth once his sanity was restored. He proclaimed that God does whatever he wants. Even the greatest human rulers are as nothing to him. No one can question what God does. Everything God does is right. And the Lord knows how to humble the proud. It would be hard to find a clearer statement of the First Law in the entire Bible.
“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen” (Rom. 11:33–36). This wonderful doxology comes at the end of Paul’s presentation of the gospel as God’s answer to man’s sin and his presentation of God’s future plans for Israel. No one could have foreseen how God would respond to human rebellion. No one gives God advice. No one can trace his path across the starry skies. God is never in debt to anyone for any reason. Everything is from him, everything is through him, and everything is to him. And he alone gets the glory.
“In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:11). This verse is one part of a long sentence that begins with the words “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” in verse 3. In verse 11 Paul is praising God for choosing us in Christ according to his pre-determined plan. You might translate the last part of the verse this way: “He arranged everything so that all things are working out just as he planned a long time ago.” One of the sections of the Westminster Confession of Faith says that God ordains “whatsoever cometh to pass.” As Tony Evans, pastor and author, puts it, “Everything in the universe is either caused by God or allowed by God.”2 Nothing ever “just happens,” and nothing is caused by someone or something outside God’s control. Some things he directly causes; other things he allows to happen. But all things in heaven and on the earth and even the things that happen in hell—even the very acts of Satan—are controlled by God. Martin Luther called the devil “God’s lapdog,” because even he can do nothing without God’s permission. Which is why Paul can declare that everything is happening just as God planned from the very beginning.
“Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: ‘Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory!’” (Rev. 19:6–7). When Christ returns to the earth, the whole world will clearly know what we know right now by faith: Our God reigns.
He reigns over all things.
He reigns in every situation.
He reigns in the best and the worst that happens to us.
He reigns over his friends and even over his enemies.
He reigns in heaven, and he also reigns in hell.
He reigns over those who doubt him and deny him.
He reigns over those who follow other gods and other religions.
Our God reigns. The world does not yet see it, and sometimes we have trouble believing it because we don’t always see it either. But the truth remains and will not be changed: Our God reigns.
As I stand back and consider all these marvelous verses, one fact jumps out at me and will not be ignored: Every time the Bible writers speak of God’s sovereignty, it always leads them to praise.
He does what he pleases . . . Praise the Lord.
No one can oppose him . . . Shout for joy to the Lord.
Everything God does is right . . . Hallelujah.
How unsearchable is his wisdom . . . To God be the glory forever.
His plan is working out perfectly . . . Praise be to God.
Our God reigns . . . Let the people rejoice and be glad.
If this truth does not fill our hearts with praise, then we either don’t understand what the Bible says or we simply refuse to believe it. But the truth remains whether we believe it or not. God is in charge of all things. Even when it looks like he’s not ruling, he’s ruling. When chaos appears, he’s in charge of the chaos. When things start falling apart, he’s in charge of the falling apart of those things.
Theologians call this doctrine the “Sovereignty of God.” You find it on every page of the Bible. The word sovereign means “king” or “ruler” or “boss.” God’s sovereignty means that he is calling the shots in the universe. He’s in charge of all things. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Ps. 24:1).
And that’s what I mean by the statement: “He’s God and we’re not.” He is the Creator, and we are his creatures. This is truly the most fundamental principle of the spiritual life. Until you understand this and submit yourself to it, nothing in life will work right. Every mistake you’ve ever made has come as a result of forgetting who’s God and who’s not. I believe the first sin in the universe happened because Lucifer (an angel created by God who later became Satan) forgot who was God and who was not. Isaiah 14:13–14 seems to use poetic language to describe Lucifer’s very first act of rebellion against God: “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.” Note the five “I wills” of Lucifer. When any created being attempts to become “like the Most High,” the only possible result can be severe judgment from God. When we decide to “play God” and run our little portion of the universe, we will not escape judgment either.
At this point I’d like to say a word about God’s freedom. Although we talk a great deal about freedom, it’s usually our personal freedom in view. We rarely think about God’s freedom, yet that is the major point of the passages just discussed. When you come to the bottom line, God’s freedom is the only true freedom in the universe. Every other “freedom” is derived from his freedom in one way or another.
The following seven short statements flesh out the meaning of “God’s Freedom.”
1. He is absolutely free to do whatever he wants to do.
Because God is God, he can do whatever he wants to do whenever he wants to do it. If he wants to create a planet, or a galaxy, or even another universe, he just says the word and it happens. He is truly free in the absolute sense of the term. This is why he announced himself to Moses as “I am who I am” (Exod. 3:14). God is eternal, self-existent, and absolutely self-sufficient. He exists entirely apart from the universe he created.
2. He has the right to deal with me any way he chooses.
By this I mean that God was under no obligation to create you or me or anyone else. Neither is he obligated to keep us alive even one more second. He is under no compulsion to save a single member of the human race. No one has a claim on God. He can do what he wants with any of us, and no one can successfully second-guess him.
3. He doesn’t have to treat me the way he treats my next-door neighbor.
Many people struggle with this concept because they think that because God did something for a friend or a neighbor or a loved one, then God is bound to do the same thing for them. But it doesn’t work that way. God can deliver your neighbor from cancer, but you may die of the disease. Or vice versa. Envying your neighbor because he has something you don’t have is a waste of time because God treats us as individuals, not as groups. The truth is, he might do for you exactly what he’s done for someone else—or he might do more; he might do less; he might do something entirely different. He’s God. He can deal with us the way he wants.
4. He doesn’t have to treat me today the way he treated me yesterday.
This principle needs to be stated carefully to avoid misunderstanding. Since God’s character never changes, we know that he is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is always gracious, always loving, always holy, and always just. His ways are always perfect. However, that doesn’t mean that what happened to _me yesterday is a pattern or guarantee for what will happen tomorrow. Though God’s character and his love for me will never change, how that grace, faithfulness, and love is expressed varies widely from moment to moment. One day I may need _a remarkable answer to prayer. The next day I may be in the _valley of suffering, waiting on the Lord to deliver me. He’s always the same God, but he does not display himself in my life the same way all the time.
5. He can answer my prayers any way he chooses.
Everyone who has prayed very much understands this truth. One night we fish and catch nothing. The next day our nets are filled to breaking. I may be in prison one night, and an angel may come to set me free. Or God may send an earthquake to deliver me. Or I may die in prison as many Christians have over the years. A loved one with a dread disease may be spared by God for several years, only to die from that disease eventually. One day _I may sense God’s Spirit working powerfully in my life. Another day I may plod through the doldrums. So it goes for all of God’s children. Our God is infinitely creative in the way he deals with us as he brings us to spiritual maturity. There are bright days and dark nights, and both are from the Lord.
6. He will not tolerate any rivals to his throne.
This is one of the clearest themes of the Bible: There is only one God, and he demands our exclusive worship. After reminding the Jews that he had delivered them from Egypt, God made this the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3). That’s clear, isn’t it? No other gods, period. God is Number One. And there is no Number Two.
7. He is not obligated to live up to my expectations or to explain himself to me.
This may be the most important statement regarding God’s freedom. He doesn’t bind himself to do what we expect him to do. As a matter of fact, God continually surprised his people in the Bible. He cast Adam and Eve out of Eden and then made garments to cover their nakedness. He sent a flood and gave Noah a rainbow. He parted the Red Sea, arranged for daily delivery of manna and quail, and then had the sons of Korah swallowed up by the earth. Jesus rebuked Peter, allowed him to see the Transfiguration, predicted his betrayal, restored him, and then predicted the way he would die. Everything happened just as God promised, but nothing worked out the way people expected. He’s the God of great surprises.
And he doesn’t have to explain himself to us. There are many questions we would all like to ask. I have a handful of my own. Almost always our questions revolve around suffering, sadness, the death of loved ones, and times of personal disappointment. _I have found that the greater the sadness, the less likely we are to fully understand it. Small things we can figure out on our own; great losses are hidden in the mind and heart of God. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God” (Deut. 29:29).
God is far bigger than we imagine; his presence fills the universe; he is more powerful than we know, wiser than all the wisdom of the wisest men and women; his love is beyond human understanding; his grace has no limits; his holiness is infinite; and his ways are past finding out. He is the one true God. He has no beginning and no end. He created all things, and all things exist by his divine power. He has no peers. No one gives him advice. No one can fully understand him. He is perfect in all his perfections.
There is nothing we have, not even our praise and worship, that adds in the least to who God is. He did not create us because of any lack in himself, as if we were created because God was lonely. To paraphrase author A. W. Tozer, were every person _on earth to become an atheist, it would not affect God in any way. The belief or disbelief of the human race cannot change the reality of who God is. To believe in him adds nothing to his _perfection; to doubt him takes nothing away.
God rules all things everywhere at all times. Nothing escapes his notice. Nothing is beyond his control. He is beyond time and space, yet he controls them both. Author Ravi Zacharias put it this way: “Time is the brush with which God paints his story on the canvas of human history. Eternity is the perspective from which we view the painting.”3 This is our God!
As we consider who God is, we are eventually led to a very humbling truth, one that is not mentioned often and is hardly believed when it is taught: God does not need us for anything. If any concept flies in the face of contemporary American Christianity, this is it. Down deep inside, most of us want to feel that we are important and necessary. We like to think that God must have needed us, or else why would he have created us? In the absolute sense, God doesn’t “need” anything or anyone. He didn’t create us because he was lonely, and he didn’t save us because heaven was empty. He does not need our worship or our obedience or our missionary service or our prayers or anything else we do in order to be God. There is no lack of any kind with him. This is a very humbling, and for some people a very frustrating, truth. But ask yourself this question: Do you really think God can’t get along without you? What if your entire congregation just disappeared, poof, just like that? What if it had never even existed? Do we think the universe depends on us for its survival? Hardly. When the Pharisees told Jesus to rebuke his cheering disciples as he entered Jerusalem for the final time, he replied, “If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:40). If God wants to, he can cause the trees to clap their hands and the mountains to sing out his praises. He can make the rocks sing his praises.
That God created us is an act of his sovereign will. That we are saved is a miracle of sovereign grace. That he accepts our worship and rewards our obedience is a miracle of sovereign love.
Before going on, I should add one or two clarifying points. The intended result of the teaching just given is to destroy all human pride and to leave us lying in the dust. We must come to the place where we understand that there is nothing good in us. Apart from God’s kindness, there is no reason for him to use us at all. If God “needs” us to do his work, it is only because he has ordained to work through us to accomplish his will. Because God is God, he could have set up the universe in some other fashion. We are blessed beyond measure that God allows us the honor of praising him, serving him, and proclaiming his glory to the nations.
Of course there is much more we need to know about who God is than what I have said here. The Bible is filled with rich truth about our heavenly Father. As we move through this book, we will talk a great deal about his mercy and grace. In this first chapter, however, it is crucial that we get ourselves firmly grounded in the truth of God’s absolute, unquestioned, totally free sovereignty. While listening to the radio many years ago, I heard a country preacher shouting into a microphone in East Tennessee. I don’t remember anything about his message except one line that he kept repeating (at an ear-splitting decibel level): “God do what he want to do!” That’s terrible grammar but excellent _theology. God does exactly as he pleases—all the time, everywhere, in every situation, in all parts of the universe. Always has, always will. In a profound sense, his ultimate will is always being done. He’s God. That’s the way it has to be.
As I have pondered this truth of God’s freedom, many applications come to mind. Properly understood, it ought to lead us to a calm confidence in God even in the midst of unspeakable tragedy. It should also make us bold in our witness and strong in our prayers. Finally, if we believe this truth, we will find the strength to persevere over the long haul, knowing that even our foolish mistakes cannot cancel God’s plans for us.
While all of this is true, the core issue for us individually is: How do I respond to the truth that God is God and I am not? Every single day each of us must make a fundamental choice. We can reject this First Law and decide to fight against it, but that rebellion leads inevitably to anger, bitterness, despair, and finally to a hardened heart. I know a few believers who have chosen this path. Some end up dropping out of church altogether because they are so angry that they cannot come to worship anymore. More often in my experience, however, the people who choose this path stay in church and end up as very angry Christians. They are hard to talk to because they are secretly (or not so secretly) fighting against the Lord. Usually they have suffered an enormous personal loss and cannot find a way to reconcile what they have lost with the God they have always worshiped. Though they come to church Sunday after Sunday, sitting in the pews, singing the hymns, praying the prayers, and going through the motions, their hearts are not in it because down deep they are angry at what God has done. They have the “wounded spirit” spoken of in Proverbs 18:14 (KJV). It is very difficult to help them unless God’s Spirit softens their heart.
But there is another choice we can make. If we accept the First Law as true, and if we submit ourselves to God, and if _we acknowledge that he is free do what he wants to do, that submission leads to joyful praise. The truth of God’s freedom ought to lead us to praise and worship. If it doesn’t, we haven’t fully understood the biblical teaching. It is not that we will praise God directly for the pain and sadness around us or for the sinful acts of others. But we will praise God that he is able to work in, with, and through everything that happens, both the good and the bad, to accomplish his will, to make us more like Christ, and to bring glory to himself. To say that is to say nothing more than what Romans 8:28 clearly teaches: “We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God” (HCSB).
One Saturday night a few years ago I was working in my office at home. My office is located in the corner of our basement so that when I’m there, I won’t be bothered and I won’t bother anyone else. I rarely have visitors to my home office, and no one ever drops by on Saturday night. On this particular night, however, _I heard a knock at the door. When I opened it, there stood an old friend with tears streaming down his face. As he walked in and sat down, he kept repeating two words: “It’s over.” I knew what he meant. His marriage was coming to a very sad end. Although both he and his wife were Christians, a series of sinful choices had brought their marriage to a total collapse. That night she told him she was filing for divorce. My friend sat in my office, tears coursing down his cheeks, thoroughly broken as he realized that soon his marriage would be over and he would be divorced.
Yet he went on to say that two things helped sustain him in this agonizing personal crisis. The first one was a song that was playing on the local Christian station: “Life Is Hard but God Is Good.” My friend had heard it so many times that he knew the words by heart. Now he was discovering through his pain that both parts of the title were true. Life is hard. No one had to convince him of that. But as he now contemplated the wreckage of a marriage he had hoped would last forever, he was realizing that even in his pain, God is good. In addition to the song, he said that he had learned a verse of Scripture that was helping him greatly. It was Psalm 115:3: “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.” On the surface, that might seem a strange verse for such a sad moment, yet to him it was a lifeline. The truth of God’s sovereignty and God’s freedom meant that what was happening to him was part of the outworking of God’s plan. Though human sin had caused the breakup, God had allowed it to come and had not intervened to stop it. Therefore, my friend was confident that God would help him through this painful time, and that in the end, he would learn many much-needed lessons.
All of that happened a number of years ago, yet my friend would say that he believes that verse even more today than he did then. Nothing happens anywhere in the universe by accident. There is no such thing as luck or fate or chance. God is at work in all things at all times to accomplish his will in the universe. He does whatever pleases him. I understand why some people rebel against a high view of God’s sovereignty. The paradox is this: People who rebel against God usually do so in the name of freedom. They want the freedom to go their own way; to follow their own desires; to do whatever they want, when they want, with anyone they choose. Ironically, this sort of “freedom” leads only to slavery. These individuals end up enslaved to sin, chained to addictive behaviors, locked in a personal prison of unrelenting guilt and shame. There is no freedom in rebellion against God. There is only slavery.
But when we submit ourselves to our heavenly Father, when we finally say, “Lord, you are God and I am not,” when we bow before him, through our tears if necessary—then (and only then) do we discover true freedom. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Those whom the Son sets free are free indeed.
The basic problem for many of us is that we have allowed God to be everywhere but on his throne. No wonder we are unhappy and frustrated and unfulfilled. No wonder life doesn’t work right. How much better to say with the psalmist, “Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker” (Ps. 95:6). There is coming a day when “every knee shall bow . . . and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10–11, TLB). If that day is coming, then why not get a head start and bow your knee and confess that God is God and Jesus Christ is your Lord?
Here is a simple phrase that captures this truth: “The Lord is God, and there is no other.” Can you say those words? I challenge you to say that sentence out loud right now. Make it a public affirmation of your faith.
Recently our high school ministry sponsored a “road rally.” About sixty of our teenagers took part. I don’t know the details except that they were divided into nine teams and sent on foot to various locations in Oak Park, where they had to find a certain person, give the password, and then at each location they had to perform a specified act. The team that made it to all the stops in the shortest time was the winner. Afterward they had a time for refreshments and testimonies at the church. I know about the event because our house was one of the stops. Between 7:30 and 9:15 that Saturday night, we had nine groups of high school students in our living room. When each arrived, they were told that one person in the group was to give his best impersonation of me preaching on Sunday morning. They all laughed when they heard about it, and there was no shortage of volunteers. Nine times I watched as the high schoolers mimicked my preaching. The funniest part was, without any prearrangement, they all did the same thing. They started by saying, “How are ya doin’? No, I mean, How are you doing?” Then they would go to one side of the living room and turn it into a timeline, just like I do on the platform on Sunday morning. They waved their hands just like _I do and said things like, “This is Genesis.” Then they would take a step and say, “This is where David killed Goliath.” Another step and say, “And this is Goliath.” Another step and say, “This is the Mediterranean Sea.” And to great peals of laughter, they would go to the other side of the room and say, “This is the Book of Revelation.” Finally, they came back to the middle and said, “Run to the cross!” Pretty funny because (a) that’s exactly what I do on Sunday morning, and (b) all the students did the same thing. It just goes to show that even when you think young people aren’t listening, they are noticing everything.