The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
February 12, 2023
To advance in the pursuit of any worthwhile goal, we have to deny ourselves.
To get healthy, we have to deny ourselves as much sugar as we’d like. To get better in our line of work, we have to deny ourselves the luxury of just getting by on the job and do things the right way even when it’s not easy. To become a supportive friend, we have to deny ourselves the indulgence of our self-centeredness.
In fact, to advance the overall quality of our life, we have to practice constant self-denial.
Jesus said that to gain our life, we have to lose our life; and to enjoy the best of life in a friendship with Him, we have to take up our cross, die to our egocentricity and deny ourselves as He denied Himself. But who in their right minds would choose self-denial? Those who, after a cost-benefit analysis, decide the benefits outweigh the costs!
In today’s scripture, God through Moses addresses the people of God. God here asserts that, in seeking to advance our well-being, we do our selves a favor by denying ourselves the position of being Number One in our life and by deferring to the higher authority of God in obedience to His commandments.
God is not saying here that disregarding His law is wrong so much as it is foolish and self-defeating. For heeding His instructions is the best way to attain happiness and self-fulfillment, and going our own way, the best way to attain self-ruination. Thus, God says, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.”
God does describe the benefits of obedience in non-spiritual terms such as extended longevity, increased land possession and growth in the number of our community; but the most frequently mentioned benefit – repeated here seven times – is “life” itself, life at its best. Is then the association of non-spiritual benefits with spiritual faithfulness a poetic, figurative way of bringing home the truth that there are richer and deeper, albeit less precisely grasped, benefits to walking with God than to proceeding on our own?
And/or is the association of non-spiritual benefits with spiritual faithfulness a way to express the truth that heeding God’s will is the most promising way to make all of life better? Imagine how economically prosperous and socially collaborative the whole world would be if everyone in it obeyed God’s commandments – if everyone treated others fairly, respectfully and with a concern for the common good and everyone kept their word and did the right thing. Think what cooperation and creativity would then happen! Would not science progress more quickly, artistry flourish, peace endure and folks live longer and happier as a result?
When we think of this, some of us might wish that God would make us obey Him and thus make the world a happier place. But in a cost-benefit analysis, would that have an overall positive result? Philosopher J.P. Moreland suggests a thought experiment:
Suppose God decided to keep us all from ever doing evil again. He grabs a cosmic electric cattle prod to use on us to make us walk the straight line. Thus, if we start to tell a lie, He zaps us to stop us in our tracks; or if we devise a plan to steal something, He gives us a painful jolt; or if we entertain the idea of killing someone, He hits us with a near-fatal charge. Moreover, since it is evil to fail to do good when we have the chance, He also frequently zaps us for mere indifference, laziness or failure to follow through on our good intentions.
What would be the result? Would anyone be truly good or happy? Or would we all be twitchy nervous wrecks cowering and heeling behind our Master like beaten dogs? It would amount to ending the human race at its best.
OK, so why doesn’t God remake us as robots and program us to do nothing but good? Because that too would amount to ending the human race at its best! There’d no longer be the Doctors without Borders kind of folks who make us proud of the human race, people who out of a free choice born of love sacrifice their own ease, safety and luxury in order to help the neediest.
A God who allows no free choice allows no real human being. God did a cost-benefit analysis and decided having the best human beings is worth its terrible cost – a price God pays more steeply than anyone else because God hurts whenever and wherever anyone hurts and because the plight into which our bad choices plunged us required of God to suffer the unimaginable horror of what happened at Golgotha.
So there is for us no option but to make a choice. None of us can become good apart from freely and deliberately deciding to submit to God’s commandments. We have to choose life and not death, blessings and not curses. We have to dedicate ourselves with steadfast determination to surrendering to God’s rule over us.
God wants us to do that because He knows that, if we do, we will have the most wonderful life and help others have it as well. Of course, it is a nobler thing if we obey God’s will solely on the grounds it is just the right thing to do. But God knows how we are, and realizes we rarely do anything that we don’t see as being in our self-interest. So, because He so wants us to have that wonderful life and to help others to have it, He connects the pursuit of obedience to certain benefits so as to give us an extra incentive to do what we would if we just had our heads screwed on straight. To meet us where we’re at and to motivate us to do what we should, God promises us big rewards for putting Him first – as Mike Singletary, the Hall of Fame linebacker who as team captain led the Chicago Bears in winning the 1985 Super Bowl, discovered.
Singletary bears witness to the self-advancement of self-denial. He says, “The number one thing in my life, and by far the reason I do everything I do, is my love for Jesus Christ. Number two is my family…Number three is my work speaking about teamwork, leadership and cultural diversity and trying to bring people together…The thing I most want to do in life is to make a difference and serve with a capital ‘S’.”
May we follow Mike Singletary’s example and choose life by making God Number One for us and doing what He commands. Let us pray.