3 Q. How do you come to know your misery?
A. The law of God tells me.^1
^1 Rom. 3:20
4 Q. What does God’s law require of us?
A. Christ teaches us this in summary in Matthew 22:37-40:
“‘You shall love the Lord your God
with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
and with all your mind.’
This is the greatest and first commandment.
“And a second is like it:
‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
“On these two commandments hang
all the law and the prophets.”
5 Q. Can you live up to all this perfectly?
I have a natural tendency
to hate God and my neighbor.^2
^1 Rom. 3:10; 3:23; 1 John 1:8
^2 Rom. 8:7; Eph. 2:3
In the 140,000 miles I’ve traveled thus far as General Assembly moderator, I carry in my briefcase a framed drawing that my eldest son gave to me one Father’s Day depicting he and I holding each other’s hands. Within this frame, I placed photos of both of my sons, and four trading cards they gave to me from their prized Pokemon card collection. This frame of mementos, together with a card from my wife that remains in my carrying case, accompanies me in hotels, meeting halls, church sanctuaries, assembly meetings, countless airports and rental cars. They speak to me when I can’t FaceTime or Skype with my family; they tether me to home.
Eberhard Busch reminds us that the German word translated “misery” is Elend, which shares the etymology for the word Ausland, or a “foreign land.” Busch observes in this connection: “Sin means living far away from the place where I really belong, far from home, far from relationships without which I cannot really be myself—so far that I cannot find the way out of the foreign land by myself, so far that I finally may no longer even want to get out. . . .If there is a misery, then it is precisely this: our life, instead of being lived from God and with God, circles around ourselves, pulsates within ourselves, makes us the midpoint of all things – a life in which we belong to ourselves and want to make as much as possible belong to us.”
(I commend Craig Barnes’s excellent discussion of this in his volume, Searching for Home. )
Being distant from our home which is in and with God’s heart can be seen in acts of greed and covetousness, blind ambition, or a restless heart that seeks self as the priority – my agenda, my plans, my priorities, or a scene from our town’s Little League competition two weeks ago of two parent coaches on opposing teams displaying machismo with bouts of name-calling; globalize this human heart impulse and we see the ideologically-driven atrocities devastating Syria. Microcosmic or macrocosmic. Houston, we have a problem. Or can we even recognize it, have the courage to name it before our gracious God who desires for us to be free to love, and repent of it.
The Catechism’s questions 3 through 5 are described by commentators as picking up on the Lutheran distinction between law and gospel, with a nuancing from the Reformed faith in placing the discussion on misery within Christ’s summary of the law, which is to love. Where the law was described by the Reformers as having three uses: to restrain evil, to teach that we can’t keep the law and direct us towards mercy and grace, and as a norm of conduct for followers of Jesus Christ.
The law acts as a mirror that speaks to our hearts and minds. But the law in and of itself doesn’t speak; the law is not an entity, but the very extension and expression of the heart of God. Far from being abstract, impersonal, stony prescriptions and prohibitions, the law of God is described by the Psalmist as that which “restores the soul;” “pure, enlightening the eyes;” “clean, enduring forever;” “true, righteous altogether.” (Psalm 19:7-9). The Psalmist then describes the law as “more desirable than gold, yes, than much find gold; sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb.” (v. 10). While the law in human hands has a tendency to be hard, unbendable, unyielding, and merciless, in the hands of God and on the lips of our dear Lord Christ, the law is life-giving, sweet, savory, and salutary to our lives and all those around us.
The law of God emanates from the very heart of God. Pick any commandment of the Decalogue. The commandment to speak the truth and not lie comes from the God who is truth and does not lie. The commandment to not commit adultery comes from the God who is singularly focused on the triune God’s perfect love in community among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and God’s own determined love for the world that God created.
When the law speaks to us, it is God reaching out to us, opening God’s heart to us. The misery comes when we are confronted with such an awesome and radical love that impinges and threatens our acts of pride, self-preservation and self-enthronement. It’s in that confrontation that the law of God – God’s heart—or more accurately, God’s very self—shows us that we are miserable without God, living in a foreign land, away from our proper home – nestled in the heart of God.
On life’s journey through foreign lands, our home away from home is that traveling frame, those mementos and portraits of the family story, what Q/A 4 describes in quoting Christ as “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
When you read any of God’s laws, and certainly the summary of them in the two greatest commandments, what would it mean to regard them as God’s personal words to you for the journey, glimpses into the heart-soul-mind of the Lord who is your home? The Lord who desires your wandering heart-soul-mind back to where you belong.