Children don’t come with instruction manuals…
I have one son. He is an adult now. My wife and I tried to “raise him right,” but in reality there were periods when we were not sure we knew what we were doing. I suspect it is that way for every parent. J.I. Packer makes the case in Chapter Nineteen entitled “Sons of God” that when a person gives their life to Christ, they are adopted into the family of God [see “I Am an Adopted Child of God” May 1, 2020 and “It’s Who I Am” May 7, 2020 in St. John Studies].
The Bible says we are“adopted.” We buy into that idea. If we become family members of God, He is our Abba, our Father, and He becomes the one in charge of instructing us in how to conduct our lives. As a parent, my wife and I tried to give our son “concrete” examples of how to behave. We tried to use our imaginations at times to create situations where he could learn how to operate in this world. We wanted him to have our attitude toward life; to have our view of life. We wanted him to appreciate “our view” [paraphrase from Packer about parenting]. We were never sure that “our view” was the best outlook about reality. We did the best we could without an instruction manual.
First of all, our Abba did not give life lessons the way the Jewish lawyers and scribes of Jesus’s day did. Packer labels that life instruction “tax-consultant type of instruction.” He labels God’s instruction as “responsible freedom.” Instead of endless lists of binding, detailed rules, God gives us a “broad and general way [of] the spirit, direction and objectives… guiding principles and ideals, by which the Christian must steer his course” [Packer, 210].
Where are these principles and ideals found? Packer says they can be accessed in the Sermon on the Mount, which he describes as God’s “royal family code.” Three main areas of Christian living are discussed: Christian conduct, Christian prayer, and the life of faith.
The Sermon on the Mount is the opposite of “a full scheme of rules, and a detailed casuistry, to be followed with mechanical precision” [Packer, 210]. Packer describes it as broad and general ideals, spiritual directives and guiding principles. He feels that the instructions about Christian conduct can be broken down to three principles. First of all, we are to imitate The Father. Matthew 5:44-45 says “I tell you: Love your enemies…that you may be sons of your Father in heaven….Be perfect therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The idea is that we are to show family likeness in our conduct. In short, Jesus is saying “Be holy, for I am Holy.”
The next Christian conduct guideline refers to glorification of The Father. When a Christian does good deeds, it is so tempting to be prideful, to take credit for the work that is done. A perfect example happened one day when my pastor conducted the funeral services for her own father. She was poised, she said beautiful things, she showed how much she loved her Dad and when I asked how she got through that, she said three words “It was God.” The ideal is that in living our lives we have an opportunity to bring praise for God as He works through us. Never take credit even if you have the skills; God is the one who gave you those skills. Matthew 5: 16 says “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
The last piece of advice for Christian conduct is to please The Father. Too often we think we should please men; to get praise, to achieve status or to get a tangible reward. The purpose of conducting ourselves in a Christian manner is not to receive a reward from our fellow man; it is to please the Heavenly Father. Before we go too far, pleasing God with our conduct is not a quid pro quo arrangement. The Heavenly Father may notice our behavior, He may show special pleasure or not, but we should be all about pleasing God, not man nevertheless.
Of course the Sermon on the Mount gives guidance for Christian prayer. Matthew 6:9 is the start of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus’s prototype for all of us in prayer. We are to address the Lord as Father and even though He gives us some words to guide us, He does not intend us to be mechanical or impersonal in the Lord’s Prayer or any prayer. “When you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” [Matthew 6: 7-8]. Secondly, prayer must be “free and bold.” This does not mean that we should be brazen and we ask for material possessions or massive amounts of money. God will give you what you need; the problem is that God’s knowledge of what we need is often different from what we desire. He will still give us the good things He feels will benefit us. “Good parents never simply ignore what their children are saying, not simply disregarding their feeling of need, and neither does God; but often He gives us what we should have asked for, rather than what we actually requested….The Lord knows best and even though He might not give you the answer you want,” it is good to ask nevertheless and His answer may be no. That is not an unanswered prayer; it is God expressing His knowledge of your needs.
The Sermon on the Mount has helped us with our Christian conduct, our prayer and now we can find guidance about how to live a life of faith. Christians are called to live a life of faith, whether we are gainfully employed or not. Jesus asked His Disciples to leave their gainful employment and follow Him. This allowed them to focus on Jesus, not the temptations of status and security. When one examines the general advice about the life of faith, Jesus says in Matthew 6: 25 that we should not “worry about your life, what you will eat or drink or about your body, what you will wear.” When someone questions Him about the wisdom of this commitment, He replies “Your faith is too small. Have you forgotten that God is your Father” . The well-known example follows of how God cares for the birds and will He not care for you? His advice is seek first your Father’s Kingdom and His righteousness, and all the things you need will be given to you. This is the life of faith that God expects of us. Packer calls trust in God the “mainspring of a life of faith.” If you don’t have trust in God to the point that you can live a life of faith, your life “at least has partial unbelief.”
That last sentence is pretty strong stuff. It confronts us with what we lack. How many of us can feel the disappointment of the rich young ruler as he queries Jesus about the demands of the Christian life? He asks Jesus what he must do to have eternal life. Jesus lists some commandments and the young man is heartened. He says all these commands I have kept from my youth. Then Jesus tells him to sell what he has, give it to the poor and follow Him. The young man did not say a word, but left the presence of Jesus in a sorrowful mood, for he had great possessions.
I want to be a child of God; if that is what I am, then I should expect that God will require certain behaviors from me, just like I expected certain behaviors from my son. I know God wants to “raise me right;” righteousness is His goal for me and righteous living is my goal for myself. I need to know how to conduct myself, I need to know how to pray and I need to know how to live a life of faith. Packer closes this section of his book with the example of a little girl who is in a car being driven by her father. He is weaving in and out of traffic and she exclaims “We might have a crash.” Her mother looked at her and said “Trust Daddy; he’s a good driver.” The little girl was reassured and she relaxed at once. Do you trust your heavenly Father like that?
Then Packer closes with the following words which mean so much…
“If not, why not?”