Are you a rule follower or a rebel? I enjoy plenty of friends who appear to be rule followers. They love to be told what to do and how to do it. That’s not me. I’m a rebel at heart. In and of myself, I want to do things my own way. If someone tells me what I can and cannot do, the hairs on the back of my neck begin to stand on end. Phooey! I can hardly follow a simple recipe without making some change to it! I certainly fit the stereotype of the individualistic culture in which I live.
But even if we have learned to follow the rules, I think we all carry that song in our heart that sings: "I’ll do it my way!” That’s our darn sin nature. We are born with it. At least I’ve seen it in those I gave birth to. My husband and I battled 100% with four out of four children exuding independent spirits to do things their own way. I remember telling the first toddler, “Gracie, don’t touch.” And yet, I vividly remember her inching closer and closer to the "Do Not Touch" zone. Her little index finger pointing directly to the outlet in the wall while defiantly staring at me. Surely her little heart was singing, “I’ll do it my way!” And don't you know? This got passed on! I now see my two adorable grand-daughters sing the same song.
We are born rebels.
So how are rebels to respond to the imperatives frequently found in Scripture? Imperatives are verbs, those action words that give us a command.
When speaking, I often share my favorite imperatives found in Psalm 46:10a:
Be still and know that I am God.
The force of an imperative hit me upside the head when I learned that verse in Mandarin:
If I were to read this back to you in English, it would translate:
You must be still. You must know that I am God.
Do you see the commands? An imperative verb demonstrates something authoritative. Yet, commands, even in the Bible, can ruffle feathers. As a rebel person who can hardly follow a recipe without changing it, oftentimes my first instinct is: “I can’t do it.” That was my initial thinking with the imperative “Be still.” “Lord, I can’t be still. I’m a doer!”
My next rebel instinct is to say, “I won’t do it.” “I will continue being a doer and a worrier. It’s who I am.” (To be honest, openly sharing this spirit of rebellion is rather embarrassing, and I am second-guessing whether to put it in black and white!)
Yet at the heart of an imperative is its importance. Imperatives point to something crucial. Something essential to our well-being. Similar to my mother's heart wanting the best for my toddler, God wants our well-being.
Imperatives are a window to God’s grace for us. He knows we need clear and direct instructions on how to live rightly. He richly provides this through imperatives. I got to thinking about them while unpacking James chapter four with a group of friends last week.
Within this passage are a host of imperatives.
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. James 4:7-10
Ten imperative commands within four short verses. Jeepers! So how do rebels respond?
I’ve already shared my own inclinations: “I can’t. Or I won’t.” James' list feels especially overwhelming. On top of it, because this list of imperatives feels impossible, an underlying sense of shame begins to creep in. It’s enough to make one stop reading her Bible.
So how do rebels overcome? How are we to be transformed in our thinking and in our hearts by God’s Word?
First, let’s recognize the true and false thinking. The truth of the matter is that in and of herself, Carmen can’t follow these commands. But (and this is big), living within Carmen is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit and power of God Himself. In His awesome power, the truth is that Carmen can submit. She can resist the devil. She can draw near to God… and the list goes on.
Second- and in some ways I am merely saying the exact same thing in a different way- we need to understand Who God is. We must ask what does this passage say about God? It’s the golden question. In Bible study, it’s the question that changes everything. When we understand Who God is and get a glimmer of His goodness, our thinking and our hearts come alive! He puts His song into our hearts! A song of amazing grace. A song of deep, deep love. When we understand Who God is, our rebel hearts melt. We long to follow Him.
Let’s take a peek. Adding two more verses, we’ll highlight what this passage in James says about God:
Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. James 4:5-10
What do we learn about God? A lot.
God’s spirit dwells within us.
God yearns for our good. Yearns! He is filled with an intense and compassionate longing for our good!
God gives more grace. He gives and He gives and He gives. He does not stop giving grace.
He opposes the proud.
He gives grace to the humble.
He draws near to those who draw near to Him.
He exalts those who humble themselves.
Friend, this is God!
God Himself dwells in this prone-to-wander rebel? God compassionately and intensely longs for me? God yearns for my good? He never stops giving grace? He draws near when I draw near to Him? (Notice: That’s not a maybe He will draw near, that is a God will draw near.) God will exalt me if I humble myself? He’s going to raise me up?
The answer is yes, yes, yes, yes… and yes! Friend, this is the God behind the imperatives. When I see Who He is, He melts my rebel heart. Time and time and time again, I end up on my knees in submission to God. And He lifts me up. My rebel heart comes alive again!
Imperatives are God’s grace to rebels.
Lord God, thank You! Thank You for dwelling with us and for giving grace upon grace upon grace and gift upon gift upon gift to us. Help us draw near to You through Your Word. Help us to see You and Your heart that yearns for our good. Unravel our rebel hearts!
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