If. . . Then?
My son, if you accept my words. . . Proverbs 2:1
We live in a conditional world.
Sometimes conditions are contractual. When I bought my Kia Sedona thirteen years ago, I was sold on the 100,000 mile bumper-to-bumper warranty. I knew that if the engine blew at 90,000 miles, then the dealer had to fix it. I’m way past that marker now, so I’m on my own when something goes wrong.
Sometimes conditions are more like general rules that apply. If you invest your money in a solid mutual fund, then you will with a high degree of certainty make money over the long haul. You can look at the rate of return graphs over time and see some ups and downs, but over the course of several years just about any fund that’s still around will be up and to the right.
The Bible in general, and the book of Proverbs in particular, is full of conditional statements. Sometimes they read like contracts and sometimes they read like general principles of how life works. “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty” is one. “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” “Wealth brings many friends, but a poor man’s friend deserts him.” These all read like general rules of life, affirming the general idea that if you work hard and plan well, then life will turn out well for you. If you follow God’s general rules, then you will be blessed by him. If you “train a child in the way he should go, when he is old he will not turn from it.”
We could talk about any one of these individual principles and find some proven guidelines for living and plenty of empirical evidence to support the validity of each one.
But here’s my question: What if you do the “if” and the “then” doesn’t occur?
I’ve lived long enough to see decisions made with much good counsel go south. I’ve seen kids with plenty of loving biblical training go astray—and not come back.
So what do we do with these observations?
Here’s what I’ve heard people do and what I’ve done myself. We can attack the “if” part of the person’s behavior. We say things like, “They sought many advisers, but they picked the wrong ones.” Or “It seems on the outside that they were great parents, but I bet there’s something wrong going on behind the scenes.” If you don’t really do the “if” then how can you expect the “then” to come true?
The other approach is to look at the “then” and say, “It just hasn’t happened yet.” Eventually the “then” will come to pass.
Now, I’m sure there’s no shortage of incomplete “if’s” and not yet “then’s.” And there’s a part of the “then” that goes beyond the grave and beyond our understanding. But maybe sometimes it just doesn’t work. Sometimes we make bad decisions. Sometimes kids never get out of junior high. Sometimes the ifs and thens just don’t make sense.
If that’s true, do we need to subject Proverbs to the work of a few good lawyers to add some clauses to the book? Should we question God’s character?
Before we get into too many knots, here, let’s consider a different approach.
What if the “if-then” conditional logic of Proverbs is only part of the story? Or what if we’re missing the point altogether? What if there’s a deeper logic and a different starting point?
I believe it’s a whole new operating system. Jesus says it this way. “If you love me, then you will keep my commandments.”
On the face of it, we can find ourselves back in “if-then” land. If you do this, then God will do that. We can place the emphasis on our doing as a way of getting something in return from God. If we do loving, then we will keep God’s commandments.
What does it mean to do love? Now, you might be thinking that’s easy to explain. Love is practical. It’s an action. James, John, and even Jesus tell us to love in practical ways. Our tangible acts of love for others—from feeding the poor to caring for the sick—can give evidence to our love for God. Bob Goff wrote a great book called, Love Does. Isn’t that what the parable of the Good Samaritan is about anyway?
Yes. But do you ever get stuck on what it really means to love God? Does the Creator of the Universe really need me to do anything for Him?
Well, yes, of course. What about all those commandments and commissions? There seems to be a lot of doing in those.
But can I ever do enough doing to meet the conditions of the contract? And how would I know?
What if our love for God is not really something we do? What if it’s more of a being than a doing?
Jesus suggest that somehow our doing of obedience flows from our experience of loving God. This is where the Great Teacher himself painted us simple pictures of attachment to describe this love. He told his disciples that we are to “abide” in him, to stay connected to him, like a branch is connected to a tree. He said that we are to come to him like little children, dependent on him for everything, or like sheep who recognize the voice of their Shepherd.
Peter broke his own promises and failed Jesus miserably. He denied him three times and went back to fishing. What question did Jesus ask him before he commissioned him to minister and “feed his sheep”?
Did Jesus give him a test of his moral teaching? Did he quiz him on his parables and knowledge of the Old Testament? Did he ask him to share his plans for church growth?
No. He simply asked, “Do you love me?”
What if that’s the only if that really matters? What if all the then’s will somehow work out and make sense if the answer is yes?
Jesus, thank you for first loving me. Help me to receive and return your love.
Read John 14:15-31