About a year ago I started experimenting with audiobooks. I have a decent drive time to and from work, so I figured I would give audiobooks a try. I’m a fan of podcasts, so it seemed like it would be a natural progression. After several books over the last year, the book that I just finished was Father Hunger: Why God Calls Men to Love and Lead Their Families by Douglas Wilson. I really enjoyed the book and found it to be quite helpful. The difficult thing about audiobooks and driving while listening to them is that it is basically impossible to take notes. However, one of things from the book that stuck out to me towards the end was the statement and subsequent explanation of, “Grace is the larger context.”
Grace in the Garden
In the part of the book where it is mentioned, Wilson talks about parenting. He discusses the negative outcomes of only being a lawgiver to one’s children and never giving any grace. He explains how in the garden of Eden, there was only one tree out of many from which they could not eat. Therefore, the number of trees from which they could eat greatly outnumbered the one tree that was off-limits. Wilson says, “Grace contains law, just as the garden of Eden contained a prohibited tree. But it was not a garden full of prohibited trees, with one solitary available tree in the middle. Grace is the larger context, but limits are there for a reason,” (Wilson, pg 180). I have not been able to get the phrase, “grace is the larger context,” out of my head since I heard it. The entire chapter is really a long explanation of this in many ways whereas he finishes with a refreshing way to look at Christian growth and the obedience that it requires.
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die,” (Genesis 2:15-17, ESV).
The only law that Adam and subsequently Eve received was to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. There was no other law given. Think of all that grace in comparison with that one law!
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil,” (Genesis 3:1-5, ESV).
It is interesting, yet not surprising, that the serpent does not correctly quote the law that God gave. Eve does accurately recite the law in response to the serpent. However, the serpent’s misquote of the law seems to have been an attempt to confuse the law given and paint it as oppressive. Then in response to Eve’s recitation of the law, the serpent questions the validity of even following the law, which is ultimately calling God’s integrity into question. Couldn’t we say that we feel the same two things in temptation? God’s law feels oppressive and confusing at first. Then we begin to question the validity of even following God’s law. Nothing has changed for our enemy’s plan of attack. He has no new weapons or strategy.
Buckets of Impurity
In contrast to the idea that grace is the larger context, we seem to then try to fight sin by replacing an impure thing with a pure thing. “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out-of-place, but instead let there be thanksgiving,” (Ephesians 5:3-4, ESV). “We contrast impurity with purity, but Paul contrasts impurity with contentment,” (Wilson, pg 175). I think of this in terms of buckets. We have these buckets in our lives that used to be filled with impure things. We have our entertainment bucket, sexuality bucket, food bucket and so on. In our efforts to fight sin in our lives, we dump the impure stuff out of the bucket and try to fill the bucket with pure stuff. We listen to only Christian music, only watch Christian movies and shows, only go to Christian places, and we read Chronicles of Narnia instead of Harry Potter (if you have a problem with Harry Potter). It seems as though Paul is saying that not only might we need to consider whether we still need the buckets, but as a part of that consideration we should be seeking contentment in the One who has forgiven us for all the stuff that used to be in our buckets.
So if we are trying to find satisfaction independently of Him, that move will always veer toward the crass, the filthy, the immoral, the disturbing, and the rest of that fetid swamp. But it makes no sense for someone to live in the swamp of discontent with a resolve to “keep it clean.” Keeping it clean is arbitrary, given the quagmire of discontent he lives on, and on top of that, keeping it clean there is impossible. “Keeping a rule,” however technically correct, falls easily into the trap of abstraction and impersonalism. For a father to “make rules” for a discontent household is simply sweeping water uphill. Adjusting the environment is radically insufficient. Too many fathers deny the need for the gospel in how they try to protect their children from sin. You cannot adjust the environment in such a way to keep sin out. This would include school, church, books, television, diet, and so on. Christian faithfulness does not come from rearranging the furniture, (Wilson, pg 176).
Wilson relates this to parenting and specifically fatherhood for which it has obvious relevancy, but I think it is also entirely relevant to common Christian discipleship. How often do we try to manufacture our environment to fight sin rather than doing what Paul says in our passage above from Ephesians? Wilson calls this the “gratitude displacement strategy” and I don’t think that he is trying to coin some kind of pragmatic buzzword in this, but rather pointing to what Paul is saying. How we are to be fighting our sin is not by replacing our sin with the good side of that sin (watching only Veggie Tales instead watching Game of Thrones or whatever), but being content and thankful in Christ. The problem is not what to watch, but the discontentment that is making you feel like you need to watch something. (I am not arguing for some kind of monastic retreat from entertainment, but like everything else in Christian discipleship we have to check the motives behind our actions and desires.)
Loving the Standard
I have already rearranged Wilson’s chapter and will continue to do so as I conclude. This all ends with getting to the point of not only loving and living in grace (all the other trees in the garden), but loving and living according to the law (the one forbidden tree). We all love grace and freedom, but it seems that we don’t love it in the right ways or at the right times, otherwise what I have written in the post so far wouldn’t need to have been written. It seems that along the path to contentment and thankfulness in the grace of God, we need to start loving the law of God.
“For I find my delight in your commandments, which I love, (Psalms 119:47, ESV). How do we get to a place of loving God’s standard for us? This is really how we get to a place of proper gratitude, because we can’t be thankful for what we don’t love. Thus, God has not set standards before us and made it impossible for us to meet them in Christ. He has standards, Christ has met those standards, he has given us faith and changed our hearts to enable us to know and love Christ. He has then given us His Spirit which enables us to love his standard. Wilson points out that Paul spends the first three chapters of Ephesians speaking in indicatives. He talks about who the believer is, in Christ and then the last three chapters are full of imperatives or commands (Wilson, pg 166). I once heard Sinclair Ferguson say something similar about the book of Romans that only after Paul had given all those indicatives was it safe to start giving imperatives. The indicatives that God speaks over us help us love the imperatives he speaks to us. The constant, Gospel-fueled, Holy Spirit empowered realization of who we are in Christ produces in us a love for our Father’s standard and a subsequent contentment in His will and provision. Living in grace leads us to love the law and persist in thanksgiving.