And I will build my life upon your love it is a firm foundation.
And I will put my trust in you alone and I will not be shaken.
These lines from Pat Barrett’s new song “Build My Life” have been something of an anthem for me lately. Part of the reason is that Barrett and his friends have written an imminently singable and emotionally evocative tune. But I think that mostly the song captures my affection because it speaks powerfully to a lot of the things that we have been talking about over the last few weeks.
You see, it does not matter whether we are talking about suffering or sin. It does not matter whether we are talking about romance or politics. So much of what we are talking about has to do with the foundation upon which we have built our life. And Christianity has some very specific claims about what that foundation ought to be and what it takes to build properly.
Two Necessary Preconditions for a Well-Built Life
Before we can even begin to build a life that is worthy of living, two preconditions must exist. They are beautifully expressed by the chorus of our song.
Holy there is no one like you
There is none besides you
Open up my eyes in wonder
Show me who you are and fill me
With your heart and lead me
In love to those around me.
The worshiper begins by acknowledging who God is. He is “holy,” meaning that God is qualitatively different than the worshipper (and anything else). God is also sovereign over all things (including, by inference, the worshipper’s own life).
In response to this recognition of who God is, the worshipper pleads for God’s gracious activity in her or his life. Recognizing who God really is cannot be a merely analytical operation. It must result in “wonder,” and, like any other personal interaction that has this result, only the subject of “wonder” can really produce it. It is not generated as an autonomous act of the observer. Moreover, the worshipper calls upon God to transform her or his own dispositions, motivations, desires, and actions so that they are of like manner to those of the holy and sovereign One who is being worshipped.
As we consider a person’s initial encounter with God, we might reverse the order of these preconditions. God’s gracious activity comes first, we might want to insist, and then the individual recognizes God for who He really is. But from the standpoint of the convert’s experience, no such reversal is necessary. Often, the first experience people have of God is the awesome realization of His presence, and this realization leads to an earnest desire to experience union with Him.
More to the point, the experience described here is not just good for people who do not know God. It is a necessary dimension of the ongoing life of worship to which all who follow Jesus must commit themselves. Each day, we must choose to enter into the cycle of grace and awe as the hallmark of Christian existence. Each day, we must call upon our God to give us His own heart, and we must cultivate the wonder that is itself a gift of grace that calls forth in us a desire for more grace.
Building Upon the Foundation of God’s Love
Once we have committed ourselves to this cycle of grace and awe, we are also ready to commit ourselves to a life built upon God’s love. From a biblical point of view, we might prefer “truth” as a better correlate with the foundation metaphor. After all, Jesus uses such a metaphor with reference to his own teachings in Matthew 7:24-27. But given the importance of love as an aspect of the New Testament’s teaching, it is permissible to think of it as the foundation of the Christian life. Moreover, doing so has some utility given our present cultural moment.
For at least the last forty years, forces both within and outside of the Christian community have been opposing its traditional teachings on the basis of love. Broadly speaking, they have argued that any pattern of behavior that expresses love is to be praised, and that excluding those engaged in loving others is an unloving thing to do.
It is important to remember, however, that neither we as individuals nor we as the human species are the origin of genuine love. And it is not our love that can be the foundation of our lives. Rather, it is God who is the origin of all true love, and it is God’s love—and only God’s love—that can form a stable and sturdy foundation for human flourishing.
God’s love is both more expansive and more restrictive than we want it to be. It demands that we love all people—even those who, from our point of view, are nothing but servants of the devil. Yes, that means we have to love terrorists. Yes, that means that Focus on the Family has to love LGBTQ rights advocates (and vice versa). Yes, that means Russian Christians have to love their Ukrainian neighbors, and Ukrainian Christians have to love their Russian neighbors.
But God’s love is not merely satisfied with doing that which makes the lover, or even the beloved, feel good. God’s love demands that we actually do good. Meeting this demand will require us to deny ourselves, just as Jesus taught us to do, and it will also require us to say “no” to some things that those we love desperately want but which God has said are not good for them.
Building with Faith
None of this will be possible, though, if we do not believe that God loves us and wants the best for us. Faith is the building material out of which real life is constructed. We express that faith in our worship. We express that faith by affirming the clear teachings of Scripture. We express that faith by pursuing enlightenment where there is a lack of clarity. But the most important way that we express our faith is by obeying what we know to be true.
When we trust God enough to actually do what He says, we are moving beyond the merely self-interested and utilitarian religion that seems to dominate much of American evangelicalism. We are moving beyond a faith that merely hedges our bets, just in case there really is a hell after all. We are saying that our current existence, as well as our future, is in the hands of God. By contrast, when we refuse to obey God with respect to the present, we are essentially saying that He cannot be trusted with respect to our future, either.
The Long Process of Building a Life
I am not saying that any of this is easy. I know all too well that it is not. Like any other great project, it takes time, work, and pain to build a life—especially when doing so requires us to tear down some of the old buildings we have constructed. I am simply trying to help us understand what a life well-lived looks like and how we might construct such a life.
Frankly, I am still struggling with a lot of this. I bet you are, too. In my next piece, we will talk about why that is the case.