By Pastor Troy Dorrell
In preparation for a sermon on the subject of Seeking God, I ran across a quote from A.W. Tozer referencing his assessment of the Christianity of his day. He said, “For millions of Christians, God is no more real than He is to the non-Christian. They go through life trying to love an ideal and to be loyal to a principle. But a loving person dominates our Bibles. A living person is present, speaking, pleading, loving, working, and manifesting himself whenever and wherever his people have the receptivity necessary to receive the manifestation.”
As I contemplated his assessment, it became my opinion that this substitution of principle for a person is still very much the norm for many believers today. We live in an axiomatic principle oriented world where science and theory dominate our thinking. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as our God has ordered much of our world in a principled fashion. The Bible is filled with proverbs, principles, precepts, and cause-and-effect truths. Chief among them would be the law of sowing and reaping. As a principle, we do in fact reap what we sow—either for good or evil— and being aware of this reality is helpful.
However, if we are not careful, we can turn our Bible study, our quiet time, and devotions into a search for just principles to live by. Standards, rules, dress codes, leadership requirements, and the like can become substitutes for knowing, loving, and worshipping the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. Again, it’s not that following principle is a bad thing; on the contrary, we would do well to have guidelines to live by. It is just easy to fall into the trap of substituting knowing about God and His principles for knowing the person of God and His Spirit.
Discovering principle takes study and examination, but knowing God sometime can be much harder work. Spending hours of time in prayer seeking God’s face is something most of us are probably not very good at. Fasting and watching are disciplines of grace that are lost to the majority of Christians’ experience. It is easier for many to say, “Give me a rule to follow or a principle to live by,” and that becomes their substitute for knowing the person behind the precept.
The concerns I have about this are how this impacts our motivation to serve, our sensitivity to the Spirit’s work in our lives, the empathy and heart we develop, and our understanding of the reason for our rules. Bible principles are borne out of the heart of God, and there is great value in knowing the heart of God to have a proper handle on His truths. I can encourage our congregation to give and serve and point to Bible verses and tell them they are supposed to do this. I can even tell them—as a principle—they will be blessed for doing so. Now there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing this, but I hope that through my preaching and their personal study that God’s Word becomes alive to them…more than words in a sermon, but the voice of God speaking, and that their hearts are touched in a personal and profound way by the person of Christ. That their motivation for giving and serving becomes more than the necessity of observing a rule but an initiative of love, loyalty, and desire to please the person of Christ.
I don’t just love, serve, and give to my wife and children because I have to or it is expected of me. I do these things because I know them and am motivated out of my relationship with them to meet their needs, spend time with them, and enjoy them. The differences can be subtle, and I don’t think they have to be at odds. I have great respect for duty, following orders, and marching to a right drumbeat. However, it is my desire to be like David and be a man after God’s own heart, and to share the affection of the Apostle John who loved the Lord so much.
My word of caution is this: Don’t let rules substitute for relationship, but rather allow the way we live be out of the overflow of our love for God and His Word. Don’t substitute the principle for the Principle Giver, lest we run the risk of serving the idea of God more than the person of God. Let’s make sure we are being loyal to Christ and His cause and not just a principle, however good it might be. Our faith is about a relationship with God through the person and provision of the Lord Jesus Christ, and let’s not forget we are to follow His person not just a principle.