How Most Churches Seem to View Discipleship

Okay: I know I’m dating myself here, but Steve Martin used to have this bit in his standup called, “How to Be a Millionaire and Never Pay Taxes.” He used it in his opening monologue 1977 when he hosted Saturday Night Live. The transcript reads like this:

 

You.. can be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes! You can be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes! You say.. “Steve.. how can I be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes?” First.. get a million dollars. Now.. you say, “Steve.. what do I say to the tax man when he comes to my door and says, ‘You.. have never paid taxes’?” Two simple words. Two simple words in the English language: “I forgot!” How many times do we let ourselves get into terrible situations because we don’t say “I forgot”? Let’s say you’re on trial for armed robbery. You say to the judge, “I forgot armed robbery was illegal.” Let’s suppose he says back to you, “You have committed a foul crime. you have stolen hundreds and thousands of dollars from people at random, and you say, ‘I forgot’?” Two simple words: Excuuuuuse me!!

 

Sometimes I think the church views discipleship in a similar way. In a variety of different ways we proclaim, “You can be like Jesus!” (Well, at least I hope we proclaim that. A lot of churches still focus on proclaiming, ‘You can avoid hell and go to a weightless, disembodied heaven!’ This, um, was not Jesus’ message. But that’s for another time.)

Then we roll out our “plan”, which essentially sounds like this:

“You can be like Jesus!”

“Pastor, how can I be like Jesus?”

“First, be like Jesus. Now…”

Um, what?

Most of church “discipleship programs” essentially tell people to be like Jesus without ever examining how transformation actually happens. 

We do well, and quote Paul about training versus trying, but then we never seem to actually do anything about the training! Which really amounts to us actually advocating trying versus training!

Maybe I’m wrong; maybe it’s happening in more places than I see (I know my church is doing its best at a multifaceted plan for discipleship).

But if we were doing our job, it seems like we’d be producing more transformed people according to Galatians 5:

  • more loving people, who fight against the divisive and often hateful speech of our country (particularly in the political realm)
  • more peaceful people, who are willing to entertain the fact that violence and war are often not God’s will
  • more self-controlled people, who are willing to recognize and separate themselves from all entanglements and addictions, whether they be from alcohol and drugs or food and shopping
  • more kind people, who are willing to stop blaming the poor and powerless for being, well, poor and powerless

As I said, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the North American church really is aligned with God on the subject of spiritual transformation (or as C.S. Lewis put it, “Producing ‘Little Christs’”. But I don’t hear a lot of people talking about it.

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I Know I Am (But What Am I?)… 

I like personality and gift tests: Myers/Briggs; Strengthsfinder; Enneagram; so on and so forth. Enjoy finding out how I (and others as well) am wired, and why I think the way I think. Overall, it’s really helpful. In fact, a lot of organizations (including churches) take great stock in how these gifts are allocated and mixed through staff members. All of these tests help us identify how to interact with each other, and where the pitfalls may be in our common life.

However, the last time I was a part of a round of these tests, I found myself thinking, “How many times do I need to be told what or who I am?” Furthermore, I found myself thinking a lot of how I’d used my personality type as an excuse for some issues in my life that I actually needed to address. Rather than thinking about my behavior or thoughts as issues that needed to be addressed or changed—as sin or brokenness—I thought about them as “this is the way I am.”

But is that all there is to life?

Lately, I’ve stopped being so interested what/how/who I am now, and I’ve become much more interested what/how/who I can be. 

I love all of these tests, but I know for me that I am very adept at hiding inside these labels and avoiding the call to grow, to change. I’m afraid that it’s all too easy to use these labels and titles to simply reinforce my “false self”—the part of me that is so good at hiding from God and others—and ignore the possibility that all of these “strengths” and “gifts” may actually inhibit my growth if all I ever do is focus on them and remain content.

Which is ultimately what we are called to: I wholeheartedly believe that the point of the life that Jesus offers us is to change and to become increasingly more like him. Our personalities, or strengths, or gifts are tools that we can use to grow and change, but there’s also a limiting side of those gifts. I’ve come to believe that every part of our personality has a shadow side; a broken part that can keep me from growing and being shaped into a “little Christ” (as C.S. Lewis would put it).

For instance, I know that I’m an introvert, but I also know that I have a tendency to use my quietness as an excuse to hold back from people, from actively welcoming the stranger, from being a voice of invitation.

I know that I tend to look at the world from a “strategic” perspective, and this has been very helpful to my church. However, I also know that this perspective sometimes keeps me from getting in and just “doing the work” to ideas and initiatives that I don’t always understand. It can also keep me from supporting ideas that I don’t agree with.

The point is not to reject my gifts and personality; it’s to think about the idea of change and growth as an imperative. It’s about refusing to be content with what the assessments say that I am, and writing off my behavior as, “Well this is just as good as it gets, because I’m an INTJ (or whatever).”

It’s about seriously accepting the call to grow, and never stop growing until I can say that I have truly adopted the “mind of Christ” that Saint Paul says I’m supposed to have.

No I’m not there yet. But I am increasingly knowing who I am, and hungry for who I’ll be next.

Does this make sense?

 

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Just As I Am (But then again…)

It is one of the great mysteries of God (and, indeed, the universe) that I am accepted with all my faults and imperfections. So much so, that one of the great journeys of my life (or anyone’s for that matter) is simply coming to terms with that great truth: I am loved in spite of myself.

But lately, I’ve been wondering if there’s something we’ve been leaving out.

Simply stated, I’ve been wondering how much of what passes for faith and spirituality in the American church is geared towards letting me stay the same arrogant, prideful, self-obsessed person that I’ve always been.

Is that the path that we’re on?

I know we give lip service to “change” and “transformation”, but at the same time we our “de jeur” practice of faith celebrates our individualism and uniqueness, often simply allowing our individual “quirkiness” (read: brokenness) to simply become part of who we are.

In a way we say, “This is who I am, warts and all: deal with it.”

Even some of the most helpful tools we have in understanding ourselves: Strengths Tests, Myers-Briggs, etc. Can we used to REINFORCE our false self, rather than expose its shortcomings and invite us to change.

In my life, for instance, some of the major characteristics of my personality are that I’m introverted, I’m highly motivated by intellectual curiosity, and I place a high value on individual stories and perspectives. These are all amazing and helpful.

But I’m afraid that what we don’t talk about enough is the shadow sides of our strengths, the ways all of these assets can tend to reinforce and prop up our false self; that part of ourselves that—out of fear, or self-centeredness, or pride (or all three!)—has difficulty relinquishing control to God.

Let me show you how this works: Yes I’m introverted, I can’t merely celebrate my “quietness” without recognizing that it can keep me from seeking to embrace the outsider; that my quiet reflection can also morph into arrogant self-justification.

Yes, I’m intellectually curious, but that curiosity can also turn into a crutch, and an instance where I substitute the latest book ABOUT God for God Himself. It can also drive me to needlessly spend resources, and to over-complicate my life with more material things.

Yes, I react powerfully to people’s individual stories and perspectives. I seek to hear and understand what “makes someone who they are.” However, this can turn into a hesitancy to challenge their assumptions about their lives, or the decisions they are making.

I am not saying that understanding yourself is in any way wrong or mis-guided. What I AM advocating is that we keep in mind that there is ALWAYS a shadow side to ourselves. Declaring to the world, “This is who I am” can neglect the powerful and necessary truth of our need to be transformed, to be liberated from the brokenness, the compulsions, the pathological desires that still govern our lives.

Don’t ever—for one minute—think that you can (or even have to) earn God’s love: it is freely given to us all, no matter where we find ourselves or what we have (or haven’t done). However, also don’t ever think that we should remain content with who we are in this world. There is great brokenness in the world, and the church is no exception. We need to avoid our tendency to self-justify our personalities and false selves, and embrace the true mystery of the spiritual life: eternal change and transformation.

Two Questions That Have Governed My Spiritual Life

I am 45 now. Wow. Somehow, I am still coming to terms with that fact. Believe it or not, I am getting to the point where, every once in a while, I can claim to have a little wisdom. A few years of reflective, thoughtful living will do that to you.

Anyway, as I was reflecting on some current reading, I got to thinking about how you could divide my life, spiritually-speaking, into two phases. Each of these phases were marked by one governing question, and furthermore I think in my case they were influenced by age (or lack thereof).

Overall, I have a tension with sweeping generalizations: on the one hand they eliminate and minimize subtlety and detail; on the other hand they are remarkably useful in saying an awful lot with a few number of words.

With that in mind, I’d like to offer up the two questions that the spiritual/Christian life asks. They are not necessarily age-bound, but I believe they tend to be, because they simply require different modes of thinking that aren’t always available at certain ages. When we are young, we can afford to think dualistically or in black and white; the consequences just aren’t that great (I once quit a band because they wouldn’t go to the chord I wanted), and we can afford to have our world be as simplistic as we’d like.

As we get older, and (ideally) encounter more and more of the world in all of its diversity and complexity, most of us learn that binary, dualistic thinking just won’t explain what we are seeing. We see marriages fall apart, and though black and white thinking would have us blame “one or the other”, in truth we know that most of the time both parties have contributed to the hurt and pain that kills a relationship. We need a better explanation for how the world works (and one that fits with our Christian worldview, I might add).

So with that in mind, here are the two questions that I have heard from life:

1. How do I get to heaven? 

I grew up in the church, so it wasn’t a huge reach for me to start thinking about “heaven” and some kind of after life. As I’ve told a lot of friends, I prayed “the sinner’s prayer” at least a half dozen before I was 21; as I figured it, if there was a heaven (or hell), it sure couldn’t hurt to be sure I had that taken care of.

“How do I get to heaven?” definitely helped me ask some of the right questions, and it guided me to certain churches and individuals over time that helped me answer it.

However, there is a definite “on or off” nature to this question: you get to heaven by doing/believing X and Y.

It’s almost like a math equation, and to my mind at the time, a math equation was actually pretty comforting (as my wife likes to point out, one of the ways to calm yourself during an anxiety attack is to, ahem, do math problems). 

But I have to be honest: math gets old after a while. 

Furthermore, as I got older, life stopped asking me the “heaven question” over and over.

Things got complicated: marriages ended; children struggled; addictions reared their head; friends died unexpectedly; people lost faith (and in some cases found it again).

These things were all happening people who were indeed “going to heaven”—they’d got the answer to the question right—but the math equation was no longer relevant.

For a while, this caused a lot of despair: Was Jesus not enough to explain these very complicated, messy situations? 

We all needed a different question.

2. How am I supposed to live? 

Over time, the “heaven” question receded, and a new question took its place. This new question was not nearly as concerned with the math equation. In fact, the equation wouldn’t even line up behind this question, almost as if was a different discipline altogether:

“6-4 = the color blue”

This question has nothing to do with binary thinking; it embraces the complexity of life, without giving easy answers.

It’s content is qualitative, rather than quantitative.

It is not black and white.

Essentially, this question started to come up after I’d answer the first one fairly certainly: I knew I was going to heaven, that Jesus would embrace me when my time had come. However, what was really vexing me was trying to figure out why, given that truth, my life was still such a mess. 

Why was I still struggling with repetitive sin? Why was I still given to bitterness, cynicism, arrogance and a radical self-centeredness that threatened to consume everything I held dear?

I knew I was “saved,” but somehow that question no longer seemed relevant, and as I began to ask the second, some amazing things began to happen, first and foremost that I realized (at least for me) that answering the first question left me “in heaven” but really a passive actor in my own spiritual life. After all, I was in heaven now—why bother about “the rest of the stuff”.

To put it another way, I was a “good Christian”, but my heart (and certain parts of my life) was really a mess.

I was going to heaven, but I was taking a hell of a lot of baggage with me.

Maybe it’s normal, but I began to be less concerned with the first question, and really embraced the second. I wasn’t nearly as concerned with “doctrine” as I used to be, but much more focused on does this work? Does it transform me into someone who looks JUST A LITTLE MORE like Jesus than before? 

These are not black and white math problems.

These answers involve silence, meditation, focus, prayer, and embracing ambiguity (I am simultaneously a “sinner and a saint”).

Slowly but surely, I think it’s working.

Finally, there was something ultimately profound in wrestling with these two questions.

Focusing on the first question, doesn’t necessarily lead to the second. But when you focus on the second, most of the time you will get the answer to the first thrown in. 

You may get to heaven, but your life may never change or evolve.

If you focus on transforming your life, with partnering with God for your spiritual growth, you will most likely find yourself fit for “eternal life” (and what’s more, for the “eternal life now” that Jesus talks about in the gospels.

Our spirituality should always ask us the deepest questions; what is your spirituality or faith asking you?

 

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Easter 2014

Hey all… I thought I’d … um… resurrect a 2013 post about the significance of the resurrection.  The original post was here, but enjoy…

What the resurrection means (at the very least)…

  1. That Jesus was/is the Christ, the Messiah
  2. That love really does win
  3. (Relatedly) That evil, death, and violence do not have the last word
  4. That doubt on Saturday is a part of life, but can give way to faith on Sunday
  5. That God is almost always unexpected
  6. That life with God is not just a resuscitated life, but a resurrected life—simultaneously a part of our current existence but radically reordered
  7. That wide-eyed wonder—and even a mild freak out—is a perfectly acceptable reaction to God’s work
  8. That I’m not “stuck” where I’m at; I can grow and change
  9. That God hasn’t abandoned humanity or this world
  10. Consequently, there is work to be done. Redemptive, resurrection work.
  11. That whenever I—or you—think “this is really all there is”, I’m wrong; that life and possibility can spring up in the deepest darkness

He’s alive, folks. Let’s dig in, drink up, and roll up our sleeves.

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HW 2014 :: Last Words :: “Please”

phonto-4

In Luke 22, night is beginning to descend: one of Jesus’ closest friends has deserted him, and the authorities are coming to arrest him. As I wrote before, in a way this is no surprise to Jesus. I believe he’s been able to see this coming for a while.

But in another way, I believe this is a terrifying moment for Jesus.

And so he prays.

“‘Father, if it’s your will, take this cup of suffering away from me. However not my will but your will be done.” Then a heavenly angel appeared to him and strengthened him. He was in anguish and prayed even more earnestly. His sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground” (22:42-44).

Jesus says, Please. 

It’s easy—even tempting—to think of Jesus as this stoic, forgiveness-dispensing robot who has no fear or hesitation about what he has to do. But if Jesus was as fully man as he was fully God (which orthodox belief would say), then being fully man would mean that he would encounter fear and need, because we do. 

Jesus has to say, “Please take this from me.”

Would he have actually turned away from his arrest if he would’ve had the chance? I don’t know. I doubt it. I think he would have pushed the issue like a true prophet of Israel, until he had made enough people angry.

But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t without emotion.

That doesn’t mean that on that evening in the Garden he didn’t ask. 

And when he asked, God said, “No.” 

I suppose it’s often the same way with us…

… We ask.

… We say please.

… Sometimes we even beg.

But sometimes God says, “No.”

But just like with Jesus, it’s not so much God’s answer that is telling, but it’s our response to the answer that is critical.

What do you do when God says, “No”? Particularly when we are facing challenges or hard times? Do you rationalize? Well, I know it seemed like that was a clear “No”, but I’m sure that God wouldn’t want me to suffer, so maybe I’ll just act on this anyway. 

Do you rebel? I’ll show God; if I don’t get my way I’ll just take my toys (ministry, gifts, tithes, support, etc.) and go home. 

Any number of responses are possible.

But Jesus doesn’t do any of these, because he knows a secret. In fact, it’s the same secret he’s been talking about for a long time:

The point of life is not to avoid pain; the point is to ask, “How can I grow through this?” 

After all, Jesus has been telling his disciples for a long time: you may not be able to “avoid temptation”, but you can stand through it.

But standing through pain and heartache and hurt and fear takes the one thing that we all need as humans: faith. 

If Jesus was only God, only divine, he wouldn’t need faith. He would be able to make reality simply conform to his wishes, and then there would be no doubt, no fear.

No please. 

But significantly, he says Take this away. 

Which means he can understand us when we have fears, doubts, anxiety; when we face the unknown.

So when Jesus says, “Please,”

… And God says, “No,”

… Jesus says, “Not Your will, but mine.”

And Jesus carries on in faith, that the One who calls his name will stand with him and not desert him, even as he walks, quite literally, through the valley of the shadow of death. 

Next Up: Forsaken and Defiant.

HW 2014 :: Last Words :: “You Will Be Sifted”

phonto-2

Just after the Last Supper, the disciples show their humanness by immediately having an argument on who is the greatest. Evidently they have utterly missed the point of Jesus’ teachings on service and humility. When he hears their debate, Jesus reminds them that the greatest among them “must become like a person of lower status and the leader like a servant” (Luke 22:26).

In the gospels, Peter often serves as the “representative disciple”, meaning that he symbolizes the questions, successes and (mostly) failures of the disciples—of The Twelve and of all us.

Immediately after Jesus reminds all of the Twelve about “true greatness,” he turns to Peter and says, “Simon, Simon, look! Satan has asserted the right to sift you all like wheat. However I have prayed for you that your faith won’t fail. When you have returned, strengthen your bothers and sisters” (Luke 22:31-32).

 

This is a harsh but very true statement that holds as true for us today as it did for Peter. Sifting is not easy. Sifting separates the good from the bad, but it is seldom pleasant. If for nothing else, sifting reminds us that inside us there is both wheat and chaff.

 

Most of the time we don’t want to be reminded that we are not all perfect, but Jesus here reminds the “representative disciple” that it’s sort of inevitable, that some kind of breaking or humbling is going to come Peter’s—and thus our—way.

 

Interestingly, Jesus tells Peter that he has prayed that his strength won’t fail. It’s reminiscent of Jesus’ words in the Lord’s Prayer: “Don’t lead us into temptation” (Luke 11:4b). In Matthew’s version of the prayer, Jesus says, “Don’t lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” There is a sense in Jesus’ teachings that temptation is a given. Avoiding it is not the point, but enduring it is (otherwise, he wouldn’t have to add, “but deliver us from the evil one”).

 

So with these words, Jesus is saying that reflection, humility, and even a bit of failure is inevitable for a disciple, but Jesus will be praying that we find our way through it. 

 

Then  Jesus adds this additional challenge to Peter: “When you have returned, strengthen your brothers and sisters.”

 

The sequence seems pretty clear:

 

  1. We need to be “sifted”: to examine ourselves and see what’s good and bad in our inventory, and then be prepared to respond appropriately.
  2. We need to rely on Jesus’ strength to help us endure the humbling that sifting involves.
  3. After we get done with our inventory, and come to terms with the “chaff” in our lives, we are called to service.

 

Next up: Jesus gets out the pruning shears.

 

Follow me on Twitter: @ericcase

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Holy Week 2014: Last Words – Monday

A couple years ago, I wrote out some thoughts for Holy Week. They were centered around some of the places that Jesus encountered during his last days before his crucifixion. This year, I thought I’d offer some devotional thoughts on some of the last words he spoke. These are simply meant to give us all some things to think about as we process Jesus’ sacrifice.

“Let’s Go To Jerusalem.” 

Though Matthew doesn’t quote Jesus saying this, he does record that “Jesus began to show his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and legal experts, and that he had to be killed and raised on the third day” (Matthew 16:21).

Personally, I think it’s crystal clear that Jesus knew what was waiting for him in Jerusalem. The portrait that the gospels paint of Jesus is of a man who is well aware of the directions that the winds in Israel were blowing. Between Rome’s empire and Israel’s coming, religion-fueled violent revolution Jerusalem was not the place to go if you (a) wanted to stay safe while (b) preaching the arrival of God’s kingdom.

But safety isn’t part of Jesus’ agenda.

Unless he chooses to change his message (God is King) or his strategy (non-violent resistance and prophetic pronouncements), Jesus knows what waits for him in Jerusalem: the might, power, and force  of the temple and the religious establishment (backed by Rome’s interest in keeping the tax money flowing).

Jesus may not be a mathematician, but I imagine he can add, and he can see that this is going to end badly for him.

But that’s exactly why he chooses to go.

I don’t know if Jesus was “afraid” in any sense that we may understand that word, but at any rate he sees where the danger and darkness lies, and he walks straight towards it. 

For many of us, we don’t need to look very far for darkness and danger. For a lot of us, we have wilderness and black caves inside our own souls; that’s where our darkness is. There are things—brokenness, fears, unconfronted/unacknowledged sin—lurking deep inside of our hearts and lives. They may be backed by the power of years of co-dependency and escapism, and we may be well aware that to confront them may very well mean pain and even death of parts of us.

But in the same way that Jesus knows, and still goes, I think we are called to go: go to the dark places inside us, the places that are rooted in the power of this world, that will buffet and beat us as soon as we show up.

Moreover, I think that we are called to go to the dangerous places inside us with Jesus’ message and method: “God is King, and you will be defeated, not by asserting more power or more control, but by surrender of ego, of self, and by a willingness to die to myself.”

What is your “Jerusalem”? An addiction? A vision of your future that you’ve clung to? Your pride? What would it mean to walk towards it, to face it, and then to surrender so that God can begin to heal you? 

It’s Not About Religion … It’s About (a really crappy) Relationship

Hope that’s not too crass.

For the past 15-20 years, there’s been a very popular catch phrase amidst my faith tribe:

“It’s’ not about religion; it’s all about relationship.”

(Meaning relationship with Jesus.)

So people say things like, “Well I used to go to a church but it was all about religion and not about relationship, so I left it and now I go someplace else.”

We create sermon/teaching series called, “The End of Religion.”

Mostly, that’s great: we want people to know this Jesus, and to be “in relationship” with him.

But I think there’s another dynamic at work.

At some point, I think what people mean by “all about religion” is that a church is demanding behavior from people. Externalities.

And yes: this is not a great thing.

But what troubles me is how people then try to define “relationship.”

Occasionally, I ask people who are “all about the relationship” how they work on their spiritual lives. What I hear is…

  • “Well, my spiritual life isn’t so great…”
  • “I really don’t have time to pray/read my Bible/meditate…”
  • “I pray when I think about it… (which isn’t often)”

In the end, I’m left wondering if people left churches that were “just about religion” just because they didn’t like being told what to do.

To put it another way, religion is not—in and of itself—a bad thing.

In fact, what if we actually need “religion” of some sort to lead us to “the relationship”?

I need the “religion” of communication to maintain the relationship with my wife. I need the “religion” of coffee with friends to cement and deepen connections with them. I need the “religion” of hearing stories about my childhood from my parents to remind me of who I am at my best and most innocent.

What if it’s not so much a matter of “religion v relationship” as it is “good religion that leads to relationship v bad religion that leads nowhere”?

What religion does at its best is to help lead us to the relationship, and then frame that relationship in the most fully-formed beautiful way. It’s easy to just throw the frame away, but it does no good to substitute a “relationship” that you think makes no demands on your time, your self, your thoughts, your attitudes.

That’s not love.

Stop Worrying…

Atheist Bus Campaign , via Dan Etherington from London, UK

Atheist Bus Campaign , via Dan Etherington from London, UK

An atheist organization started this bus campaign in England.

Frankly, I’m not too hung up on arguing or “evangelizing” them (how can you make “good news” good to those who don’t want to hear it?!?)

For those of us who’d claim some faith, however, I’d recast their slogan this way:

There is a God, now stop worrying and get on with your life.

Though God’s ways are sometimes strange and difficult to understand, I am coming to believe that God’s love somehow overflows to us, for us.

Consider Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 30:

Now listen! Today I am giving you a choice between life and death, between prosperity and disaster. For I command you this day to love the LORD your God and to keep his commands, decrees, and regulations by walking in his ways. If you do this, you will live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you and the land you are about to enter and occupy.

But if your heart turns away and you refuse to listen, and if you are drawn away to serve and worship other gods, then I warn you now that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live a long, good life in the land you are crossing the Jordan to occupy.

Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live! You can make this choice by loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and committing yourself firmly to him. This is the key to your life. And if you love and obey the LORD, you will long in the land the LORD swore to give your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

All Wham! references aside, Moses seems to practically beg Israel to “get it right”… The tone in this passage is such that you get the feeling that God (through Moses) is just cheering on his people to make the right decisions so that they can have a life of fullness and peace. Even when Moses cautions the people, he doesnt’ say, “God will destroy you; he says you will be destroyed.

What does it mean that God is inclined towards us, cheering us on to obedience and life?