The Jigsaw Principle
Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.
I am a stranger on earth; do not hide your commands from me.
Few things are more chaotic, more confused, than a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle coming out of the box. The pieces lie there in a heap with no apparent relationship between them. Some pieces are upside down, others are right side up, their colors and designs vary; and they are all cut out of the picture with shapes that look like they might fit together. No two pieces are exactly the same. If you have a good puzzle and you have the patience, you can put it together with the picture face down.
Most of us adopt a system to approach a puzzle like that. First, we get all the pieces right side up. Then we sort them roughly by colors. While we are doing that, we look for edges and corners. The corners and edges help us get the scope of the puzzle and establish boundaries. After that, we look for patterns and shapes, and we begin to piece the puzzle together.
Why do we do it this way? Well, it’s logical. But what does it mean to say that a system is logical? Consider this. Every human child born into the world arrives with a built-in system of logic. We don’t have to be taught it, because it is hardwired into us. The brain itself is “wired” according to a logical system, and the mind operates on that system. So we start out in life with a mind that is logical. It is untrained, but the logical system gives it enormous potential for development.
The Apostle Paul didn’t use the language of logic, but he came to the same conclusion. Speaking of a man’s ability to know right from wrong, said:
Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them (Romans 2:14-15 NIV).
I think this is Paul’s way of saying that the Gentiles were born hardwired to the logic of the law. C. S. Lewis came to a similar conclusion as he analyzed what he called the Law of Nature. By that, he did not mean laws like gravity or thermodynamics, but rather the Law of Human Nature. Unlike physical laws, this is a law we can break, and do. This is from his classic, Mere Christianity:
I do not succeed in keeping the Law of Nature very well, and the moment anyone tells me I'm not keeping it, there starts up in my mind a string of excuses as long as your arm. The question at the moment is not whether they are good excuses. The point is that they are one more proof of how deeply, whether we like it or not, we believe in the Law of Nature. If we do not believe in decent behavior, why should we be so anxious to make excuses for not having behaved decently?
I’m not sure whether Lewis drew his idea from Paul or came up with it independently. I think it may have arisen from the logical structure of the argument he was advancing, because he doesn’t approach Christianity, per se, until later in the book. His point, though, is clear. The human mind does operate according to a system of internal logic.
God gave man a system of logic out of which language grows, so he could communicate with man and be understood. It is this underlying principle which makes translation possible, and which has enabled the translations of ancient documents even though they are written in languages no longer in use.
It is remarkable that man, in the absence of revelation, can come to a pretty good estimation of right and wrong. But the mind alone won’t get you all the way. Everyone knows there is a difference between right and wrong, but they often fall down sorting out which is which. Everyone knows that a child needs exercise. Fortunately, children are hardwired at birth with a desire to play, and that desire gets them out of doors, up trees, exploring caves and streams. (Someone felt sure that kids all have guardian angels, for if they didn’t, none of them would ever reach adulthood.) It is not so certain that everyone understands that a child’s mind and spirit need exercise as well as his body. The author of Hebrews drew an analogy to this:
For when for the time you ought to be teachers, you have need that one teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that uses milk is unskillful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongs to them who are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil (Hebrews 5:12-14).
Discerning good and evil is made possible by the logical design of the human mind. But if the senses aren’t exercised, the mind, like the body, grows flabby and indolent.
Also wired into the human mind is an insatiable thirst for meaning, so I often find myself looking up the meaning of the Greek and Hebrew words of the Bible. In my search, I often gain insight, and sometimes amusement. The Greek word for senses in the passage above, aistheterion (from which we derive the word “aesthetic”), denotes the organs of perception—all of them. But the word for “exercise,” gumnazo, means “to practice naked.” The Greeks always exercised and competed in the nude. But the author is talking about mental pushups, spiritual weight lifting, and for all we know, he may have had in mind an oblique reference to being naked before God.
So, I take it that, just as we are born with bones, nerves, muscle and tissue, and just as we have to exercise to build them up to peak performance, so also we are born with a mind that must be exercised for peak performance. So much more is known today about the way a child develops. We’ve known for a long time that there is a connection between the attention a child gets in the earliest years and the overall development of intelligence. What we are only now learning is how it works, and what we are learning is fascinating. I came upon this item recently:
To understand the link between early emotional bonding and brain development, it helps to know what's going on in your baby's brain. You've heard that a baby's brain grows most rapidly during the first three years of life. During the first year, brain cells are busy making millions of connections. The connections peak at about one year and, in a process called “pruning,” they are eliminated if they are not used. The connections that you regularly use are the ones that you keep.
That last should make every parent sit bolt upright. We have heard forever, “Use it or lose it.” It is as true of the brain as it is of the body, and there sits your child with a developing brain, learning stuff at a phenomenal rate. Or not. It really depends on you.
Peter, in his first letter adopted the same analogy as Paul: “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby” (1 Peter 2:2). What is of special interest in this passage is that, in speaking of “the word,” Peter uses the Greek, logikos, from which the English word “logic” is derived. It is the “pure milk” of divine logic we are after. What I take Peter and Paul to be saying is that we are born with a system of logic that has to be informed, developed, and trained to a higher system—a higher system that is, nevertheless, built on the same base.
So, from a biblical perspective, what do we need to do to develop that higher logic? A psalmist one day sat down to write a treatise on this higher logic. He organized his work alphabetically in segments to aid memorization, each section beginning with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Some versions of the Bible include these titles, and that makes it easier to note the eight verse stanzas.
In this Psalm, we find all the synonyms for law, seven or eight of them in the first two sections. It is almost as though he is calling our attention to the fact that the various categories and descriptions of the law are all part of a single system. He speaks of the Law of the Lord, the Way, Testimonies, Precepts, Decrees, Statutes, Commandments, Judgments, and the Word, all in the first ten verses. And he tends, as the Psalm progresses, to use each of these words as a synonym for the whole of Divine Law. Having laid out the use of the words in the first section of the Psalm, he proceeds with the gymnastics of the mind and spirit that he uses to make his life work.
How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word. I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. Praise be to you, O LORD; teach me your decrees. With my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth. I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches. I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways. I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word (Psalms 119:9-16 NIV).
His mental pushups included concentration, attentiveness, memorization, and meditation. To hide words in the heart is to internalize. Memorization is accomplished by oral recitation, “With my lips I recount all the laws.” Without internalizing the precepts, the last item becomes very hard; how can a man meditate on what he cannot remember. We have an enormous advantage in that we have the Scriptures in books we can carry with us. In those days, a shepherd camped out with his sheep had only his memory for meditation. And meditation is crucial, as we will see.
Years ago, in a series of workshops on management, the instructor challenged us to keep a time log of everything we did for one week in ten minute increments. The following week, he relaxed the requirement to 15 minute intervals, but a new wrinkle was added. He required us to spend a total of one hour in that week doing absolutely nothing but thinking. We couldn’t think at the keyboard or while driving a car. At most, we were allowed to tap a pencil on the table.
That week was a turning point for me. I came to realize that, while we do think during every waking hour, we manage to keep ourselves distracted from the really important things. Sitting quietly in a chair, eyes closed, doing nothing at all, was a strange experience. But during that one hour, I mentally worked my way through the most serious problem facing me on my job and found a solution that worked. In one hour.
When you apply this principle to the law, some very interesting things happen. In the first place, the temptation to legalism is foreclosed. Legalism is a perspective that sees the law as an absolute requirement from God. The law is there; we have to do it. Thinking is not required or even encouraged. Who are we to second-guess God? The letter of the law controls.
But when you stop to meditate on the law, something else begins to happen. The law begins to shine a new light on your problems, your headaches, your challenges. Decisions become easier, because you now have a logical framework into which they can be placed and by which they can be judged.
If all this logic sounds too pat, too unemotional, you haven’t thought about it long enough. Legalism is unemotional, pat, locked in place. Meditation opens the way to understanding. Emotions and feelings are not enough. You have to do something about those feelings, and the logic of the law keeps you from doing stupid, hurtful things. Our psalmist continues.
Do good to your servant, and I will live; I will obey your word. Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law. I am a stranger on earth; do not hide your commands from me. My soul is consumed with longing for your laws at all times (vv. 17-20 NIV).
The law is so much higher than most people think. It is not just so much pharisaical legalism. It is not a matter of a heavy burden to be borne. It is a matter of a man in business facing a decision that requires sound judgment and discernment. “Open my eyes that I can see this clearly,” he prays. “I am consumed with longing for your law.” Why? Because it is in that system of logic that the solution to his problem lies.
If the law looks like a yoke of bondage to you, then you need to look again. It makes all the difference how you think about it. What the psalmist sees in the law is a Divine Logic that transcends what he can see by himself. He wants to see more.
Remove from me the way of lying: and grant me thy law graciously. I have chosen the way of truth: thy judgments have I laid before me. I have stuck unto thy testimonies: O LORD, put me not to shame. will run the way of thy commandments, when thou shalt enlarge my heart (vv. 29-32 KJV).
All this is related to the statement: “Remove from me the way of lying.” Two roads lie before you. This is not a choice to be made once and then laid aside, but a road you choose to walk. One is the way of lying; the other is the way of truth. Nothing can do more damage to your judgment than walking in the way of lying.
Every child is born into the world with a built-in lie detector. It has to be trained, but the circuits are all there. As we grow up, sometimes it seems to work and sometimes it doesn’t. Why is that? What makes the difference?
Well, in the first place, if you lie, you degrade your own lie detector. We also degrade our lie detectors by not listening to them. Why would anyone do such a foolish thing? To answer that question, we have to lay the Psalm aside for a moment and read something from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. Warning about the nature of “the lawless one,” he wrote this:
The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness (2 Thessalonians 2:9-12 NIV).
They perish because they refuse to love the truth. This seems a strange idea at first, but when we think about it, we know it is true. People do believe lies and even seem to prefer them. Why? For one thing, they may want the lie to be true. We know from experience that if we tell people what they want to hear, they are more likely to believe us—no matter the truth or error of the statement.
When Dan Rather and crew at CBS ran a story about George Bush that turned out to be based on forged documents, the whole news industry was scandalized. How on earth could the CBS fact checkers not have noticed the problem? The most common explanation at the time was that the news team wanted the story to be true and so they ran it without thoroughly checking it out. Their built-in lie detector had been compromised. But there was probably more to it than that. It fit with an established worldview, a way of looking at people and events. Seeing President Bush as a shirker, a college frat boy, fit with their view of the world, so they went with it. It was a huge mistake and put a distinguished career on the rocks.
There are so many things that conspire to blind us to the truth. Our psalmist suggests that covetousness is a factor: “Incline my heart to thy testimonies, and not to covetousness” (Psalm 119:36). Greed, for money or for power, can blind a man to the truth. That is a sad commentary. But the truth takes the blinders off, and leads to real wealth in the end.
The psalmist went on to plead, “Turn my eyes away from worthless things; preserve my life according to your word” (v. 37 NIV). These two requests tie the Law of God to the ability to know what is valuable and what is not, to know what is truth and what is not. What would it be worth to always know when a man is lying? You can come pretty close if you just tune up your love of the truth, and the rewards for doing so are enormous.
Do not snatch the word of truth from my mouth,
for I have put my hope in your laws.
I will always obey your law, for ever and ever.
I will walk about in freedom,
for I have sought out your precepts (vv. 43-45 NIV).
There is a truth of staggering proportions here. It is the connection between the “word of truth” and walking about in freedom. One of the strangest of Christian theologies is the one that considers the Law of God a “yoke of bondage.” The idea derives from an idiosyncratic interpretation of an argument advanced by Paul in his letter to the Galatians. He wrote: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1). Ironically, Paul spoke of not becoming entangled with something that takes away liberty and freedom. The psalmist considered the Law of God as the guarantor of freedom. So did Paul. Then there was James:
For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man shall be blessed in what he does (James 1:23-25 NASB).
Some interpreters think they find an argument between Paul and James, but they are being careless. The Psalm gives us the key. Understanding of the purpose of the law is what opens the door. The Law of God is the ground and source of all freedom, of liberty. Those people will be in bondage who cannot bring themselves to live by the Law of God. Returning to the psalmist:
I am a friend to all who fear you, to all who follow your precepts. The earth is filled with your love, O LORD; teach me your decrees. Do good to your servant according to your word, O LORD. Teach me knowledge and good judgment, for I believe in your commands (Psalms 119:63-66 NIV).
Many times we have heard, “A man is known by the company he keeps.” If you hang out where the truth is valued and lies are condemned, you will be where you belong. It’s important to note the last phrase here: “I believe your commandments.” The Commandments of God are his Testimony.
Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word. You are good, and what you do is good; teach me your decrees. Though the arrogant have smeared me with lies, I keep your precepts with all my heart. Their hearts are callous and unfeeling, but I delight in your law. It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees (vv. 67-71).
The worst thing that can happen to us is to have life too easy. It doesn’t matter very much what the affliction is. It can be physical pain. It can be failure in business. It is a rare man who engages in self-examination when everything he is doing is working just fine. Someone who had reason to know once said that the best thing that can happen to a man is to get fired somewhere in his 30s or 40s. It forces self-examination and a readjustment of a man’s career and life goals. We can just get a little too comfortable, a little too risk-averse, and spend our entire lives like a cog in a machine.
Twice in my long career, I have had occasion to resign from good, well paying positions to start over. I can honestly say that both these moves were good for me, as uncomfortable as they were at the time. In my case, these occasions forced me to look long and hard at my calling, my relationship with God, and my spiritual growth (or lack thereof). It was good for me that I was afflicted. Affliction set my feet on a better path.
Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.
Your commands make me wiser than my enemies,
for they are ever with me.
I have more insight than all my teachers,
for I meditate on your statutes.
I have more understanding than the elders,
for I obey your precepts.
I have kept my feet from every evil path
so that I might obey your word.
I have not departed from your laws,
for you yourself have taught me.
How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
I gain understanding from your precepts;
therefore I hate every wrong path (vv. 97-104 NIV).
These verses are the heart and core of this Psalm. The psalmist loves the law because it gives him an edge in life. What is it worth to be wiser than your enemies, to have more understanding than your teachers, to know things even the gray heads don’t know? Why would I not love something like this, and why would I not hate anything that threatened to take it away?
Having come this far, we should begin to understand what happens to our lie detector as life proceeds. We are given the core logic at birth, and then the world goes to work eroding it, often with our consent and cooperation. The ability to recognize truth when we hear it, to spot a liar before he finishes his spiel, is worth a lot in life.
What makes the difference? The next verse answers the question: “Your word is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path” (v. 105). This is the chosen analogy. The law is not a burden we have to carry. It is not shackles around our feet and legs. It is a lamp to light our way so we don’t fall down and hurt ourselves. When I hear Christians who should know better refer to this law as a “yoke of bondage,” I can only shake my head in wonderment.
Your statutes are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart. My heart is set on keeping your decrees to the very end.
I hate double-minded men, but I love your law (vv. 111-113 NIV).
It is ironic that the two richest men in the world, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are giving away most of their wealth. Neither of them wants their heirs to get too much money or too much power. They may not be going far enough, but that is their call. What the psalmist is saying is that he has taken the testimony of God as his heritage. It is worth far more than the billions these two men might leave behind.
The last sentence in this section is interesting: “I hate double-minded men.” That doesn’t sound right to me. I think what he is saying is that he hates double-mindedness, in himself or in others. Why put up with ambiguity when you can come down on the side of the right?
It is time for you to act, O LORD; your law is being broken.
Because I love your commands more than gold, more than pure gold, and because I consider all your precepts right, I hate every wrong path. Your statutes are wonderful; therefore I obey them. The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands (vv. 126-131 NIV).
This is a man who will never be morally confused. He knows right from wrong with clarity. Why? Because he believes God is right. It really is that simple. It is striking to read his words and realize that then, as now, there were those with an anti-law philosophy. In the days of the psalmist, they could not argue that the law was nailed to the cross, but they still found a way to regard the law as void. This fellow panted for the laws of God. Some foolish ones are panting to cast them off.
Yet you are near, O LORD, and all your commands are true.
Long ago I learned from your statutes
that you established them to last forever (vv. 151-152).
I said earlier that every child born into the world comes with a built in baloney-detector. Baloney is slang for bologna, a large smoked sausage. In slang it means “pretentious nonsense.” Why do we get sucked in by baloney? Because it appeals to our vanity, our idea that we are somehow special, that we have knowledge denied to other people. And, of course, we fall for it because we like to be stroked. It is a part of the permanent condition of man, and it led Paul to write this to Timothy:
But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them. They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over weak-willed women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth (2 Timothy 3:1-7 NIV).
This is a truly sad commentary. Here are people who are no longer able to discern between truth and a lie. How do people get that way? Paul, on another occasion, answers:
The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:4-5 NIV).
We are born with a built-in baloney detector. If it is fine tuned, it can demolish arguments and pretentious nonsense. It can save us more heartache than I can enumerate. The Law of God is the highest expression of the logic of God and man. It is the primary source of renewing and repairing the old baloney detector.
We would do well to use the jigsaw principle in studying biblical law. First get all the pieces right side up. Sort them according to the most obvious principles. Locate the boundaries, the corners, the edges, so you can get a proportion of what you are looking for. And then be patient. Don’t try to make pieces fit where they don’t belong. Don’t throw pieces out because they don’t look right. The Bible, like the puzzle, will yield to persistence and patience.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things (Philippians 4:6-8 NIV).
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