5. Rock, Sand, Formulas
I don’t know if you’ve discovered the writer, Donald Miller, but I find him a breath of fresh air. He may be too fresh for some, but I like his kind of iconoclastic, cut through all the silliness, sort of earthiness.
His Blue Like Jazz is just the book for people turned off by the phoniness that marks some elements among us and his Searching for God Knows What grabbed me as an insight into one of the core realities of the Christian life.
Sometime back Donald flew from Portland to Memphis to attend a seminar on Capturing literature for the glory of God. When he got to the seminar room on the first of the two days he was there he found about twenty people present—him and nineteen women. It seems few men were interested in capturing literature for the glory of God. Apparently all the women attending were small and slight, weighing about 100 pounds. On the first day, the seminar leader, also a small, slight, 100 pound woman and a successfully published writer, introduced them to two formulas that would teach the participants how to capture literature for the glory of God.
The first formula consisted of four facets:
1. A crisis—a real crisis with frightening consequences that the readers must be made to feel and fear.
2. A clear enemy in the crisis who would threaten the readers so they would fear, hate, and want to overcome him.
3. The ramifications of the crisis and the enemy must be spelled out in such a way that the reader would be motivated to act.
4. A three or four-step to overcome the crisis.
Of course, there could be a question as to how such an overwhelming crisis and enemy could be overcome in three or four steps, but the reader has already bought the book, so that isn’t particularly important.
There was another recipe that went like this.
1. Paint a picture of personal misery, sometime when you failed more miserably than you thought possible.
2. Paint a picture of where you are now, in control and on top, presumably no longer the miserable failure you once were.
3. Give the reader three-to-four steps that will get them from misery to control in a fail-safe way.
Miller went home excited and decided to look in the Bible for formulas he could use to turn into stories as developed by the seminar leader. He considered Stephen who ended up stoned and Paul who was a murderer and Peter who was crucified upside down and began to wonder if there were formulas in the Bible—if, in fact, formulas can work with such a complex thing as life.
In doing this, he said,
“I got frustrated. And it really got me to thinking that, perhaps, formula books, by that I mean books that take you through a series of steps, may not be all that compatible with the Bible. I looked on my shelf at all the self-help books I happened to own, the ones about losing weight, the ones about making girls like you, the ones about getting rich, the ones about starting your own pirate radio station, and I realized none of them actually helped me that much. All the promises of fulfillment really didn’t work. . . . It made me wonder, honestly, if such a complex existence as the one you and I are living can really be broken down into a few steps. It seems if there were a formula to fix life, Jesus would have told us what it was.”1
I think Donald Miller is right.
If there were a formula to fix life, Jesus would have told us what it is.
In point of fact, Jesus tells us exactly the opposite in Matthew 7:24-27.
As Jesus comes to the end of the Sermon on the Mount and draws His final conclusion He shows us that formulas form a flawed foundation of the flesh guaranteed to bring our lives down in the storm waters of a flood.
Come with me to Matthew 7:24-27 where we see Jesus call us twice to obey Him and then show us that our obedience will be tested by a storm.
I. Jesus Calls Us to Obey Him.
A. Obedience Shows Us to Be Wise. (7:24)
1. To obey is to hear Christ’s words.
a. To obey is to be constantly hearing Christ’s words.
There is a constant focus on listening to His words. In fact, we are listening for the Living Word through the written words.
b. There is a focus on the Living Word in this passage that we cannot miss.
It’s not just the words; it’s HIS words, the words of the Son of God, the words of the Living Word of God, the loving revelation of the sovereign God of the universe. The prophets call on their hearers to do the will of God. He calls on His hearers to do His will. He is the highest of the high.
But to obey is to do more than hear Christ’s words.
2. To obey is to do Christ’s words.
a. Once again the emphasis is on consistency in doing as it is in hearing.
b. Obedience is not just hearing; it’s hearing and doing—on a very consistent basis.
But here’s the problem with our typical view of obedience.
We think of obedience as doing what the Bible says and in doing so we reduce the Living Word into dead words. When we do this we turn His life into our death and miss the point of obedience. Obedience is not conformity to external commands, but response to a loving relationship. Since we are responding to a loving relationship with the Living Word, we can only obey the written word when the Living Word acts through us.
This means obedience is desperately depending on the Living Word to practice the principles of the written word.
Obedience is a response to an internal relationship with the Living Word, not a response of good behavior to the external commands of the written word. An intimate relationship with the Living Word results in genuine obedience to the written word.
3. This kind of obedience shows wisdom.
Now Jesus presents us with a parable in which those who hear and obey His words are likened to a wise man.
This man is wise, not in a theoretical sense, but in a very functional sense—know-how. He is not wise because of what he knows, but because of what he does. He wants to build a house—a life really—so he goes out and surveys for the best plot. He may see some beautiful plots shaded in a lovely narrow valley with trees all around, cool breezes that blow through at the end of hot days, surrounded by green meadows with a narrow creek running through the property. He asks the real estate agent, “Does that stream ever flood?” “Not in a hundred years,” the agent replies.
He looks closely and realizes that if there ever was a severe storm—the kind that could happen in his part of the world—he would be wiped out, so he keeps looking until he finds a less attractive setting, but a place that provides a solid foundation, and he builds there. He is building on the Rock.
Jesus is the Living Rock—He is the Living Word, and His words are the Living Rock.
He is entrusting all he has and all he is to the Rock. It may not be as beautiful; it may not be as shady; it may not be as desirable as other plots of land, but it is secure—he can trust the Rock.
This is what our life is all about—it’s about trusting the Rock. It’s about turning away from the allure of the power or the greed or the fame or the attraction of success formulas to abandon all for trust in Jesus so we depend on Him to do what we cannot do in ourselves: to hear and obey His words. This is what makes us wise—and the storms of life will prove our wisdom.
Now we see the true nature of hearing.
It is not just listening. It is not evaluating the concepts critically, as if we can judge the Truth of the Living Word. It is listening and learning and living.
Of course, we evaluate the concepts.
Of course, we think through what Jesus is saying.
Of course, we consider what it means for our lives.
Of course, we ask questions to grasp its meaning as well as its meaning for us.
But our object is to live what we have heard and learned.
When Jesus calls for us for hear and do, He is calling for us to listen carefully and thoroughly so we can learn as completely as possible how He wants us to live. Christianity is not facts to believe nor formulas to be lived, but a relationship to be entered into and a life to be received. Our life is not a life of steps; our life is a life of trust. How! How! How! Everybody wants to know how!
How come the Bible doesn’t tell us how? How come the Bible doesn’t give us steps—formulas to manage life? Could it be because we can’t control life—that we were created to be dependent in life and not independent? Could it be because formulas give us control and make us independent and trust removes us from control and makes us dependent? And what might storms have to do with this?
B. Storms Prove Our Wisdom. (7:25)
1. Storms come—there’s no way around the reality of storms.
a. Look how graphic the passage makes the storm.
b. And, and, and, and, and—rain on the roof, wind on the walls, flood on the foundation—and the house stands.
c. Our lives survive the storm because we’ve depended on Christ—we’re building on the Rock because we’re building through the Rock.
2. There are many different kinds of storms.
a. Physical—struggles with health—my friend whose wife went to the doctor for a physical and found out later that she had incurable cancer.
b. Emotional—unjust critical judgments from others, unjust firings, great disappointments from others, a wave of deaths that rolls over us and tumbles us and then slams us on the beach hurting and confused—my friend whose Christian friends listened to the criticism of an unbeliever and lost his job and hasn’t been able to find one for two years.
c. Financial—my friend who lost 90% of his business in a matter of months.
d. Spiritual—a family that experienced attacks by the evil on their children when they thought they had prepared for their protection.
e. Building on the Rock does not prevent storms—it may even invite storms as those who reject the Rock attack those who build on the Rock.
Let me tell you about my friend who lost 90% of his business a few years ago because his wisdom has clearly been proven through this storm. He turned to God in his loss and realized God wanted him to face some key flaws in his character, so this is what he has been doing. As a result he has been growing personally and spiritually.
One key relationship has seen a great deal of healing, the answer to much anguish in prayer. His spiritual influence has expanded more and more and he going to pursue his first international teaching venture in the couple of months. One of his clients was sued, and the work he had done was the key to the suit. After he testified the trial was over, even though it ran its course for a few more days—the jury threw the case out of court because my friend did his work so well. It wasn’t the quality of work that cost him his business; it was a storm designed to demonstrate his wisdom and grow him even deeper in hearing and doing the words of Jesus.
When you build on the Rock you must expect storms, because only storms can show your wisdom to the world around you.
But what if you don’t build on the Rock?
We turn to the second part of the passage where, once again,
II. Jesus Calls Us to Obey Him. (Matt. 7:26-27)
But now He paints a different picture.
A. Disobedience Makes Us Foolish. (7:26)
1. Many of us are disobedient without even realizing it.
a. We start with a fatal flaw in our thinking—we think obedience is up to us, that obedience is a matter of steps, formulas, that if we follow these steps we are obedient and we are able to be obedient.
b. We don’t even realize we are functional legalists.
We are confused about formulas and don’t even recognize them as a form about legalism. We reduce the Christian life to formulas, steps to succeed. We have formulas for marriage, for raising children, for succeeding in business, for our walk with God—and, as Donald Miller said, none of the formulas work.
He said, “All of the promises of fulfillment [found in his self-help books] really didn’t work. My life was fairly normal before I read them, meaning I had good days and bad days, and then my life was fairly normal after I read them too, meaning I still had good days and bad days.”2
What we fail to realize is that when we build our lives on formulas, we are building our lives on sand.
While we think we are hearing and obey Christ’s words, we actually are building our lives on the fatal flaw of the flesh.
At its core functional legalism—living our lives functionally as legalists—is placing our confidence in the flesh, and the floods will make this clear to us. Legalism is not a matter of rules and regulations—legalism is a matter of resource—Phil. 3:3.
So we end up doing the works of the flesh rather than bearing the fruit of the Spirit because when the flesh does the right things, it always bears the wrong fruit. This is why so many Bible believing churches end up acting worse than unbelievers.
2. We are disobedient while doing the things that make us obedient.
a. We spend time in the Word.
b. We pray.
c. We do what the Bible says.
d. But we don’t bear the fruit of the Bible.
We struggle with anger, unforgiveness, pride, division—all the works of the flesh—and don’t understand why. Our intentions are good; our fruit is lacking.
And the inevitable storm that comes reveals it all as we stand in shock, surrounded by the ruins of the life we’ve been building.
B. Disobedience Proves Us to Be Foolish. (7:27)
1. Both men do the same thing—build a life.
a. Both men want the same thing—a life—a marriage, a family, a career, a retirement, everything we long to have.
b. We work for it with all our energy—and find our lives in shambles.
c. The storms prove our foolishness
d. Controlled by fear, driven by ambition, committed to Christ, striving for control, totally out of control, we prove ourselves to be foolish.
2. There’s only one difference between the wise man and the foolish man, and it’s not what they want or what they do—it’s their foundation.
a. The wise man builds his house on the foundation of the Rock, Christ.
b. The foolish man builds his house on the foundation of sand, himself—his flesh.
c. He seeks to hear and obey through his flesh, and his foundation is flooded out.
But where do I get the basis for talking about formulas in this passage?
Come with me to the key passage in the Sermon on the Mount, the ultimate point Jesus is making, Mt. 5:20.
Why must our righteousness surpass the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees? What was wrong with their righteousness?
They were the ultimate formula makers.
We need to know who the scribes and the Pharisees were. The Scribes were
- interpreters of the law,
- required to be over thirty years of age,
- well trained, and
- highly respected.
Their understanding of the law of God gave them great authority, and they were unwilling to give up that authority. When Jesus came with deeper insights and an authority they could never have, they acted to protect their power rather than acknowledge their pride. The Pharisees also had great power and respect, and at one point in their history they deserved it. One-hundred fifty years before Jesus came, they took a stand for God's truth against a secularized society that cost many of them their lives. By doing this, they saved the nation from a total loss of faith. Had that happened, Israel would have lost their distinctiveness as God's people.
However, across the years they used their position as religious leaders to gain power over their followers. They had become hypocritical in the pursuit of the Law, adding all sorts of unbearable demands God never intended, making it impossible for anyone to keep His truth as they explained it. They had great political and economic power that they didn't want to give up. So they refused to respond to Jesus. They preferred their formulas to His words.
They were committed to keeping a law they could not keep, thus annulling the very law they claimed to keep. In their righteousness they were building a house on the shifting sands of self-effort and the flesh—and it would crash when the storms of life hit.
The only way our righteousness can surpass the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is to have a true righteousness that meets God’s Law and does not annul any part of it. And the only righteousness that does that is Christ’s righteousness. The scribes and the Pharisees have a kind of Every Man Righteousness.
- They had the right standard: God’s Law
- They had the right goal: holiness
- They had the right process: worship.
- They had the right aim: loving God and man
But they had the wrong power in mind: their own
- And they had the wrong measurement: their own.
- And they had the wrong mind: deceived.
- And they bore the wrong fruit: pride.
- And they faced the wrong fate: death.
They built their lives on the wrong foundation and their lives failed when tested by the storm of accountability.
Now we can put Stormology all together.
Stormology 101: Storms turn control into trust.
Stormology 102: Storms transform consumer Christians into committed Christians.
Stormology 103: Storms reveal the reality of our lives.
Stormology 104: Storms test the foundation of our lives.
Our foundations are hidden, and we can go a long time keeping them secret. We can look and sound just like the Christians around us. We may even build bigger and greater homes than many of them—even multi-roomed mansions. The tragedy is that we may be able to keep the foundation of our lives hidden for a long period of time, as I have seen until they reach their fifties and everything falls apart—their lives are over, shattered and in pieces. The only thing worse than that is to make it into your sixties or more before your true foundation is revealed. And the only thing worse than that is to make it eternity, only to the false foundation of your life revealed by the searing judgment of God’s ultimate storm: your accountability to Him when you can deny nothing.
STORMS TEST THE FOUNDATION OF OUR LIVES
I ask you, On which foundation are you building?
And I ask you, What is your supreme desire? What do you want more than anything else? Dependence on Christ in you, the Foundation of your life? Or the independence of running your own life, building on the sands of futile flesh? The storm is coming—what will it reveal about the true essence of your life?
1 Miller, Donald. Searching for God Knows What (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Books, 2004), p. 10.