(Deuteronomy 6:4-9) Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (NIV)
I just want my life to mean something. Ever feel like that? People usually young adults who are just setting out but sometimes middle-aged adults who feel like they have been missing out – have said that kind of thing to me.
I’ve watched as they try to give their life meaning through their experiences, as if having a meaningful experience would make them meaningful. They volunteer at a food pantry, or go on a mission trip, or enroll in Teach for America. Other people try to add something exciting to life, like jumping out of an airplane (for example). And some take on strenuous, test-your-limits pursuits – they join the Marine Corps or go in for an extreme fitness regimen.
Then they wait for meaning to come pouring into their lives. It’s as if they think of their life as an empty vessel which, when they tap into the right thing, will be filled with meaning.
From my observations, the person who says, “I want my life to mean something” is proceeding from a false position; a wrong assumption. His or her life already means something. Everyone’s life means something because God meant them – he made them for a purpose. But that meaning is, at least in part, a significant– sign-ificant – meaning; the kind of meaning a sign possesses.
Signs come in all shapes and sizes and are made from all kinds of materials. The thing that makes a sign meaningful is not inherent in the sign itself. It’s meaning always comes from something outside itself. The important thing about a sign is not its size or shape or the font in which it is written but that thing beyond the sign to which it points. Take a highway sign that reads: Chicago 160. What gives that sign meaning is a place called Chicago, which is 160 miles away.
Now, it is entirely possible to misinterpret the meaning of a sign, including the sign that is our life. Someone from Canada might misinterpret the Chicago sign because they assume it means Chicago is 160 kilometers away. Still, she knows the meaning is not in the sign itself but in the thing to which it points. It is sign-ificant.
People’s lives are also meaningful in that way. They are significant because they are signs; they point somewhere. They’re not meaningful because they get filled up with experiences but because they point to something bigger than their experience, just as Chicago is bigger than the sign that points to it.
So, what is the bigger thing to which your life points? What is the meaning of your life?
Sometimes our lives get twisted around in such a way that they no longer point in the right direction. Sin is one of the things that cause this. We’re still carrying the information about God, but when people look down the trajectory of our lives, they don’t see him.
Sometimes we get knocked down by one of life’s storms or by a collision with some steamrolling reality like divorce, or disease, or trouble. God is still written across our life, but we’ve been knocked down like a road sign struck by a car and we are no longer pointing in any discernable direction.
Your life is a sign. To where does it point? A few years ago, the Barna Group compiled extensive data from a broad survey of American Christian families. They found that the three things parents are most likely to say about themselves are: 1) they are busy; 2) they are stressed; and 3) they are in debt.
Furthermore, most of these parents report being only marginally satisfied with their lives, their marriages, and their jobs. The thing they say they are satisfied with is their parenting skills and their children’s development. Interestingly, they say other people’s parenting skills and other people’s children are unsatisfactory.
So, think about this: Where does a person’s life (whether a parent or not, doesn’t matter) who is busy, stressed, and indebted point? To what does the life of the self-satisfied / others-dissatisfied person point?
God designed us to be signs, exquisitely made and beautifully detailed, that point to him. Genesis tells us that God made humans in his own image. He made them billboards with his image imprinted on them, pointing people to him and to the rich life he makes possible.
Last week in Deuteronomy 6, Hal showed us the God of love who desires to be loved by us. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). This, the most familiar passage in the Bible for more than a millennium, quoted by Jesus himself as the Bible’s most important command, helps us understand what a flourishing life looks like and how it points to God.
A person who is coming to love God with heart and soul and strength is not just a sign, but a lighted sign, clear and bright, and easy to read. But in the absence of love, the sign that is our life is like a digital display without electricity.
Loving God does help other people but it is also good for us. There are benefits. The first, verse 1, is a family that belongs to God for generations. (How great is that!) The second benefit, verse 2, is that we enjoy long life. I like that translation because it brings out the idea that God doesn’t want us merely to endure life but to enjoy it. The third benefit, verse 3, is that things go well for us. (But note: “well” does not mean easy. It means we will be spiritually healthy and sound.) And finally, same verse, that we increase greatly. That is, we flourish.
Now, how does this happen? It does not happen – we need to get this right – because we compel ourselves or our family to obey a bunch of rules. Outward rules can give expression to inward love, but they cannot take its place. In fact, outward rules without inward love inevitably backfires. A family (or school or church) that has the rules but doesn’t have the love will produce either hypocritical Christians or hypercritical Christians and, either way, their lives will point in the wrong direction.
I know some people who write God’s word, including his commands, on note cards that they place all over their homes – often so their family will see them. I think that is a great idea but I caution you that if you put God’s commands in your home but not in your heart, you’ll only make things worse. God is not interested in forging a people who abide by the rules but in forming a people who abide in his love. The way God designed us, his commands only get into a heart when it opens to his love.
This passage teaches us to keep God before our minds as we go through everyday life. That is one of the best things we can do for ourselves and is a key to spiritual growth. It is what David, the man after God’s own heart, learned to do. He said, “I have set the Lord always before me” (Psalm 16:8). Some people set the media always before them, and you can be sure they will become a certain kind of person because of it. Someone else sets the NYSE always before him. He will become a certain kind of person because of it. Other people have set their wish list always before them—or their regrets list. It will shape them into a certain kind of person.
Moses wanted God’s people to keep the Lord always before them and so be shaped by him – be, as St. Paul put it, “renewed in knowledge according to the image of [our] Creator” (Colossians 3:10). The act of setting the Lord before us must become a regular and ongoing practice. But to do that we need some kind of framework, and that is just what this passage gives us.
Notice the repeated use of the word “when” in verse 7: “…when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” No one will succeed in setting the Lord before him or her who does so intermittently. Every Sunday from 11:00 to 12:00 is a start, but it is not enough. The church can be a help to you and your family in doing this, but the church cannot do it for you.
Moses mentions four key times for bringing God and his ways before you and your family. It we can make a habit of doing this, it will go a long way to helping us flourish. The first is when you sit at home. But when does anyone have time to sit at home? When they eat. Mealtimes are ready-made for this. If you make only one change in your schedule, this might be the one to make: eat meals together. Recent research suggests that it makes a huge difference in a family’s life. If you are alone, find extended family – not necessarily biological either – to eat with on a regular basis.
In a study conducted in 2018 of practicing Christians adults and teens, 68 percent of families say they eat dinner together every day or two, which means they are together for dinner more often than for any other household routine. Meals can provide a time to talk about the Lord, his ways, and our experiences of him. At first, this may seem forced, but it will become natural over time and, when it does, it will become powerful!
Consider making the dinner table a device-free zone. But instead of ordering your kids to give up their phones, talk it over in advance. Tell them what you’re thinking. Even if you negotiate one mealtime a week without devices and with conversation, that is a great start.
You can talk about a movie you saw and together think through what it implies about the world and about God. Talk about experiences you had growing up. Share something you’re praying for. You don’t need to force God into your conversation. If he has already entered your heart, he’ll enter your conversations. Make the most of mealtimes.
Moses mentions a second critical time in verse 7: travel time – “when you are on the road.” For example, when you leave the worship service you can make it a habit to talk about what you heard in the sermon or in Sunday School or about a song we sang. If you have kids, ask them what they did in Kid’s Min or talk to them about what they are doing in Youth Group.
The next important time is bedtime. You can bring God before your mind by reading an evening psalm. This is something the church around the world has done for hundreds of years. Find the common lectionary online and you’ll find an evening psalm for each day of the week, all year long.
When our kids were young, we read good books at bedtime almost every night. We started when they were infants, read them picture books when they were toddlers, went on to chapter books when they got a little older, and even 500-page books as they got older still. We read The Chronicles of Narnia, for instance – and now our son and daughter-in-law are reading The Chronicles to their kids.
The fourth important time is in the morning – “…when you get up.” Our home was a whirl of activity every morning. I was obsessed with punctuality; my kids were not; and that led to some pretty tense mornings. To be frank, I failed on this one (as well as many others). I failed but God did not.
Before or kids got up, Karen and I would rise, hide ourselves away with a cup of coffee, and set the Lord before us in prayer and Bible reading. That is a habit for us that is many decades in the making, and it has been life-altering. It became a sign to our kids and helped them begin their own daily devotional times.
These kinds of practices become signs to you who are yourself a sign to others. They point you and, if you have family at home, your family to God. If they are framed by love for God (that is verse 5) and contain meaningful content (that is verse 7), they will help you and your family. Moses actually suggests you make literal signs in verses 8 and 9 and put them where you can’t miss them: “…on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”
I must warn you, though, of a danger inherent in this. If we mistake the sign for the thing to which it points, we will hurt ourselves and our families. We can be all about family dinners and reading at bedtime and having conversations in the car, but if those things become an end in themselves, we are stopping at the sign rather than going on to the God to whom it points. That’s like driving to the sign that says, “Chicago 160,” patting ourselves on the back, and then returning home.
That may sound ridiculous to you, but it happens all the time in the spiritual life. People congratulate themselves on Bible reading and feel like they’ve arrived. They memorize verses as if it were somehow meritorious. Because they have a daily quiet time, they think themselves spiritual when they are really only predictable.
This kind of thing happened again and again among God’s people. God gave them circumcision for a sign (Genesis 17). He gave them Passover for a sign (Exodus 13). He gave them the Sabbath for a sign (Exodus 31). But people gathered around the signs, celebrated them, and forgot where they pointed. They’d confused the sign for the destination, and everything became about the sign.
Those were the people who were furious because the Apostle Paul didn’t agree that circumcision was all-important. When he said things like, “…neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value,” they flew into a rage and called him a heretic.
It happened with the Sabbath. When Jesus dared to say the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, people wanted to kill him. No, they insisted, man was made for the Sabbath. Sabbath was everything. They had mistaken the sign for the reality.
We mustn’t allow that to happen to us and our families. If it does, the result is predictable. The first generation will use the sign – say, church attendance – to point them to God. The second generation will keep the sign – they’ll still go to church. It may even be important to them and they will feel superior to people who don’t go. They’ll keep the sign but forget where it points. Then it will grieve their hearts when the third generation pulls up the sign and throws it away. The problem comes from thinking that doing certain kinds of things somehow takes the place of being certain kinds of people – people who love God and live in his love.
Let me suggest a couple of things we can do to put what we’ve heard into practice. First, ask God to reveal to you where your life is currently pointing. Be honest with him and with yourself. Is your life pointing to him or to retirement? Does your life say that God is great of that possession are better? Remember, your friends, your children, and your grandchildren are reading the sign that is your life. You need to know where it is pointing.
Another thing you can do: incorporate the four critical times of the day into a plan for spiritual growth and flourishing. What do you now do at mealtimes? What small changes could you make to bring God into your thoughts? Perhaps you could start simply by giving thanks before meals. Maybe you make the dinner table a device-free zone and have conversations instead. Is there a way to bring God before your mind during travel times? Can you listen to a good podcast or sermon, or to Christian music? Can you use the time to pray for friends and family? What about first thing in the morning and last thing before bed? Read a psalm? Pray?
Don’t try to do everything but do try something. Experiment. But remember: the goal is not to do the right things but to become the right people – people who, with heart and mind and strength love the God who so loved them that he gave his only begotten son.
(Preached May 10, 2020 at Lockwood Community Church, Coldwater, MI.)
 From Barna Group, in Don Everts, The Spiritually Vibrant Home, IVP.
So enjoyed your column today (Prejudice: Going after the root) that I shared it on facebook. That’s a first for me.
Having grown up in Kalamazoo, and with my married last name of Lockwood, I feel a genuine connection between us.
Thank you for a thought-provoking, inspiring column.