The Grammar of Faith

What we can learn from the little word with

In my early 20s, I was hired to teach French at a high school on Chicago’s North Shore, and I learned to invent ways of making grammar interesting—even the sleepy lesson on prepositions, which I taught by placing a stuffed hedgehog around the room and asking students to describe his location. Students began to understand that prepositions are not the part of speech doing the action (those are the verbs), nor the part of speech naming the people, places, and things (those are the nouns). Instead, prepositions are the part of speech indicating relationship or position. In. Beside. Behind. It makes me wonder: How much of our life with God can be understood according to the prepositions? It’s perhaps a strange thing to suggest, that the study of grammar could help us make sense of the poetry and prose of faith. But as I’ve come to discover, it’s an understanding of the little words that make the biggest difference.

 

The Prepositions of Faith

In the Bible, all kinds of prepositions indicate how we are positionally related to God. When I was a new believer, from was the preposition that dominated my understanding of the Christian life. At 16, on meeting the resurrected Christ, I understood—at least in part—the nature of God’s unexpected grace. I was saved from the shame and sentence of sin as well as (in the apostle Paul’s words of Romans 5:9) “from the wrath of God.” Salvation could be most clearly seen in the rearview mirror, defined by all that was disappearing from view.

In time, this backwards-looking from, preoccupied as it was with the past, gave way to the urgency of for and its present, pressing obligations. As Paul described in Titus 2:14, God had given Christ to “redeem us from every lawless deed,” but that wasn’t the end of the story. No, from was just a beginning. God had not simply saved me from sin but saved me for His good purposes, that I might become part of “a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.” For was a word to signal the godly ambition of putting my hand to the plow of God’s kingdom and pushing with great force. For was the preposition calling me to make good on my gratitude for God’s grace and its unbidden surprise. If from made me a taker with God, for made me a giver.

But some years later, even for came to confront its own limits, especially as its messianic burdens weighed heavy on my shoulders. I wasn’t wise enough, faithful enough, strong enough to do all the good to which I aspired. My hands could not hold the whole world to staunch its bleeding. For was a necessary word of kingdom aspiration, but I still needed a more complete grammar of faith, one that could capture the wider scope of the gospel’s good news—even (and maybe especially) a vision of the life of the world to come.

Eventually, I arrived at the promise of with.

 

The “With God” Life

To suggest that with is a critical preposition of the grammar of faith is to remember that the whole story of salvation heads in the direction of Revelation 21:3: “The dwelling place of God is with man” (ESV, emphasis added). God put Jesus forward to be sacrificed not simply as a kind of impassive, cold acquittal of sin but as an avowed act of love—He, the husband; His church, the bride. In eternity, what will stretch on, day without end, is our communion with God.

To receive the gift of salvation is to receive its Giver, taking Him up on His eternal offer of company.

Author John Ortberg speaks often of the “with God” life, a description that is less about what we take from God or do for God and much more about the friendship we enjoy with Him—a friendship purposed from the very beginning. The “with God” life represents the theme of the biblical story, which begins in a garden, then begins anew in a city. Even with all that salvation has saved us from and all the good works we’re meant to be zealous for, with represents the beating heart of the gospel. God has longed to be with His people and to share His table with them. To receive the gift of salvation is to receive its Giver, taking Him up on His eternal offer of company.

In the garden, Adam and Eve were God’s first dinner guests, invited to eat of all the bounty that He’d provided them. The earth was humanity’s home, and the earth was filled with God’s presence. God was not distant or removed from His people but with them, His footfalls sounding His approach, His breath fogging in morning conversation. Scholars have noted the difference between the creation story of Genesis and creation myths like the Enuma Elish. In A Dictionary of Creation Myths by David and Margaret Leeming, they note, “As in the Enuma Elish, humans in Genesis are created from clay, and man works for God. He tends the garden and names the plants and animals, but unlike in the Enuma Elish, God creates a paradise specifically for man, has a relationship with him, and treats him as a kind of god.” Our shared likeness with God makes possible our shared life. (See Psalm 82:6; John 10:31-39; 2 Peter 1:3-5.)

Tragically, humanity’s feasting with God was brought to an abrupt end when His guests took up another dinner invitation. They preferred to be like God rather than to be with God. But God did not abandon His longing for friendship with His people. He took a man called Abram from his home and led him to a land of blessing, giving him a binding promise: “My covenant is with you, and you will be the father of a multitude of nations (Gen. 17:4, emphasis added). Many centuries later, that man became a nation whom God eventually led out of Egyptian slavery, promising to be with them as He had with Abraham. After the Exodus, when God’s fury blazed up over the people’s idolatrous worship of the golden calf in the wilderness and He threatened to give them the Promised Land but withdraw His presence, Moses interceded with emphatic insistence: “If Your presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here. For how then can it be known that I have found favor in Your sight, I and Your people? Is it not by Your going with us, so that we, I and Your people, may be distinguished from all the other people who are upon the face of the earth?” (Ex. 33:15-16). Moses knew that any gift apart from the Giver was no gift at all.

God answered Moses’ prayer in the sweltering heat of the desert, mercifully choosing to travel with His sinful people in the cloud that hung over the tabernacle. When the people finally established themselves in Canaan, God took up symbolic residence with His people in the glorious temple Solomon built for Him. And though everyone knew it was not big enough to contain Him, the temple stood as the unassailable promise of God’s presence. Because this is what it meant to be God’s people—that He was never far; that despite His people’s chronic treacheries, He would always be with.

Tragically, the sin of God’s people would prove intractable, and like Adam and Eve, they would again suffer an estrangement from God as a consequence. Solomon’s temple would crumble and burn, and in the centuries that followed, as the prophets testified, God’s people wondered about Him, wondered about His with-ness. How long? they asked, straining for the confirmation of God’s nearness. After four silent centuries between the Old and New Testaments, as if to answer by dramatic thunderclap, God clothed His own Son with flesh and called Him Immanuel: “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). Jesus walked among the diseased, the demon-possessed, and the dying, and men and women reached to touch the hem of His robe. God could have come no nearer. And after Jesus was crucified and resurrected, He assured His disciples that even in His own physical absence, the divine promise of with-ness would endure: “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).

That’s the with-ness we enjoy today and will continue enjoying as time unfurls endlessly in the life to come.

Though we’ve proven ourselves partial to the gifts over the Giver, the biblical story assures us God has not given up on that dinner invitation offered to our first human parents. As Jesus would tell it in one of His parables, the voice of God rings insistently throughout the universe: “Go out to the highways and along the hedges, and compel them to come in, so that my house may be filled” (Luke 14:23). God is always looking to bring people into the circle of His own triune love. All He has delivered us from and for has been for a singular purpose: to be with us.

This is the eternal grammar of faith.

 

Vines and Branches

For many summers, we’ve been traveling to a family camp in upstate New York with two other families. As our minivan enters Adirondack Park, our cell connection grows weaker and weaker, and our ties to the outside world start to fray. By the time we arrive at the entrance of the camp, sunlight glinting off the lake, we are gratefully severed from the responsibilities that drive us mercilessly hard the rest of the year. For the period of a week, each day ends around a roaring fire and unhurried conversation, time gaining elasticity, even near-boundlessness. Our only invitation will be to keep company with each other and deepen the relationships that have already logged so many miles.

 

When I think of the with-ness of eternity, I wonder if it will feel like that week—when there is nothing to hurry after except the pleasures of knowing God and being known by Him.

Though if I’m honest, with is the most difficult preposition for me in my life with God. with, for all of its unhurried slowness, does not suggest the purposeful stride of from and for. Truthfully, I seem more to recognize myself when I keep myself busy, get things done, and check to-dos off my list, impressing God with the efficiency and productivity of my days. Spiritual life can become a long list of buzzing reminders—things to do, rather than company to keep. I get things done—prayer, ministry, service, study—but prepositionally, I’m often forgetting the nearness of God, the never-farness, the with-ness. I forget that spiritual power and peace derive first and foremost from the “with God” life, which as the apostle John wrote, is eternal life begun even now (John 17:3).

When Jesus compared our communion with Him to a branch’s connection to the vine, He was talking about the importance of being with God. In John 15, what’s clear is that branches have just one simple job, that of staying put. “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (John 15:4 ESV). It is not possible to live for God without living with God, even in God. Every branch that is outwardly producing is a branch that is inwardly nourished. In other words, Jesus does not command the branch to tend to the fruit but to tend to the root. And to the right prepositions.

All God has delivered us from and for has been for a singular purpose: to be with us.

The attention we pay in our spiritual lives must be to the health and strength of our connection to God. Most practically, this looks like arranging our days to be with God before we ever plan to do for God. God does not need my frantic activity on behalf of His kingdom, no matter how much that convinces others that I am to be admired, even imitated. God wants to be my first thought when the alarm rings and He wakes me to the mercies of a new day. “Good morning,” I will say to Him, groggy and grateful, before I pad softly to the kitchen and turn on the kettle. I will scan the headlines and remember His never-farness, His promise of with-ness. As I groan at the brokenness of the human condition, I will echo back to Him the words of Psalm 82: “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute” (ESV). A copy of the Scriptures open on my desk, I will begin my day with God, casting the cares of this world and my own small life into His great big hands.

By noon, of course, I will have strayed like a lost sheep, the call of the “with God” life sounding weak and faint in the laundry heap of the day’s urgencies. But I will try taking up the right preposition again, being reminded, as apostle Paul preached, that it’s in God that we live and move and have our being.

And by nightfall, as I lay down and close my eyes, I pray I’ll remember that before the foundation of the world, with is the preposition God set into motion by His grace—a promise He means to keep for eternity. A promise we will rise to see with our own eyes.

 

Illustrations by Emma Leonard

Related Topics:  Intimacy with God

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What happens to my notes

9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.

14 who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.

3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them,

6 I said, You are gods, And all of you are sons of the Most High.

31 The Jews picked up stones again to stone Him.

32 Jesus answered them, I showed you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you stoning Me?"

33 The Jews answered Him, For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God."

34 Jesus answered them, Has it not been written in your Law, `I SAID, YOU ARE GODS'?

35 If he called them gods, to whom the word of God came (and the Scripture cannot be broken),

36 do you say of Him, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, `You are blaspheming,' because I said, `I am the Son of God'?

37 If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me;

38 but if I do them, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me, and I in the Father."

39 Therefore they were seeking again to seize Him, and He eluded their grasp.

3 seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.

4 For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust.

5 Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge,

4 As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, And you will be the father of a multitude of nations.

15 Then he said to Him, If Your presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here.

16 For how then can it be known that I have found favor in Your sight, I and Your people? Is it not by Your going with us, so that we, I and Your people, may be distinguished from all the other people who are upon the face of the earth?"

23 BEHOLD, THE VIRGIN SHALL BE WITH CHILD AND SHALL BEAR A SON, AND THEY SHALL CALL HIS NAME IMMANUEL," which translated means, GOD WITH US."

20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."

23 And the master said to the slave, `Go out into the highways and along the hedges, and compel them to come in, so that my house may be filled.

3 This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.

4 Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.

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