12 Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account. (Heb. 4:12-13)
This is one of those passages that is quoted quite regularly, especially by red and sweaty preachers, and has a tendency to make many biblical scholars cringe, at least a bit. It smacks too much of God as a the omniscient nanny, who can see all and will tattle when we get the least bit out of line. I certainly grew up with this sense that God sees and knows everything I do and, to tell the truth, I still believe this to be true. Otherwise, he wouldn’t quite be God, would he? But there are two themes in these verses, the word of God as a sharp sword and God’s knowledge of ourselves.
Scripture, to the author of Hebrews, is clearly what we today know as the Old Testament or Tanakh. But he has just finished citing extensively the Psalms and specifically speaking about God’s challenge to Israel to heed God’s voice “today” and not enter into rebellion. So I think in this case “the word of God,” while it may be Scripture in general and God’s law specifically, it is simply God’s voice. Whenever God calls to his people they are to heed his voice and be obedient. The challenge here, of course, is that if this is something other than the written text, how are we to know what is God’s word? And furthermore, how does this word “judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart”?
When we believe we are being nudged and guided by God I believe we must also compare these feelings and directions with what we do have as written Scripture. As most of you know, the Episcopal Church is going through much of this sort of searching right now, but it is nothing new. God continues to work through his church (universal) continually as we continue to live and grow. The key is to hear God’s voice within the context of his full revelation to us. We cannot simply take what we hear today as the full and complete (and last!) word on any given matter, but rather we must prayerfully consider it within the fuller context.
After all, his word is living and active and I think that is how it is able to be so sharp and piercing. God’s word continues to speak to us and challenge us to consider our motives and our actions. Are we changing our views and behavior because it is God’s voice we are heeding or is it because we simply choose a different path? Are we motivated by obedience to God or by our own internal desires? Because no matter how “noble” our desires may be, not wanting to hurt someone or wanting to make the Gospel more palatable to them, if it is not inline with God’s word, it will not be acceptable to him. (Remember Israel’s response to the spies in Num. 14.)
And so we are at our very core laid bare before God. He knows not just what we have done or even what we believe, but why we are motivated in this way, what our true desires are. And this has come to mean to me the great mercy of God. He does indeed know our thoughts and intentions of the heart and he will judge us accordingly. Even, I believe, if we get some things wrong, but are motivated out of obedience to him.
As Paul wrote to the Romans,
15 They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them 16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all. (Rom. 2:15-16)