The Voice of the Law in the Beep of an iPhone

Luther and Gerhard Forde on our Daily Anxiety

Jason Thompson / 5.19.21

If you’re anything like me, you love getting the final word in an argument, having the last say on a matter, or coming up with a witty retort when engaging in a struggle of wills. As gratifying as this can be (numerous scriptures on deference notwithstanding), we find ironically that life has a way of getting a “final word” on us. Incidentally, there are many areas of life in which we meet a “final word,” such as an unfortunate diagnosis, an eviction notice, a negative account balance, etc. 

But sometimes we encounter this verdict under less dramatic circumstances. Having worked remotely for a little over a year now, I’ve inadvertently trained my ear to distinguish between the sounds of various notifications governing my work world. There’s the calendar app reminding me of an upcoming meeting, then there’s the alert informing me that I have a new LinkedIn connection. More salient are the iPhone dings and Outlook pings letting me know I have a new inbox message or text — typically from the supervisor. 

When I initially hear the sound, a pang of terror usually courses through me as I reason, This can only mean one of two or three things. It could be the boss managing information or congratulating me on a “job well done” with respect to a report or a pertinent assignment. Or it could be that I’m in trouble in some capacity: my work has been scrutinized and found less than satisfactory; I have been careless in some matter of protocol … again; I have missed a critical deadline creating inefficiency for the rest of the team.

My Adamic instincts always assume that it is the latter, and rarely-to-never do I automatically expect to hear good news when I’m summoned. At such moments, I can literally feel the double-edged blade of God’s word tearing through my joints and marrow, exposing the insecure motives of my heart, leaving me stripped, wounded, and naked in its unrelenting devastation (cf. Heb 4:12). Maybe it’s not that extreme, but still, this daily agony calls to mind what I believe is a very familiar passage for many of us. In considering Martin Luther’s view of the law, its uses, and “how we hear it” in daily life, Gerhard Forde had this to say:

The law for Luther was understood in a much more concrete, actual, and dynamic sense. In its theological “use” law should be understood as a concrete and actual “voice” which “sounds in the heart” and the “conscience,” a real voice which afflicts man in his isolation from God and demands that he fulfill his humanity.

This “voice,” for Luther, can and does arise from anywhere and everywhere. It is not limited merely to what one might call the sphere of morality. When man is separated from God, anything and everything can betray him. The “voice,” for instance, can arise from something as simple as the sudden rustling of leaves in the forest. In an interesting section of his Lectures on Genesis (3:8), Luther suggests that what terrified Adam and Eve in the garden and caused them to hide was simply the rustling of the leaves in the evening breeze. After the conscience has been smitten, after one has been cut off from God, any little thing becomes a potential source of “the voice.” The rustling of leaves on a dark night in a strange place frightens us because, I suppose we could say, we do not have life in ourselves and something — anything — “out there” can take it from us. Or the voice could arise from something much more dramatic like a bolt of lightning or more tragic like an accident. More unmistakably it arises from the demands which society makes of us, the demands of family and friends and the voices and faces of suffering humanity. It arises also from the inevitability of death, the fact that life is precarious and fleeting. And above all it is the command of God that we must love Him with all our heart and our neighbor as ourselves. And most particularly, the voice of the law reaches its climactic crescendo in the preaching of the cross […] 

[For Luther], the law is not merely a set of commandments, not a list of requirements that could be disposed of merely by doing a few things and checking them off. The law is that immediate and actual voice arising from the sum total of human experience “in this age,” up to and including the cross, a voice which will not stop until our humanity is fulfilled. (Where God Meets Man, p. 14-15)

I never think my work is enough. There have literally been moments when I have drafted, read, and then re-read an email 4 or 5 times, all while muttering to myself, This could be my death, as I reluctantly hit send. I immediately fear that I may have missed some meticulous detail or forgotten some nuanced piece of information, hence landing myself on the wrong side of things between me and the boss.

While seeing the supervisor’s name in the From: line in an email or on your iPhone caller ID may provoke fear and uncertainty, we can take courage knowing our heavenly Father’s disposition toward us “does not change like shifting shadows” (Jas 1:17). As children of God, we never have to worry what the final word is concerning us.

God doesn’t ding our phones with performance assessments or vague “checking in” emails. In the gospel, he calls us directly, simply to hear our voice and tell us he loves us. Regardless of our performance, deadlines we may have missed, assignments we may or may not have completed, or projects we might have left undone, we are hidden in Christ, in whom all the promises of God are yes and amen.

Featured image via Miriam Anzovin.