As a teenager, I discovered in classes like algebra and Latin that I could do well on tests without doing the homework. In college, I tested out of enough classes that I graduated a year early. As I review my life, I want to give my younger self some sage words of advice based on my experiences. My experiences in Latin and algebra differed somewhat. In both, my test scores were the best in my class, but my grades were not, because I was not doing the homework assignments. The algebra teacher would not budge on her insistence that it was not fair to other students to exempt me from homework, but after twelve weeks, gave me a path to redemption – completing all eighteen weeks of homework in the final six weeks of the semester. I tackled the arduous challenge and achieved the goal. My more mature self wishes that my younger self had taken that lesson to heart – do the homework. Innate intelligence and natural ability do not always suffice – careful study and hard practice are keys to success.
In regard to this, I would also advise teenage Michael to read and meditate on Psalm 119:33-40. The Psalmist prays for understanding and instruction. He wants direction; he fears disgrace. He prays:
“Teach me, LORD, the way of your decrees, that I may follow it to the end. Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law and obey it with all my heart. Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight” (Psalm 119:33-35).
As he prays, he discloses his awareness that some choices distract from achieving his goal of pleasing God. Focusing on swift satisfaction and pleasure may close doors to enduring achievement and the sense of work well done. Chasing after metaphorical squirrels may give momentary pleasure, but only increase frustration when trivial pursuits don’t result in wisdom. His prayer continues,
“Turn my heart toward your statutes and not toward selfish gain. Turn my eyes away from worthless things; preserve my life according to your word” (Psalm 119:36-37).
In my thirties, I was commissioned as an Army officer and suddenly had to meet a standard in an area where I had less skill – running. I realized soon that I had to run farther and more frequently for practice than other soldiers whom I knew if I were to pass the required physical fitness test. In my sixties, I take more notes when reading than ever before, because a formerly almost photographic memory sometimes betrays me. I have learned that “doing homework” lays foundations on which I can build in the future.
The prayer of the Psalmist ends with a realization that I too have learned: Laws and commands that seem irksome and unnecessary in fact contribute to longer and more enjoyable life. Focus, direction, and discipline in spiritual matters produce benefits in all areas of life. As the Psalmist implies with his prayer, trust in and following the source of the laws. Awareness of his purposes develops skill in knowing how to obey the commands, in knowing why the precepts give life. He prays in anticipation of salvation and life, an anticipation he shared with the heroes of faith in Hebrews chapter 11. He prays:
“Fulfill your promise to your servant, so that you may be feared. Take away the disgrace I dread, for your laws are good. How I long for your precepts! In your righteousness preserve my life” (Psalm 119:38-40).
Awareness surfaces in the final verses of the prayer. The purpose of life is glorifying God and living out his righteousness. Because God is righteous, he keeps his promises. So we pray with the Psalmist that God will give us understanding, that he will direct us, that he will turn our hearts towards himself and his will. I would remind my teenage self also that the verses that follow the recounting of the faith heroes’ search for an enduring city teach us to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, and that God disciplines those whom he loves, so that his discipline may produce “a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:1-8).
- Quotes from the Bible are from the New International Version 2011.
O God who creates and who loves, we thank you for skills you have given us and the ability to learn from our experiences. We pray that we may understand the lessons that we learn and may implement them in ways that please you and glorify you. We pray for our children and our grandchildren, that they too may learn from your love and grow in understanding of your will. Shield us from the bitterness that accompanies disappointment. Grant us the wisdom to discern what is worthless and a distraction from your will for our lives. May we keep our focus on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, in whose name we pray, amen.