Theology for the Pandemic
Like many people, I haven’t set foot in a gym for seven months. I had gotten into the habit of going to the gym rather than running outside largely because pushing a double stroller on a run is miserable. But where Covid has taken away, it has also given. Leaving the blaring TVs and machines at the gym behind, running outdoors has reawakened a love for the Lord that going to the gym had dulled.
At some point in college I stumbled across Psalm 119:32; “I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free.” Running the bluffs in Iowa, this verse became a mantra that would come to mind when my breath got short and legs wore out.
I run the path of your commands for you have set me free. With a literal path unfolding before my feet, running became a place of worship and prayer, a time to be quiet in the woods, soaking in the beauty of trees and streams and limestone bluffs. Running felt like freedom for me, and the Lord was meeting me on those trails, reminding me of his presence and promises, and becoming a faithful friend as I poured out my heart to him. Two years into raising twins, I was beginning to forget the joy of running and opportunity for intimacy with Christ that time on a trail produced.
But as I have gotten back into running, these words have challenged me in a new way. A literal translation is, “Whenever you widened my heart, the way of your commandments I ran.” What does a widened or free heart look like? What does it mean to run in the path of God’s commandments? Though running makes me feel free, obeying commandments can often feel like the opposite of freedom. Our culture tells us that to be a free individual, perfectly authentic to your true self, we must cast off any rules that might inhibit us. But on the other hand, most Christians will find themselves at some point thinking that their freedom comes from how good they are or how well they keep the rules. But this verse rings in my ears asking me to consider more deeply the widened heart that God gives and the freedom that God gives his people as they run the path of his commandments.
A Widened Heart
The concept of a widened or expanded heart occurs in a few other places that help us to understand what it means. Isaiah says that Israel’s hearts will be widened when they see God’s glory revealed and every nation proclaims Yahweh as Lord (Is 60:5). When Solomon became King of Israel he asked God for wisdom and God gave Solomon “wisdom and very great insight and a breadth of understanding (the same language as a widened-heart)” so that he could rule Israel in a godly way (1 Kgs 4:29). Paul says that his heart is wide open because of the power of the Holy Spirit at work in him, and he desires that the Lord would widen the hearts of the Corinthian church as well (2 Cor 6:1-13). God opens our hearts so that we can love him more and do his will.
One of my favorite things about running is being outdoors and seeing the splendor of God’s creation: vast skies, mountain vistas, dense woods. Running provides the quickest entry point for me to stand in awe of God’s glory. But running and spending time in prayer while I run also propels me back into my day with a deeper resolve to follow the Lord. I find myself back at home, stretching and thanking the Lord for his goodness and also that he has once again reoriented my heart to desire him and know him. This is what it means to have a widened heart; a heart that God has broadened to love him more and compelled to act in his ways (run in his commandments). But God does not widen our hearts just once, he widens it again and again. This is why the literal translation is whenever you widened my heart, the way of your commandments I ran. Our God desires to widen our love for him whenever we need it, sending us out to be people who bear the image of Christ to our nieghbors.
Running with purpose
Whenever you widened my heart, the way of your commandments I ran. Running in God’s commandments is the response to a widened heart. In 1 Corinthians, Paul exhorts the church to run with purpose.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly…But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. – 1 Cor 9:24-27
Just as a serious athlete trains with the goal of winning their race, Paul argues that Christians must purposely pursue the ways of God. Jesus says that if we love him we will keep his commandments (Jn 14:15). With hearts widened to love God, we should run in the way that God says is good. Our running should be disciplined and self-controlled as we take his commands to heart, earnestly desiring to make his ways our ways.
But command-keeping can become a religion in itself. God gives us commandments so that we might know what a holy God is like, and so that we might begin to look like him as we obey his commands. But all too often, we can interpret commands and obedience as the ways that we earn God’s love. Though Paul charges us to run, to not sit back in our faith, but to pursue the things of God with discipline and zeal, our running is always in response to the widened heart that our God has given us. And more than that, we run in response to our running Father.
A Running Father
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. – Luke 15:20
In the story of the prodigal son, after the son has abandoned his father, spent his inheritance, and insulted him in the worst possible way, the son returns home hoping he might become a servant in his father’s house. But rather than shaming his son because of his disobedience, instead of being disappointed by his failures, the father ran. The father of a disobedient, small-hearted son, ran towards his child extending him the grace and forgiveness he did not deserve. In this action, this running father widened his son’s heart; he showed him love and grace. This is the heart of our Heavenly Father. A gracious God who runs towards us so that we might run the path of his commands, hearts free, knowing that we are loved.