“Incline”. Whenever I hear that word I remember the hill behind my high school that we were sometimes forced to run. Sprint to the top, jog to the bottom, repeat. Don’t stop until you hear the whistle blow. The heat of the day sapping you of your strength as the sweat rolled down your face. Your legs aching as you put forth the effort to fight gravity and conquer the hill. Fifteen years later, I’ve swapped the hill for a home treadmill but the incline hasn’t gone away. As I go through my workout, I push myself harder and harder not merely by increasing the speed but increasing the incline. An incline, in its relation to exercise, requires work and effort. You have to work to achieve the end result; you have to fight against gravity and the slope to reach the finish line. And so naturally, when I read a verse like Psalm 119:36, my mind immediately shifts back to a hot September day out on the hill.
“Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain!” –Psalm 119:36 (ESV)
In the midst of this psalm gushing out about an overwhelming love and devotion to the Lord and His Word, the psalmist implores people to incline their heart to the Word (to God’s commandments and testimonies) and not towards their own selfish gain. I read that and my initial thought may be something like, “Alright, it’s time to do work. It’s time to buckle down and put in the effort to make sure my focus is on God’s Word and not selfish gain. Time to start going to church more, time to start serving the poor and underprivileged more, time to earn my keep.” And yet, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
The gospel message is not a gospel of works but a gospel of grace; it’s about the atonement and the accomplished work of Jesus Christ.
And if I’m not careful I can read this verse, or others like it, and assume that it’s up to me to do the heavy lifting; that I’ve got to pull myself up and incline my heart. But to do so would fall into the very trap that the psalmist cries out against; to do so would indeed end up focusing on my own selfish gain. It would lead to the pride of saying, “Look at me and how I’ve changed my heart and my mind and my focus to be solely on God’s Word.”
So how might we incline our hearts unto the Lord? Surprisingly, I think it has less to do with our effort and more to do with our rest. We have to rest in the finished work of Jesus Christ. We have to lay ourselves in the presence of our Savior and His atoning work through the Cross and resurrection. The inclination of our hearts (as well as our minds and our actions) flows from the work of Jesus and not the effort of ourselves. While our response to the gospel leads us to doing good works (see Ephesians 2:1-10, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, and James 2 among others for examples) ultimately the inclination of our hearts occurs when we rest in the Word, when we rest in the gospel, when we rest in Christ. This is a contrary idea to our society today; this is a novel concept to a world that says you have to fight for what you want. And yet the message of the Cross reminds us that it’s not about our efforts; the cause of Christ compels us not to work in vain. Christian, quit striving to earn your salvation. Quit aiming to conquer this life by your own strength and determination. Instead, wait on the Lord. Dive deep and richly into His Word. Find your relief in the thirst-quenching water of Jesus. And He will incline your heart to His ways.