We Have a Law
I just read an article that really resonated with me about issues involved with a need to be right. It resonates because I was brought up with this very perspective, that being right far outweighed anything else. To be more compassionate or loving was always secondary, subordinated to first being right. If I did not believe the right doctrines and do the right things, then it mattered little how kind I was, for God's highest priority from our narrow view, was knowing the right answers and to keep the rules.
In a context of religious fever for 'having the truth,' a relationship with God meant aligning our beliefs and behavior to follow exactly what was taught by reliable instructors practiced in religion and experts who could line up Bible verses and inspired quotations to prove what was right (1 Thess. 5:21). With sufficient proofs in place, questions were tolerated at best but discouraged much of the time. To raise questions about reasons for obedience was to invite being viewed as rebellious with a label as 'insubordinate to authority,' something that became attached my name. Internally I lived in constant fear of punishment from an offended God who relied on fear as an effective means to keep me pursuing a life of holiness before Him so as to bring honor to His name.
After years of chaffing under this galling system, God began to weaken the thick walls of fear and shame that had been used to isolate me from all joy, true love and peace. These were foreign emotions that eluded me for many years as they would undermine a life of stern discipline required for a 'true Christian.' Bible admonitions about joy and descriptions of people filled with the Holy Spirit strangely felt out of place for a life of holiness and always being right, but I could not dwell on these discrepancies for very long because of the dissonance it created for me within and without.
But dissonance is often what God uses to alert us that something is tragically missing in our life. My soul and heart increasingly yearned for something much deeper, more satisfying that simply blind obedience to authority and a perfection the way it was defined by my world. Everything was all about performance, about believing the right things and knowing the right answers (to questions I seldom thought to ask to start with) and eliminating every 'sin' from my life so Jesus would save me in the end.
Life turned into a competition between God and me, a tussle where I was expected to get all my ducks in row and figure out how to borrow power from God to force myself to be good so as to obey every rule imposed on me in order to achieve perfect obedience in every detail. I came to subconsciously feel that God was my enemy who always had an advantage of knowing everything about me, particularly my faults, while I was left groping to recall any possible forgotten sin from my past that might suddenly confront me in the day of judgment and give God a loophole He could use to bar me from entrance into His perfect paradise.
As would be expected, my heart came to secretly despise such a despotic God. Yet my terror of Him was so deep that I dared not even admit to myself that I harbored such thoughts lest the guilt of added insubordination only lengthen my imposed punishment by Him in hell. So while being right was everything, it made loving God and others seem impossibly out of reach even though these were also part of the many requirements demanded of me to perform in order to become acceptable in His sight.
My life was increasingly consumed with penance, guilt, fear and frequent groveling before God, begging for a forgiveness that always seemed just out of reach. It was clear I did not have enough faith, yet faith became just another demand to be attained as I was driven to try harder and harder to expunge any lingering doubts from my thoughts, imagining that the absence of doubt constituted strong faith. Like trying very hard not to think of an elephant for 24 hours in order to win a million dollar prize, my attempts to eliminate all doubt from my mind in the face of such demands could never quite be reached. As a result, part of me came to resent God along with the authorities who represented Him and who enforced His rules on me (along with a great many more of their own devising). Yet the ever increasing guilt piling up from this deepening resentment usually drove me to even more desperate efforts to appease this God who had put me in this world. My life began to feel like torture similar to a schizophrenic, or what James calls a double-minded man unstable in all his ways. Of course that passage also only added to my guilt as it described a person who does not have enough faith.
Looking back on the misery I lived under for so many years in this endless and vicious cycle of fear, guilt and shame as the basis for how to relate to God, still amazes me in some ways. I can now see how God began to insert doubts into my mind about the validity of this vicious cycle rooted in always being right as the most important thing in life. I came to discover that questions were something that God enjoys and invites, not something that threatens His power and authority like they did for so many others. I sensed God inviting me to ask Him the tough questions I had about religion that nobody else would tolerate, and as I timidly began challenging some of the discrepancies I saw in Scripture, He began to instruct me directly and I began to see how much of what I had assumed was true was really an ugly, distorted mirage. The face of an angry, constantly offended deity incessantly looking for loopholes to keep me from enjoying life was actually a satanic image of God that had blocked me from glimpsing a God very different from that, One who was longing to draw me into an intimate relationship of openness, respect and love that I had never imagined could be true.
As I matured, I came to choose the more difficult path of staying connected with religion rather than throwing everything out and plunging into a hedonistic lifestyle to look for relief in the 'pleasures of sin' like so many around me appeared to be doing, Instead I took on the task of trying to sort out from the inside what others might see more obviously from the outside. Fear of both God and the devil compelled me to play it safe until things might make enough sense and better truth might emerge. Yes, I chose a life of playing it safe, and maybe at the expense of experiencing joy in sharing life with others. But fear has a way of doing that, robbing us of the very thing we long for the most.
Was this the right path for me to take? Well, maybe that question belies the underlying penchant of being right as more important than experiencing love. And while 'free love' has often masqueraded as a panacea to solve the problem of legalism, it too has a poor track record in the lives of many around me who tried that venue. So I found myself on the path of seeking and sorting, that still seems to be the harder way forward, seeing if it is possible to discover what is right while at the same time trying to discover the much better path of love so I can switch over to it with less damage to my soul.
But let your desires be turned to the more important things given by the Spirit. And now I am pointing out to you an even better way. (1 Corinthians 12:31 BBE) The better way of love.
I clearly recall the reaction I encountered from my father when I sent him a book entitled, 'Unconditional Love.' He immediately commented that all this nonsense about a need to have a relationship with God was simply a heresy creeping into the church. I was puzzled at his response at first, but as I reflected on it I began to realize why I felt so unsatisfied all my life. I had been long secretly been trying to earn my father's approval and affection but could never achieve a sufficient level of perfection required for him to release what I so craved. The effect of this was that I had always viewed God in the same way, One who was always dangling a carrot of approval and acceptance just beyond my reach as the motivation for me to keep trying harder, to strive toward perfection until some elusive day when I might earn enough merit to finally be accepted. Yet time only proven that this tactic only results in disillusionment, resentment and even hatred toward those who use such manipulation in place of unconditional love and acceptance. Yet realizing this fact did little to undo the many years of internal damage caused to the way my brain is now wired to think, perceive life and relate to others.
As I woke up this morning I sensed God placing a verse in my imagination to ponder the deeper implications. I love it when the Spirit awakens me with a new thought, a new insight and an invitation to spend intimate time in His presence letting Him teach me directly. This is so different from the years of my compulsive need to only be right. Yes, I still want to be right, but I am coming to see that being right is not so much about facts as about an issue of priorities. It is not wrong to look for love, acceptance and relief from the torture of guilt and shame as I often imagined. I now see that 'right' is to make it a higher priority to experience intimate relationship with God ahead of just being right factually.
To my amazement I discovered that it is not offensive to God for me to make mistakes anymore than it should be offensive to a loving parent to see their baby fall down repeatedly while learning to walk. In this kind of loving relationship, mistakes are often opportunities for celebration rather than censure, when the mature person in the relationship sees that a child is making progress even while experiencing pain. They want what is best for the child, but they also know that this usually involves learning many things the hard way. Yet mistakes in this context do not threaten the constant, unconditional love of the parent for their child. Love is a far higher priority than that a child only do everything 'right.'
This all was brought back into focus for me this morning by the verse that was brought to my attention.
The Jews answered him, "We have a law, and by our law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God." (John 19:7)
I grew up under the strict rule of law. In addition, the country I live in prides itself that it operates by the rule of law. Law is often elevated to be more important than anything else, even God so far as the many have come to believe. Most Christians assume that God demands that everyone obey the laws of their country as well as all His laws, and to question such blind obedience is viewed an act of rebellion against authority. Being right means keeping the law unquestioningly, and to ignore the law or to imagine that anything might supersede the law is considered a rebellion deserving punishment.
Yet I am discovering that this is the very crux of the huge difference between how God operates and how we control activity here on earth. Christians or otherwise, most people presume that obedience to the rules is the highest priority that must be enforced to successfully hold any society together. I am not suggesting that ignoring rules is the only alternative to legalism, but what I am starting to see more clearly is that when rule-keeping is the highest priority in a person's life, it will ultimately produce similar results to what happened in my life growing up. The effect of being right as our highest priority in place of what God insists is most important results in disaster as far as our heart is concerned. And I now see that God is more keen to win my heart than compel my obedience, believe it or not. In fact, He refuses to compel anyone to obey, for to do so is to destroy the very capacity to love for which they were designed.
Does this mean obedience to rules is only optional? Well, that question is so loaded to begin with that it must be dealt with very cautiously lest the false presumptions turn into harsh judgments. What I am starting to see is that making rules higher priority than healthy relationships will result in making us very much like the meticulously rule-keeping Jews when they found it necessary to have God tortured to death because He was breaking the very rules that ironically He had given to them originally.
What was the reason Jewish leaders used to have Jesus handed over to be crucified by the Roman authorities? It was a law handed down by Moses concerning anyone who blasphemed the name of God.
He who blasphemes the name of Yahweh, he shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall certainly stone him: the foreigner as well as the native-born, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death. (Leviticus 24:16)
But the prophet, who shall speak a word presumptuously in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or who shall speak in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die. (Deuteronomy 18:20)
If our reaction to this is to insist that Jesus was an exception because He actually was God, then we position ourselves as still making the law a higher priority than love and relationships. This is not at all to suggest that there are no underlying principles that govern reality. Yet our system of artificial law with artificially imposed punishments to enforce them is not the system God relies on to maintain order and cohesiveness in His government like it is in ours. That is the main point that must not be ignored.
It is easy to dismiss this truth by simply blaming the Jews for not accepting that Jesus was truly the Son of God as He claimed to be. To make this mistake is to remain trapped in the same mentality that the Jews found themselves in, insisting that keeping the law trumped every other consideration.
Was the real mistake of the Jews the fact that they refused to accept Jesus' claims to be God, or was it much deeper, in a reliance on law-keeping as the definition of what it means to be 'right?' This has potential disturbing reverberations for many today, for to question law as the ultimate priority in life still carries with it the potential to be labeled as rebellious and deserving punishment. Remember that the Jews were so zealous to be accepted by God by being right and keeping the rules that they believed it was better to allow an innocent man to die rather than risk the punishment of God. They were the chosen ones entrusted with enforcing the laws given to them by God. They felt it their duty to enforce God's laws because law was what was most important, and to fail to honor God by enforcing His rules against a mere man claiming to be God would certainly incur severe punishment from Him on themselves the way they saw it. Such is the effect of elevating law as the highest priority.
If we find ourselves squirming in discomfort at this line of reasoning and preferring to blame the Jews for their unbelief that Jesus was really God as being the real problem in this story, then it just might be that we little different than they were and as such are also in danger of making similar mistakes as did they. In their minds there simply was not enough evidence proving beyond a doubt that this man was God as He claimed to be, especially when He refused repeatedly to perform miracles on demand to provide proof of His assertions. They even gave Him opportunity during His trial to defend His claim by providing proof of His divinity, yet what they failed to realize was that the very standard of measure itself they were relying on to define what divinity means was itself faulty. Their settled picture of what God must be like was so filled with legality and shaped by the economics of reward and punishment that the kind of God this Man offered to them was clearly at odds with the God that they had firmly established and was accepted by the vast majority.
Has much changed since then? We still resist accepting any conviction that our firm beliefs about God may be very different from the God that Jesus came to reveal. Many prefer the apparently stern, harsh, punishing and even genocidal god of the Old Testament as being closer to the real truth about God than how Jesus portrayed Him to be. Others cling to schizophrenic views of God, one relating to humanity very differently before Jesus came than afterwards. We struggle to reconcile the angry, vengeful, quick-to-punish God as portrayed in ancient times with an apparently weak and wimpy version that Jesus seemed to demonstrate. So to improve on it, we want to focus intently on what we imagine to be glimpses into the dark side of God, as in when Jesus seemed to affirm our suspicions while cleansing the temple or cursing the fig tree or rebuking hard-hearted Pharisees.
In short, we find a God who does not make rule-keeping the highest priority as a God unacceptable for us to believe. Unless God plans to reward the good and punish the law-breakers, we can't believe He is worthy of our respect or worship, and certainly not honor. We believe honor belongs to military heroes, those who employ violence to defend us and follow commands without question. So unless God strictly uphold the rules and is ready to inflict deserved retribution the way we believe must happen, then we will prefer to worship a god more to our liking, more like our image, a god who governs by law like what we believe is supported in the writings from Old Testament authors.
Does this mean the Old Testament version of God is a completely different God than Jesus? Not at all. But unless we are first willing to accept the testimony given in Hebrews 1:1-3 we will find it difficult to reconcile ourselves with the truth about God as revealed in Jesus Christ. We will want to embellish the witness of Jesus by adding generous doses of Old Testament versions of God to offset the apparently incomplete picture that Jesus brought. But indulge in such activity is to deny the clear testimony of both Jesus and those who testified to the truth about Him soon after He left. It is denial that in fact Jesus really is the only reliable and complete revelation of the truth that has the only power to expose and defeat all the lies that darken our thinking and keeps sin in power in our lives.
The Jews believed in the supremacy of law more than anything else as God's way to maintain control over His subjects and to define right and wrong. John referenced this problem when he penned these words, For the law was given through Moses. Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (John 1:17)
This clearly presents a distinction between a mindset based on law and law-keeping as the ultimate priority and a motivation based on an appreciation of the way God actually designed us to live – in the atmosphere of grace and truth. This has been what God has been leading me to discover for much of my life now, and yet it still seems too good to be true at times. But as I choose to embrace this truth, that law is not the most important thing in life and that love trumps everything else, He is showing me that His laws are in fact the natural principles that undergird reality and creation and have no need of external enforcement. And more importantly, all these principles/natural laws are also completely in harmony with love – the over-arching principle of life itself.
This is why making love a higher priority than law-keeping never detracts from true law but actually validates and satisfies it as strange as it may seem. This is why Jesus could say He did not come to do away with the law (Mt. 5:17) but to fulfill it. Fulfilling God's law means living with love as our highest priority, a life which the law can only describe but cannot produce. Thus love, not blind obedience to law, actually results in the fulfilling of the law (Rom. 13:10).
If I reject the revelation of God as Jesus brings to my attention, a God of nothing but love, light and truth, then the only alternative is to embrace something inferior which often is the tyranny of law. As Paul spent so much time trying to explain, the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:6)
To make law supreme is to snuff out love, for the law of God only describes the effects of love, it cannot generate or supply love. A focus on law-keeping will always eclipse the God who is love and result in death sooner or later. This is what Paul called the ministry of death (2 Corinthians 3:7), for anything that is given higher priority than living in God's love for us cuts us off from the only Source of life that exists.
We are designed to live and thrive in love. When we do this and embrace the revelation of God that Jesus brought to us, we come alive and love both heals us and flows through us to others. This is the only priority that brings life to the soul and results in perfect obedience. What the law is helpless to accomplish, the Spirit produces readily when allowed access to the heart. This is the true righteousness of Christ, being right in the right way, connected at the heart to the One who is always right, good, true and is the very embodiment of love.
There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who don't walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus made me free from the law of sin and of death. For what the law couldn't do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God did, sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh; that the ordinance of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. (Romans 8:1-4)