I’ve always been a fan of lists and structure. It’s comforting and secure while offering a sense of direction for me to follow in my day to day activities. Having dos and don’ts laid out for me provide the confidence I need to carry out a task efficiently and effectively and it works out well for me to carry out a task with little help or direction. At least I thought it did, to a point.
Being a person of strict adherence to lists and structure brings about many frustrations as I sit observing the actions of other people. Some people have less respect for such direction, rules and guidelines and prefer to follow a more creative approach to handling tasks and completing projects. These people, at one time, irritated me to no end as they failed to live up to the unrealistic expectations I placed on them. These “free thinkers” brought about such anxiety for me since they displayed such disregard for the rules and proven methods of effectiveness in exchange for, what seemed to me like, a chaotic assortment of random actions where they may have accomplished the task in an “ends justify the means” fashion.
Now, let’s throw Christianity in the mix. As a young believer at the age of 16, I was drawn to God because of the simplicity of the dos and don’ts found in scripture. The ten commandments, for example, provided a straight-forward approach to what God found pleasing and acceptable and it made it easier for me to judge others when they failed to follow through with the simplest of tasks (not that I followed them perfectly). I could easily set myself above others, believers or not, because I possessed what was truly acceptable and what was not. I carried out the mindset that I would later come to despise in others.
If we were to create a list of the “villains” of the New Testament, many of us would easily put the Pharisees near the top. This was the group of religious leaders that Jesus pushed up against throughout his entire ministry so it was easy to label them as so. Their devotion to the law was so strict that they had devised thousands of things that were appropriate and not based on their interpretation of Old Testament law. Such laws included refusal of medical attention if someone fell ill or injured on the Sabbath. They truly were concerned with making sure they and the Israelite people remained pure in order to usher in the coming of the long awaited Messiah. Then Jesus comes along and confronts them constantly on their approach leaving them to question if what they had always known was truly accurate. That being said, their devotion was no small task but needed challenging as far as their attitude toward it went.
As Christians it is easy for us to get hung up on what is written in scripture in such a way that presents our faith as a list of burdens. Jesus confronts this mindset in Matthew 23 where he lays out the seven woes to the Pharisees. In this list the key focus is that of the letter of the law way that these leaders approached God's law and their own mandates. Accused of slamming the door of heaven closed in people's faces and binding burdens on people so heavy yet refusing to lift a finger to help, the Pharisees had lost their way in regards to their leadership of the people and were bringing about more suffering than healing. They were causing something that was meant to be life giving to be burdensome and life draining. It was this course of action that Jesus sought to correct.
Fast forward to the twenty first century and we see that not much has changed. Christians still struggle with finding balance between following and teaching God's edicts while presenting a gospel message that offers hope and life. Unfortunately, in an effort to find that balance, either wrath and justice get left on the cutting room floor or mercy and grace. It leaves us asking "How do we maintain God's moral integrity and relational availability without compromising the truth and severity of the Gospel message?"
The first thing we must remember is that God's law, while applicable to all humanity, was directed at God's people. Our expectations and approach towards non believers must be one of grace, respect and gentleness (1 Peter 3:15). This applies to believers as well but when it comes to people who reject God we can't expect their morals to line up with a God that they are at odds with. In the realm of believers truth should be brought forth in love and gentleness in a direct fashion (Ephesians 4:15) while for non believers rapport is goal number one while praying for God to work in their lives. They may be breaking God's commands but what is most important in those instances, along with prayer, is your continued desire to grow that relationship while they grow in relationship and understanding with God.
Secondly, understand that there are areas of gray in life even in regards to God's edicts. The loudest example is Jesus' focus on Sabbath law. He teaches on the importance of Sabbath to all that listened but focused on the reality that if your livestock falls in a ditch on that day, who wouldn't pull it out (Luke 14:1-6)? This truth remains that life is not as black and white as we'd like it to be.
In another example we find in the gospel of John a woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11) brought before Jesus with the leaders demanding a condemnation from Jesus to have her killed. Jesus, in his Jesus way, stoops down and writes in the dirt before announcing "let those of you who are without sin cast the first stone." The leaders were right in the law but Jesus understood her heart, her story, and the circumstances that brought her to such actions. He never excuses her sin, in fact he tells her to "Go and sin no more," but he exemplifies the importance of the need for more information in areas of gray.
It's hard to live in the spirit of the law versus the letter. We are all creatures of habit and it takes a solid awareness of self, God, and others to make sure we are presenting the best image of God possible. We also greatly desire control over circumstances. In the midst of our journey we must silence those desires for control and unhealthy expectations and remind ourselves that God is working and we should value the weightier matters of the law like mercy and justice.
Verses & References
1 Peter 3:15