I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.
-Apostle Paul, on life without grace, Romans 7:10
When I'm driving, I evaluate the form of every runner I see on the street. As a runner and coach, I can't help it. Sometimes as I call out form corrections behind the window, offering unsolicited correction from my steering wheel, my wife thinks I am being judgmental. And sometimes, I admit... I can be (working on it). But the reason I'm really noticing is something altogether different. And it's helping me think about God in a fresh way. Stay with me.
At our church we've been discussing the destructive trappings of legalism and line drawing, exploring how Jesus invites us into a deeper experience that is focused on himself at the center, rather than an obsession with rules and (inevitably) passing judgment.
One of the biggest questions that emerges from this sort of "centered-set" approach is this:
Aren't some of God's "rules" really important to follow???
Are we really supposed to just ignore all rules, and anything goes as long as Jesus is your center?
Well, to some extent yeah, because if Jesus is really your center, then you're not going to be going on a rampage of evil, folks.
But we know that our ethics matter greatly to God. The New Testament offers plenty of rules that Jesus establishes (though he totally prioritizes). But it's the way we think about such commands that creates problems.
Often we practice obedience in our behavior so that we don't make God angry or disappoint God. While that desire to please God may be admirable, such an approach to ethical living is problematic because it assumes that God's posture is looking down on us with his checklist to make sure we're following the rules to pass a test of righteousness (God is always frustrated in this view). And we know we'll never be good enough, which simply creates a cycle of disappointment.
In this view, ethics are God's required rules to be a good Christian.
But what if it was so much better than that?
When I coach young runners as they do interval workouts or tire in a race, I am always giving them new "commands."
Relax your shoulders!
Keep your head up!
Let yourself breathe!
Use your arms up the hill!
Look ahead, not behind you!
Why do I give them things to do and be? It's because I long for them to run efficiently, and with the greatest ease possible. I know how much better they will go through their run if they listen and adjust. It's not because they're not doing good enough, but because I want them to experience the best run they can have. Some of them could be saved a lot of pain if they ran differently (it won't make their experience pain free... just less).
Shifting their form would enable them to do more than they felt they could do, to enjoy their running in new ways. I want that for them. And because they know me, they never think I'm upset- they know that I'm seeking to help them run their best- and that I'll be supporting them whether they end up listening or not!
Viewing ethics in a similar way can transform our discipleship. If Jesus gives us ways of living not as a way to achieve Christian impressiveness, but as a gift to help us navigate the world in life-giving ways, we begin to shift from the pressure and the judgmentalism that a rule-based faith creates.
In a world broken by sin and systems of sin, God gives us ethics as a gift to live more beautifully with God. Loving our neighbors, practicing self control, forgiving others, and speaking words of grace... these are "laws" that Jesus gives us because they lead us to experience life better... not so that we can be good Christians.
God's guidance is to help us thrive. And when we fail, we are not scorned- the pain that selfishness leads to is more than enough to remind us that there's a more beautiful way to live. God's love is not up for grabs as we seek to do our best. It's already been established, free of charge. Thank you Jesus.
So when you feel the tug of God to change our form and adjust what we're doing, know that it is an invitation to experience better life, not a heavy burden full of judgment. And his truth will set you free to live well.
Jesus, make me new and shape my actions through your grace and care today. Lead me to life.