When I was a kid, I absolutely loved Sour Patch Kids. I would get them every time I went to the movies, and would eat the whole bag by myself…despite the fact that they would inevitably leave my taste buds completely raw by the end (sidenote: I don’t think that Sour Patch Kids are actually a food product). Anyway, even though the candy laid waste to my tongue, I would not only polish off the bag, but then pour all the little leftover sour granules into my mouth to cap off the experience. Mmmm…heavenly.
My relationship with Sour Patch Kids came to an abrupt end, however, sometime in my mid-teen years. I had bought–and promptly devoured–a bag at the mall…just before I came down with a stomach bug. Needless to say, after spending hours heaving their acidic goodness into the toilet (you’re welcome), my body was done–DONE!–with Sour Patch Kids. In fact, it promptly passed an internal decree that we would no longer be eating that candy under any circumstances. For the next ten years, I could not even look at Sour Patch Kids without my stomach lurching, cringing in memory of The Dreaded Event.
Shockingly, in that ten years, I still caught several stomach bugs, despite not touching Sour Patch Kids. That’s because, while I wouldn’t necessarily recommend consuming whole bags of Sour Patch Kids, they are not what made me sick.
I was already sick when I ate them. My sickness didn’t come from them, but from something that was already inside of me.
Perhaps you see where I am going with this.
I happen to love rules. I see great value in them. Rules keep me safe. Rules keep society stable. Rules help us to survive. Rules are even instinctive. My ban on Sour Patch Kids, while uninformed and ineffective, was simply a natural survival instinct, like the birds who learn to avoid the berries that make them sick. That’s why we still have birds, people.
See, when we suffer, we don’t like it, and we don’t want it to happen again. Thus, we try to ferret out the cause of our suffering and to make a rule that will prevent future suffering. In terms of physical suffering, this can be an effective strategy for a safe and harmonious society: do we not like random murders? Let’s make murder illegal! Were some children horribly maimed at the factory they worked at? Time for some child labor laws! Did my daughter haul off and smack my son? No hitting! That’s a rule!
But there is one area over which rules hold no sway. Oh, they can control, at least to a degree, our physical behavior, but they have no jurisdiction over our souls. Paul comes out strong against rules in Colossians:
“Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” Col. 2:20-23
Wow. Mull that one over for a minute. Paul tells the Colossians here that these religious rules are completely pointless. They lack any value in actually restraining sin. And even more than that, Paul says that they are worldly! I still can’t really wrap my mind around that one, but the bottom line is that he dismisses this attempt to regulate morality.
This verse is not the only place in the Bible that warns against the pitfalls of external regulations. In fact, you could argue that the Old Testament Law was a grand experiment in the efficacy of using rules as a path to God.
It didn’t work out so well.
The Law seemed great in theory: do this, don’t do that, wear these clothes, avoid that mold, don’t eat shellfish…and voila! You are clean before God. But in practice, it just didn’t work out that way. In fact, here’s what one former Pharisee said about his experience with following the Law:
“What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead. 9 Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. 10 I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. 11 For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. 12 So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.
13 Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.
14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
21 So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law;23 but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.” Romans 7:7-23
Paul concludes by lamenting, “What a wretched man I am! Who will save me from this body of death!” Then, he answers his own question: “Thanks be to God–through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
You can see from his talk in Romans 7 why Paul might have spoken so harshly against external regulations in Colossians. He had learned through a lifetime of experience that rules just didn’t work. They didn’t bring him closer to God; if anything, they just made him more aware of his distance from God. If anything, rules just gave his sinful nature something to rebel against. In that way, they made him sin even more! Paul is careful to note that while the rules themselves weren’t bad, they did bring out what was worst in him. That’s why they failed in their purpose. The one thing that the law “was powerless to do” was to set us free from our sinful nature (Rom. 8:3). The spiritual ineffectiveness of rules is similar to my ban on Sour Patch Kids. I can avoid them all day long, but that will not protect me from getting sick if there is a virus already inside of me. Similarly, we can make all kinds of rules to keep us away from situations that might lead us into sin, but they are still not going to keep us from sinning if the problem is in our heart.
And yet, God knows we try. We still do love rules. At least, I do. I love them ever so much. I periodically ban myself from Facebook in an attempt to focus my mind on things more spiritual; I cut myself off from a particular show, or a certain practice. And I don’t believe that those disciplines, in and of themselves, are bad. The problem is when I try to make my personal rule a universal rule, when I force my rules upon others. That’s where the Pharisees ran into problems, and that’s where we in the church can run into problems.
Recently I stumbled upon a Mormon blog post describing their church’s struggle with regulating women’s dress. As I scrolled through the lively comments section, I was mainly thankful that I wasn’t personally having to figure out the issue along with them! I was also struck by the futility of trying to solve the problem of lust by telling women what they could and couldn’t wear. Honestly, it just doesn’t seem effective. Plus, when you consider religions that have taken this concept to its logical conclusion, it just gets pretty scary really quickly. Legalism can be quite oppressive.
Thankfully, I think that, for the most part, we Christians realize that. I am grateful that I have never been to a church that has enforced an actual dress code, regardless of how much they are concerned about modesty. And I’m glad that I have never been a part of a church that forbade movies or playing with cards that had faces on them, which I have heard has happened in the past. I’m glad that we seem to be slowly but surely giving up–at least on the church level–the unscriptural idea that we can regulate morality through rules.
But there’s another side, too.
Sometimes I wish the pendulum could just stay in the middle, you know? Would that be so hard?
Apparently, yes. It would seem that we humans love the wild and exhilarating ride that is the extreme pendulum swing, and so we just keep banging back and forth into oblivion. Now, instead of being hyper-legalistic, we have a strain of anti-legalism. We can get to where we are skeptical of any challenge to our lifestyle, any claim that might make some demand on our behavior because we fear that such claims might be legalistic. A friend of mine recently shared how passionate she is for God here lately, and how she feels that God is calling her to a deeper level of service (yes, this is a real friend, and not just a “friend” that is really me:)). She also, however, expressed frustration at sharing her passion with her dear Christians friends, because she tended to be met with skepticism. Whenever she shared her suspicions that God might be wanting a little more from her, she was chided for trying to earn her salvation or for being legalistic.
I myself have received a few (very kind and often funny) comments from friends in passing that seem to assume that I now view it as a “rule” that we should not go to movies or buy stuff because of this blog post I wrote. I was also warned in the comments section of that blog not to make an idol of asceticism or to let it lead to Phariseeism. I took the comment as the thoughtful, helpful point that it was, but the sum total of the reaction to that blog did make me think. To be honest, I completely understand the drive to avoid legalism at all costs. I don’t want to live under the burden of 50,000 rules that do nothing to bring me closer to God. But when I hear the backlash my friend has received from her passion, and the concerns about legalism as a result of my movie thoughts, it takes me back to my Sour Patch Kids response. It’s the same story all over again: something hurts us (in this case, it’s having too many rules); we vow, “Never again!”; and then, we assiduously avoid any appearance of having rules, at all costs.
But where does that leave us?
I know it leaves me with several questions. Specifically,
Is there room any more in the church to challenge each other without being seen as legalistic?
Is it possible to call each other to higher standards without making “rules” about acceptable behavior?
In what ways can we spur each other to more Christ-like behavior while still acknowledging that only God can transform our hearts?
I honestly don’t have the answer to those questions. I only know that “anti-legalism” can lead to spiritual inertia, apathy, and irrelevance just as surely as legalism can lead to spiritual ineffectiveness and oppression. I’m sure that there is a middle ground…and I’m hoping to figure out what that physically looks like.