My nephew was found by his mother crouching in the garage howling in inconsolable grief. What could move a ten-year-old to such emotion? He had discovered the Ten Commandments, and his tears were not the product of joy; they were produced by fear.
It started safely enough. He had taken an interest in the Scriptures and began flipping through his mother’s old confirmation Bible. He gravitated toward those passages that were highlighted with faded yellow and pink neon. One of those passages was, of course, the “Big Ten.”
Curious, he asked his mother about them and she casually explained their meaning and importance. This got the gears turning in his little head until finally he was mourning the divine condemnation hanging over that same head. He told his mother through the tears, “I’ve been mean to my sisters…I guess I’m going to hell.”
Thankfully, the demise of my nephew is overstated. God as the cosmic rule-maker, an eternally angry accountant who takes delight in auditing the records of the sinful, is irreconcilable with the God revealed in Jesus. This doesn’t mean the commandments are irrelevant. It simply means there is something better – we have Jesus himself – showing us the way.
Clarence Jordan said the law was like chaining a vicious dog to a tree. With him chained to a tree, the owner could say, “You know, my dog has never bitten anyone, he must be a good dog.” But that is not true. The goodness of the dog is based solely upon the strength of the chain. If that dog ever got loose, he would gnaw on everyone within reach.
So if the rules, like a leash, can be made heavy or strong enough (as many interpreters and practitioners of the commandments can do), the thought is that leash can be adequate to keep the wayward human heart from hurting others and hurting itself. Jesus’ intention, however, is to change the nature of the animal, not to manufacture a more robust chain.
See, Jesus does not demand of us higher standards; Jesus does not require of us super-human ability or commitments. Rather, he gives us his ability and grace. By bringing the laws of religion to their fulfillment, Jesus strikes literally at the heart of the issue – our hearts – transforming us from the inside out, so that more rules and steeper requirements are no longer necessary.
In Christ, we can actually move toward maturity, not just growing old, but growing up. We can learn to accept the changed relationship with God, a relationship not based on a set of laws, religious regulation, or rules. This relationship is grounded in his love and grace.
Now, to think of spirituality without a well established system of rules is a radical, even fearful, departure for many of us who have based our entire connection to God on rule keeping, measuring up, and following the jots and tittles of every bit of religious instruction.
Of course, when we fail to live up to these demands (and failure is inevitable), we are swamped with guilt, fear, and throat strangling shame. Yet, Jesus has come to set us free of these things; we can let these go for the life he offers.
The only obstacle standing in the way of this transformative life is we ourselves. We must give up all strivings, all our efforts at “being good,” and all we think we can do to impress or make God happy. And when we are empty, Christ will fill us with his more than sufficient grace.
William Law gets to the heart of it: “All failures of the Christian life are due to one thing: We seek to do with our own strength and ego what only God can do…But God cannot do all until all is expected from Him. And all is not expected from Him until we have no hope, trust, or longing for anything but a humble, total resignation to God.”
That resignation brings life and peace, for ten-year-olds, recovering legalists, religious rule-keepers, and for us all.