I have a friend who is very intentional about eating a healthy diet. She pretty much lives by the old quote from Jack LaLanne: “If man made it, don’t eat it.” It surprised her, then, when she was recently struck with some health issues and was given some dietary guidelines. She was already following them for the most part, so it wasn’t a huge adjustment for her. Part of the restrictions on what she should eat involved staying away from fried foods. She was doing that on her own, but she commented that now that she was given a specific directive to refrain from it, she finds herself suddenly craving stuff that, up to that point, she hadn’t really wanted before.
This makes me think of something that Paul wrote in the New Testament book of 1 Corinthians:
“The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” 1 Corinthians 15.56 (ESV)
That’s a pretty counterintuitive statement he’s making. It’s not often that we would see the law as giving fuel to sin. It’s usually more typical to think liberty is what gets us in trouble. It seems like Paul would take exception to that.
As followers of Christ, we have all kinds of freedom. Earlier in the same book, Paul said, “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (10.31). If we who follow Christ have all of this freedom, all of this (dare I say?) liberty, then why is it so easy for us to gravitate toward rules and regulations? Why do we want to limit how pursuing God plays itself out in our lives, let alone others lives? This isn’t a new problem. In fact, it goes all the way back to the Hebrew scriptures.
When Moses came down from the mountain, he had ten commandments for the people of God to follow. They were pretty straightforward and very clear. Through the years religious leaders – probably in a well intended effort to stay true to those original directives – expanded a short list of do’s and don’t’s into a list of over 600 things to remember if you wanted to stay on the right path to follow God. They went through the various sacred writings of their day and decided that there were a lot more things God expected of His people. Some days I have trouble remembering the original ten. I can’t imagine what it would be like to try and remember 600 things to do and not do.
By the time Jesus comes on the scene, the religious leaders turned the law that was intended to be simple in its expectation for believers into a burden that weighed them down. It became an impossible standard to live by. Jesus fixed all of that in a conversation he had with some people who had the responsibility of making sure God’s people did what they were supposed to do (as well as stayed away from what they weren’t supposed to do).
So, one day one of the day’s top leaders in religious laws wanted to trip Jesus up. He asks Jesus what the most important commandment is. Jesus replies, “You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.” (Matthew 22.37-38, NLT) But, Jesus doesn’t stop there. He gives the guy a freebie. “A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” (v. 39) He didn’t say this second one was almost as important or was second place to the greatest commandment. He said it was “equally important.”
Then Jesus says something revolutionary. Keep in mind that for people to follow God during the time they have to remember more than 600 laws. Into this environment Jesus says something that cuts to the very core of what the religious leaders were trying to do: “The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” Wow!
Think about what Jesus is saying. If you want to fulfill all that God requires of you, just focus on these two equally important directives: love God with everything you are and, while you’re at it, love the people around you. Simple…or at least it should be. Many people will say that becoming a Christian is easy, following Christ is hard. I would agree with that, but not for the reasons most think.
Perhaps the idea of taking up our daily cross has less to do with trying to figure out what I should and shouldn’t do when it comes to drinking and dancing and cursing and more to do with how hard it really is to simply love God and love people. Give me a list of directives that tells me what TV shows to avoid, what books aren’t good to read or what music God doesn’t like. That’s the easy way out. You may be able to control behavior, but, like the law that gives fuel to sin, it may do more to stir up a rebellious heart. That’s human nature that goes all the way back to Adam and Eve.
Have you ever thought about the fact that God told them they could have anything to eat from the garden except for one thing? Of course, the one thing they were told they couldn’t have is the one thing they wanted. It’s like being given free reign to take anything you want from the grocery store, as long as you stay from from the Gala apples. The minute you’re told that, I promise you that’s the one thing you’ll want first.
But, tell me to love someone who I don’t really care for or extend grace to someone I may not agree with. That’s hard. That isn’t easy at all. Maybe that’s why we want to spend more time dealing with external behaviors, rather than matters of the heart. Behavior is much easier to deal with.
So in the struggle between Law and Love, maybe Love still wins…