I’ve always been a “rules” person. Growing up, I was the stereotypical “good girl” who went to church, got straight A’s in school, and obeyed my parents. I hated being in trouble. I had a running list of rules in my head, and it was the backdrop behind most of my decisions.
- Don’t drink alcohol. Check.
- Don’t smoke. Check.
- Don’t do drugs. Check.
- Get good grades. Check.
- Don’t lie. Check (at least, I tried really hard).
- Don’t cheat (on tests, taxes, etc.) Check.
- No premarital sex. Check (I went even further: I saved my very first kiss for my husband on our wedding day. That brilliant decision, made at age 11 or 12, caused a lot of anxiety over having an audience for my first kiss at age 24!)
- Don’t use dirty words. Check.
- Don’t go to crazy parties or nightclubs. Check (This one was easy…I’m an introvert so they still sound about as appealing as chewing on an earthworm).
- Don’t watch dirty movies/shows. Check.
After I started nursing school, my checklist expanded to include health-promoting habits.
- Eat more fruits, veggies, and whole grains. Check.
- Exercise regularly. Check.
- Keep avoiding smoking, drugs, and alcohol. Check.
- Avoid soda pop, fried food, and other sources of empty, low-nutrient calories. Check.
After I had kids, the list got longer!
- Feed kids healthy food, too, so they grow up enjoying it and being healthy. Check.
- Allow them to get the sleep they need (So they can be well-rested and happy, and so they don’t develop insomnia like me). Check.
- Spend quality time with them, including playing games, reading stories, and going to parks and other interesting places. Check.
- Ensure they receive the education and nurturing they need. Check (We’ve arranged our work schedules so we don’t need day care; I’m also homeschooling).
- Shown them who God is, who man is, and what life is all about (through intentional conversations, homeschooling, and church). Check.
I’m pretty darn good at following rules and “doing the right thing.”
But…it was never enough.
I tried really, really hard. But people just wouldn’t cooperate! If I could’ve lived on my own private island, I probably could’ve followed the rules perfectly!
Here’s the truth I missed for a solid 20+ years: The rules aren’t meant to be a checklist that, if followed, give you an A at life and guarantee that you’re good enough. Instead,the rules are meant to show you how to avoid destroying yourself and others. The rules show you what a good life looks like. Jesus said that all the biblical rules–all the writings in the Law and the Prophets–could be summed up in one phrase: Love God and love your neighbor.
I totally and completely missed the whole point of the rules in the Bible! [Side note: My American-Baptist-influenced rules growing up are not the same as the rules in the Bible.] The real rules are actually all about love.
There’s a lot of confusion surrounding the word love. Love isn’t sex or sexual attraction; it’s not friendship or companionship; and it’s not “wanting the best for someone.” Love is so much wider and deeper than these comparatively hollow definitions. Real love is achingly and infinitely beautiful. Real love is who our good God is and how he always interacts with us. Real love is wanting good for someone and then doing that good for them.
When real love entered my equation, I realized a horrific, nauseating truth: I can’t love. No matter hard I try, I can’t make myself love God OR anyone else. My checklist of the law and attempts to be good enough broke into a thousand tiny pieces.
I finally saw a painful but liberating truth: I am, at my very core, a selfish and broken person, incapable of truly loving anyone. My interactions with people have always been very self-centered and manipulative. If others behave how I want them to behave, I’m happy with them. If they cross a line, I let them know (often indirectly, but it’s pretty clear). I applied my very high standards for living not only to myself but to those around me, as well. I had a roommate in college who said she couldn’t live with me anymore because she always felt judged. I was astounded at the time, because she’d never said anything to me about it and I couldn’t recall a single argumentative or judgmental conversation…but now that I can see my ugly heart more clearly, I know exactly where she was coming from. And she was right. I was extremely judgmental (and, therefore, horrible to be around!) The thing that astounds me now is how my other roommates stuck with me for 2 more years! And how my husband ever wanted to marry me!
All of my rule-following only made me into a prideful, stressed-out, self-righteous person who often felt miserable and caused those around me to be miserable, too. I’m still prone to this approach to life. But now I (usually) comprehend that trying to follow the rules can’t change my heart into one that loves God or people. Following the rules doesn’t actually make me a good person, because a good person is one who loves God, loves people, and loves all of creation. There’s only one way for my heart to be changed and fixed so that I can truly and consistently love.
That one way is Jesus.
I’m currently working on the sequel to The Advent Storybook, and one of the stories that will be included illustrates this truth very well. In my book, I’ll use words and phrases understandable to 4-8 year olds; in this post, I’ll assume I’m talking to adults.
This short but powerful parable is found in Luke 18:9-14, and it is about a Pharisee and a tax collector. I am extremely grateful to Dr. Kenneth Bailey (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes) for his lifelong work of putting the stories of Jesus into their proper, Middle Eastern culture and time period, then sharing what the stories were intended to communicate with people like me (a 21st-century, American female)!
Luke actually tells us what Jesus intended with this story right at the beginning: Jesus told this parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others.”
In Jesus’ story, two men go to the Temple to pray and worship–they were probably going to observe the atonement offering, which occurred every day at dawn and then again at 3pm. During this daily service, precise rituals were followed, and the centerpiece was the killing of a lamb to atone for the sins of Israel.
During the service, the Pharisee stood by himself, separated from other people in order to avoid being with the “unclean” masses so he wouldn’t be defiled by them. Standing apart, he prayed aloud, recognizing this as a golden opportunity to offer some unsolicited, free advice and wisdom to those within earshot.
Check out this “prayer”: The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’
Luke 18:11-12 ESV
First, he thanks God that he is much better than “other men” who sin (a problem he clearly does not have!) And then he lists the undeniable evidence of his righteousness: He goes above and beyond what is expected even of a strict, law-abiding Pharisee! Most Pharisees fasted a total of 12 days a year: 2 days before and 2 days after each of the 3 major Hebrew feasts. Not this guy! He fasted 2 days every week! Clearly, he was superior to everyone, especially that sinful tax collector over there. And not only was he self-disciplined and sinless enough to fast 2 days per week, he also gave God tithes from everything he owned! Most people were expected to tithe their grain, oil, and wine–this guy, just to be sure, gave tithes of everything. This Pharisee clearly found himself impressively righteous and wanted everyone else to be impressed with his self-righteousness, as well. His “prayer” was directed at those around him, not to God. And his attitude toward the people around him was one of derision–he despised them; he certainly didn’t love them.
In contrast, the tax collector knows he is ceremonially defiled, and that’s the reason he stands apart from the others. He is so distraught over the evils he has committed against others that he won’t even look up at heaven, and he beats his chest. Hitting one’s chest is a sign of overwhelming, deep grief and is usually done by Middle Eastern women, not men. But this man is overcome by his evil and his need for that lamb to die in his place for his sins. As he beats his chest in anguish, he cries, “God, be merciful [hilaskomai: make atonement] for me, a sinner!”
Guess who Jesus declares justified/made righteous/saved?
The man who knew he needed rescue and accepted it is declared righteous. The text says: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.” The tax collector was rescued and made right with both God and man. The Pharisee, on the other hand, is dismissively referred to as “the other” and leaves the atonement service completely oblivious of his need for that lamb to die in his place.
The parable ends with these words: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Luke 18:14 ESV
Sin isn’t primarily about breaking a law–sin is about broken relationships. A sinner is one who does not love God or others and, therefore, tears apart his or her relationship with God and others.
I know that apart from God’s grace, I’m that Pharisee, oblivious to my need for atonement due to my lack of love. My self-righteousness only earns me dismissal and a pass to refuse Jesus’ costly death in my place, if that’s what I choose.
Jesus rescues ALL who realize their need to be rescued. And we all need it, whether we’re law-keepers or law-breakers. No one can truly and consistently love. The law functions as a mirror: It shows us what we’re like and how we can’t ever measure up. It doesn’t have the power to change us.
But Jesus does! Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!
Looking back at my list of rules, I still follow most of them, to be honest. But I don’t follow them in order to earn my goodness or to be righteous on my own. Instead, I follow them because I like the probable consequences of those choices (such as a healthy body, happy kids, etc). My motive isn’t to earn my righteousness. I know now that rules can’t ever make me good enough…they can’t help me love God or others. Only God can do that.
Jesus, make atonement for me, a sinner!
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but
to do justice,
and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Micah 6:8 ESV