(Rabindranath Tagore, quoted in Psychology Today).
There is, among many Christians, the belief that as long as one lives a good life and “keeps the rules” of religion, (the understanding of which differs from group to group and person to person), then one is approved by God and is assured of a home in heaven in the sweet by and by. Among others there is the belief that God has placed us under rigid restrictions to which we must respond with equal rigidity in “obedience.”
It is in this matter of deciding and describing these rules that the differences and divisions between groups arise. When one person or one group sets a particular requirement and others cannot see the reason or the need for that requirement they will not bow to the demand that they keep it. The problem would be simplified if there were a complete listing of everything God expects of us, but there is no such listing – and there is a reason for that. Aside from the immensity of the task of making such a list, there is the perennial problem that has plagued the human race since we were put into this creation and that is the fact that no man could possibly keep such a law.
Consider the fact that God gave just ten commandments to the Israelites at Sinai. No one kept those, so how do we expect that if we had a comprehensive compendium of regulations that we would do any better today. Law – any law – all law –acts as a restraining, coercive force to compel cooperation through the threat of punishment. The fact that law is there is no assurance that it will accomplish its intended purpose. Good and honest people will strive to keep it, but all it can do in the end is condemn.
The fact is, however, that we as Christians have been set free from rules and duties we can measure and be measured by. This does not mean that there is no limit on our behavior – it means that there is a higher, greater call upon us that exerts a more powerful influence than a list of rules and regulations ever could.
What I am speaking of is freedom! Man was created to be free. At least a part of what it means to have been created in the image of God has to be the capacity – no, the necessity – to live free, to be at liberty to make choices. There is within every human being the innate desire for freedom. In the broadest earthly sense, people go to war to protect and defend their national freedom.People volunteer to fight and die to maintain what they perceive as political, social and economic freedom.
Individually, as we grow from childhood toward adulthood there is an irresistible yearning to be free from parental control – to be our own person. Responsible parents will recognize the right and the need of the child to be free and will train and prepare them for that eventuality. They will allow their children as much freedom as they are capable of handling, realizing that this is necessary for their children to grow up into responsible adults. It is always a difficult time for parents when children leave home to go out on their own, but it is love that sets them free to do so.
Parents who fail to prepare their children to face the world on their own through their failure or refusal to allow them to experience a gradual lessening of parental control raise emotionally crippled children. I say children because these young people do not grow into responsible adults, but remain in a state of childish immaturity and insecurity, often for all their lives. Thus, freedom is essential for the development of mature, adjusted, responsible adults. And parents who know this set their children free because they love them and desire for them to experience life to its fullest.
The same is true of God with mankind. There was a time in the infancy to adolescent stages of human development that it was necessary for strict controls to limit the damage men would do to themselves and others.
“Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary.” (Galatians 3:19).
The law identified sin as sin. For those who knew God and desired to please him, the law was a means of understanding the difference between right and wrong. And by requiring certain actions it protected those who might otherwise have been hurt by the irresponsible actions of others. An illustration of this is the much misunderstood and misapplied regulation Moses gave the Jews as recorded in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Jesus said in Matthew 19 that this requirement of a man giving the wife he was divorcing a certificate of divorce was ordered “Because of your hardness of heart …”
Jesus illustrated the problem of man attempting to attain their salvation by means of law. In his day the Jewish people were still under the Law of Moses. In the sermon on the mount he shows how they had interpreted the law in their favor, making it so that it made the least demand upon them. Every instance in Matthew 5 where he says something like, “You have heard that it was said …” he was showing the truncated version of the law the scribes and Pharisees lived by. He told his disciples that their righteousness must exceed the righteousness of these most exemplary of religious people of that day.
But if this was so, shouldn’t the law be toughened – the penalties made stiffer – so that men would be forced to do better? Do you really think that would work? The penalties were already as stiff as they could be with the death penalty for some of the things he dealt with in that discussion.
But some might reason as I have heard it said that Jesus came to give us a law we could keep. Did he? What about the last item he listed in Matt. 5 about loving as the Father has loved even his enemies? Can we do this and really meet the demand to “…be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect?”
And yet, we have been set at liberty to love and by doing so fulfill the law of God. Under law, our choice is to obey or not to obey. Under the “law of liberty” our choice is to love or not to love. One is the choice of a child under parental authority. The other is the choice of a person who has reached the age of majority. In setting us free, God treats us as his adult children. He expects us to act responsibly out of the highest form of motivation. Humanity has reached its age of majority, but this implies the freedom to choose between well defined alternatives.
To be free to do something, you must be free not to do it. We are free to love only to the extent that we aren’t forced into it by guilt, shame, fear of abandonment, or, worst of all, the interpretation of vulnerable feelings as emotional needs. (Psychology Today).
Many are afraid that if people are given this freedom they will choose to do as they please. And certainly that is a possibility. God knew that when he gave man the ability to choose. The apostle Paul knew there were some who would abuse the grace of God – his wonderful free gift of forgiveness. Look at Paul’s reasoning in regard to this concern, in this case from The Message which, to me makes this really plain …
“So what do we do? Keep on sinning so God can keep on forgiving? I should hope not! If we’ve left the country where sin is sovereign, how can we still live in our old house there? Or didn’t you realize we packed up and left there for good? That is what happened in baptism. When we went under the water, we left the old country of sin behind; when we came up out of the water, we entered into the new country of grace—a new life in a new land!” (Romans 6:1-3, MSG).
This paraphrase gets to the heart of the matter. In this context there really is the background scenario of the deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery into an exclusive relationship with God, a relationship never before experienced by man. They were free from bondage, but yet in a state of childhood as far as being able to relate to God. Therefore they were given the law which functioned, as Paul said, as a tutor. Consider again this quote from Galatians 3:23-24 in The Message …
“Until the time when we were mature enough to respond freely in faith to the living God, we were carefully surrounded and protected by the Mosaic law. The law was like those Greek tutors, with which you are familiar, who escort children to school and protect them from danger or distraction, making sure the children will really get to the place they set out for.”
As this passage illustrates, God now treats us as adults who are capable of handling the responsibility of freedom. He does not, as some mistakenly suppose, set us free to do as we please. He knows as we know, the “liberty” to do as we please is not liberty.
“Men are not free when they are doing just what they like. The moment you can do just what you like, there is nothing you care about doing.” (D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature, 1924).
God sets us free and calls us to something higher, nobler, more sublime. He calls us to be like him. In order to do that, He imposes but one law upon us … the law of the King, the “royal law.” This is the “law of liberty” at which we have already looked.
“If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.” (James 2:8).
This “law,” rather than imposing rigid rules, gives us the freedom to choose what is best in the various situations in which we find ourselves. What this comes down to ultimately is a core value issue. What kind of persons are we? If God is bringing us to a point of development that is reflective of his character, the performance of rituals and abiding by rigid rules just doesn’t accomplish that purpose. When we live in this way the freedom he gives us is negated. There is no freedom to choose to be like him. But he has set us free through his love that we may freely choose to love him and to love others like he loves us.