A Community of Relaxed Rigor
Jesus stated plainly that he did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets but instead came to fulfill them. ‘Therefore’, he continues, ‘anyone who relaxes the least of these commands and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven but whoever does them and teaches others to do them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.’ ‘Indeed,’ Jesus continues, ‘unless your righteousness surpasses that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you most certainly will not enter the kingdom of heaven.’
Christianity says you are more sinful than you imagine but more loved than you dare dream. It is only in personally owning these two truths and holding them together in proper tension that a person experiences the power of the gospel in their lives. When either truth is lost or weakened, the gospel loses its effectiveness in our lives.
Some people have difficulty believing they are really that sinful. Often they have led a pretty good life of religious activity and relative morality. They’ve been successful at avoiding the ‘big sins’ and covering up the ‘little ones’. Because they know people who haven’t been as ‘successful’ morally, they have difficulty believing and feeling that they themselves are that sinful. Ironically, they may be following Jesus as teacher while actually avoiding him as Savior. Flimsy law can help order a disordered external life but it cannot break the hold of fallen self-centeredness. In fact, followers of flimsy law are essentially serving themselves rather than God because their obedience is motivated by fear, control, or duty. Since each of these motivations are self-centered they fall far short of the righteousness that Jesus requires. The Hebrews author declares, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” The flimsy law of the religious rarely challenges the motive and if it does is often repelled by more denial or by further reliance upon one’s own efforts rather than looking for help from Another. They have the law but it is flimsy law.
Some people have difficulty believing they are really that loved. Often they have not led a stellar moral life and have only felt the scorn of the religious community for failing to conform like the ‘good people’. Because they associate scorn with religion (and Christianity is still the dominant American religion), they may find it very difficult to take Christianity’s claim to unconditional love as genuine. They have often found love and acceptance outside of religion but it can be a flimsy love. Because of the cultural assumption that the summum bonum (greatest good) of our culture is individual happiness its ethic is reduced to ‘do what makes you happy’. It is flimsy because it is separated from any objective idea of human flourishing that transcends individual happiness and love, therefore, often means mere affirmation of the other’s choices. This love is accepting but not challenging and therefore flimsy. This love is affirming but not transforming and therefore flimsy.
A community shaped by Jesus name can’t have flimsy law or flimsy love. Jesus won’t let us have either of those positions. How do we become a community that takes love and law seriously? By resting and being rigorous at the same time.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus rigorously applies the law to the heart and to the motives. After saying, “your righteousness has to exceed that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees”, he demonstrates what he means through a series of devastating critiques of externals only morality. The heart, the motives, and the intentions matter as much as the hand, the mouth, and the items of the law. Why you abstain from adultery and why you assist in giving to others matters in judging the virtue of each type of behavior. Jesus simply will not allow for formalistic moralism. Jesus simply will not allow for heartless obedience. Jesus simply will not allow for love that is less than acknowledging real error. Jesus simply will not allow for flimsy law or flimsy love.
The Christian is to be more rigorous in the application of the law and prophets to their own heart and life than the religious model and also more rigorously loving of others than the irreligious model. But how is this possible without wearing out in despair at one’s sinfulness or becoming self-righteous by one’s own successes? In a word, rest.
Religion says to you, ‘perform and be blessed’ and irreligion says to you, ‘perform and be blessed’. The difference between the two is the source of the truth one is to perform. The religious person usually is following the rules of their church or religious community. They believe that blessedness is achieved by keeping the rules. God is happier with me or loves me more when I am performing his truth. God reserves the good in life for those who follow most carefully.
Both religion and irreligion keep a person on a moral performance treadmill because both are in pursuit of righteousness. Righteousness is rooted in the idea of being approved and accepted. Everyone is looking for a verdict on their life that justifies their existence. Religious people go that approval keeping the rules while irreligious people strive after it through non-religious pursuits. Both rely heavily on opinions of others to either confirm or crush their sense of well-being or approvedness. Both perform to get a verdict on their life. Sadly, since the verdict is always dependent upon their most recent performances, they can never rest.
Jesus said, “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” However, many Christians stay on the performance treadmill because they have not believed the gospel where it counts. They trust Jesus for eternity but not for identity. They have forgiveness but not transformation. They end up denying the power of the gospel because it hasn’t really dropped into the real them. Rigorous application of the law means I let it look deep into me to uncover the real me. Like David, a Christian prays to have their hearts uncovered and to be kept from secret sins. They are free to invite the scrutiny of the law (and others) into their hearts and motives without despair and without deflection but only because in Jesus they already possess the divine approval that all striving is actually looking for. As Tim Keller says, ‘Christianity is the only religion or life-philosophy that gives the verdict before the performance.’ I can rest that because of the work of Christ on my behalf I am completely and utterly approved by God and loved beyond my wildest dreams. I can rigorously apply the law to my life without fear of rejection but in hope of further freedom from ‘the sin that so easily entangles’ my race.
I can also rigorously love because I am becoming less and less dependent on other’s evaluation of me. I am being freed more and more from comparative living and comparative righteousness because I have the approval of the only set of eyes in the universe that really matter. As C.S. Lewis put it, Christianity doesn’t make you think more of yourself or less of yourself; it makes you think about yourself less. I can confront you in love because I’m neither intimidated nor inflated around you. I can accept your involvement in my life for the same reasons. I can accept people who are smarter, better tithers, and more evangelistic (just to name a few) than I am without being intimidated by the thought that God must be more happy with them than he is with me. I can also genuinely love others who struggle in areas I don’t particularly struggle because the self-righteousness of being on the treadmill dies by the wayside too. The gospel is I am more wrecked than I actually believe myself to be and I am more loved than I dare imagine. I can confront the ugliness on the inside and the outside because Jesus has already seen it, judged it, been judged for it, and rose again in defeat of it. In Christ we always hear from the Father, “You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.”
“If you are a preacher of mercy, then preach a true mercy and not an imaginary one. God is not in the habit of saving imaginary sinners…just true ones.” ~ Martin Luther
Luther would go on to write, “So let your sins be strong but let your faith in Christ be stronger.” If we are to be a community shaped by Jesus then we have to be real sinners and not imaginary ones. We have to be rigorous in letting the law challenge our hearts and not just our hands. But, we also have to be just as rigorous in looking to Jesus who atoned for all our sins. In looking to him there is rest. Let’s strive for relaxed rigor looking to Jesus who said, “It is finished.”
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