Imagine for a moment you are walking on board that is one foot wide and 20 feet long and three inches thick. It’s on the ground and you walk it, just like a child might do if coming across such a phenomenon. Is this difficult? Is this… interesting? Exciting? Think for a moment about the emotions you may have of this experience as you come to the end of it.
Now imagine this same exact board, suspended between two buildings that are 20 stories tall. You know you have the balance and skills to cross this board, that there is no wind. In fact, when this board was on the ground it was a little bit boring, wasn’t it? But now that it is high in the air is this difficult? Interesting? Exciting? If you look back on your time as a child balancing on things, were you like me, playing a little game of ‘the floor is lava’ or ‘don’t fall off or else?’ in your mind even just balancing on curbs at the edge of parking lots.
Part of being a human being is having a narrative, a story you tell yourself, and the truth is, some stories are boring. Walking on a board on the ground isn’t really much of a story, but between two skyscrapers? There’s literally movies about that. Stories require conflict and stakes that means they require the threat of danger. They require an implied ‘or else.’ And anytime you have conflict and stakes, however simple, you have a story, you have something interesting.
You can see this everywhere. If you tell a child “Don’t Eat This Marshmallow” it becomes an obsession. If you just put some marshmallows in the room, it becomes an ordinary object, no more interesting than anything else around. When I learned Tae Kwon Do, we were told not to brag that we knew martial arts, that it invited challenge, which sounded silly, like I was Batman or something. But sure enough, I brought my branded gym bag to school one day and a couple weeks later, someone was squaring up with me “Oh, you think you know Karate, huh?”
Before, fighting me was boring. Now it was interesting. Drama, conflict, as soon as any line is set, we have a context to narrate what happens when someone crosses it. If someone can cross a line and then come back, then they’re a kind of hero. They’ve transcended something about the boundaries and empowered us to do the same and all that. Which is all well and good, I love good stories.
The problem comes in because God gives boundaries. Every parent or authority figure does by extension, but God’s laws in particular present a problem because they are good, holy, correct, just and all the superlatives you can throw at them. But because of how we react to lines, breaking God’s law becomes more interesting than keeping it to us, the same way a board high in the air is more interesting than a board on the ground. More danger, more threat, more conflict, more drama.
Case in point: one thing I talk about with my students is about how God designed sex for marriage. But if I had a dollar for everytime I heard some version of “well, how far can I go?” I would have enough money to pay for a wedding. It’d be a small wedding, maybe, but you get the point. We all seem to do this. Even if we abstract our morality out to ‘good people’ and ‘bad people’, we sort of do the minimum to be able to tell ourselves we’re good people. Don’t kill, don’t steal… maybe. Probably lie, as long as we don’t cross that line. There’s always a line, and we always seem to want to go right up to it and be on the edge.
Because the floor is lava.
So this presents us with a huge problem, right? In our spiritual life, God has said a whole lot of things we’re not supposed to do, and the desire to tell ourselves a story that makes us look good, even at the risk of death, uses that to push us up to the edge and then, a gust of wind, a bad day, and we’re over, and now our story is ruined? Do we keep going over the edge because now it’s too late? Do we sit in our shortcomings and lambast ourselves endlessly into paralysis? Do we climb back up and try again, knowing that we are natural edge-riders in an unpredictable world where it’s only a matter of time before we fall over?
Can I present an entirely different approach to the Laws of God? I got it from Romans 7:6:
But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.
Now Romans is really heavy in dealing with the law and death, but a short version is: if you get married and say ‘til death do us part’ and then get declared dead, your partner is free to marry without being an adulterer, breaking a pre-nup or anything like that. Well, in giving our life to Christ, we get credit for his death, we are declared dead, and that means all the promises of death that come from breaking the written Laws of God, the “Letter” of the law, those are all fulfilled. From the perspective of those laws, a follower of Christ is dead. We are no longer captive to those things, and so now we can follow the Spirit of the Law. This idea, the spirit of the law has some discourse in legal proceedings. If there’s a law that says not to take candy from babies, and you instead take the babies away from the candy, you’ve kept the law only in a technical way, but it seems clear that the purpose of the law was circumnavigated.
Likewise, the laws of God do have a purpose and a spirit behind them, but even further than that, they have a Spirit, a person, behind them, and so instead of following “The Law,” we now are free to follow the Lawmaker. Since the focus is on a person and not a line, our desire to get up to the edge is neutralized, defanged. If I’m engaged with a relationship, I don’t ask myself what’s the minimum I can do for them, because I’m not concerned with some line. In fact, when I do ask for the minimum, I’m usually no longer engaged with the relationship, but with some arbitrary idea of being a good husband/friend/parent/teacher/etc, with little to no regard to the actual relationship, just my own status or vindication.
God doesn’t want “good Christians” or whatever. He could just snap his fingers and have all the good little boys and girls he could dream. God seems, overwhelmingly and continuously, interested in relationship with you. He never seems to want to do the minimum, to walk the line just enough to be a “good God.” In fact, the fact that he seems so content to allow things that are not good mean that he isn’t concerned with the letter of the law either.
God doesn’t walk the line. Are you going to walk the line, or follow Him?