For some years now, I have been asking the question of which is more helpful: the transformation of societal structures and laws or the transformation of hearts.
While some I have talked to have immediately stated that it is not an either/or question, I do believe that there is an element where the transformation of hearts must take precedence over our laws and structures. This is not to say that laws are not important. In terms of protecting the weakest and most vulnerable in our society, they are vitally important. However, without transformed hearts, we will always look for ways around laws that are inconvenient to us and as a society, we will always be fighting a losing battle against others who want to do the same.
This brings me to current issues in many Western nations. One of our greatest battlegrounds at this time would appear to be around the issues of changing a variety of laws in the name of progression.
As I have watched the debates rage on social media and the like, I have wondered what part I should play.
Do I lend my ‘great wisdom’? Do I proudly state my stance? Do I stay in the background, keeping myself safe from the melee?
Discussing this with a friend, she shared a picture God had given her just that morning, which she has given me permission to share further. (Interestingly, as I shared this picture with a third friend, she told me that another friend of hers had been given the same picture!).
The question my friend asked God was what her role should be in these discussions. The picture He gave her was of the Titanic. There were three groups of Christians in this picture. There were those who were down in the hold trying (ineffectively) to plug up the holes in the hull. Then there were others up on the deck enjoying the music and ignoring the fact that the ship was about to sink. And the third group was busy helping people to get into the life boats.
Even as my friend shared this picture with me, in my own version, I saw another huge ship pull alongside. It was immensely bigger and had everything that anyone could ever want or need and was perfect. It seemed to glow (no words to describe it), but I knew this ship was God’s ship. It is His promise that there is space aboard His ship for all who want to join it, that His ship is truly unsinkable – we need have no fear in the face of our current ‘ship’ sinking.
Just as people believed about the Titanic, there are those who believe that Western society’s structure is great and the best form it can be, that it is ‘unsinkable’. I think this is a false view. While we can be quite scathing about the Titanic and the arrogance of people who think they have got it all worked out, I do believe that we can have the same attitude towards ‘the way the world works’. We can think that we can work it all out and make it ‘fair’ and ‘happy’ for everyone – well, at least the ‘everyone’ who matters to us.
The problem as I see it is that much of the foundations our society has been built on are shaky or unstable. While some of them might seem good, or even appear to come from Godly principles, without the right hearts behind them, many laws and societal mores can simply become (or feel like) a big stick with which to beat people with.
Although Jesus came as the fulfilment of the Law and to make it perfect, there is an aspect in which this can simply take us back to being like the Pharisees (lawyers) of Jesus’ day, making rules and regulations as the benchmark of who is in and who is out.
Jesus was completely against this and had many harsh words to say to those who tied heavy burdens to those who could least deal with them. (Matt 23:1-12). We must be very sure of our own motives – are we trying to prove ourselves more righteous and knowledgeable than someone else at some level? Are we trying to force them to live up to standards that we ourselves don’t keep? Especially when they don’t even believe the same as we do.
My reading of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”, particularly the passage from Matthew 5:17-48, is that Jesus is pointing out how difficult it is to be righteous. Who has never wanted (at least at some level) to kill someone else (or that someone else would do it for you), or never looked at someone and thought they were more than a bit ok. And then Jesus goes on to lift the level on the things we should do as well. I don’t believe we can truly do many of these consistently without His help and grace.
Adding to this are Paul’s writings reminding us that we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23-). He continues on to suggest that rather than helping us to be good, the Law actually shows us how much we fail. It shows that we don’t have it in us to do that which is right. In a nutshell,
laws don’t really help us become better people – they are really just mirrors to show us our failings.
So what is the answer?
There are two things that come to mind.
The first is Galatians 5:22-23: (you might want to (re)read what comes before this, too)
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law."
The lead up to this passage is all about freedom. Rather than freedom to do what we want, though, it is freedom from the need to indulge ourselves or “self-comfort”. When we are free in Christ, we are free from the screams of our bodies, emotions and minds to make us feel good (as well as those of others). However, we have to submit these things to God, which brings me to the second thought.
Why do we struggle so much to bring these desires to God?
In my own experience and the experience of numbers of friends, what is often termed our “sin nature” is largely an outworking of the places within us that are impacted by brokenness and damage we have sustained, either from what has been done to us, or (just as often) what we have perceived about what has been done.
There are numbers of ways this manifests in our lives. It can have its foundations in fear and self-protection and these may be expressed through irrational anger or withdrawal, or a combination of both. It may be through acting out sexually or through food, drugs, bad moods, manipulation and control as we try to get our needs met in inappropriate ways.
We can try hard to change these behaviours and at times may succeed, at least to a degree. However, if we never deal with the wounds beneath the behaviours, we are at best managing them. In my own experience, I have had significant healing in a number of areas which means many of those behaviours don’t need to be managed anymore. They have gone completely.
I think we get stuck in the space of law because of our tendency to like what we are able to measure. It makes us feel safe to know what is acceptable and what is not.
We are not too dissimilar to the Israelites. They liked the comfort of knowing exactly how to behave so much they added another 603 laws to the 10 original ones God gave them, just to make sure they were doing the right thing. In our hunger to have it nailed down, rather than sharing our relationship with God with others, we have turned the Good News into a behaviour code.
This is something I have struggled with most of my Christian life. I came across a statement from Daniel Kolenda a number of years back that put it into words perfectly for me. He said that far too often we give people an explanation (the ‘Gospel message’) with no experience, rather than giving them an experience that requires an explanation.
Perhaps it is because we have only given intellectual consent to the idea of the Gospel without experiencing its power ourselves that we cannot share it with others. If (when) we have experienced the transforming power of the love of God personally, we cannot help but share it. And when we come from this position, we are far less likely to make others live up to a series of rules to be right with God. Rather than trying to be good enough to come to God, we can allow His loving kindness to lead others to repentance and allow the Holy Spirit to be the One to convict. We can let go of our need to judge others.
The end point is that we have a choice to make. We can rely on laws to make us feel safe, either in our beliefs or in other ways, or we can rely on God. If we decide to trust in laws, even those from the Bible, to give us our sense of safety and security, either in this life or the next, unfortunately we will be let down. As Paul says in Romans 8, it is not the Law of sin and death that can bring us life and make us righteous, but the Law of the Spirit (which is the Law of Love), that gives life to all. And above such things, there is no Law! Each of us, then, has the choice to live above the law.
In the end, we make a choice – we choose to live under the law (whatever that looks like and all it entails), which brings us death or we can choose to live above the law, not only living the true abundant, free life ourselves, but bringing true life and freedom to others. Are you willing to put the law to death in your life?
“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” (Galatians 5:13-15)