The Folly of Legalism

What to do when everything is Forbidden

“Thou shalt not…

So says much of the opinion from the Pharisees. It’s echoed in the doctrines of Catholicism, Anglicanism, Lutherism. Calvinists swear by it. Southern Baptists in particular have a long list.

The Law in the Old Covenant was misunderstood in a huge way. The ancient Jews thought it had been given to them so they could earn a way to Heaven. They completely missed the point.

A couple of years ago I read a great book called “The Year of Living Biblically” by AJ Jacobs. He describes it as “One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible”. It’s a brilliant and funny look at the crazy Laws of both the Old and New Testaments. A satirical (I hope!) look at legalism.

The thing is, as amusing – and trust me, it’s amusing – as it is, Jacobs focusses on the things forbidden by the Bible. I think to make a point.

And it did. It got me thinking about what I believe, and why I believe it.

The point of the Law was to demonstrate to the Jews that Salvation in every area was impossible to achieve by following a set of rules. Jesus equates holding anger in your heart to murder and “appreciating” the figure of the girl across the street as adultery. Just in those two simple thoughts at some point we’ve all been guilty of murder, coveting, adultery, etc, etc…

And I do mean all been guilty of it.

Pretty much the only thing that got a jail sentence under ancient Law was debt. Everything else, they killed you. That’s why when Jesus is brought the woman caught in the act of adultery nobody throws a stone. In retrospect, every one of them realised they were as deserving of stoning as the woman was.

I heard Donald Trump say he’d never asked forgiveness from God because he’d never done anything that needed forgiving. Maybe in terms of outward actions he’s right – unless you count adultery anyway. But he’s demonstrated what his thoughts are countless times, and I think we can agree this is a man who lacks a moral compass.

Not that Hilary Clinton is any better. She just knows how and when to keep her mouth shut (mostly). Politics is rife globally with morally bankrupt pseudo-leaders claiming innocence. In South Africa, Jacob Zuma was tried for rape shortly before being elected President, and the Constitutional Court held that several hundred counts of corruption and failing to uphold the Constitution should be prosecuted against him.

It seems like anything goes these days.

Nothing it forbidden any more.

St Paul had a similar problem in the church in Rome. Much of the society there can be seen in modern attitudes. Things which were absolute negatives by Mosaic Law were so commonplace nobody noticed them as sin any more. They were just a part of the way things were. Temples had prostitutes in them – some had more than the brothels did – murder was put on daily as entertainment in the Coliseum and Circus Maximus in Rome and the amphitheatres around the Roman Empire.

What do you do when society demonstrates no moderation?World Law

Demonstrate Holiness.

Worldly society is gradually changing the rules for mankind. When warned of changes, Christians need to be the ones to initiate reforms. Throughout history for 2000 years that’s what has happened. Abolition of slavery, education for all, welfare handouts (alms), legal age of consent, age of majority, ending racism and sexism (or trying to). These have been done, and are being worked on by Christians. Men like William Wilberforce, John and Charles Wesley, William Booth, Billy Graham, CH Spurgeon and many other lesser known but equally important men and women of God have changed history.

But their focus was mainly on what was not forbidden rather than a list of decrees on stopping behaviour.

Consider your toddler. “Don’t poke the dog” is seen less as a command and more of a challenge issued to small children. My own brother died because he didn’t listen when my parents told him not to go out on his bicycle to the local garden centre because the road was too dangerous. He was nine. He caused an accident that left him dead and scarred an innocent motorist’s memory for life because of Robin’s actions.

No, “thou shalt not” has never been particularly effective. Even the death penalty doesn’t deter people these days. And why should it? Popular society has decreed there is no literal Hell, the devil doesn’t exist and God is this guy in a dressing-gown with a beard down to his knees who is a vegan pacifist. Of course that god would let anyone in to heaven.

But there are moral absolutes. God’s opinion on sinful thoughts and actions is perfectly clear. The Bible also says God does not change, but rather:

Jesus Christ is [eternally changeless, always] the same yesterday and today and forever

Hebrews 13:8 (Amplified)

The Holy Spirit gives Peter a vision of all kinds of animals lowered in a blanket from Heaven, and he is invited to kill and eat (Hebrews 10 & 11) both kosher and ceremonially unclean animals. (Personally I’m glad. I love bacon!) This is an echo of Jesus’ words that it is not what we eat, but what comes out of our mouths in the form of anger or hate that makes us “unclean”.

All things are lawful [that is, morally legitimate, permissible], but not all things are beneficial or advantageous. All things are lawful, but not all things are constructive [to character] and edifying [to spiritual life]. Let no one seek [only] his own good, but [also] that of the other person.

1 Corinthians 10:23-24 (Amplified)

In the New Covenant, Jesus has completed the Law and granted permission to us to act how we choose. But Paul shows this freedom is only free because it has boundaries of morality and decency.

Not all things are good for us – even if the law of the World says they are ok. Man’s laws must be placed behind God’s, and it’s our place as Christians to see that they are.

Now before the extreme right wing gets their rifles out let me quantify that. (For the extreme right wing, that means I’m going to break it into small words for you so you understand.)

We should seek to protect those who cannot protect or speak for themselves. That includes babies being terminated.

PUT THE RIFLE DOWN!

It NEVER means “go shoot the doctor and blow up the clinic”. There are times when the safety of the mother needs to be considered. In the case of pregnancy by rape, the issue must never be an absolute forbidding of termination.

What it does mean to be “pro-choice” is that you are free to make the choice before the pregnancy. Sex outside marriage is not God’s plan, but if you’re going to do it at least make sure no unplanned pregnancy can happen. Abortion should never be a contraceptive option. No baby should be aborted because they will be inconvenient.

Sex before marriage is permissible in so far as it’s no longer something to be executed for, but it’s not beneficial for us. It gets in the way of our relationship with God.

I love “Bones” on TV. One of the greatest things is the battle inside Booth, the “good” Catholic, over his standing with God before he marries Brennan. He has a child with her and they live together but he can’t go to confession any more because he would have to confess sexual immorality and he can’t get absolution because his confession needs to be from a place where he will repent and completely stop the unGodly behaviour, but he won’t because he’s “in love” with Brennan.

Forgiveness is hard to come by when everything is forbidden.

It’s easy to go to God and be forgiven when it’s something we didn’t mean to do, want to do and will never do again. But when it’s something that brings a little happiness it makes it difficult. Blocks between us and God get put in place the second we say “forbidden”.

Samuel L Jackson’s character in “The Negotiator” tells his colleague to never say “No” to a hostage taker. It closes options.

God, I believe, recognises this in us. He meets us where we are.

And what was forcibly forbidden under the Old Covenant is more gently guided out of society through forgiveness and repentance – the complete turning away from these actions that threaten our relationship with God.

Forbidding leads to intolerance and hate.

And there’s enough of that without the Church adding to the mayhem. We should be the Peacemakers.

Anger Management

“Be angry, and do not sin” Ephesians 4:26a

I have a temper. This I know. I’ve struggled with it for most of my life. More than lust, more than anything else I get angry. I see red.

Especially when someone I love has been hurt.

But not exclusively.

Anger gives place to the enemy in my life. It always has done. I have a mean streak that can be downright sadistic at times, and it’s not something I’m proud of. This is a confession, not a boast. It is the source of my greatest weakness, but when channelled correctly it can be a source of great Godly strength.

Unfortunately for me, most of the time it get misdirected.

We all have an aspect which allows the enemy to get a foothold in our hearts. Mine happens to be my temper, but I know people who struggle with greed, lust, envy and all manner of things that can be positive attributes if we use them the way God intends.

What it comes down to at the end of the day is pride.

It’s a sense of being wronged either by a perceived sleight, or someone else getting the promotion, the raise, the lotto win or anything where we believe ourselves to me more “deserving” than the other.

Sometimes it’s not wrong. I have had several people through the last 30 years come to me for help because they have been raped, assaulted or abused in some way. It’s not wrong to feel anger about the event. Nobody deserves that kind of tragedy in their life. It’s not wrong to be angry that cancer has afflicted a member of your circle. God hates those things. When Christ returns and the World is destroyed and reborn they will cease to exist. All pain and anguish will vanish and we will be left with Joy.

The problem for me – and many others – is the inability to separate the action from the perpetrator. Christ drove out the money-changers and traders from the Temple (twice) because He was overcome by zeal for the Holiness of God, not hatred for the men themselves. He went to the Cross as much for the traders as He did for the Disciples. Some of them may have been in the 5000 added to the Christian numbers after Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost in Acts. Others may have never returned to the job. For all we know, Zaccheus may have been among them.

Anger in itself is not sinful. Consider Jesus’s actions:

  1. He sees the Temple court being used for decidedly ungodly trade
  2. He looks around for cords and takes the time to braid them into a whip
  3. He takes the whip and marches into the Temple
  4. He starts a riot. Tables are overturned. Animals are driven into a frenzy.
  5. His anger is controlled. He gently releases the doves rather than throwing the cages to the floor

There is nothing pacifistic about the actions of Jesus that day. The Renaissance paintings portraying Jesus as about 120lbs soaking wet cannot be accurate. Could such a man single-handedly cause such a riot? This was a freight-train power, unstoppable and immutable. Hardly a nine-stone wimp’s actions. I weigh over 200lbs and I doubt I could do what Jesus did that day.

Yet there was no sin in His behaviour. It was a measured, calculated and controlled use of force. There are no recorded injuries from His actions (except the pride of the traders). Even the animals are unhurt, if a little panicked. Sinless anger.

Would that this were my skill.

I don’t fare well when I’m angry. And people get hurt. Usually emotionally, but I’ve been known to throw a punch (although not in the last 26 years or so). But that capacity is constantly present, just below the surface.

Paul says we need to take our thoughts captive and submit them to Christ. It’s something I struggle with. I remember Tony Campolo, a man whom I respect but don’t always agree with, at a festival in 1990 in England saying he was once asked “Would you be free from your burden of sin” and his response was “Ya know, it’s not really that b2ec7-p1030925_editedmuch of a burden. Actually I like it. I wouldn’t do it so much if I didn’t enjoy it!”

I can identify with that when it comes to anger. It’s a place I feel comfortable. It’s familiar to me. Anger has been a refuge for me for 30 years. I hide in it and let my sheer physical strength and mental brute force run amok of anything that gets in the way.

Hardly Godly.

But we are called to control ourselves. Or rather we are called to submit ourselves to God before we react. For me that’s a work in progress.

But we can make progress.

I have more peace in my heart now than I did when I began writing this post a few hours ago. Nothing externally has changed, in fact in some ways things have got more complicated.