We had a big garden behind our farmhouse. I remember it being close to forty acres—at least through the eyes of a boy seeing nothing but weeds. One of my jobs in the summer was to pull up all those weeds in this half‐acre plot of vegetables. After all these years, I still see myself standing there, carefully studying which weed I should pull up next… when Dad's voice would rudely interrupt: “Mike, you walk around like the dead lice are falling off you!” I guess he meant I should speed things up.
I was confused. My school teacher would assign us a poem saying something about “smelling the roses, or enjoying the moment”… I wasn't quite sure what it meant, but it sounded good. Dad would holler at me to get back to work. My Sunday school teacher would tell me how much God loved me even when I was bad. The preacher would tell me that I would go to hell if I wasn't good.
What exactly does God expect from us? What is the work we do? When are we doing too little? And when are we doing too much?
If you didn't grow up in church I have to introduce you to some church lingo, specifically “law” and “grace.” Think of God's law in much the same way as you do man's laws. If you get caught breaking the law (and with God you always get caught) then you'll be subject to some kind of punishment. Think of grace as the judge who gives you a break instead of giving you a sentence.
Man's calendar has a single point of reference—the life of Jesus. The year 1 BC means one year “before Christ.” The year 1 AD means year one “in the year of our Lord.” Of course, attempts are made to disguise this single reference point in the history of man by using alternate names, such as the “common era” or CE. But Jesus still remains the pivotal point in man's history.
Before Christ, God expected us to do what He said:
Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you today; and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn aside from the way which I command you today, to go after other gods which you have not known. (Deuteronomy 11:26–28 NKJV)
After Christ, God still expects us to do what He says:
If you love Me, keep My commandments. (John 14:15 NKJV)
Adam and Eve started off with a simple set of rules:
- Be fruitful and multiply. Replenish and subdue the earth (see Genesis 1:28)
- Maintain the Garden of Eden (see Genesis 2:15)
- Don't eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (see Genesis 2:17)
By the time the “before Christ” era was finished, Jewish tradition teaches there were 613 commandments in place. Since Adam and Eve couldn't even keep the first three, I'm not quite sure how we were expected to keep over 600 more.
Before Christ, God's law functioned in a similar way to man's laws today. God put His laws in place to control externally what people wouldn't control internally. And man's laws follow the same pattern.
I grew up in a rural area. There were no speed limits or traffic signs on dirt roads—no need for laws. People had enough sense to control their driving without someone else having to tell them. And the occasional idiot was dealt with on a personal basis.
One of our neighbors lived in the next‐to‐last house on a long dirt road. The kid in the last house would race by, filling his house with dust (no air conditioning back then, so the windows were always open in warm weather). When talking to the kid didn't solve the problem, the neighbor put a utility pole across the road, which knocked the front end out from under the kid's vehicle. And the speeding stopped.
But when rural areas are developed and roads are paved, laws are required because the number of idiots out driving increases to a hazardous level. And when people won't control themselves internally, they have to be controlled externally—for the safety of the general public.
Let me add a personal note here: Not all of man's laws are put in place to protect the welfare of the general public. The laws put in place to raise money from fines/penalties or to engineer social changes are dangerous to a free people, and we should hold elected officials accountable for such laws.
If we lived in the BC era, man's laws and God's laws worked pretty much the same way—be good and you're left alone, be bad and you're punished. But that's where the similarities end.
If we are to ever figure out the work we do, we must stop thinking from a “man's law” perspective. Man's law is always about controlling external behavior, while God's law is always about working on the inside.
Back in my Chicago days, I didn't care about the internal behavior of criminals. I only cared about their external behavior; I didn't want to be mugged or robbed. I didn't care what they might feel about me; I only cared about they might do to me.
Back in grade school, I didn't care if Johnny wanted my Crayons; I only cared about whether he would steal them during recess. My focus was on controlling his behavior; it never occurred to me that his rotten attitude made him want to steal my Crayons.
Let's say Johnny did steal my Crayons, but got caught the next day. First, the teacher would paddle him, and then say something like: “Johnny, give Mike back his Crayons, and tell him you're sorry.” So Johnny would hand them over (hopefully none were broken) and say, “I'm sorry.” What would have happened?
Johnny's paddling would have hurt only the surface of his butt, and his apology would have come from the teacher—not from his heart. Both the teacher and I would have been convinced that stopping the behavior was the end of the matter, not knowing the stealing was still alive and well in his heart.
And so we have become conditioned to thinking everything is about behavior… behavior… behavior. It's what's on the outside that people like or dislike. It's what's on the outside that determines our social standing. It's what's on the outside that determines our value to the world. But God is not focused on what we do; He is focused on who we are.
We create a tremendous amount of tension when we try to work on the outside, while God is at work on the inside. Over the next few days we will take a look at “law” and “grace” to better understand how we can work together with Him, instead of against Him.
Have a good weekend,