I’m really good at keeping the commandments. You know the ones: you shall not murder, shall not covet, shall not misspell someone’s name, shall not miscommunicate, shall not go more than two days without washing your hair, shall not take a wrong turn, shall not eat junk food, shall not sleep in, shall not wear white after Labor Day, shall not forget a friend’s birthday. These are the laws our religion was founded on and I take them very, very seriously.
Of course, I’m joking. Kind of. I really do take these things seriously, even when I wish I could just stop. Do you ever beat yourself up over the littlest or even nonexistent things? Do you lie awake in bed wishing with all your might you could take away that stupid thing you said? Do you feel your heart sink when you deeply disappoint mankind by missing an exit? I do.
Five minutes late is late, period. Missing one event is “not being there for them.” Letting the bathroom get grime-y means I’m a lazy bum, unworthy of love. You think I’m joking. I have to combat this sort of self-deprecation constantly, but it’s not easy. It’s tricky because it comes disguised in the best intentions. I’m “just trying to do my best.” I’m “trying to improve myself.” I’m “trying to be a good daughter/sister/friend.” I am “trying to be a good example.” I am trying, trying, trying.
So what’s wrong with trying?
You know what the biggest problem with all these added commandments is? I’m totally ignoring the first commandment…from the real ten commandments of the Bible. Exodus 20 starts with these words;
“And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.”
When I add to the law, when I literally try to save myself, it’s almost as if I am spitting in the face of the nly One Who could save me. He already “brought me out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Who am I to say, as the Israelites complained, that I wish I was a slave again? I am not a slave to the bondage of whips and bricks, but of something crueler: shame and guilt. Isn’t that reminiscent of the Proverb which says a dog returns to its own vomit?
When I mutter that I’m “good for nothing,” “a screw-up,” or “so stupid,” I should really be asking myself, “Who dares speak of His daughter that way?” Am I brave enough to even ask?
He is the LORD our God, the one One who could bring us out of Egypt. He already liberated me from slavery so I would never have to return. All He asks of me is that I have no other gods before Him, and what’s the first thing I do? I make my worldly image into an idol. I polish it every day with good deeds. I set it on a high pedestal of saying the right thing at the right time. I adorn it with a little crown of good taste and outward beauty; then I bow down before it and worship it.
How do I know I worship this idol? Because when I “fail,” I don’t feel obligated toward God, I feel obligated toward myself. When I sin against God, I am convicted; I repent and receive forgiveness. When I break one of the commandments my idol has given me, I don’t think about the Living God who brought me out of slavery, I think about that idol. And you know what? That idol is not full of mercy. It’s full of judgment and only judgment. There is no grace from the god of self. There is no father running toward the prodigal son, robe in hand. There is no fatted calf waiting inside; just cold, heartless judgment. “You failed,” it says. “You are a disappointment.”
Sin vs. Mistakes
Do you want to know something? Wearing the wrong shade of lipstick for your skin tone is not a sin. You only feel like it is because you worship what others think of you. Neither is missing church every once in a while. There’s nothing wrong with sending an email to the wrong person every now and then or dialing the wrong number. Going to bed with a long, unchecked to-do list does not damn you. There is not a special place in hell for people who use dry shampoo and put off washing their hair one more day, and you won’t burn for eating real sugar sometimes. Remember that Jesus literally spoke these words while on earth, “Do not worry about what you eat or drink or wear.” Do we believe Him, even a little?
1 John 3 says:
“There is a way to know that we belong to the truth. Even though our inner thoughts may condemn us with storms of guilt and constant reminders of our failures, we can know in our hearts that in His presence, God Himself is greater than any accusation. He knows all things. My loved ones, if our hearts cannot condemn us, then we can stand with confidence before God. Whatever we may ask, we receive it from Him, because we follow His commandments and take the path that pleases Him.”
Now I’m going to put my own words in between John’s if you don’t mind:
“There is a way to know we belong to the truth. Even though our inner thoughts may condemn us with storms of guilt and constant reminders of our failures (Um, has he been in my head at 2 a.m.?) we can know in our hearts that in His presence, God Himself is greater than any accusation (even the really strong ones!) He knows all things (failures included, since the beginning of time). My loved ones (that’s us: our biggest characteristic is “loved”!), if our hearts cannot condemn us, then we can stand with confidence before God (which is what we want, right?). Whatever we may ask (acceptance, purpose, love) we receive it from Him (not from self or others,) because we follow His commandments (not my own) and take the path that pleases Him.”
Lazy Grace vs. Holy Rest
Grace is not an excuse to be lazy; it’s a reason to rest. There is a massive difference therein which I am still learning about, day-by-day. I know it sounds corny, but I’m Jesus’ little girl. He doesn’t want me worrying about things that He easily handles for me. He delights in caring for me. He delights in me. He bought me with a steep price and I have no right to return to slavery of any kind, especially the kind of bondage the Pharisees tried to enslave Him with. 1 John goes on to tell us what we are supposed to do.
“His command is clear: believe in the name of His son, Jesus the Anointed, and love one another as He commanded. The one who follows His teaching and walks this path lives in an intimate relationship with God. How do we know that He lives in us? By the gift of the Spirit.” (1 John 3:23-24, The Voice)
So your to-do list is as follows:
- Believe in Jesus.
- Love other people.
- Have an intimate relationship with God.
- Accept the gift of the Spirit (who guides us, no extra rules or shame required).
Jesus didn’t hire you, He bought your freedom. He didn’t recruit you, He fell in love with you. We are slaves to liberty and we cannot go back.
Punishment vs. Discipline
In 1998 I was in Kindergarten. My parents enrolled me in public school in the small town where my dad’s job had recently landed us. I was the kind of kid who was talkative at home and silent as the grave in public. (Actually, I’m still pretty quiet around people I don’t know!) In this school, we weren’t supposed to talk during lunch. It was a rule. A commandment. I was a good girl. I sometimes got in trouble at home for being dramatic or sassy, but almost never for breaking a rule.
However, it will come as no surprise to you that walking around with a megaphone yelling, “No talking! No talking!” doesn’t do much to silence a huge cafeteria full of students, K-4th grade. After all, we couldn’t talk much during class either! Day after day the teachers walked through the cafeteria yelling, “No talking!” As the sound of a couple hundred kids’ voices buzzed around me. Occasionally one of my peers tried to engage me in conversation but I simply zoned out, never making a peep. I knew that no teacher would know if I joined in the throng of chatter, but I was dead-set on obedience. Unfortunately, because there was no real way for the handful of teachers with megaphones to gauge who was talking and who wasn’t, and they probably assumed 100% of us were, my class occasionally had to sit out during recess for our disregard for the rules. On the sidewalk. In the sun. In south Texas.
I tell you this story not so that you’ll feel sorry for me (after all, my parents pulled me out of that school after one year!) but to give you a real life example of what “punishment” is. Punishment can come from a parent or teacher or friend or from yourself. Punishment is something painful we receive to somehow make the world more balanced. You do something bad, you get something bad. Thankfully for us, God never punishes His children; He disciplines us.
I told you that I sometimes got in trouble at home. We lived in a three-story, Victorian house at the time and the laundry room was upstairs, near the bedroom I shared with my two sisters. It had bubblegum pink, textured wallpaper. I remember it vividly because I spent more time in there than anyone other than my mother, who actually handled our laundry! I was highly sensitive and deeply emotional (to put it flatteringly) and I would occasionally throw temper tantrums, especially when I was two and three. When I would go into a fit, my mother would bring me into the laundry room, sit me on a low stool and tell me to let her know when I was finished screaming. The door was a pocket door with no knob if I recall correctly. It is obvious to me now that the sound of my “emotions” more than penetrated that barrier, but at the time, I was made to believe I was alone and not bothering anyone.
Sometimes my mother would pop her head in, mid-wail, and ask if I was finished with my tantrum. Sometimes the answer was yes, sometimes it was no! Eventually, I would get myself together and join the family. I think this practice had a 100% success rate. This discipline didn’t hurt me, and allowed me to properly rejoin society. That’s the kind of discipline God uses with us.
God is love and everything He does is love, even if it’s a side of love we aren’t very familiar with on earth. He is a consistent disciplinarian with His children, but He only disciplines to move us away from danger and back onto “the path that pleases Him,” (which likewise blesses us). I love the way The Voice puts 1 John 4:18:
“Love will never invoke fear. Perfect love expels fear, particularly the fear of punishment. The one who fears punishment has not been completed through love.”
If you’ve ever tried to love a “child from a hard place” as the late Dr. Karyn Purvis described, you understand that last bit about not being “completed through love.” Even when they are acting out, these children are often operating from a place of fear of punishment. In order to heal and to let go of their fears, they must be completed through love.
Bound by Rules or Completed in Love?
When I “try to improve myself” and realize I’m actually worshipping the idol of self or the idol of approval, what I am really saying is that I have not been completed in love. I am afraid of punishment. Maybe Jesus’ blood missed a spot–a spot that I could cover with my own efforts and a few extra commandments. Maybe being perfect and wonderful and beloved in the eyes of God isn’t enough for me. I wonder if maybe I need to be “something special” in the eyes of the world.
We have all seen the stark contrast of a child who obeys out of respect and a child who obeys out of fear of punishment. The action may be the same, but the attitude and motivation are wildly different. When I am completed in love, I’m able to obey My Father with a joyful heart, and I’m not tempted to add anything to the bountiful grace and sufficient guidelines He has offered. I obey out of love, not fear of punishment, and I seek to please Him, not self or others. I don’t worry that He’s trying to trick me or trip me up, because I know His deep affection for me. In other words, I trust Him to make it all right. I trust Him to love me and perfect me and accept me.
“Trying, trying, trying” can seem like a worthwhile endeavor, but it gets you nowhere but a tangled web of legalities and shame. So I encourage you:
Run from your slavery. Royalty was never meant for shackles.
Run from punishment. True Love will never invoke fear.
Run to your Father. He’s beyond ready to embrace you.
Photography: JenniMarie Photography