(Excerpt from a larger work)
[…] Do you see the slippery slope of rule-keeping? I know a lot of people who are poster-child Christians (when the congregation is watching), but they are among the biggest sinners I know; sinners because they deny the free heart of a living God within them. Rest assured, they know the stories, the history, and the liturgy, but they are gloomy cynics with painted on smiles, secretly filled with disdain, regret, and reproach. They are trapped in a miserable existence living under the tyrannical supernatural master who they say loves them infinitely, but yet, they are drowning in a sad life of judgmental rule-following. And that, friends, is sin at its very best—and worst. I know, because I grew up in church and I’ve been this person for too many years.
To simplify, allow me to list some things that are definite sins: money, drink, food, sex, relationships, church, jobs, education, and rules. Now allow me to list some things that glorify our Father: money, drink, food, sex, relationships, church, jobs, education, and rules.
Confused? Of course you are, because we’ve been lied to about the very nature of “sin.” So let me break it down this way: Anything you turn to and rely on for fulfillment, comfort, and peace instead of turning to our Father; anything you place before him is your idol, your god, your sin. And that’s something different for all of us. If you’re hurting and you reach for a bottle instead of reaching for your Father, then drinking is your sin. However, enjoying a beer with friends is not a sin. If you’re feeling lonely and you think the physical touch of another with fulfill you, then sex might be your sin. Meanwhile, God created sex to be an incredible, blessed experience for us to enjoy.
Are you getting this?
Sin is turning away from God, not breaking the rules. You must get that straight if you are to be free. To worry about following rules, you’re putting yourself in the hands of the mob that wants to stone the adulterous woman (they even want to stone Christ!). After all, they were just leaning on the structure they thought to be God’s rules.
Friends, let’s just be honest and name the elephant in the room: The very nature of religion can become sinful if you’re not careful. Why else would you be warned to “Guard your heart”? (Proverbs 4:23). And not just casually, but “Above all else.” What would inspire Paul to remind us that “Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law”? (Galatians 5:1). Personally, I love the clarity of Matthew 11:28-30 from The Message:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
Unforced rhythms of Grace?
Um … yes, please!
Now, let me be clear. I’m not saying that church tradition, laws, or anything of the sort are evil and should be opposed. Quite the contrary; much of the beauty of a life with God can be found in those things. As we find in Psalm 119:32: “I run in the path of your commandments because you have set my heart free.” But notice that the freedom to run with God comes from the heart, not some socially-prescribed set of rules. I have come to love my neighbor because I WANT to love my neighbor. In fact, I can’t help but feel empathy and compassion for my neighbor (and my enemy). But it’s because of something God has done in my heart, not because “the Bible tells me so.”
The question becomes, how do we embrace those rules and traditions without sacrificing the freedom of heart in the process? Again, look inside yourself. What is God speaking to your heart? You will find your Father’s law within the convictions he has placed within your soul. But be prepared for resistance and ridicule from those who can’t understand. As Paul wrote,
“But the person who is not a Christian does not understand these words from the Holy Spirit. He thinks they are foolish. He cannot understand them because he does not have the Holy Spirit to help him understand. The full-grown Christian understands all things, and yet he is not understood.”
1 Corinthians 2: 14-15 (NLV)
This gets back to your question for God: Who am I? It amazes me the number of Christians who have never prayerfully asked this. As a result, they still have no clue. So they continue posing behind their looking glass. However, “the greater a person’s awareness of himself, the more he can acquire the wisdom of his fathers to make it his. It is the persons who are weak in the sense of their own personal identity who are overcome by the power of tradition, who cannot stand in its presence, and who therefore either capitulate to it, cut themselves off from it, or rebel against it” (Rollo May, Man’s Search for Himself). A person who is strong in the presence of the Lord is one who can embrace tradition, but remain true to the unique mission God has given them. In other words, not all ducks look the same. Some of them have four legs, a flowing mane, and they race like the wind in the Kentucky Derby.
Did you get that?
Isn’t this exactly where we find the boy, David? He’s standing on solid ground with one foot firmly planted in tradition and one foot solid in the reality of self (the convictions God has placed within the boy). Uniquely qualified, the boy steps out in faith. David sees himself as a player in a larger story and breaks free of what the authorities would expect of him. He confirms that he is fighting God’s battle (he’s a participant, not just a pawn—that’s worth noting), but he won’t fight the battle according to traditional wisdom. He refuses the trappings of battle armor. Keenly aware of his abilities and his weaknesses, he shuns “expert advice” and follows a voice of truth that only he can hear. David puts himself—a simple stone—in the hands of God to be used in the manner and purpose of his unique design, and he actively participates in that. David reveals a life being lived from the inside out. He shows us what Christ really meant when he said that we could only enter the kingdom if we came like children.
I reiterate: Tradition is not a bad thing. However, be careful in how you view it. If you rely too heavily on tradition, it will actually keep you from an experience with the real Jesus. You’ll find yourself stoning him and never even realize it (we see this daily in the Christian community–just watch the news). If you approach tradition as a question of what it requires of you, then you’re treating an ancient past as your idol, your god (and, yes, your sin). But if you celebrate tradition with the full understanding that God has provided that history for you to learn and grow from so you can find your way to him as a unique individual with a free heart, then you are starting to embrace the meaning of Jesus’ mission.