Three Ways We Say “No” To Law
I was in New York City this past weekend with some friends at The Mockingbird Conference. Best time in NYC I’ve ever had. The work and ministry of my friend David Zahl and his crew is simply the best in the biz. And I’m a hard guy to please. If you’re unfamiliar with Mockingbird, you HAVE to familiarize yourself with them. What they’re doing is unlike anything else.
Their mission is to connect the Christian faith with the everyday realities of life–”demonstrating and cataloging the myriad ways in which the Christian understanding of reality (what people are like, what God is like and how the two intersect) is born out all around us. We want to do so in a way that is both comforting and inspiring, taking care along the way to look for new words for the old story.” It’s gripping and provocative stuff.
They just published a new book entitled This American Gospel: Public Radio Parables and the Grace of God. I read the intro and first chapter last night. I laughed and cried. I felt my desperation and God’s deliverance profoundly. I connected deeply with this…I hope you do to.
The Law is shorthand for an accusing standard of performance. Whenever the Law is coming, accusation comes close behind. Whenever an expectation stands before us, we are either condemned by our failure before it, or we become condemners in our fulfillment of it. The Law is unfeeling–it tolerates no excuses, it accepts no shortcuts. The Law is good, in that it proffers a good standard (“You shouldn’t smoke”, “Love one another”, “Spend on the money you have”, etc.), but it is received as condemnation when one finds oneself incapable of fulfilling it. It is for this reason–our eventual and consistent failures–that the Law is condemnation’s prerequisite.
Failure before the Law always creates a reaction. When criticized, we defend. As Paul Zahl says, it is not so much the Law’s demand, but, “its second characteristic, it’s inability to produce the obedience it requires…we instinctively fight the law. We use a thousand arguments to criticize it and flour it. Obeying speed limits do not come naturally…”
You are brought to a moment of internal crisis, where something you are is in conflict with something you ought to be.
In the face of judgment, one response is flight. You run from what someone thinks you ought to be. You stop going to the gym, you leave home and experience the world through travel, you don’t answer their phone calls anymore, you close your eyes and cover your ears. The idea is: I know the judge isn’t leaving anytime soon, so I will. Sayonara!
Or perhaps you attempt to assassinate the judge; it’s not flight, it’s fight. You know the judge isn’t leaving anytime soon, but you’re not either, so it’s time to put up your dukes. You bicker with your boss about his unrealistic expectations, condescend about the vanity of going to the gym, blame your parents for what they’ve done to you, or wear leather and turn the speakers up.
Or maybe you appease. The judge isn’t satisfied, so you show him how hard you are trying, you’re sorry, and it’s going to get better. You decide to wear what they wear, apologize needlessly for fear they are mad at you, go to the gym from time to time and justify why you don’t go more often, or sit still and mind your manners so you don’t get barked at. Appeasement is cowering before the judge, hoping at some point the judge might understand and sympathize with your situation.
When the voice of accusation comes, how do you respond? Run? Fight? Appease? All three?
The deepest fear we have, “the fear beneath all fears”, is the fear of not measuring up, the fear of judgment. It’s this fear that creates the stress and depression of everyday life. And it comes from the fact that down deep we all know we don’t measure up and are therefore deserving of judgment. We’re aware that we fail, that what we are is not what we’re supposed to be, that “we’ve been weighed in the balances and been found wanting.” One young mother recently put it as honestly as anyone can:
Deep down, I know I should be perfect and I’m not. I feel it when someone comes into my house unannounced and there’s a mess in every corner. I know it when my children misbehave in public and I just want to hide. I can tell it when that empty feeling rises after I’ve spoken in haste, said too much, or raised my voice. There’s the feeling in my stomach that I just can’t shake when I know I’ve missed the mark of perfection.
When we feel this weight of judgment against us, we all tend to slip into the slavery of self-salvation: trying to appease the judge (friends, parents, spouse, ourselves) with hard work, good behavior, getting better, achievement, losing weight, and so on. We conclude, “If I can just stay out of trouble and get good grades, maybe my mom and dad will finally approve of me; If I can overcome this addiction, then I’ll be able to accept myself; If I can get thin, maybe my husband will finally think I’m beautiful and pay attention to me; If I can help out more with the kids, maybe my wife won’t criticize me as much; If I can make a name for myself and be successful, maybe I’ll get the respect I long for.” But, as is always the case, self-salvation projects experientially eclipse the only salvation project that can set us free from this oppression. “If we were confident of ultimate acquittal”, says Paul Zahl, “judgment from others would not possess the sting it does.”
This is what makes the Gospel such good news. It announces that Jesus came to acquit the guilty. He came to judge and be judged in our place. Christ came to satisfy the deep judgment against us once and for all so that we could be free from the judgment of God, others, and ourselves. He came to give rest to our efforts at trying to deal with stinging accusation on our own. Colossians 2:13-14 announces, “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”
The Gospel declares that our guilt has been atoned for, the law has been fulfilled. So we don’t need to live under the burden of trying to figure out whether we need to run, fight, or appease. In Christ the ultimate demand has been met, the deepest judgment has been satisfied. The atonement of Christ frees us from the fear of judgment.