When talking about “the law”, we need to make an important distinction. We can call it big “L” Law and little “l” law. Big “L” law comes from God and is outlined in the Ten Commandments, reiterated in the Sermon on the Mount, and summarized by Jesus as the command to “Love the Lord with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength…and love our neighbor” (of course, one could say more but that’s the gist of it). But there’s another law (little “l”) that plays out in all kinds of ways in daily life. Paul Zahl puts it this way:
Law with a small “l” refers to an interior principle of demand or ought that seems universal in human nature. In this sense, law is any voice that makes us feel we must do something or be something to merit the approval of another. For example, what we shall call “the law of capability” is the demand a person may feel that he/she be 100% capable in everything he/she does-or else! In the Bible, the Law comes from God. In daily living, law is an internalized principle of self-accusation. We might say that the innumerable laws we carry inside us are bastard children of the Law.
No one understood the dynamic of how the accusation of the law functions in the human psyche better than Martin Luther. He characterized the Law as, “a voice that man can never stop in this life,” one that can be heard anywhere and everywhere, not just on Sunday morning. It takes any number of forms, but its function remains the same: it accuses. Indeed, the “oughts” of life are as numerous as they are oppressive: infomercials promising a better life if you work at getting a better body, a neighbor’s new car, a beautiful person, the success of your co-worker- all these things have the potential to communicate “you’re not enough.”
The other day I was driving down the road near my house and I passed a sign in front of a store that read, “Life is the art of drawing without an eraser.” Meant to inspire drivers-by to work hard, live well, and avoid mistakes, it served as a booming voice of law to everyone that read it: “Don’t mess up. There are no second chances. You better get it right the first time.” Again, Paul Zahl chimes in insightfully:
In practice, the requirement of perfect submission to the commandments of God is exactly the same as the requirement of perfect submission to the innumerable drives for perfection that drive everyday people’s crippled and crippling lives. The commandment of God that we honor our father and mother is no different in impact, for example, than the commandment of fashion that a woman be beautiful or the commandment of culture that a man be boldly decisive and at the same time utterly tender.
The world is full to the brim with law. Not just laws of Scripture, laws of science, and tax codes, but lesser, subjective laws. And they cause us enormous grief. Indeed, identity is an area of life frequently mired in legalities: “I must be __________ kind of person, and not ___________ kind of person if I’m ever going to be somebody.”
An environment of law, as we all know, is an environment of fear. We are afraid of the judgment that the law wields. Or as the poet Czeslaw Milosz describes in his poem “A Many-Tiered Man”: “[Man] frightened of a verdict, now, for instance, or after his death.” We instinctively know that if we don’t measure up, the judge will punish us. 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; if I can make a name for myself and be successful, maybe I’ll get the respect I long for.”
The law stifles and causes us to second-guess ourselves. Have you ever found yourself writing and rewriting the same email over and over again? Or procrastinating on making a phone call? The recipient almost inevitably has become a stand-in for the law. We put people in this role with alarming facility.
The idea of “law” simply makes sense, and universally so. The Apostle Paul even claims that it is written on the heart (Romans 2:15). In fact, those that don’t believe in God tend to struggle with self-recrimination and self-hatred just as much as those that do; no one is free of guilt—the law is not subject to our belief in it. Some of us even compound our failures and suffering by heaping judgment upon judgment, intoxicated by the voice of “not-enoughness”, not content until we have usurped the role of the only One who is actually qualified to pass a sentence. In a 2005 interview with journalist Michka Assayas, U2 frontman Bono spoke eloquently about Law and Grace in terms of Karma:
At the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. What you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics, every action is met by an equal and opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the Universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you reap, so will you sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff… I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.
Against the tumult of conditionality-punishment and reward, score-keeping, Karma, you-get-what-you-deserve, big “L” Law, little “l” law, whatever name you choose—comes the second of God’s two words, His Grace. Grace is the gift that has no strings attached. It is one-way love. It is what makes the Good News so good, the once for all proclamation the there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). It is the simple equation that Jesus plus Nothing equals Everything.
The Gospel of Grace 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 judgment on our own. 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 appease the judgment we feel; in Christ the ultimate demand has been met, the deepest judgment has been satisfied. The internal voice that says “Do this and live” only get’s outvolumed by the external voice that says “It is finished!”
Yet there is nothing that is harder for us to wrap our minds around than the unconditional, non-contingent grace of God. In fact, it “defies our reason and logic,” upending our sense of fairness and offending our deepest intuitions, especially when it comes to those who have done us harm. Like Job’s friends, we insist that reality operate according to the predictable economy of reward and punishment. Like the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal son, we have worked too hard to give up now. The storm may be raging all around us, our foundations may be shaking, but we would rather perish than give up our “rights.”
Yet still the grace of God prevails! His gracious disposition toward us thankfully does not depend even on our ability to comprehend it. When we finally come to the end of ourselves, there it will be. There He will be. Just as He will be the next time we come to the end of ourselves, and the time after that, and the time after that.