I love this quote from a book I once read: “Those who walk the narrow path are more likely to fall off the edge!” It popped back into my head last week as I was rereading Paul’s letter to the Colossians.
In Colossians 2:16-23, Paul discusses the spiritual futility of rigidly following human rules, such avoiding certain foods, or celebrating special religious holidays—not that we can or cannot do these things (I avoid sugar, for example), but that we can’t earn our way to heaven, or even become more holy, by doing them. He ends his comments with this surprising conclusion:
Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
At first glance, this seems to go against common sense. After all, shouldn’t strict adherence to a list of rules make us more holy? Apparently it doesn’t work that way. I wondered why.
Legalism—defined as the dependence on moral law rather than on personal religious faith—is actually a way of avoiding God. Legalism points our attention in the wrong direction. It’s easier to consult a list of rules than it is to spend time getting to know a Person. We’re concentrating on avoiding what we shouldn’t do, rather than focusing on God.
I compare it to dieting. In my rather extensive experience, diets rarely work, at least for long. Perhaps that’s because when we’re dieting, we’re focused on food—and usually it’s the food we shouldn’t eat! It would be far better to distract ourselves with interests and activities that have no calories. I typically lose weight over the summer because I’m outside gardening, birding, and generally enjoying the great outdoors. But I gain it back (with interest) when the weather is cold and I’m indoors keeping company with the refrigerator.
Rules have another problem. Let’s take the Sabbath as an example. God’s commandment in Exodus 20:8-10 is pretty clear:
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.
There’s even a detailed explanation. Yet, we’re still arguing over what is involved in keeping the Sabbath. What does “keeping it holy” actually mean? Does the Sabbath have to be a Sunday—or Saturday? Is it work if we’re having fun? Can we mow the lawn, or go shopping? How about going out to eat—doesn’t that force the cooks and waiters to work? Or should we go to church and then sit around all afternoon praying and reading the Bible? What if church is your work, as with a pastor or worship leader? We end up tied in knots. We end up like the Pharisees!
God never intended us to follow a list of rules. The Law was given to point out our sin, not to make us perfect (Romans 3:20). So why do we think rules will help us now?
In Galatians 5, Paul writes,
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. … So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh … if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
What are we free from? Following the rules! Don’t let a pile of dos and don’ts keep you from knowing God!