Why Following the Rules Didn’t Bring Me Closer to God

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Up until the last few years, a major theme of my spirituality has been rule following. I learned and have always believed that while God loves you no matter what, God will not completely accept or bless you if you consciously sin over and over again.

The problem was this thing called “sin.” When we did bad things, we hurt God and ourselves. God didn’t like it when we did this so he would discourage our behavior by withholding good things from us. I liked good things, so my focus quickly became defining and avoiding sin. I didn’t drink, smoke, curse, go to parties, or hang out with the “bad crowd.” I didn’t even listen to non-Christian music, just in case.

While there were always hints that something was off, I felt pretty good about my life. While my friends were out sinning, I was home, reading the Bible and thanking God I had made good choices. Teachers, parents and virtually every adult seemed to agree; they were constantly telling me how good I was and how God was pleased with me.

This continued until my mid-twenties when I went through a major shift in how I related to God. I had just started to meet with a spiritual mentor, and immediately I could tell that something was different. Instead of praising me like all other adults had, he challenged me:

‘In the Bible, there was this group of people. They were known for how good they were at following God’s commandments. Everyone looked up to them. But then Jesus showed up. He said that the rules of following God had changed. It was no longer about righteous living. The emphasis was no longer on the effort you put forth – it was now on the effort God put forth. This group – the Pharisees – didn’t like this. They saw Jesus as playing fast-and-loose with the rules. So they started to plan to kill him.”

Under the pretense of trying to do what was right, I had allowed myself to fall into the dangerous trap of legalism. And when I saw it in the plain light of day, I realized that my focus on rules had not drawn me closer to God. On the contrary, my legalism had drawn me into one of the most infamous camps of people in history – the ones who regularly spoke out against Jesus and the people he loved.

Looking back, my legalism wasn’t fueled as much by my opposition to grace (like the Pharisees), but as a means of getting what I wanted from God. In his book, Hearing God, Dallas Willard expands on the idea of legalism as a means of control:

“Legalism is superstition. The legalistic tendencies found throughout our religious and cultural life also thrust us toward superstition. Legalism claims that overt action in conforming to rules for explicit behavior is what makes us right and pleasing to God and worthy of blessing. Jesus called legalism “the righteousness . . . of the scribes and Pharisees” (Mt 5:20). Legalism, superstition and magic are closely joined by their emphasis on controlling people and events.”

It took me several years to begin to seriously work my way out of legalism, but in the time since, I have found the ability to live more in the life that Jesus offers: grace and peace.

Here are 3 insights that I have found helpful to have a healthier relationship with God and “the rules” in general:

1: Learn from the “Tax Collectors” and “Sinners”

One striking thing about the Gospels is that the group of people who you think are doing everything right are actually doing everything wrong. The groups of people who do everything wrong, we are told, are actually doing everything right. On paper, the Pharisees were closer to Jesus. They knew the Bible and they were good at obeying the rules. And yet, this is the group that regularly fought with Jesus. Jesus said that even though they were close to God on paper, they were moving away from Him.

If there was one group that Jesus went out of his way to love and spend time with, it was the “sinners.” People who broke the rules. People who were excluded and avoided because of how far away from God they were. And yet, Jesus said they were coming in ahead of the Pharisees (Matt. 21:31).

Jesus came to say that God’s favor was no longer equated with obedience as it had been in the Old Testament. The most important thing was himself. Whether you followed the rules or couldn’t stop breaking them all, as long as you focused on moving towards him, you didn’t have to worry.

2) Boundaries are useful but are best when they are created with Jesus himself

As I began to escape my life of legalism, I saw just how much freedom I had. This was liberating but scary at the same time. “If I’m not blindly following arbitrary rules, how do I make choices that are healthy?” I might have been misusing good behavior to get God’s favor, but that doesn’t mean that I was supposed to avoid good behavior. I just needed a better relationship with it.

Thankfully, before Jesus’ ascension, he spoke about this. He said that he would send the Holy Spirit would who would “teach you all things” (John 14:26) and “guide you into all truth” (John 16:13).

In practice, this means that as I regularly interact with Jesus’ Holy Spirit, He will guide me in how to live. Sometimes this means that we create a boundary together. This boundary might not be “sinful” or “immoral” to break, but life is easier if I respect it. Sometimes we decide that a behavior is allowed, but best experienced in moderation. Still other times we decide that I have the freedom to do something that other people do not have. (E.g., I have the freedom to drink alcohol while an alcoholic interacting with Jesus may create a boundary that restricts this behavior.)

I have found that living this way has many benefits:

  • I don’t have to do as much wrestling in figuring out if something is right or wrong. If I’m curious, I take it to Jesus and we figure it out together.
  • The Bible can be used for connecting with God since I rely on it less to define what is and what is not sin.
  • It’s easier to stick to boundaries that Jesus and I create vs. strict rules other people create.

I’ve come to understand that this is a radically different way of living from using Jesus’ own words as a new set of rules. It’s no longer about guilt, shame, and judging because my relationship with God is no longer based on “righteous living.” That was the Old Covenant, not the New.

Whenever I feel myself slip back, I remember: Jesus didn’t give us a better way of living by giving us a new set of rules. When Jesus talked with sinners, he didn’t encourage them to be better rule followers. He encouraged them to connect with him.

3) Help Someone

One of the problems with focusing on the rules is that you are often focused on what to avoid. “Don’t do this or this or this.” I had focused so much on avoiding sin that I regularly missed opportunities to connect with God through action.

There’s a story in the Gospels where Jesus talks, rather harshly, about how we will be rewarded or punished when we die. Surprisingly, he doesn’t mention anything about avoiding sin or having the correct theological beliefs. Instead, he says that if you want to have eternal life you should 1) Feed the hungry, 2) Give drink to the thirsty, 3) Invite strangers into your homes, 5) Give clothes to those without clothes, and 5) Visit people who are sick or in prison. (Source)

In many respects, Jesus seems to care more about the good you can do than the rules you follow or the sin that you avoid.

In his book, Echoes of the Soul, John Phillip Newell pursues this idea further:

The early Celtic teacher Pelagius makes the point that love does not just restrain us from stealing, for instance. Much more importantly it inspires us to share our possessions. ‘I do not wish you to suppose that righteousness consists simply in not doing evil since not to do good is also evil’, he says. ‘Indeed, you are instructed … not only not to take bread away from one who has it but willingly to bestow your own on one who has none.’ Pelagius indicates that the person who is rich and refuses to share food with the hungry may be causing more deaths than a terrible murderer. Jesus’ judgment parable in Matthew 25 is a story of condemnation not against those who actively have broken the law but against those who passively have done nothing about sharing themselves and their resources.

Are there any areas of your life which you have bought into “Old Testament” living? Maybe you were like me and assumed that following the rules (legalism) or always improving your behavior (moralism) would make you more loved or accepted by God. What ways have you learned to combat these areas? How will you grow in these areas moving forward?

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