In those years where loving the law was incomprehensible to me, I made some big sacrifices. Some really costly, painful sacrifices. I was proud of having made them and people regularly congratulated me for making them. However I was making them because I was afraid of what other Christians would say if I didn’t. When I was working for Christian organisations, I made them so I wouldn’t lose my job. I made them because I would no longer have been accepted by the people I wanted to be accepted by if I hadn’t. Looking back, I wonder now how God saw those sacrifices. I wonder if he might have said something like this to me: “The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me?” says the LORD. “I have more than enough of burned offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and rams and goats.” (Isaiah 1:11).
Maybe it’s a bit like if I was married and I worked to bring some money home for the family. I bought home the cash and spat on it, throwing it on the floor. I had promised on my wedding day that I would make sacrifices and so there it was. Well done me.
Or I made a meal for my family and while I stirred and baked, I listed out loud all the things I’d rather be doing if I wasn’t chained to the kitchen. I told all my friends about the wonderful meals I cooked and the money I worked hard to bring home and they all congratulated me because they’d heard me promise I would do those things. Only my spouse knew how much I resented it and how much I wished I could be free to do what pleased me. The sacrifices I had made were real enough, but their value was almost nothing because I had given them with a raging, resentful heart while at the same time basking in my own misplaced pride.
A couple of years ago while going through a difficult patch, I had the opportunity to make some choices in a more real way. I didn’t really know if I believed in God and so the desire to fit into the Christian community diminished to almost nothing. I could really do what I wanted without any consequences that I cared about. To cut a long story short, after some wrestling and wrangling I came to a point where I realised that I wanted to make the same choices and sacrifices that I had before. I wanted to. I wouldn’t lose a job, I wouldn’t be rejected, but still, it was the right thing to do. This time though it was my choice.
Going back to the wedding analogy, it’s so much more pleasant for the spouse to eat a meal that has been put on the table having been made lovingly and willingly. It’s so much easier to get up in the morning for work when you’re doing it for someone you love.
This is actually grace and freedom in practice.
It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the way to make Christians obedient is to make lots of rules that they have to follow, and make lots of punishments for when they don’t. The punishments don’t even have to be that big, just things like tacit disapproval, negative labels and guilt. Such a simple plan – what could possibly go wrong? There are some large, ‘successful’ churches that operate on this philosophy and there are people who think that this is the essence of Christianity. The problem is that this produces Christians like the ones I just described. People like I was. It produces Christians who are obedient out of fear and social pressure, or who are disobedient, but become experts at hiding it because of fear and social pressure. It produces a culture of mask-wearing and superficiality for fear of being ‘found out’. It makes no allowances for failure, which further perpetuates guilt and the fear of exposure, and it does this universally because every single Christian will fall short of its ideals. In short, it does nothing to reach the human heart.
OK, so it’s not a perfect plan. It’s clearly a rubbish one. So why is it so pervasive in parts of the Christian subculture? I think it’s attractive because it feels so safe. Rules make us feel safe because we know where we stand with them. We know what we can and cannot do, and we know that everyone else will operate within the same confines. We are all contained and uniform. Safe.
Grace, on the other hand, is dangerous.
I had this teacher at school called Ms Ashcroft when I was 10 or 11. She was new and the first thing she said to us was that in reality she had no actual control over us. She said that if we wanted to, we could all get up and walk out of the classroom right then and there. At the end of the day, it was us that chose how we were going to behave. Honestly, it was like something out of Dead Poets Society. What she said caused us all to snigger as we realised that we could, in fact walk out of the classroom –there was nothing stopping us. It felt very exciting in that moment. But we quickly realised we didn’t want to. This teacher gave us the respect of showing us that we had the power and ability to make choices and that we were responsible for the consequences. No-one had ever spoken to us like that before and we loved her for it. Plus she was the first teacher to let us have a class hamster.
Obviously it’s not a perfect analogy, but it provides a hint towards why grace works when on paper it looks like it shouldn’t. When I apply it to my original thought about sacrifice, grace means that I realised for the first time that when the pressures of people and their opinions of me were removed, it was like it was just me and God in the room. And God, to my surprise, didn’t sound like all those people in my life (or at least how I chose to hear them). He said that grace means I’m free to make whatever choice I want and his love for me will be totally unchanged. That there is no trick or small print, his love for me would be as big and wonderful and limitless and unfathomable if I was the sacrificial hero I thought that everyone expected me to be, or if I was a sell out and a failure and I let everyone down. He was able to say that because it wasn’t the sacrifice that interested him anyway.
He was interested in me.
Now that is a profoundly dangerous way for God to operate, because it means that I am truly free. I am free to disobey him. I am free to give up sacrifices and free to walk away from him. Free to get out of my primary school chair, and just walk out of the classroom.
It was only when that freedom to disobey was a lived reality that I was also truly free to obey.
God’s mad gamble pays off because he knows how captivating Love is. Anyone in a loving marriage would find the analogies earlier on ludicrous, because why would you behave that way with someone you love? You wouldn’t. Not because you promised not to in your wedding vows and you are obliged to stick to those promises and follow those rules, but because you love them, they love you, and that love compels you towards striving for goodness and rightness in that relationship.
The circle is completed by the fact that this proves the authenticity of the relationship. The husband, the wife, the Christian, does what is right and loving because they love and because they know and believe that they are loved.
Oddbabble: It is the carrot of love, not the whip of judgement that compels her towards Jesus. That’s why she smiles more these days.