When Keeping Score In Life Proves Utterly Impossible
When “doing better” brings us to the end of ourselves
The main attribute of any religion is law…
Whether it’s the 10 commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, or the various other rules, regulations, sutras, and commissions from the world’s various paths, the defining point of religion is that it lays out things to do, not do, ways to be, attributes to attain, etc.
An old-timer told me the other day, Yyyyeah, this is why I like religion. It gives people rules. And our society needs rules, especially today.
I had to smile and nod because I didn’t want to go into it. But with you, dear reader, I’ll go into it. Let’s zoom out a bit here…
Just as there are capital-L Laws in religion that have to do with the “vertical” world of God (or whatever you call the divine), there are also lowercase-l laws that are inherent in our daily life (example: thou shalt be #swoll, #woke, and forever living your #bestlife on social media).
Both upper and lowercase law seems good — and it is! If people didn’t kill, steal, rape, or lie, the world would be a better place. If everyone was in perfect shape, wealthy, and socially conscious, well, who wouldn’t want to live in that neighborhood?!
And so, it’s easy to see L/law as a roadmap to a better, more virtuous life.
But there’s a paradox afoot when it comes to the Jesus event. And that is, the very law of God doesn’t improve sinners. It makes them (us) worse. The cross itself, we might say, is proof of that.
The people who tortured and killed Jesus thought they were doing the world a favor. Jesus was apparently a criminal. An enemy of the state. Execute that scum, right?
Well, here’s the first thesis of Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation that throws a big stick in the spokes of that law=good/God notion…
THESIS I. The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance humans on their way to righteousness, but rather hinders them.
If you’re an alcoholic and your well-meaning friend tells you that you should just quit — that you just need to try harder and stop being so selfish (I know, tough love) — I can predict with great accuracy how that might go…
In most cases, the law that your friend imposed on you will only make matters worse. It might arouse pride in you (as a defense mechanism against the reality that you are gripped by alcoholism) but eventually, this runs out of gas. Pride burns hot and bright but it fizzles out fast. Your prideful independence brought on by your friend’s law-based provocations (the opposite of what the law is intended for — which I’ll explain in a hot sec) will eventually (hopefully — albeit uncomfortably) bring you to what the law IS intended for. And that is the awareness of your need for the unyielding grace and mercy of God.
That’s the moment that the killing law turns into the curing law. That’s when God’s “alien” work turns into God’s “proper” work.
[As a caveat, there are some out there who have seemed to stop drinking out of their own volition. My dad did it with smoking. Cold turkey, baby. Willpower. So this analogy only goes so far when it comes to God’s law. But the reality is that the person who quits out of their own volition is likely on the verge of slipping into pride and despair (which brings us right back to the killing/curling fork in the road again).]
The gist is this…
Any kind of law — either from God or from humans — doesn’t bring about what it demands. All law brings us to the end of ourselves. And that’s right where surrender to God — the Love that saves — can happen.
The law isn’t meant to be a prescription of what to do in order to live a happy/holy life. The law is meant to be a description of what it looks like when the divine gets ahold of you.
The law isn’t a motivator that makes us better. Rather, it’s a mirror that eventually shows us that, through our own volition, life is impossible.
Unfortunately, humans are law-based folks. We’re conditional at our core. We need a scoreboard. A points system. We need to see how each little transaction in life measures out.
The purpose of God isn’t to play into our law-based schemes. Of course, God meets us where we are. God steps into our scorekeeping ways in order to reduce us to nothing so that we (hopefully) see that we need to put the scorecard down and accept God’s love which has and always will be there.
God uses the law to make us surrender to it. That’s when God steps outside of the law and offers us grace. When this happens, we see the world for what it is — an utter gift. Entirely undeserved and unmerited.