During a recent trip to San Francisco, I visited one of my favourite places in the world, Golden Gate Park. For those of you who are old enough to remember back to 1967, Golden Gate Park, at the top of Haight-Ashbury, was the site of the ‘Summer of Love’ when up to 100,000 young people gathered from across America to ‘turn on, tune in, and drop out’.
Although the ‘Summer of Love’ ended in early October, 1967, it is still considered one of the most significant social phenomena of the 20th Century; a catalytic event that instigated major cultural and political shifts in the western world. Interestingly enough, some of the young people who sought spiritual fulfilment through sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, ultimately found salvation through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, thus spawning the so-called ‘Jesus Movement’ of the 1960’s and 70’s.
As I walked through Golden Gate Park and watched the ducks swimming on the lake and the squirrels foraging for food among the trees, the Lord started to speak to me about ‘a realm without rules’. He took me back to my childhood and showed me that from my earliest days I had a tendency to be diligent and conscientious. It was almost as if I was driven to do the right thing – not because my parents programmed that into me, but because that was my nature. (If the truth be told, I was more focused on not doing the wrong thing, than actually doing the right thing - which is not exactly a prescription for adventurous living and risk taking!)
I grew up in a traditional Pentecostal church with a real ‘old school’ pastor. Every Sunday morning during Communion he would read a passage of Scripture from 1 Corinthians chapter eleven: “Whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord; therefore, let a man examine himself…” It was scary stuff! I used to wonder if I would make it through church and get home to watch the football in the afternoon! If I couldn’t think of any sins to confess, I’d make some up just to be on the safe side.
As I reflected on my life, I realized that I had grown up with a fear of doing the wrong thing – a fear of breaking the rules and displeasing God. But right there in Golden Gate Park, the Holy Spirit started to show me that there is a realm that has no rules – the realm of the Spirit. Rules have to do with the external realm – namely, one’s conduct and appearance. But they have absolutely no bearing on the internal realm of the heart, out of which spring the issues of life (Proverbs 4:23).
The Ten Rules
The most famous set of rules in history, the Ten Commandments, all have to do with external behaviour: “Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not commit adultery etc.” But the Ten Rules never succeeded in changing people’s hearts – they never addressed the hidden realm of motive and desire (Heb. 4:12); hence, they were broken time and time again.
Finally God said, “I’m going to do away with these external rules and I’m going to put my law in your minds and write it on your hearts” (Jer. 31:33). Or, as Paul so eloquently expressed it: “It is God himself whose power creates within you both the desire and the power to execute his gracious will” (Phil. 2:13 Weymouth).
The history of religion is a history of rules and regulations. In fact, the word ‘religion’ connotes a set of systematic beliefs and organised practices. As human beings, we love rules because they afford a way of judging ourselves and others. Depending on our beliefs, we have rules for conduct and rules for appearance. For example, “Thou shalt not smoke; thou shalt not swear; thou shalt not have tattoos; thou shalt not wear short dresses.”
The problem is, none of these rules deal with issues of the heart such as rejection, bitterness, shame and lust. And as Jesus so accurately observed: “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (Matt. 15:19). We may be keeping up appearances on the outside, when in actual fact, we are like a jungle full of wild animals on the inside!
When we think about living by rules, one group immediately springs to mind – the Pharisees! They didn’t just have Ten Rules, they had rules for rules. They invented their own rules to ensure that they didn’t violate God’s rules! But as Jesus exclaimed,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like white washed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt. 23:25-28).
We love rules because rules enable us to control people. A case in point is the crisis of morality that emerged among churches in America and other parts of the world in the 1980’s and 90’s. Some denominations responded by devising a set of rules to safeguard the chastity of their ministers. One well-known leader even issued ‘Ten Commandments’ for his staff pastors to ensure that they didn’t commit immorality. One such commandment was that a male pastor should not ride alone in an automobile with any female other than his wife.
I suppose it was okay, in this leader’s mind, if a male pastor rode alone in an automobile with another man. However, it began to emerge that a growing number of pastors in America and elsewhere were, in fact, closet homosexuals. So what do we do then? Make more rules, of course! “From now on, no pastor can ride with anyone else, male or female, in an automobile. Every pastor must drive alone in order to avoid the appearance of evil.”
The point I’m trying to make is, no matter how many rules you devise, sin will always be one step ahead. There will always be more sin than rules. Rules are not, and never will be, the answer. The only antidote to sin is a change of heart through the work of the Cross and the power of the Holy Spirit.
The law of the Spirit
As I stood in the park and contemplated what God was saying to me, I realized that there is only one law that addresses the realm of the Spirit, and that is the law of love. Paul expressed it succinctly in his letter to the Galatians:
Stand fast in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage… for you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Galatians 5:1,13-14)
The ‘yoke of bondage’ to which Paul refers is the observance of the Law – external rules and regulations that have a form of godliness but no life-changing power. But according to Paul, if one lives according to the law of the Spirit, which is love, one will automatically fulfil the moral and ethical requirements of God’s kingdom, as depicted in the Ten Rules.
Righteousness is primarily a matter of the heart; it has more to do with attitudes than actions. Moses said, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” But Jesus said, “Whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28). Moses said, “Thou shalt not commit murder.” But John said, “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3:15).
When my parents were growing up in church in the 1930’s, preachers would refer to ladies who wore makeup as ‘painted Jezebels’. And believe it or not, they would even sing songs like, “There’ll be no lipstick there, in my Father’s house….” But sister so-and-so could be sitting on the front row without an ounce of makeup on her face, and yet be a ‘Jezebel’ at heart – jealous, manipulative, controlling, conniving etc. It’s what you are on the inside that matters most to God.
Righteousness – moral rectitude in thought, word and deed - is the fruit of love. For this reason, Jesus said to his disciples, “I’m giving you a new rule, a rule that encompasses and therefore supersedes every other rule. And the rule is simply this: love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13:34-35 paraphrased).
The ultimate definition of love
But what is love? In his letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul gives what I consider to be the ultimate definition of love. Citing the Lord Jesus as an example, Paul implored his readers,
Fulfil my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it something to be held onto to be equal with God, but emptied Himself of His privileges, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross (Phil. 2:2-8).
Love, according to the example of Christ, is selflessness … considering others as more important than one’s self … and as a result, making one’s resources available for the benefit of others. As the Son of God hung on the cross, he looked down and saw you and me, and in that moment he thought to Himself, “Your life is more important than mine; therefore, I sacrifice myself for you.”
Obviously, such love fulfils the moral requirements of the law, because if I truly consider you as more important than myself, and I truly consider myself as a servant who lives to give, then I am not going to besmirch your reputation or steal your wife. I am only going to steal from you if I feel that I am more important than you. I am only going to lie about you if I feel that my life is of more value than yours, and that you, therefore, are expendable.
Incredible as it seems, even the Great God-Man, Jesus Christ, did not come to be served, but rather, to be a servant. And he demonstrated it by taking off his outer garment, getting down on his hands and knees, and washing the feet of his immature and self-centred disciples. And his message was unequivocal: “I have given you an example that you should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15).
In that action he was saying, “Peter, you are more important than me; Thomas, you are more important than me; Judas, you are more important than me. I live to serve you.” And if we will allow that same spirit to grow in our hearts and become our centre of reference, it will lead us to fulfil the moral and ethical requirements of the law.
God’s great hope is that with the passage of time, we will learn to walk in his ways instinctively and intuitively. Not because we are threatened and cajoled; not because we are coerced and intimidated; but simply because we want to, as it befits our natural state of being.
Paul put it this way: “Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given himself for us” (Eph. 5:1-2). True obedience operates on the same principle as spontaneous combustion. You do it because it’s your nature; you do it because his Spirit lives within you; you do it because you are so infatuated with him, you just want to be like him!