Jared Witt l May 18, 2017
In her book Traveling Mercies Anne Lamott says everything I’m about to say but more pithily, “They say we are not punished for the sin but by the sin.” I couldn’t agree more with the truth of this statement, though I’m not really sure who “they” are. Most Christians, in my experience, believe very much that we are punished for the sin, that God has a gavel ready and Satan a pitchfork because we failed to follow the rules at some point.
In fact, anytime there is a public debate in which conservative Christians invoke the Bible as the justification for a given policy, the one thing that they and secular progressives both agree on, with regard to that book, is that there are a lot of arbitrary rules in there.
The former happen to think that you should follow those arbitrary rules because they believe the fact that it’s in the Bible means flatly that God said so. But you would never hear them try to give a rationale for why all 613 commandments, including the thing about not mixing cottons with polyesters, should be considered moral in their own right. On the other hand, many secular progressives talk as if the whole thing is a fanciful tome of sheer outdated nonsense, except none of them disagree that we shouldn’t go around killing each other as one of its commandments says.
So clearly either accepting or rejecting the entire Bible arbitrarily isn’t helping anyone figure out what makes for a more fruitful and joyous life. But as Lamott hints, there is a far more life-giving way of understanding God’s Law, one that even the most conservative Christians, I think, would have to agree makes far more sense than their Bible based deontology (meaning things are good or bad because God decrees it so, not because they are inherently so) and that secular progressives would not find to be so baseless. The Bible points to this more life-giving law often enough, but it is not the thing itself. That would be idolatrous.
Let me put it this way: what if God is not like my sister and me when we used to pick snails out of our backyard pond and make them race through morally valueless obstacle courses (exhilarating stuff if you’ve never seen a snail race before)? The poor molluscs of course didn’t know they were competing, what the goal was, or that the insidious little barriers and obstacles in their way were the brainchild of two higher powers who cared shamefully little for their well-being. Then, when they finished the course, they would be rewarded with a trip back to the pond. No one asked us to do this, certainly not the snails, and there was nothing inherently moral about them running the course or refusing to do so. We just decided to do it because why not? And so it became the Law of their lives.
What if God’s Law is not arbitrary like that? But rather, what if God cares very much for our wellbeing, and God’s Law is that which leads us to a happier and fuller life (we’ll talk about grace in other blogs)?
To use just one very current example. We all know by now that social media accounts don’t usually present a very truthful depiction of our own or our friends’ lives but rather a heavily curated, sometimes to the point of fictitious, highlight reel. Most of us use our social media to present a life that is happier, healthier, more put together than the one we’re actually living. Maybe at some point you’ve come across the behind-the-scenes story of that couple whose perfectly filtered pics of their trip to Costa Rica hide the fact that they were fighting the whole time, the woman whose ritual updates of her growing baby bump conceal her anxiety about finances, the fun-loving jokester whose clever memes cover up a deep dissatisfaction with his career choices.
Maybe there’s nothing wrong with just wanting to share the happy stuff. The problem is that we all know 100% of our own realities, but we only know that small fraction of our friends’ realities which they choose to share. This creates a sort of self-inflicted power imbalance where we all kind of know that our own curated status updates are only partial truths if not outright lies but suspect that our friends’ lives actually are that perfect. How can we possibly compete when we walk around naked to ourselves all the time but only see our friends when they’re cleaned up for a wedding?
We all know now from this almost universal experience of modern life what droves of secular philosophers have warned us about for millennia, that comparing our own realities to our friends’ highlight reels decreases our happiness and satisfaction with life. Well, what else is that but the very thing we were warned about when the scriptures said:
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. (Exodus 20:17)”
The problem is that we all assumed what God was really saying was “You shall not…or else I’m going to arbitrarily make you start the snail obstacle course all over again (or torture you forever cause why not?).” It never occurred to us that God might actually just be saying, “You shall not…because life sucks when you’re constantly comparing your situation to others, and I don’t want your lives to suck.”
My goal in writing this is not so much to convince you that the Law is good. It’s to convince you that God is good. God is not just putting a bunch of senseless moral obstacles in front of you in order to have a good excuse to really lay into you later. If you believe that, then no amount of following the biblical precepts will make your life joyful and full, and no amount of mocking them will help you avoid the logical boomerang that it’s actually the sins themselves which punish us.
If we can all get over that nonsense, though, and assume that God wants the best for us, then we can actually have a constructive conversation about what within the Bible points to God’s Law and what doesn’t.
Cheers and Peace,
Jared Witt (Twitter: @realjaredwitt) is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community.
How Castle Church is stirring up a new spirit in the church from a brewery in Orlando, FL.