My wife Carla almost died on our honeymoon. Traveling to Colorado for a two week vacation, we spent Sunday night in Iowa. The next morning Carla vomited, had diarrhea and a fever. We went to a doctor. He gave an antibiotic and told us to remain in town.
We treated Carla’s symptoms. When she felt feverish, she took Tylenol and cold baths to reduce her temperature. But soon she felt worse, so I bought a thermometer. Her temperature was 104.9 degrees. I called the doctor. He said, “Get her to the hospital immediately.”
Carla remained in the hospital five days. If we had waited to bring her in—the doctors said—she would have died. As it was, she barely survived.
(My brother’s response to Carla’s nausea and diarrhea was, “I told her not to kiss you!” Ah, family!)
My wife’s life was saved by a finely calibrated thermometer. It drove us to the hospital. Letting a finely calibrated understanding of the Law can drive us to God.
I’ve been reading the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). In it, Jesus finely calibrates the demands of the Law (like, “You’ve heard it said don’t murder; … but I say to you … whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”).
I struggle with the deep demands of the Law because I don’t want shame. But sensing “shame” can actually be useful. Shame reveals an identity that comes from behavior instead of God’s love. Shame is a symptom of our real problem: the love of God is not real enough in our hearts.
A legalist is not someone who keeps a bunch of petty rules (though many think so), nor is it someone who makes a bunch of petty rules (though many think so). A legalist is someone who gets an identity from the rules (whether they keep them or not).
Alas; that also means that I’m a legalist. At least occasionally.
A legalist can be proud, ashamed, or fearful. Proud legalists don’t look at the depths of heart change that the Law demonstrates; I sometimes say, “I’d never do that.” Ashamed legalists see how they fall short of what the Law demonstrates; I sometimes feel condemned. Fearful legalists don’t look at the Law at all; I sometimes hide behind biblical truths like, “I’m saved by faith not works,” or “I have a new heart.”
Symptoms vs. disease
The Law is a painting of how a Christ changed heart will look when we let his word reach maturity in our heart. Think of how beautiful the world would be if everyone lived according to the Golden Rule (“Act toward others as you wish they’d act toward you,” Matt. 7:12).
My wife Carla had a serious infection but she and I merely treated the feverish symptoms with Tylenol and cold baths. A thermometer finally drove us to treat the disease.
I tend to treat symptoms rather than the disease. If I’m ashamed, I quit reading the finally calibrated moral Law; or I work really hard to do better. But I’m not dealing with the disease.
If we respond to the Law with shame, fear or working really hard, let’s treat those responses as symptoms. We’re still getting our identity from our behavior (our doing) rather than from resting in Christ’s love (our being).
Jesus and Simon (a Pharisee) discussed a prostitute who was washing Jesus’ feet. Jesus said that “she loves much because she’s been forgiven much, while Simon loves little because he’s been forgiven little” (Luke 7:47 paraphrased).
A good Law thermometer will show us how far we fall short of the Law—but let’s not stop there!
It also shows how much we are loved and forgiven. We can say, “Wow, I’ve never murdered, but I often think others are morons…and I’ve been forgiven for all those times! I’m much more loved and forgiven than I ever imagined.”
Knowing the depth of being forgiven brings love and joy. It creates a rich identity.
Like Carla and me on our honeymoon, let’s let a finely calibrated thermometer drive us to the Doctor for a deep healing of our deepest identity.
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