There’s another problem, though. In order to get us all “in line” and following all of His rules exactly, God would have had to speak almost exclusively about rules all the time, but if He did this, we would be in danger of thinking that following the rules was all it took to please Him. And that’s a really dangerous place to be.
I think that teaching at a Christian school really helped me understand the book of Leviticus, because I was in a position of having to represent the rule-makers to the rule-followers. That is not an easy position to be in. For example, we had a rule that said students were not allowed to wear band shirts to school, and the students thought it was stupid. I don’t know how many times I heard, “I’m seriously getting in trouble for wearing this Stephen Curtis Chapman shirt?! Stephen Curtis Chapman is seriously like the most Christian musician there is!”
Ok… I take that back. I never heard that… But I could have. And I did hear similar things…
“It’s not like I’m wearing a Marilyn Manson shirt.”
“What do my clothes have to do with my Christianity?”
“Are you saying that my shirt is a sin?”
Let’s think about goals and difficulties for a minute, remembering that God faced the same kind of thing, and we will continue to face the same kind of thing every time we pair religion with rules.
The point of the rule was to keep kids from wearing shirts that were genuinely offensive. The administration also wanted to set a standard of modesty, so they established a somewhat arbitrary length for girls’ skirts.
One of the reasons that rules have to be specific is that, had we said that students needed to avoid offensive and immodest clothing, there is no possible way discipline could have been enforced. Students would have had to change clothes between every class, because even the teachers could not agree on what counted as modest or immodest.
So God wants people to release their slaves based on the fact that they have realized that slaves are human beings. This is much better than releasing them because God said they had to or He would kill them. But there remains the problem of treatment of slaves, and we have to take into account that the master isn’t the only one that matters – the slave matters to God too. If God made no rules protecting slaves from severe mistreatment, surely slaves would be prone to think that they didn’t matter to God.
So He decides to take a different road, protecting the slaves while giving the masters a chance to realize that slaves are people too. He makes a law requiring masters to treat their slaves well.
But unless those laws are specific, they are meaningless. What is to stop a slave master from saying that as long as the slave is alive he hasn’t been mistreated? How do you enforce a law that says you’re supposed to “be kind”?
The other side of the problem at our Christian school, and this was really the bigger problem, was that some students started thinking that as long as they didn’t wear band shirts and their skirts were the right length, then they were on good terms with God. This was the problem the Pharisees had. They didn’t spit on any rocks on Saturday, in fact they even counted their steps to make sure they didn’t walk too far, but they missed the whole point of the day. The day was a day of rest and worship, but they were so busy worrying about whether or not they were desecrating it with their spit and their steps that they didn’t have time to think about what really matters to God.
The rules do matter, because God needs to tell us what a person who follows Him looks like.
And they matter because sometimes people need to be restrained. It is important to, like God, allow for the development of character over time so that obedience is not only outward. But that doesn’t mean that we keep letting people murder each other in hopes that one day they will have a change of heart and decide to stop.
They also matter because they tell us about our God.
And when I look at the laws through this lens, I see something pretty incredible.
God always raises the standard.
At any period of history, you can look at external records and find that the Bible is ahead of its time in terms of the ethical norms of society. In the Old Testament world, a man could divorce or kill his wife whenever he wanted. God required him to give her a certificate stating why he was sending her away. He raised the standard and, in so doing, challenged men to look past what they saw around them and lift themselves above the status quo.
When certificates of divorce became the status quo and men began using them as an excuse to get out of their marriages, Jesus reminded them that it was only because of the hardness of their hearts that the Old Testament allowed them to divorce with conditions. Their hearts had gotten a bit softer and a bit closer to God’s intention, but they needed softening still. They needed to remember Genesis 1:27 and the story of the creation of Eve.
In all of this, God never compromises His absolute moral standard. He never stops telling us that we are to be perfect as He is perfect. He never stops telling us that His own character is the standard. And He never stops telling us what the next step is in getting to where He wants us to be.
A good teacher teaches both the ultimate goal and the next step in the process.
God is a good teacher.
And He never takes shortcuts in getting us aligned with His ultimate standard.
Because the standard is not just outward obedience.
The standard is obedience based upon love of God, honor toward one another, and understanding of our own place within the world He has created.
He will never compromise, and He is still softening our hearts.
Because we’re not home yet…