We could spend a lifetime debating the various interpretations of scripture and sadly, many of us do! Imagine what we look like to non-believers as they watch us argue and fight, often very publicly, over what we believe the Bible has to say – not very appealing to say the least. Yet, for centuries, this has been the case, even the Pharisees argued with Jesus over interpretations of the law. In light of this, how is it possible for believers to disagree with one another, faithfully and respectfully, in a way that helps to create unity among all believers in Christ’s church and at the same time truly bring a smile to God’s face?
Having come from a fundamental, rule-enforcing background, I have seen many sincere believers wave their Bibles passionately and authoritatively while still entirely missing the point of God’s guidebook for life. The point is missed when we become engrossed in determining the “rules” for ourselves as well as for one another. In our effort to interpret God’s word by rule making we set a standard for Christians which is not only overwhelming at times, but impossible when it is devoid of grace, the very gift of Christ.
So what is the point? To discover this we must go back to God’s original law given to Moses and look at the very first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3). The entire Old Testament records this first commandment being broken time and time again. For just one example read Psalms 50:16-22, paying particular attention to verse 22: “Consider this, you who forget God, or I will tear you to pieces, with none to rescue.” It is safe to say God is not happy when we forget Him and no longer put Him first in our lives. Yet, we are so easily distracted by the law, the interpretations, the rules, and allowing them to take priority. If we would just remain focused on Him, seeking Him and His will for our personal life, all of the other things would fall into place. Instead, in typical human style, we believe we must focus on the rules and fit the image first or attempt to tell others what God wants of them, and we end up thoroughly frustrating everyone, including ourselves!
Here is an analogy for you: Think about playing a game, whether it is a board game, a card game, or an athletic activity. At the very start we all agree that what is most important is that everyone have fun. But, at some point as we are playing our competitive nature kicks in. As the game continues, we begin asking to review “the rules.” I witnessed this in action the other night at a Little League game, where volunteer coaches desired to review the rulebook all in the name of being right. Somewhere along the way, we lose our focus, which should be on “having fun,” and we begin to become preoccupied with “the rules,” immediately guaranteeing to take all the fun away!
This is not to say that the rules are not important, because they are. Rules are in place for many reasons, including keeping people safe and maintaining order. God’s kingdom is no different, the rules are very important, but when we become sidetracked on the interpretations, or bogged down in the legalities, we risk missing the point – which is God first!
Recently I began work on a bible study based on the following verse from 2 Chronicles 7:14:
“If my people, who are called by my name, would humble themselves and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear them from heaven, and will forgive their sins, and I will heal their land.”
As I began studying each section of this verse, I had little difficulty seeing how God’s promise spoken to Solomon applied to us today. That is until I reached the part of the verse regarding wicked ways. Like everyone else, I automatically thought of all those “things” God does not want us doing, according to what I had been taught by the religious teachers. Was this an accurate assumption that whenever we break His “rules” we are being wicked, for it is an observable fact that there is a broad variance in interpretations of God’s “rules.” How do we know when we have broken God’s rule when we are not even sure of which interpretation to apply or more importantly, which interpretation most accurately reflects His intention? I wanted to take a closer look and really see what God is referring to when He says we are to turn from our wicked ways.
Look again at the very first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me.” Could it be that “wicked ways” are simply anything that takes God out of first place in our lives? In this case, what may be wicked for me (coming before God in my life) may not be wicked for you; and what is wicked for me at this point in my life, may not be wicked in the future. It is important that we acknowledge that we are all very different and we each have our own areas of personal struggle as we develop and grow in our relationship with God. We are not “cookie cut,” in order to be in agreement with all people at all times, including our own brothers and sisters in Christ. Our commonality is Jesus and the role He has in our lives, in this there is no room for disagreement. Beyond this, is not our Creator free to work individually within each of His own creation and speak His words to us personally? God created each of us with a very specific purpose in serving Him, and He has knitted us and our unique personalities together in order to fulfill that purpose.
Webster’s Dictionary defines “wicked” as causing or likely to cause harm, distress, or trouble. Anytime we ignore God’s leading and do not seek His will in our lives we are practicing wicked ways, for in doing so, we have the potential to cause harm. When we begin allowing our way to become more important than God’s way we are only asking for trouble. Jesus points us in the right direction when He says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6) In Matthew 12:39 Jesus called the religious leaders of His day, “wicked and adulterous.” These were devout men who studied and followed the law, dotting every “i” and crossing every “t,” they knew the law intimately! So why would He call them wicked and adulterous? Because they were putting the law before God! They were practicing adultery in the spiritual sense, not the physical, by being unfaithful to God. In doing this, they became wicked, causing harm to others by leading them down the same adulterous path of putting the law before God.
The key to keeping from wicked ways is in following God’s ways and always putting Him first! We must seek His direction for our lives as we spend time in prayer and in interpreting His word. When Jesus was asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” there is no irony in the fact that He gave a straight answer and did not respond with a parable. He replied very simply with the first commandment: love God and then love your neighbor. Loving God and putting Him first (not the rules or the law) is the way to avoid wickedness and dissension when we find ourselves disagreeing on interpretations.
As odd as it may seem, the largest obstacle to avoiding wickedness is religion itself. Religion tells you what you should or should not do, based on someone else’s interpretation of scripture and then teaches that interpretation as the one and only possible or correct meaning. Our job is to discover this for ourselves by reading God’s word, listening to Him and His leading for our own lives. This is not to say we shouldn’t listen to teachers and preachers, but we need to also go to God in our own heart for His precise words to us personally. As brothers and sisters in Christ we also have a responsibility to encourage others to do their own reading and spending time with God to seek Him only and His will for their lives-we should not become self appointed rule-keeping police.
The Old Testament foretold what life would be like under grace. At a time when God had had it with the people and their continual failure to put Him first in their lives he used a prophet to bring a message of hope for the future:
“The time is coming, “declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
God is saying that as believers, each and every one of us personally has His ways written on our hearts and by reading our own hearts we will be led by Him. By the way, He did not say each of our hearts would say exactly the same thing. We should not allow the church or religion to defeat us by setting before us a law that may not even be the one God has written specifically on our heart. Teachers, pastors, priests, and other spiritual leaders are all very, very helpful, but we need not be dependent upon them for God’s direction in each of our own lives, and they should not be who we look to as the ultimate resource for telling us what God’s word says. Let’s not miss the point and allow ourselves to be sidetracked by “the rules.” We can faithfully agree to disagree. Seek God first and all of the rest will fall into place.