The commands of God have always felt like a tightrope. I teetered on the twisted cable, and although I was certain of its ability to hold my weight, even its stability not to sway in the wind, it was my stability that I needed to rely on, and mine I did not trust.
Behind me lay hell. Ahead lay heaven. I really, really desired to walk this tightrope, and walk it well. I want to gaze at heaven’s beauty and gracefully stroll forward, as easily as walking the sidewalk.
But that was to remain a desire unfulfilled. In reality, every day, and even nights in my dreams, although the rope was not blown about, I was. I swayed left and right. My legs shook as I tried to keep my muscles tight, focused. My eyes couldn’t help but look past my feet to the dark pit below, filled with sin that would stain me if I slipped. If I fell, I was certain I would be doomed to swimming back through the pit to the beginning again.
I have wobbled on this tightrope for many years. There were times when my arms would frantically wave about, trying to regain my balance, and other times when I would just voluntarily fall into the pit from a combination of frustration that God was not keeping me on the rope and despair that it was all pointless.
Why, why would God command such an impossible task from someone who was no expert in such a trick, when I was surrounded by things to make me fall? If my redemption is secure, if it doesn’t rest on me, why does it feel like the opposite? Why does it feel like a constant battle to stay on the straight and narrow?
I so desperately wanted to master the commands and avoid sin. I wanted to please my Father. I wanted to serve my Master. I wanted to live a life worthy of my Beloved. And I knew He loved me no matter what, but I also knew that each stumble grieved Him. Oh, how I do not want to grieve the One my soul loves.
Scripture communicates the law as a delight, juxtaposing my approach as a curse.
The Psalmist sings, “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day… How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Psalm 119:97, 103.)
This sentiment is echoed again and again in this Psalm alone, and then many other places in Scripture, too.
How do we move from curse to delight? How do we see the law as anything but a tightrope?
I had been viewing the commands all wrong. Well, not all wrong. I was viewing them truthfully, but still as someone under the curse, as someone who has not been justified, as someone without the complete gospel.
There is a progression of response to sin I came up with that I find useful to reference for counseling the soul:
(When wrestling with the guilt of sin, I find it helpful to reflect and see where in the spectrum you are, so you can recognize where you should be moving toward.)
Shame is a turning away, but not a turning of ourselves – it is a turning of our eyes. Someone locked in shame will know they are in sin, and lower their eyes, attempting to avoid its declaration of guilt on their lives. Shame isolates. It is a practice of avoidance and a result of fear – fear that they will be rejected if their sin is revealed. Fear that they will meet punishment if they meet their reality.
Guilt recognizes this reality. Guilt is sourced from a place of truth: wrong has been committed, by me, and I must realize it will have consequences. Guilt can, generally speaking, lead to one of two places: despair or conviction. When it leads to despair, guilt becomes a residence for the one experiencing it. Like a house of mirrors, the person settled in a stage of guilt will walk in circles, seeing themselves at every turn.
Conviction is close to guilt, but completes its message. Conviction says, “I am guilty, I am helpless to my guilt, and I need an advocate.” Conviction is not merely conviction that you are guilty, but conviction that there is only one way to relieve that guilt – and it is not found in yourself. (Related: Christianity Is A Coping Mechanism for Guilt.)
Between 2 and 3, we ought to find the shift between an unbeliever and a believer.
Lastly, grace. Knowing and living in unmerited favor. Conviction is necessary for a truly grace-driven life to exist. Grace is not living with freedom to sin (Romans 6:1) but with freedom from sin. This is the concept I have wrestled to grasp most of – well, all of – my life.
Stagnancy is death. It permits rot, decomposition, and death.
Guilt is a very effective driver. In the path to fitness, stepping on a scale can motivate one to work harder, or it can motivate one to simply give up. The law works a similar way.
Scripture tells us why the law is there: “…if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” (Romans 7:7b.) We sin against God, and the law reveals to us that it is sin we are committing. But there is a vicious cycle here, too, because in revealing to us that it is sin, the law reveals to us new sins to pursue we did not know was sin before (Romans 7:8). Like a scale, it shows our sinful nature its real, condemned state. But it also shows an ad for candy every time you step on.
In showing our state of condemnation, we are motivated to do something. And here is where the two branches of guilt come in – when properly applied, the law can push us forward, out of sin into conviction and into grace. If we were on a tightrope, it would remind us of the fires of where we were so we would continue to walk away from them.
And yes, this push does come with a healthy fear. We ought to have a healthy fear of God, especially if we are not in Him (Matthew 10:28). So, the law pushes us away from the hell we ought to fear by showing us what is leading us there.
But if we are in God, this fear looks different. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” (1 John 4:18.) With the believer, the fear of punishment from God has been removed as that punishment was met in Christ. What remains is fear of the sting that conviction brings, a fearful reverence for His holiness in light of our unholiness.
To the unbeliever, commands are a burden and a signal of hopelessness. But in conviction and grace, we can rejoice with the Psalmist and call this law sweet as honey. We will recognize this way for the beautiful thing that it is.
“You will show me the path of life: in your presence is fullness of joy; at your right hand there are pleasures for ever more.”Psalm 16:11
“The path of life leads upward for the prudent,Proverbs 15:24
that he may turn away from Sheol beneath.”
“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”John 14:6
The sin that the law reveals ought to be viewed as a beast to run from and fight (Genesis 4:7). But it also reveals to us the way forward – the way of life.
To the believer, the law becomes an invitation into the new Eden.
Without the work of Christ justifying us by faith, the law would be a tightrope, one that none could master. But because we are fully justified by faith, the law is no longer a tightrope we must master and more akin to a map leading to a destination. It is no longer a revealing of how we are criminals, and it is not a threat to our citizenship in the kingdom, but a book on how to enjoy all the kingdom has to offer.
The law is no longer a revealing of how we are criminals, and it is not a threat to our citizenship in the kingdom, but a book on how to enjoy all the kingdom has to offer. Click To Tweet
Let’s look at the beatitudes from the sermon on the mount as an example.
“And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:Matthew 5:2-11
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’”
Here we see a transformed approach to the law come into play. Jesus, in His death, does the great work of atoning for our sins, and then in His resurrection, ushers in a new kingdom full of transformed people living as the Imago Dei, Images of God, they were made to be. When Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is at hand,” He wasn’t talking about a distant, apocalyptic reign. He meant, “at hand.” He meant that He, today, was the way into that kingdom.
N.T. Wright summed up this revelation in a podcast he was a guest on recently:
“I’ve come to read [the beatitudes] not as, ‘Here are the sort of people you need to be because you need to be,’ but, ‘Here are the sort of people through whom God’s kingdom is exercised in the world.’”N.T. Wright
These citizens of the kingdom are walking in right relationship with God because they see it is a way of life. Where disobedience is a way that brings death, obedience is a way that both brings and results from new life.
Jesus shows this in a few other ways in Matthew.
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28.) We see the commanding invitation, “Come to me,” followed by the life-giving promise, “I will give you rest.”
Or, in Matthew 6:25, 33-34 – “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?… But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
The commanding invitation: “do not be anxious…” The life-giving promise: “life [is] more than food, and the body more than clothing… all these things will be added to you.”
The pull of the law is that it trains our lost souls in the new way that has been shown to us. The pull of the law is the completion of the gospel: it is the invitation into the new Eden – the Kingdom of Heaven.
We can never meet the demands of the law by our own efforts, and the law shows us that. So, we turn in conviction to Christ. We then walk in and even delight in the law because, instead of it being our curse, it is our blessing – our language of love and true, full life.
Let the law of God push you to His atoning sacrifice. Let it then pull you into the way of His kingdom.
“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”Colossians 3:1-4