Have you ever painted over a water stain in a ceiling or wall? Do you know of vehicles that seem like they would fall apart if they weren’t encrusted in rust (or, if it’s a boat, covered with barnacles)? How about knowing that someone is hurting or struggling, and seeing them put on a good face to the public?
What we see doesn’t always reflect what is inside. In some cases, this may be OK, like when you have to make a presentation or teach a class, even though you are super-tired or are fighting mental and emotional struggles. However, when our appearance takes priority over the substance of our hearts in the long run, the health and integrity of our lives have probably gotten out of order.
Read through these verses from the book of Colossians:
You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the spiritual powers of this world. So why do you keep on following the rules of the world, such as, “Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!”? Such rules are mere human teachings about things that deteriorate as we use them. These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires.
Colossians 2:20-23 NLT
It sounds like the believers in this church weren’t that much different from some of the people that we meet in churches today. (This is not to judge either group, though, especially when we don’t know their motivation.) The logic goes something like this: If a few rules – God’s instructions from the Bible – are good, then more rules must be better, right? Doesn’t following more rules make us better followers of Jesus? Won’t rules keep us from sinning and displeasing God?
Regrettably, this belief can lead down an unproductive path, sacrificing the freedom (and results) that Jesus offers to His followers, for a legalistic attachment to man-made rules.
To be clear, rules aren’t inherently bad. God gave us what we needed to live well. This was straightforward for Him, since He both created us, and knows everything about the past, present, and future. This was natural for Him, because He loves us and wants to adopt us back into His family (after we broke our relationships with Him by sinning). Obeying His commands can definitely help us live a better life.
At some point, though, following rules can become the goal, rather than filling up on the teachings and presence of God, and letting the outpouring of His love impact our choices.
I’ve been caught in this trap before. When the Christian walk is perceived as just an ever-increasing list of rules (pray this many times a day, go to church this many times a week, give this amount in the offering, etc.), there is no way that we can live up to that. The Hebrew people were given instructions from God, and this Law was never able to save them, because – just like us – they were imperfect. I know that this cycle is miserable: “checking boxes”, living with the guilt of failing to meet all of these supposed requirements, and apologizing to God when asking for His forgiveness. In my darker moments, I had built my own rules about asking forgiveness for breaking rules. It was a vicious circle.
So, how do people get stuck in this rut? Sometimes, these rules come from others. Some rules are made by people who have no foundation in Jesus’ teachings, but who still claim some authority. Other rules are made by believers, but these aren’t just house rules that parents make for children, nor suggestions from pastors and authors. More than that, they are claims made by imperfect human beings about what they think others should do in order to be “more holy”. There are people like those Jesus described in Luke 11:46, who just pile on more rules for those who want to follow God. The passage above from Colossians suggests that those rules as useless to help us become less sinful, but it also points out how good those rules look on the surface.
Other times, these rules come from ourselves. Some self-enforced rules are helpful, serving as guard rails to keep us from falling into certain temptations that we fight. However, I know that I have fought with many extra rules that had nothing to do with improving my spiritual walk (even if they had an appearance of piety), having accumulated incorrect ideas and thoughts over the years, without enough Scripture and God-directed teaching stored up in my heart to refute these false ideas.
If you also fight this battle, or you think that maybe you have drifted too far into just following the “the rules of the world”, take some time to read through the book of Colossians over the next few days. It’s not long, but – like the rest of the Bible – it is filled with truth that can help to drive out useless practices and wasted effort from our lives. God doesn’t call us to rules, but to freedom (see Galatians 5:1, which is a great verse to memorize when you get caught up in extra rules). When we are grateful to Jesus for the gift of salvation, and we love Him because He loved us, the instructions of the Bible are just opportunities to see what behavior God appreciates, allowing us to glorify and please Him by doing those things.
We would do well to weigh our efforts between how much is spent on “internal” development (getting our heart right with God, and filling up on His goodness), versus our efforts to just make the “external” part of our life look nice. God’s way is a lot better than the world’s, no matter how “spiritual” the world’s rules may appear.
Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries, Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.