During our public school days, Emily and I always felt overwhelmed. There were always so many rules for us to follow—about holidays, clothes, and even lunches. And the lunch rules were the worst. The expectation was that lunch be garbage free, healthy, and absolutely free of any nut products of any kind. (We later learned from a friend that it’s actually gotten worse—now the schools find it easier to send a list of what’s permitted rather than what’s not, because the approved list is shorter.)
Trying to keep in step with these requirements was a giant pain. In fact, we kept running out of ideas of what to even send with Abigail. We like peanut butter. We don’t have a nut-free environment. And pre-packaged snack foods which are nut free generally aren’t all that healthy. We found ways to meet the requirements (at least two out of three), but it didn’t make us happy people, nor did it help Abigail enjoy eating lunch in general.
Now, obviously there are some valid reasons for rules like these—if a kid has a severe nut allergy, we don’t want them to go into shock. But often, our obsession with rules goes beyond trying to protect individuals from harm and into trying to make us certain kinds of people. The problem, though, is it doesn’t work, because that’s not what rules are meant to do.
Christians should know this, but we’re prone to forgetting. The rules trap—legalism—is just too easy (because it’s easy, in theory if not in fact). We have rules about kissing dating goodbye. About what music to not listen to. Movies to not watch. Books to not read. Beverages to not consume…
And while the reasons behind the don’ts might be good and right and true, if all we have is don’t, what are we trying to accomplish? At best, the rules, and our attempts to keep them, make us try harder; we white knuckle our way through the things we know we’re supposed to do (including avoiding the things we aren’t supposed to). More often, though, they make us want to give up. Despite our intentions, we don’t become more holy, joyful people—people who increasingly find sin unattractive because Jesus is ever-increasingly attractive to us. Instead, we’re just people who are happy they’re not in trouble.
This is why we should thank God for the gift of the Holy Spirit, as Ray Ortlund reminds us in Supernatural Living for Natural People. He writes:
What generates real holiness is not fear of punishment but fullness of heart. When you sin, when I sin, there is always a reason. We sin because we believe that it is simply the price we have to pay for a taste of happiness. But sin is deceiving us. It does not deliver on its promise. It leaves only the bitter after-taste of death. God promises us life. The Spirit moves in our hearts to trust God enough to fight for life and happiness and all we desire not in sin but in the ways of God. The Spirit arouses our thirst for Jesus, so that we come to him and drink, until rivers of living water flow from our inmost beings (John 7:37-39). The Spirit shows us how wide and long and high and deep is the love of God. He helps us to know this love that surpasses knowledge, so that we are filled with all the fullness of God (Eph. 3:14-19). And when we live in that holy atmosphere, sin is a lot less attractive. (Kindle location 436)
What makes sin less attractive is not more rules, but new desires—and this is what the Spirit creates in us. He gives us a new affection for Christ, a greater desire to know him and be like him. And because of that, we can see that sin and legalism always over-promise and under-deliver. But the good news is, God’s Spirit never will. Real holiness comes from a fullness of heart. And this is what the Spirit gives us.