Societies, organizations, institutions, and human constructs of all kinds run on rules. In some cases, the rules can be quite extensive and elaborate. In others, the rules might be simple and brief. Rules provide definition, helping people to know what’s okay in certain settings and situations and what’s not. Often, people appreciate this clarity. Sometimes, especially when situations arise that don’t quite seem to fit what the rules imagined, people find the rules unhelpful, pointing out that sometimes, things just aren’t “black and white”.
When it comes to Christian morality, it seems that a rules based approach has tended to carry the day. The Ten Commandments have been big in Christian circles, though Jesus’s restatement and commentary on them in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount have tended to get overlooked a lot. Churches have created their own rules about what’s right and wrong, based on their own particular harvesting of what they think is most important in the Bible. Certainly, Christians in different churches – and in the same church! – argue with each other about what the rules of morality should be. Seldom, however, does one seem to hear anyone argue that perhaps there shouldn’t really be any rules at all. After all, that would surely be a recipe for chaos.
Yet, I would argue that the highest biblical vision with respect to having a moral compass is not an ideal set of rules but rather a transcendence of rules all together. Consider, for example, this passage from Jeremiah:
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:33-35)
This passage speaks beautifully of a movement from an outward observance of rules to an inward orientation of the heart toward God, from a covenant articulated by written law to a covenant based on relational intimacy with the divine. The passage even seems to suggest that this covenant of the heart brings an end to the divine remembrance of sin, ultimately rooted in the breaking of rules.
St. Paul speaks at length of a shift from a morality rooted in law to one founded on grace:
In the same way, my friends, you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God. While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit. (Romans 7:4-6)
This is just one small part of a long, complex passage detailing Paul’s understanding of the relationship between law and grace, and Paul is certainly not above telling people what they should and should not be doing. But at his best, Paul seems to commit himself deeply to the idea that, for followers of Jesus, morality emerges not from a law code or set of rules, but from a deep relationship with Christ.
Jesus himself promised in the Gospels (such as Matthew 5:17) that he had not come to abolish the law (he felt the need to point this out, since he was so often violating the rules of the ancient Jewish code), but rather, to fulfill it. For Jesus, however, fulfillment of the law did not involve an obedience to rules but rather a commitment of love: a love of God that involved the whole of one’s energies, and a love of neighbor that was rooted in the way in which we would want ourselves to be shown love by others (Luke 10:27, Matthew 22:37, amplifying Deuteronomy 6:5).
These are but three examples – from the Hebrew Bible and from Christian texts – that point toward this idea, present in a certain strand of biblical thought, that our moral compass is meant to be found within us, emerging out of the depths of our intimacy with the divine. It is a vision that both transcends written rules and the dynamic of offense/punishment that written codes inevitably produce.
Of course, it will be immediately pointed out that human beings have not arrived at the depth of intimacy with God that this vision contemplates, and that in the absence of rules, chaos would reign in society, and institutions would be cast into disarray. And that is undoubtedly the case. However, that does not mean that we then have permission to take this vision lightly, or to fail to recognize its implications.
It seems to me that one such implication is a recognition of the limits of rules and law. Many if not most people have probably experienced those moments when a given situation did not seem to fit the rules. The offering of this vision of a movement beyond law suggests to me that when we find ourselves in those “pinched” moments when things indeed can’t be easily boiled down to a “black and white” resolution, we should not force the matter. Rather, we should set aside the rules, if only momentarily, so that we might see the genuine humanity of the situation and allow ourselves to respond out of a heart-felt place of grace.
Another implication is that Christian communities should recognize that following the path of rules and regulations is never the preferred way for followers of Jesus, but is always a second best option. It seems today that Christians are frequently associated with inflexible rule-making, insisting that morality must be clear, seeking to define exactly what is right and what is wrong so that there can be no room for error. Such an approach may comfort us, but it is not the approach of Jesus, who was so often directing his energy toward those whom the rules of his society put down. As Christians, our first instinct should not be to make rules and enforce them, but rather to seek the intersection between our humanity and God’s love and find the most grace-filled resolution to a moral dilemma that we can. It may indeed be true that we have not achieved the kind of intimacy with God that would enable us to live fully into this vision of grace over law, but we cannot forget that Paul speaks of this as something that has already happened in Christ, not as some distant goal to be hoped for.
As Paul discovered, true human transformation in a God-ward direction can never be accomplished through an imposed external obedience. Rather, it can only be accomplished through a movement of grace in the heart.