A few days ago, I was finishing my coffee and reading The Ten Commandments (not just the actual commandments) by Dr. Laura Schlessinger. I didn’t get very far. I was only on the third page of the first chapter when I saw a mention of a person not wanting to attend church because there were “too many rules”.
I hear this quite a lot when I get into discussions about church and established religion. (Oh, that terrible established religion!) It’s generally the same: too many rules, too much pressure to “be good”, the people are judgmental, etc. However, growing up attending church from infancy, I’ve never felt that same pressure. Which leads to only two conclusions: Perhaps the “pressure” comes from within oneself, rather than outside; or I am brainwashed.
A large portion of people who read this will automatically leave, knowing that I am, in fact, brainwashed, and can get on with their day without feeling the least bit uncomfortable. But is that the only reason anyone enjoys church? Or is there more?
Other than the Starbucks in the foyer, that is.
I think where a lot of people get put off to Christianity and the church isn’t necessarily with the people. (Although I can see someone attending Westboro Baptist Church one day, promptly assuming a Lovecraft-style expression, and never changing that expression for the rest of their days. But I digress.) What happens is that they see the “good” behavior of Christians and immediately assume they are acting entirely by a set of rules.
Well they are. But not just the rules.
Let me explain. As a child, I knew I had to behave a certain way because God and my parents told me to. But as I grew older, I began to realize there was much more to this behavior than just acting by rules. Take, for example, the idea of sex before marriage. This is something that is becoming accepted, or at least tolerated, in many Christian circles. After all, it’s not hurting anyone. Is it?
Even science is on our side, however. When one engages in an act of sex, the body releases chemicals that, for lack of a better phrase, cause one to start becoming attached to the partner. In other words, even people who claim that they are just in it “for sex” and nothing else may very well be more attached to the other person than they wish to admit, or may even understand. While listening to the pop radio station one day, a girl called in to the host complaining about how she hooked up with a nice guy the night before, but now he keeps texting her and wanting to see her. They had never met before their little “interlude”.
So engaging in an act that becomes more emotional than you plan, in a relationship that could end much more easily than a marriage, is a recipe for disaster. In marriage, unless you just know how to pick ‘em and find the biggest loser on the face of the planet, there will be reluctance to have that relationship end. Why? Because they made a vow. Even the average person tends to take a serious promise, well, seriously. So, as I said, unless someone is dumb enough to pick a jerk who doesn’t take it seriously, the marriage will be a way of protecting oneself from emotional pain.
Not to mention…I mean, doing that with someone with the idea, “Oh, I’ll probably wind up finding someone else a few years down the road”? And people wonder why STD’s are becoming so widespread.
And therein lies my point. Sin has natural consequences. These aren’t just arbitrary rules made by a God determined to make your life as boring as possible. To say that essentially makes you sound like a whiny fifteen year old. “But Moooooom no one else cares if Johnny is ten years older than me and just got out of prison! You don’t want me to have any fun!”
This is why I appreciate Orthodoxy so much. The Greek word for sin essentially means “missing the mark”. It isn’t a rule you broke, but how far off the mark of behaving in a godly fashion you are. Which, in some ways, makes it more uncomfortable for people. What do you mean, arriving at church half an hour late could be missing the mark? I’m here, aren’t I?
Sin isn’t simply breaking a rule. It’s acting in a way that continues to separate one from God and righteousness. Why do you think Jesus informed the Pharisees that lusting after a woman is the same as committing adultery? Because it is. Apparently the Pharisees were trying to justify their drooling over the chicks by saying “Well we aren’t acting on it so it’s okay right?” Nope. Jesus summed up the Ten Commandments by saying “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Why? Not because the Ten Commandments are suddenly invalid, but because those two sum up the spirit behind the Ten Commandments.
In other words, what many see as people acting entirely by a set of unnatural rules are actually people behaving in a way that is growing more and more natural for them. We live in a fallen world, and godly behavior is not going to come easily to us, at least at first.
I know a young couple who had a child out of wedlock. As they began to attend a local church, they decided to get married.
Several years later their marriage fell apart. I can give you many reasons why. They were constantly arguing, even over little things, and each refused to give the other the benefit of the doubt or the slightest leeway. If there was disagreement, each was doing it on purpose to hurt the other. And then the woman in the relationship decided to go have a fling. She had no reason whatsoever to do this, or if she did she refused to admit it. She just…did.
Afterward she began talking about how they simply weren’t ready for marriage, and how it was the pressure and judgmental attitudes of people at church that forced them into it.
No sense of personal responsibility for this. It was simply pressure to “be good”. And unfortunately, the young woman still believes this “being good” is based entirely on rules she thinks herself incapable of following.
Godliness comes, not from merely “following rules”, but from incorporating the spirit of the rules into our lives. We don’t follow rules simply because we are told to. We follow these “rules” because they help us grow closer to God.