I’m a firstborn, and therefore (like many of us firstborns) mostly compliant, a people pleaser, and a perfectionist. My personality likes rules because they provide structure. Structure makes me feel secure and comfortable. I was raised in a church-going, Bible-believing family and it was all black and white to me. This is right, that’s wrong. Do what’s right, not what’s wrong. Being a Christian, as I came to understand it, was mostly about this. I wanted to do a really great job of following the rules and living the right way so God (and my parents) would be happy with me. I think I gravitated toward and settled into this mindset in part because of my nature of people pleasing and perfectionism.
I didn’t realize until adulthood, and more and more these last 10 years or so, how my view of a life of faith was incomplete and restrictive, restricting me more than just in the way I behave. My relationship with God has been hampered by this lingering feeling that I better not mess up. I’d painted Him in my mind as the boundary maker, the Judge, the Holy One I desperately don’t want to disappoint by stepping out of line.
I was trying to thrive in a legalistic faith (and it wasn’t working) instead of having a deeply personal and transformative 24/7 relationship with a living, loving Father.
I’m learning, or relearning, how to live in relationship with God because a relationship built only on rules and do’s & don’ts is a pretty cold one. Its foundation is fear and that has often pushed me back from God. Think about it, is a God who is judging, keeping track of wrongs, and watching for a mistake One who seems approachable and warm? Is that someone you’d want to spend a lot of time with, talk with, listen to, read about, follow, or even share with other people?
There are lots of illustrations out there about living God’s way. Here’s one: Picture a house with a big yard that backs up to a major highway. The yard is fenced so the children who live in the house won’t wander or run onto the road and be hurt or killed. Similarly, God’s boundaries are for our good, they keep us from harm and ultimately from death (you know, the wages of sin is death kind of death).
Recently, God gave me a new way to look at that. Imagine a wide open, vast, lush, green grassy plain with lots of rolling hills in the distance, the landscape stretching as far as your eye can see. In the distance you can hear the gurgling of a creek or distant thundering of waterfalls. The sky is wide and blue, the sun shining, a refreshing breeze blows the hair away from your face. Here and there, however, spotting the landscape are dark circles, which when you look closer you realize are deep holes. They’re each encircled with a fence to keep people from wandering or falling into.
As I basked in this beautiful place in my mind, God told me that His grace is more like this scene than being fenced into a small backyard by a highway. As His child I can explore, rest, wander, run, walk, lay down, play, or just be still anywhere in that place. The dark holes are places that aren’t in God’s plan for my best: rebellion, sin. The fence around each one is the reminder in God’s Word and from His Spirit directly to our hearts those places are dangerous and to stay out.
I am truly free to decide, of course, and if I choose, I can climb those fences and jump into the circles, but it’s pretty obvious in this picture that doesn’t lead to anything good. I could sit on the fence thinking about jumping into the holes, but then I miss out on the free roaming in the green grass and out in the hills. I can’t have both.
We don’t get to this place by staying out of the holes. It’s not living right that makes us welcome in God’s grace. God calls everyone to come, just the way we are. We get in by coming to Jesus in faith and seeking forgiveness. THEN we stay out of the holes, away from sin, not to make God happy and keep Him from being disappointed in us. Rather, we accept his boundaries out of gratitude for such love and freedom: freedom from guilt, freedom from shame, freedom from separation from Him, freedom from death. We trust He has our best in mind because He loves us.
Jesus said He came to give life and life abundantly! Remember the scene laid out in John chapter 8 of a woman caught in the act of adultery? She was dragged before Jesus by religious leaders to humiliate her and see if Jesus would agree she should be stoned for her sin. After reminding the leaders they, too, had sinned before and shouldn’t stand in judgment, He turned to look at the woman in compassion and asked her, “Has no one condemned you?” She answered, “No, Sir.” “Then neither do I. Go and leave your life of sin.”
Notice Jesus did not say, “Go and be sure you attend Synagogue every Sabbath, have a quiet time every single morning, and memorize Scripture. No drinking, smoking or cussing or I’ll be extremely disappointed in you.” Instead, He opened the door wide to that beautiful, peace-filled, green hills and open space place of His grace.
He loved her as she hadn’t been loved before. He loved her even as she stood ashamed and dirty with sin. God lavishes that love on us, too. He actually longs to give us His grace. He aches for each and every one of his kids to live and stay with Him day by day. “The LORD longs to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show you compassion.” Isaiah 30:18
There will still be struggles and hard places to travel through even in God’s grace, but that freedom remains. He will discipline us sometimes and correct us, but freedom remains. And HE remains. He will never leave. He’s a good Father. He goes with us in love, not condemnation or score-keeping.
I hope if you follow Jesus, you are walking with Him head held high in the freedom of grace and not lagging behind him a few steps in fear or shame. If you have trouble really believing and knowing you are accepted by God without doing a single thing except believing in Jesus, then ask Him to help you understand how much He loves you. The antidote to fear and shame is knowing and believing God is good and He LOVES.
Thank you, God, for fencing off the places that lead to sin and death, but not fencing me in! Thank you for loving me, for giving me a new way to look at living day to day with you covered in and set free by Your grace.
“…[God’s] Perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced His perfect love.” 1 John 4:18