Christianity is nothing more than a set of rules! Have you ever heard or argued this before? The question or objection, depending on how it is phrased, comes from both Christians and skeptics. So what does Christianity have to say to this?
It is helpful first to acknowledge that the Bible is indeed full of commands and instructions. But the role that the rules play is often misunderstood. Rules, even going back to the Ten Commandments, were not meant simply to tell us what to do and what not to do. They were intended to be a means by which humanity could come close to God and relate to God. If we think of how rules are applied in other areas of life, it is quite easy to understand how this works. Discipline, guidelines or putting deadlines in place are not an end in themselves; they are the means by which we achieve what we want to accomplish.
While I was doing undergraduate studies in Toronto I worked for the Toronto Blue Jays ground crew. While working there I noticed that the elite players would always be the ones to arrive at the ballpark early and leave late. They would come in early for strength and conditioning purposes, then perhaps look over strategies or game plans. Then they would join the rest of the team once the normal daily routines began. This was hard work and made for long days. Here is the point: the discipline of getting to the stadium early, doing an extra work out, working over game plans were not the goal. These were the means by which this player would attain the ultimate goal: victory.
The rules set out in Scripture were never meant to inhibit pleasure or desire, but to do the exact opposite. Desire gave birth to commands, but somehow we have understood it the other way around, as if the commands were meant to create desire.
There is actually a moment documented in the Old Testament in which the people of Israel say that they would like to follow God’s commandments. However, Joshua, their leader at the time, turns them down. Effectively, he says, ‘You don’t have what it takes. You will turn away from God. So, please, don’t commit to it.’ They push back and insist that they truly want to follow God. Joshua reluctantly gives in and grants them their desire to form a covenant binding them to follow God’s rules.
The rules and statutes implemented into the life of Israel stemmed from a desire to serve the Lord. Rules were not put in place to prevent desire from finding its fulfillment. Rather, the rules were put in place to fulfill desire and avoid destruction.
A question that we need to ask ourselves is, ‘Where do rules find their starting point?’ In the Christian sense, does obedience come from a sense of duty or from a desire for God? If the drive to live for God comes from a sense of duty, our faith will become one long arduous journey. But duty is not where the gospel asks us to begin. We begin with a love and desire for God.
Imagine that I have just been away from home on a long business trip. When I return home I decide to stop off at the florist’s near my home because I want to get flowers for my wife. I purchase the flowers, then walk up to the door with flowers behind my back and knock on the door. My wife opens the door and I reveal the flowers to her. She says, ‘Nathan, you shouldn’t have done this! Why did you get me these flowers?’ I reply, ‘Because it is my duty!’
What do you think her response will be after she hears this? What if I respond to her question by saying that I got her those flowers because I love her—that there is nothing more I love than the sweet fellowship I have with her.(1)
This gets at the heart of Christian discipleship. Christianity does not start with rules, but the rules do make sense. They are put in place to fulfill our desire for God; not to coerce us into loving God.
Nathan Betts is a member of the speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Toronto, Canada.
(1) Story as told by Michael Ramsden, director for the European office of RZIM.