When Rules Get in the Way


If December is Party season, January is Rule season. The excesses of one make us crave the austerity of the other.

New resolutions about a simplifying of diet, schedule, and surroundings. Less is less and more was so December.

I crave the sparseness after the decadence of the holidays. The taking down of decorations, the cleaning of windows, the toned down nature of the neighborhood.

And I love the structure of new beginnings. A new calendar, schedule, new beginnings for a new year.

For a while.

And then the structure that I craved becomes a burden. The sparseness gets filled in the corners, and the rules become restrictive rather than freeing.

Rules are tricky. As adults we don’t use the word “rules” very often. It conjures up thoughts of wiggly knees in classrooms that are too hot and too full of people and walls. Thoughts of broken rules and punishments. Thoughts of disappointments and the urge to break rather than conform.

We prefer to use the imagery of ‘guidelines’, ‘structure’, and ‘framework’.

But in our heart of hearts we know there are still rules. Rules that we don’t break, don’t want other people to break, rules that we chaff against as we struggle to push our limits.

“Rules are there for a reason” seems to rise in us the feeling of not-for-me and a sense of struggle at the superimposed strictures that we encounter and live within.

Rules come into our reality as Jesus-followers as well. There seem to be rules about where and how we worship, how we behave, what we should do and not do in order to protect ourselves from the judgement of our behavior by others.

And by God?

Many people surge against the idea of following Jesus because “It’s all about rules and I’ll never measure up”.

It can be that way.

But it being that way is not GOD’s Way.

Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues
    God will speak to this people,
to whom he said,
    “This is the resting place, let the weary rest”;
and, “This is the place of repose”—
    but they would not listen.
So then, the word of the Lord to them will become:
    Do this, do that,
    a rule for this, a rule for that;
    a little here, a little there—
so that as they go they will fall backward;
    they will be injured and snared and captured. Isaiah 28:11-13

There is a tension here between relationship and rules. Trying to discern what God wants from us and behaving correctly is a noble goal. But it’s not the core of the relationship God wants from his people.

In Isaiah’s time the people were so caught up in the complexities of their political alliances and their tensions that they forgot the core of their fruitfulness and identity.

God had been trying to speak to his people, calling them back to him. But they couldn’t see him through the veil of the rules.

They superceded his voice with the religious rules of their own making and it was destroying them, a molecule at a time.

They would do, do, do, do, piling rule upon rule in order to control what was going on around them, and forgot their source.

Sound familiar?

There have been times in my life when I’ve gotten lost in the noise of my behavior and forgotten the core of why I’m (apparently) doing all these things anyway.

God did not desire that the Israelites do more. He asked that they see more.

See him in their everyday. See how he could bring them through their trials. See that he could topple nations with a word from his mouth.

But with their heads down and eyes turned in judgement on one another and themselves, they could not see.

And they would fall, bit by bit, farther away from him and closer to harm.

When I get caught up in the doing of my salvation and forget that my only salvation is through the gift of grace, then I lose sight of the God who draws me forward.

The behavior, my desire to please God, doesn’t come out of the behavior, adherence to the rules, it comes out of His grace.

And then they aren’t rules. They’re ways I choose to live in light of God’s love. They’re ways I choose to treat other people, God’s creation, my responsibilities and what is required of me in living this life.

And the chomping and snorting and rebellion that I feel when being restricted on all sides melts away.

Because I know why. I know why I’m doing what I’m doing.

And I know whom I’m doing it for.