“Well, yes, but that’s because…”
My kids are really—really—good at justifying their own behavior, particularly when they know they’ve directly disobeyed their parents and are therefore in a whole world of trouble. But they come by it honestly, because I was the same way as a kid. I usually had a reason for why whatever I did wrong really wasn’t. Those reasons were garbage, mind you; but I had them.
Like the time I decided I’d “borrow” the car. When I was ten. And I’d never driven before (but I’d seen my mom do it lots of times and it looked pretty simple). I had a reason: I wanted to make an audition tape for You Can’t Do That On Television, and figured the best way to do that was to drive to my friend’s house an hour away and borrow his.
I got busted before I got out of the driveway, in case you’re wondering.
Maybe you did the same thing. Not steal your mom’s car as a child, but come up with all kinds of reasons to justify your own bad behavior. If so, welcome to the club. (If not, let’s rethink that—after all, I hear lying’s a sin…)
What got me thinking about this, not coincidentally, was reading the Ten Commandments and considering their lack of wiggle room.
There is no “unless”
Think about it for a moment: when God says, “Do not have other gods besides me” (Exodus 20: 3), he’s not saying, “You can have other gods, just don’t put them in front of me,” or “if you’ve got other gods, they’ve got to be secondary to me.” He means let nothing come between us and him—there is no one and nothing that is to occupy his place of priority. We don’t get to worship him sometimes and someone else another. He is God and there is no other. The end.
Again, with the prohibition against adultery (Exodus 20:14). It’s not “do not commit adultery… unless your spouse just doesn’t understand you, or hasn’t been paying attention to you.” It’s “do not commit adultery.” Full stop.
Then there’s the one about not stealing (15). It’s not “do not steal… unless it’s from someone who deserves it or won’t miss it.” It’s “do not steal.” Period.
And one more: giving false testimony (16). It’s not “do not give false testimony against your neighbor… unless he’s a jerk, or someone you disagree with politically.” It’s “do not give false testimony.” End of discussion.
God doesn’t give us wiggle room
And although we read these commands and the clarity with which their inflexibility shines through is obvious, we still want to reinterpret them to suit our purposes. This is why you still have some people—even professing Christians—trying to claim Obama’s not an American or is funding ISIS, and thus bear false testimony against him. It’s why you’ve got people trying to claim that treating the rich unjustly is the right thing to do to care for those in need, which would be stealing.[1. Fun fact: God actually says not to do this sort of thing in Exodus 23:2-3. Lawsuits are the context, but it merits consideration in this broader context, too.] It’s why there’s a USA Fish at all, because some of us have forgotten that our first love is not to be a nation, but our Lord.
Regardless of how you come at them, the Ten Commandments don’t give us the kind of wiggle room we seek—and Jesus doesn’t either. We can’t forget that he moved from behavior to desires as he challenged his hearers to consider their standing before God. And could they stand before God’s law in light of his teaching?
This is something I try to be watchful for in my own heart and actions. Not because I am under the law—for Christ has set us free from the burden of trying to keep it—but because of my own tendency to wander into law keeping and self-justification. It’s tempting to read these and apply them in a heavy-handed way (e.g., if you’re not putting in your best effort at work and cutting corners, you’re stealing). But I don’t want to do that because it doesn’t go deep enough.
When I am tempted to find excuses around God’s commands, I’m looking for ways to say “I’m not that bad.” I’m blame shifting. I’m acting as though there’s something I can do to be good enough. God doesn’t give us the wiggle room we’re looking for, though. But he does give us something better—something that a “you’re not trying hard enough” approach also misses: he gives us himself. He gives us Christ, the one who obeyed the Law perfectly in every situation, in every instance. Jesus has obeyed the law for us, not so we can be free of obeying God, but so we can be free of trying to attain righteousness from our obedience. He gives us his righteousness because ours isn’t enough.
But if we believe, we do have Christ. He is all we need. And he is enough.
And God doesn’t give us any wiggle room on that, either.