Most life paths are best traveled in moderation. There are two sides of any road into which one can tumble by means of “too much” or “too little.” For this post, I want to speak specifically of Jesus, the True Way. The path of Jesus is a road unlike any other you might journey. It is a path of humility, which mysteriously leads to greatness. Jesus is unlike any other leader you could follow. He does not allow himself to be relegated to mere categories like “teacher” or “thinker” because he openly claims to be divine, insisting that the forgiveness of sins only comes through himself.
If you’ve never encountered this description of Jesus called One Solitary Life, it’s really worth pondering. It is often attributed to James Allen Francis:
He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant. He grew up in another village, where he worked in a carpenter shop until he was 30. Then, for three years, he was an itinerant preacher.
He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family or owned a home. He didn’t go to college. He never lived in a big city. He never traveled 200 miles from the place where he was born. He did none of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but himself.
He was only 33 when the tide of public opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. One of them denied him. He was turned over to his enemies and went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed to a cross between two thieves. While he was dying, his executioners gambled for his garments, the only property he had on earth. When he was dead, he was laid in a borrowed grave, through the pity of a friend.
Twenty centuries have come and gone, and today he is the central figure of the human race. I am well within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned–put together–have not affected the life of man on this earth as much as that one, solitary life.
In an attempt to walk in Jesus’ footsteps, we are sometimes tempted to latch on to an aspect of Jesus and therefore lose sight of the Lord himself. I would point to legalism as one such distraction, a ditch into which we can tumble and get stuck, a false hope onto which we can cling.
While Jesus spoke openly about having a definite will and even “commandments” we must never try to reduce Jesus to a system or a plan. In fact, we can use our obedience to a system as a way to avoid becoming vulnerable to the person who made the system possible. If we determine the limits of what a Christian can do, should do, must do, and must not do, as long as we stay within those parameters we can somewhat avoid deeper introspection and honest prayer. Yet Jesus desires us to walk with him closely. Paul explains that it took the help of God’s Spirit to enable us to become Christians, and it will take no less than the help of the Spirit for us to reach maturity in Christ. We won’t be able to do this by our willpower alone, or our ability to maintain a system of rules.
If we see ourselves getting bogged down in a rule system, an easy temptation can be to hop from one ditch into another, and to do so under the banner of “grace.” By this I don’t mean real grace, which is dearly valued and costly, but by means of a lawless sort of grace that looks with suspicion on anything that resembles restrictions. “Surely God couldn’t care about something like that” is an ominously familiar retort. Jesus had no trouble taking a stand or insisting on standards of conduct and character. Even as he saved the woman’s life who was caught in adultery by refusing to stone her, he didn’t avoid the painful subject of her adultery but insisted that she needed to quit sinning and leave that life behind. Jesus practiced grace, not lawlessness. Grace refuses to stop loving or to eliminate the possibility of reconciliation, but it also tells the truth.
So in the dilemma of the two ditches of legalism and lawlessness, one is not a solution for the other because both allow us to settle for less than knowing the Lord. Our love and admiration for Jesus will drive us to please him because we want to hear him say “Well done.” We will want to walk blamelessly because we take his sacrifice seriously. Yet this same love will also move us to show mercy. We know what it’s like to fail and we want others to get to have the experience of forgiveness, to see the burden lifted when they understand that their shortcomings have in no way stopped God from seeing both value and potential in them. It isn’t a cheap thing, but a dearly blessed thing to be an agent of grace in another person’s life.
Rigidness is not a cure for laxity, nor is laxity the antidote for rigidness. The solution to all of our problems is Jesus Christ. He is like no other and can do for us what no one else can do. When you find yourself having stumbled into a ditch, settling for a system or a method instead of a person, fix your eyes on the one who can bring you back out, into the place you want to be. Our invitation isn’t merely to comply with Christ, but to know Christ.