Many of us associate the Christian faith with a list of do's and don'ts. And there are do's and don'ts, to be sure. But if the Christian life is to be oriented in relationship, why is there so much talk of formula? Could it be that the reason we are more interested in formula than relationship is that we would like to deal with our need for religion without dealing with the complications of relationship? That even though we have chosen the Christian faith instead of "poppycock religion," we ultimately want the same thing as the pagan? And what is that? Easy answers, comfortable sentiments, beliefs that make us feel good. So we go through the motions. We go to our churches, we read our self-help books, we watch our religious television, and we check each item off our to-do list as if we were doing work for pay. One thing I am sure of. This is not the kind of real-life faith I'm looking for.
-Donald Miller, Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance, pgs. 272-273
Not surprisingly, most Israelites declined the prophet's [Amos] invitation to enter into a dialogue with Yahweh. They preferred a less demanding religion of cultic observance either in the Jerusalem Temple or in the old fertility cults of Canaan. This continues to be the case: the religion of compassion is followed only by a minority; most religious people are content with decorous worship in synagogue, church, temple and mosque.
-Karen Armstrong, A History of God, page 46
I thought it was interesting to find two completely unrelated quotes comparing your average Sunday morning Christian to ancient Pagans. It's hardly revolutionary to point out the large number of people (Christian and otherwise) whose lives appear to be minimally impacted by whatever religion they claim to adhere to, but it is interesting to note how common this problem is to humanity as a whole.
Even in our modern, scientific era most people continue to proclaim belief in the existence of an authority beyond themselves and beyond human institutions, but the majority are interested in little more than paying 'dues' to this authority (like we would a human government) so that we can carry on with our own lives and our own agendas unmolested.
Even among evangelicals, who so frequently proclaim that Christianity is "a relationship, not a religion," that 'relationship' seldom goes deeper than doing what we're told we need to do to pay God off. Our prayers tend to read like a child's letter to Santa Claus - we say "thank you" and "I'm sorry" a few times, we promise to be good (or to stop being bad), and then we rattle off our list of needs and wants.
The Church's gravitic tendency toward legalism only worsens matters. We equate obedience to lists of dos and don'ts with holiness, even though such a conflation can only be extracted from the New Testament through the most creative (and selective) of interpretive methods. By applying the correct labels to ourselves and striving to avoid certain 'bad' behaviors, we qualify as 'good Christians' in the eyes of our peers, even if our self-labeling comes at the expense of honesty and authenticity.
We act as though our lists of rules give us a relationship with God, but how many of our real-life relationships can we reduce to checklists and formulas? There are guidelines that can be generalized to most relationships, certainly, but each relationship is still going to have its own set of rules, based on the unique personalities and situations involved, and those rules and boundaries will shift over time to reflect changes in the circumstances, needs and inclinations of those involved.
Why, then, would we expect any less from a relationship with God? Even if we conclude that God never grows or changes, each of us nonetheless does, just as every one of us is different from each other in innumerable ways. Real relationships are complicated and continually evolving. The more intimate the relationship, the more work that is required to maintain it - not by going through a checklist but by paying close attention to the other person, by seeking to meet their needs, by interpreting the signals received from them and working out the best way to respond to them.
Many would argue that, just as parents lay down rules for their children, so God has done the same for us. It's a valid point, but in practice such a stance is most commonly used to justify a legalistic mindset. And what are God's rules? Contrary to the belief of many, the only clear answer we can extract from the Bible requires boiling it all down to Jesus' simple formula: Love God and love others. As soon as we try to expand the list beyond those two commands, we run into trouble: ask 500 theologians to summarize the important commands in the Bible, and you'll get 500 conflicting lists.
But here the parent-child analogy becomes helpful to us. As any parent with multiple children can attest, each of their kids is different. What worked well with one may have disastrous results with the next. What pushes one child in a bad direction may actually be beneficial to another. It's sometimes necessary to show mercy at the expense of the rules, and there's even a time to change the rules altogether. Why, then, would we expect anything less from God, who is infinitely wiser than even the best human parent?
Intimate relationships are difficult. They require hard work, constant attentiveness and a continual readjustment of our personal priorities. They cause us pain and inconvenience and they repeatedly push us out of our comfort zones. They bring us fulfillment one minute and drain our last ounce of strength in the next. How could a real relationship with God be any less demanding?
The legalist would argue that adherence to all of God's rules is just as demanding, and there's certainly no denying what a heavy burden legalism places on its subjects. The difference is that the legalist can fulfill all of the obligations of 'holy' living without ever truly connecting with God. Obedience to the rules requires a sense of duty, but love for the one in authority is purely optional. I can follow the letter of the law perfectly, and even go through all the outward motions of appearing loving and devout, all the while secretly hating my master.
Genuine love - and genuine relationship - eliminates the need for a strict set of rules (and in fact makes it impossible to come up with a fixed list), while at the same time binding the ones who love more securely than anything an external authority could ever impose. No wonder most Christians prefer the way of the ancient Pagan.