You are driving down the street and you see one of those road signs, it has a red outer circle and on the inside it says 30. What does the sign mean? That’s obvious isn’t it? It means you could probably get away with driving at 40 miles per hour!
There is something about our culture that we seem to see any rule as a benchmark requiring us to conform to something the next level down in stringency. I think we have seen it with coronavirus. It has seemed at times that whenever a new guideline or instruction has been given that many people have thought it doesn’t apply to them. It has seemed that the government have needed to move to the next level of lockdown in order to get us to comply with the previous one.
I am no expert in epidemiology but I can’t help thinking that when we look back on the spread of this disease that we will want to pay attention to what was happening in the two weeks before lockdown. We had already been advised to start cutting back on non-essential travel, to wash our hands and practice social distancing. Older people and those considered most vulnerable had already been advised to stay home and not receive visitors. Yet, Mothers Sunday seemed to be an opportunity for families to head round to mums. Meanwhile people headed off to Snowdonia and the beaches that weekend for what must have had the same affect as gigantic chickenpox parties in terms of disease transmission. The Government had to impose harsher measures to get compliance.
So, why do we struggle with compliance when we are asked on instructed to do something? I think it has a lost to do with legalism and our desire for autonomy. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve wanted autonomy, to be free from accountability to God. So they began to question God’s rules, demanding the ability to asses the rules for themselves. They wanted freedom and did not want God telling them what to do. Our society longs for that freedom too so that any form of authority is presented as tyrannical. Rules are seen as harsh and legalistically we attempt to calculate what is the minimum expected of us.
Legalism happens when we see rules as harsh, unfair and arbitrary. We see the rule as burdensome and so we argue that we must have failed to understand it properly. We attempt to interpret it in such a way that we can fulfil its demands. Legalism often starts out as a desire to reduce the burden by codifying it. However, whenever we did this we end up with a heavier burden. God’s word is always more merciful (even when it feels like law) than human wisdom (even when it feels like mercy). The Gospel offers a radical solution to this. Jesus the perfect law keeper who loves God with his whole heart becomes the one who takes my place so that not only does he take my sin on himself but he gives me his righteousness in exchange. I am no longer a law breaker. We are justified but we also receive the Holy Spirit so that God is at work purifying us. This should change our relationship to the law and to laws. I no longer look for the minimum I can get away with. Rather, I see my relationship with him and church as incredibly worthwhile to enjoy not endure.