Check out the “Interlude” from Mockingbird’s latest resource, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints), available here!

The Law, on most every occasion, draws a line of distinction between the is of life and the ought. The Law is the demarcation of the life we should have—the life we long for—and our own obstructions preventing us from getting there. It is for this reason that our response to the Law is almost always counterproductive.[1]

Imagine you are twelve years old again, and you love baseball. All your heroes are baseball players, all your extracurricular time is spent either with a ballglove in hand or watching a game on television, and, regardless of the season, it’s been that way as long as you can remember. It’s not that you’re particularly good or particularly bad at baseball, you just love the game—the smack of the bat after a line drive, the smell of the grass, the feel of sliding headlong into second base. You’ve never had to defend it or describe it that way, but that’s what you feel. And you can imagine one day having a jersey with your name on the back of it.

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Things have begun to feel a little different this season, though, because twelve-year-olds have to try out for JV teams at the end of the year, and you get the feeling that not everyone makes the cut. You suddenly find yourself comparing your fielding skills with the other infielders and with players from other teams, and you start to count the number of times you miss balls that are hit to you. You keep track of how many strikeouts you get in each game.

Your coach has a way of calling you out, too. In one particularly bad stretch of the season, your coach calls across the field after you make yet another missed fielding play, “That’s four times this game! Keep your head down!” You don’t keep your head down, though, and after the fifth ground ball makes its way between your legs, your coach demotes you to the outfield. You replay his voice in your head. At your next at-bat, you strike out quickly, and you wonder if baseball is your sport after all.

The Law is shorthand here for an accusing standard of performance. As we have noted, whenever the Law is coming, condemnation follows close behind. Whenever an expectation stands before us—from our coach, from ourselves, from God himself—we are either condemned by our failure before it, or made to be condemners in our fulfillment of it. The Law is the unfeeling voice of The Coach—it tolerates no excuses, it accepts no shortcuts. The Law is good, in that it proffers good fundamentals (‘Keep your head down when fielding a groundball,’ ‘You shouldn’t smoke,’ ‘Spend only the money you have,’ etc.), but the failure which pursues it always creates a reaction. When we are criticized, we must defend.

And how do we defend?

Well, the answer isn’t just about Little League pressures; this is the way of life. In facing the Law, we are brought to a moment of internal crisis, where who we are stands in conflict with something we ought to be. In the face of this conflict, one response we tend towards is flight. Whether it is the Little League coach, or our spouse, or our super-fit colleague, we run from what someone thinks we ought to be. We think about quitting the team, we disengage emotionally, we stop going to the gym. This reaction to the Law is all about closing our eyes and ears to the sound of our own condemnation. The idea is: We know the problem isn’t going anywhere, so we dodge it.

Or perhaps we attempt to assassinate the judge; it’s not flight, it’s fight. We put up our dukes and argue our case with the Coach, even if we know it will relegate us to the bench. We rationalize our decisions and the mistakes we made—how they weren’t even mistakes at all. We bicker on our job surveys about unrealistic expectations, we condescend about the vanity of the kinds of people who go to the gym, and we blame our parents for what they’ve done to us. In one way or another, this is our approach: to turn the speakers up in rebellion against the unfairness of an overly harsh Coach.

635628646274658104-etab-blog-14Or maybe we appease. The Coach isn’t satisfied, so we show him how sorry we are, how hard we’ve been practicing at home. Our skills are bound to improve if He just gives us time. We ingratiate ourselves in the hopes that the Law might be appeased. We decide to wear what they wear, instead of what we want to wear; we apologize needlessly for fear that people are always mad at us; we go to the gym from time to time, and justify why we don’t go more often. More or less, we cower before judgment, hoping to sneak some sympathy in before the bite.

It must be mentioned that this is true for our spiritual lives, too. We become master minimizers of God’s call for perfection. We tend to lower the bar of God’s righteous Law, in the hopes that fulfilling one or a small set of them will be enough to gain the Almighty’s ear. Of course, it’s impossible to keep all of the Bible’s various moral teachings before us at any one time. Selectivity is a foregone conclusion, and the criteria for such selection will always be pride-driven, at least in part. But it is also a defense mechanism, dividing up righteousness into manageable, seemingly do-able parts. Like the Rich Young Ruler who walks away from Jesus in great sadness, we’d certainly like to parse and snip our way into an achievable spirituality—one that doesn’t drive us to the grave every day of our lives.

But, in fact, that is precisely what the Law does. We can only react so long until our reactions are silenced. As we are told in scriptures, “Behold, you have sinned against the Lord, and be sure your sin will find you out” (Nm 32:23).

[1] This section draws heavily on “Folly On the Defensive,” in chapter 1 of This American Gospel, by Ethan Richardson (Mockingbird, 2012).