This Proverb, written on a flowery postcard, sat next to my alarm clock for years. It was hand-printed in calligraphy, as if beautiful handwriting could somehow dress up shame and make it palatable. Those were the days when I believed if I knew the right thing to do, I would be able to discipline myself to do it. But regardless of how many times I read this passage, with one eye open and the other wrinkled shut in the morning sun, I could not heed it. Every night I shamed myself with all the consequences of sleeping in: threats of being fired, frustration in traffic, no time for breakfast, or make-up (or deodorant for that matter), lectures from my boss. Every morning I couldn’t care less about any of those consequences. I only desired five, ten, just thirty more minutes in bed.
Even if I spent the entire thirty minutes thinking about how I should be more like those damn ants, or how poverty stricken I was sure to become, it wasn’t enough motivation to get me out of bed.
Don’t we do this in Christendom though? We give each other prescriptions of shame as the solution to overcoming sin. Struggle with lust? No problem. Memorize all the verses about cutting off hands and plucking out eyes. That ought to fix it. Are you depressed? Here’s a requirement for the believer to suffer joyfully. Now go ahead and muster that up. Are you lazy? Go to the ants. Why do we think we can change ourselves with laws, when our faith in Jesus “set [us] free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2)?
I’ve been thinking lately about how we wallow around in our brokenness and failure, even though we know the gospel set us free from having to do so. We put ourselves, and others under laws to fix our brokenness, as if that has ever worked before—for anyone. I think it’s because we don’t know how to apply the gospel, except to make it a new law. Grace is contrary to our default thinking of what we need to do to clean ourselves (and others) up. We know how to preach it, but we don’t know how to live as if it’s true. We don’t know how to live by faith, so we die by the law.
This is nothing new. In Colossians 2 Paul warns believers that such rules and “regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual desires” (Colossians 2:23). He also tells them not to let others put them under these rules. “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8).
Rules and laws don’t change our desires. Shame doesn’t motivate us. Accountability partners turn us all into liars. These things may change our behavior temporarily, but only until our desires bubble up and overrule them. Law only further enslaves us with enough condemnation to make us forget it and give up. The gospel gives us a new solution—changed desires (see Ezekiel 36:25-27). So how do we apply the gospel? How do we experience grace instead of merely preaching it?
Rules and laws don’t change our desires. Shame doesn’t motivate us.
Well, I’m not usually one to give how-tos but lately, I have been allowing myself to learn through joy instead of wallowing. I’ve been enjoying the good things I’ve been given without guilt or fear of sinful idolatry: work, food, wine, friendships, money, love, sex, nature. I’ve given myself a break from shame. I’ve stopped letting other people take me captive with their version of law and requirements for “Christian living.” I’ve stopped obsessing over my sin, which has been taken care of on the cross, and my good works—whatever those may be. Living by faith means actually believing that “He who began a good work in you will complete it” (Philippians 1:6), that It really is finished (John 19:30), and there really is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
The gospel has set me free to simply live my life and pursue my interests, and to let those I love do the same. I have let go of all the “Christian marketing” and awkward tactics I have learned. The gospel goes out into the world through genuine relationships. Forced transparency and contrived conversations are harmful and cultish. People are attracted to real people, not salesmen.
As I look back over almost thirty years of Christian life, I realize that much of my suffering has come from trying to earn what I have already been given for free, people-pleasing, and trying to become what I already am in Christ. These days, I prefer to learn through joy.
Find more from Marci Preheim here.