God is Holy, All Powerful, Almighty, and yet Loving, and full of Grace. I think this is lays the foundation for one of the most difficult struggles for a believer. We are called to live a life that is set apart, holy and acceptable to God, yet we are also expected to not be bound by law and live lives of freedom, full of grace and love. At a first glance, I think especially for nonbelievers, this may cause God to come off as schizophrenic, and Christians are also often viewed in the same light. Over the years I have learned that God in fact does not have a split personality, and these two characteristics of Him go hand in hand, but often in our journey to understand and follow Him we struggle to find middle ground between these two traits. In my experience, I have seen that it is common for believers to choose one “side” or the other, either living a life trying to please a Holy and demanding God, or living a life of grace, attempting to be free from the law. The church as a whole therefore comes off as a ridiculous seesaw as the right and left wingers take their sides, and exchange their blows.
Unfortunately, one without the other leads to an incomplete Christian lifestyle. I look at my own personal journey with this particular scuffle between opposing poles and I see that I am constantly learning what it means to live “in” the world, but not “of” it, and yet remain relevant and loving to others living alongside me. I have seen how, at different points in my life, I have lived on both sides of the extremes, and though I feel that I have found some sort of a “middle ground”, it is a daily struggle and effort to be there.
For instance, when I first became a Christian I was truly and radically transformed! I saw many ways that I was living in sin and because I had met a God that had truly changed my life I did my very best to leave those things behind. I must admit restructuring my sinful habits and thoughts was a pleasure at the time and I did not feel an enormous “pressure” to do so, I merely wanted to. But I do see how as a zealous, young believer I went to a total extreme. In not knowing how to properly “integrate” my old life with the new, I basically cut off all of the old in order to try and get firm footing in this new way of life I had discovered. I quit smoking, drinking, smoking weed, lying, stealing, and other obvious things that I felt were sinful. I tried to work on my sarcasm. I cut myself off from all of my “old” friends that I felt might “bring me down”. At one point I even stopped watching television and movies that did not have to do with God, and I would not listen to any “secular” music.
Looking back, I do not regret these decisions, and I do think they were necessary for me to learn what it meant to serve God, after 16 years of serving myself, but I also see how it limited my interaction with other people living in the world around me. I was definitely not “of” the world, but it was getting to the point where I was also not “in” it! It became more and more difficult to relate to others that were in fact living in the world, the very people that I was also called to love and lead to God. I know I came off as self righteous to many. If you want proof just ask my step dad about my reaction to him playing Bob Marley for my little baby (at the time) brother Eli. But time went on, my journey continued, and I began to see the importance of grace and love, and not only being bound by certain rules and regulations.
Fast forward a little bit…I found myself living, and working amongst hardened youth who make the streets of downtown Cape Town their home. I saw that in order to make a true and lasting impact in their lives I would need to live the gospel rather than preach it. I saw how many people passed through their lives, gave their input and opinions, and then went about their way. I saw the need to walk alongside them and attempt to let my actions speak louder than my words. I saw how these children have been hurt by so many Christians who tell them they are “wrong, bad, sinful, going to hell” and so on and yet never really offered an alternative for them. So through the years of living and working amongst these children, I would say there were definitely times when I went to the other extreme, where I put grace far above the hatred that I should feel for sin. At times, I came off equally self righteous as I did before, but this time I was sitting on the opposite wing (the left rather than the right), and my judgments were mostly aimed at Christians who I felt were judgmental and hypocritical. I realized that way of life is equally undesirable.
I now find myself somewhere in the middle, but definitely not perfectly smack dab in the center, and often leaning to one side or the other, and usually towards the left. Honestly, I do not think we will ever get it perfect. As a matter of fact, I am sure that we won’t! But I do not think that should stop us from trying. One of the most helpful compasses in my own personal journey was reading how Jesus responded when He was asked what the most important commandment is. Jesus said, “First in importance is, ‘Listen Israel: The Lord your God is one; so love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.’ And here is the second: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ There is no other commandment that ranks with these. (Mark 12:29-31 – The Message)
I think it is interesting that when He was asked what the most important commandment (singular) is, He replied by giving two: Love God & Love others. For me, this is a answer to our predicament, though not a once off solution. If we love God in the way we are supposed to, we will most likely live lives that are pleasing to Him and stay away from things that push us further away from Him, but if we follow that up with the priority of loving others, we will be forced to live lives of acceptance and grace. We do not have the choice to choose one or the other. We can’t live isolated and totally separated lives that end up coming off as self righteous and judgmental towards others. But we equally cannot afford to live a life in service to others, neglecting that our first priority should be to love God.
I think Paul really summed it up nicely in his letter to the Galatians, Let me put this question to you: How did your new life begin? Was it by working your heads off to please God? Or was it by responding to God’s Message to you? Are you going to continue in this craziness? For only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God…Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you…It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom. If you bite and ravage each other, watch out – in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then? (Galatians 3:3-4, 5:1, 5:13-15 – The Message)
I think true freedom is somewhere in the middle!