At this stage in life, I see that I am a recovering ‘performance devotee.’ Some of us who were raised in the church grew accustomed to patterns of living and behaving, which while good, can become disconnected from the Source. The good things become your own personal gospel of right behavior, and you can feel good about yourself if you hold fast to them, and bad about yourself if you slip up. In some ways, it feels like a comfortable and safe system, a predictable universe controlled by you. In other ways, every self-imposed god eventually becomes a cruel and burdensome taskmaster, unforgiving and unmerciful.
When I was younger I was always attracted to Jesus’ invitation in Matthew 11: ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me…for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ I was captivated by these words like a weary winter traveler drawn to a crackling bonfire in a snowy clearing. But I didn’t actually really feel or experience that his burden was light. Jesus invites us into his freedom of being guided by the Spirit rather than by our wider cultural rules, our Christian cultural rules, or our personally-imposed rules. In fact, when he says ‘learn from me’, we can see how he was guided by the Spirit as he interacted with each person he encountered in a unique way—not operating from a scripted rule book of how to deal with people who are engaging in ‘bad’ behavior.
But for some of us, learning to walk into this freedom is not necessarily an instantaneous moment heralded by rapturous Hollywood-film music.
For those of us who struggle to embrace our freedom, we can find plenty of company in the Scriptures. Think of the wandering Israelites who so quickly forgot how ruthless their Egyptian slavery had become. Or Paul’s admonition to the Galatians, who were panting to return to more rules and regulations.
My friend Ksenija Magda, in her new thought-provoking book Blessing the Curse?, discusses the relationships in a household which Paul uses to exemplify his exhortation to the Galatians to live in their freedom. One of those household relationships is the ‘pedagogian’, who Magda describes as a slave with a big stick in an ancient Greek household, enforcing the father’s household rules to his children (sons). Returning to the law, therefore, ‘is like wanting to become a child again, after having been accepted as an adult heir at God’s table —like asking for that abusive slave with a big stick to beat the father’s will into you, after you’ve already been communicating with the father directly…Why leave the freedom and fullness of God’s executive table and exchange it for a slave’s interpretation of God’s will?’*
Why indeed? It makes no sense on paper. But maybe our bodies have a certain ‘muscle memory’ from long years of a self-imposed pedagogian. Or perhaps someone is not even conscious who or what is ruling their lives. Walking in freedom may need to be a daily decision, or a gradual realization, until new muscle memories form, and our bodies react in horror at the thought of returning to the past—a past way of life as dead and lifeless as the white ashes left in memory of the fire.
Magda, Ksenija. 2020. Blessing the Curse?: A Biblical Approach for Restoring Relationships in the Church. Cumbria: Langham Global Publishing, pg. 116.