Every time Erin and I clean the house we end up silently criticizing each other. Eventually that silent criticism takes on new life when I open my stupid mouth and give it a voice. It has happened more times than I can remember since early on in our marriage. At some point I will say something like “Wow! You’re being really thorough over there.” Which she knows really means, “Hey, I’ve cleaned three rooms already and your still in the same one…and it actually looks messier than it did before we started.” And she responds with something like “Well, it takes longer when you actually find a place for stuff instead of just hiding it and you actually clean instead of just moving stuff around.” Which I know means… well, pretty much exactly what she said.
The heart of the problem is that we both have different cleaning philosophies. My philosophy goes for the widest impact in the shortest amount of time. It is a philosophy of efficiency. While she prefers a philosophy of accuracy and depth of impact. In other words, she’s cleaning so that the house will actually be clean and I’m just trying to do enough to make it appear clean. I’m looking for the bare minimum to not be judged by others as a messy person.
The same two philosophies exist when it comes to Christian behavior as well. I meet a lot of people who are concerned about the bare minimum requirements of obedience. They ask questions about “how far is too far?” or “where’s the line?” And the problem with that question is that it reveals that your heart isn’t set on pleasing God, it’s just concerned with not being judged (by Him or, more likely, by others). If a guy came to me and asked “What’s the bare minimum I need to do to be considered ‘in a relationship’ with this girl?” It would raise serious questions about his love for her and I would, at the very least, discourage that girl from moving forward with the relationship and probably encourage her to let her friends and parents pick her boyfriends from now on because she’s obviously bad at it. The question itself reveals that his heart isn’t engaged in the relationship. If you love someone than you don’t need to ask questions about the bare minimum requirements, you simply serve them and show affection for them because it brings you joy to do so.
This philosophy of cleaning up for outward appearance only can also have a different face to it… legalism. Legalists are on the extreme opposite side of the “bare minimum” guys, although they share the same basic philosophy. The legalist believes that his outward appearance and behaviors determine his standing with God. He believes that ridiculous and thoroughly unbiblical axiom, “God helps those who help themselves.” This belief leads him to become a self-obsessed hypocrite who fixates on the exterior and neglects the inner life and the matters of the heart. His behaviors are in check, yet his affections are completely out of whack. Jesus had regular run ins with these kind of guys during his ministry and reserved his harshest words for them. He once told them that the prophet Isaiah was talking about them when he said, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'”
Jesus once healed a woman who seemed to have some type of debilitating back injury that had prevented her from standing up straight for 18 years. And the story tells us that the ruler of the synagogue, the spiritual leader of the town, was “indignant” because, according to his rulebook, Jesus should have waited until tomorrow to show grace and mercy by healing this woman. This is how the ridiculous mind of a religious legalist works. The obedience and good works that were meant to bring us joy are twisted into weapons with which to attack and deride other people. Obedience for a legalist always becomes a way to elevate themselves above others. Which reveals that their concern for their behavior was not really about pleasing God but instead about their own pride and selfishness.
The Gospel is not a list of rules that determine who’s in or who’s out. It’s an invitation into a relationship. A relationship with God himself through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Our outward obedience doesn’t earn His love, or earn us greater levels of blessing. Paul tells us in his letter to the Ephesians that God “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing.” “HAS blessed us.” This is past tense. He has already given us all of the blessings that we could need and not because we earned it but because He is gracious, and loving. So, if it’s not up to us to earn his love in the first place than we shouldn’t be concerned with “bare minimums”, nor should we use morality as a weapon to keep others down and keep ourselves on the top of ladder. We serve and love and obey God because He has served and loved and blessed us freely. We do it because it brings Him joy and that brings us joy. And once you’re freed from the burden of earning approval (God’s and other people’s) than you’re free to actually make real progress and get off of the treadmill of legalism.
I recently read a blog post by Tullian Tchividjian where he wrote, “The ironic thing about legalism is that it not only doesn’t make people work harder, it makes them give up. Moralism doesn’t produce morality; rather, it produces immorality.” So, when we clean up for the appearance of cleanliness we don’t actually get things clean. It’s only through excepting that God’s love comes to us apart from our good behaviors that we will actually see real growth and change occur in our behaviors, which is always a much longer process than just cleaning up the outside.
So, like usual when we disagree, Erin is right. If you only clean for the appearance of cleanliness than you end up leaving the most important stuff undone. Sometimes you’ve got to reorganize the kids closet instead of just shoving stuff inside and forcing the doors shut. Sometimes you’ve got to wipe down the baseboards, vacuum under the furniture and dust the ceiling fans… well, let’s be honest, some of that stuff is still kind of ridiculous.