How the Law is Heard

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One of the ground breaking insights that my old professor Paul Zahl brought into my life was the relationship of God’s Law (notice the big L) and the infinite little laws (notice the little l) that we get from society and even place on ourselves.  For Zahl this is particularly true in the way the Law/law is heard.  He writes:paul-zahl-portrait-2-small-2

“In practice, the requirement of perfect submission to the commandments of God is exactly the same as the requirement of perfect submission to the innumerable drives for perfection that drive everyday people’s crippled and crippling lives.  The commandment of God that we honor our father and mother is no different in impact, for example, than the commandment of fashion that a woman be beautiful or the commandment of culture that a man be boldly decisive and at the same time utterly tender…  The weight of these laws is the same as the weight of the sublime moral law.  Law, whether biblical and universally stated or contextual and contemporarily phrased, operates in one way.  Law reduces its object, the human person, to despair.”

 Simply put, the little laws are heard no differently than God’s Laws.  Because of this, we react the same way to them as we do to God’s Law.  What is this reaction?  To quote Zahl again, “The law… provokes the opposite reaction from the one it is intended to provoke.”  Here Zahl is just simply paraphrasing the apostle Paul who wrote:

Romans 5:20  the law came in to increase the trespass…

Romans 7:9  I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died.

Romans 7:12-14   So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.  Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.  For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.

In other words, because of our sinful nature, any form of command excites us and provokes the opposite reaction within us.  Even if we “fulfill” the command outwardly, we inwardly resent the one who commands us.

This principle is undeniably true in human experience. Zahl writes:

101115_cartoon_081_a14726_p465“Every time a person feels ‘uncomfortable’ before somebody in his or her family; every time a grown child bristles at a parent’s ‘advise’; every time a husband tries to change his wife; every time a Christian tries to ‘speak the truth in love’ in order to straighten our a friend–it is the same old story.  It is the law in its wounding persona.”

To see if this is true, all you have to do is take an inward inventory of your life.  Are there people that you steer clear of?  Why do you not want to call your parents… really?

The whole reason I write this post though, is because about a month ago I came across a poignant illustration of this in a Huffington Post article entitled, “To the Parents of Small Children: Let Me Be the One Who Say It Out Loud.”  In it author Steven Wiens both illustrates the devastating affects of the law in everyday life and then offers some much need grace at the end.  As a parent of two small children, who often lives under the weight of self-condemnation (me not the kids), this article was a breath of fresh air.  First, observe how his commentary illustrated Zahl’s points:

“I am in a season of my life right now where I feel bone-tired almost all of the time. Ragged, how-am-I-going-to-make-it-to-the-end-of-the-day, eyes burning exhausted…  I have three boys ages 5 and under… there are also many moments when I have no idea how I’m going to make it until their bedtime. The constant demands, the needs and the fighting are fingernails across the chalkboard every single day.

There are people who say this to me, ‘You should enjoy every moment now! They grow up so fast!’

I usually smile and give some sort of guffaw, but inside, I secretly want to hold the people that make these kind of statements under water. Just for a minute or so. Just until they panic a little.

If you have friends with small children — especially if your children are now teenagers or if they’re grown — please vow to me right now that you will never say this to them. Not because it’s not true, but because it really, really doesn’t help.

We know it’s true that they grow up too fast. But feeling like I have to enjoy every moment doesn’t feel like a gift, it feels like one more thing that is impossible to do, and right now, that list is way too long. Not every moment is enjoyable as a parent; it wasn’t for you, and it isn’t for me. You just have obviously forgotten. I can forgive you for that. But if you tell me to enjoy every moment one more time, I will need to break up with you.

In this post Weins is illustrating the impact of the law heard.  A seemingly innocent statement like, “You should enjoy every moment now,” is heard as an accusatory attack and provokes the opposite of what intends.  What I love about Weins commentary is that he acknowledges the truthfulness of the law, while at the same time exposing its impotence.

Personally, this’ post gave a voice to my self condemnation.  Like Weins I have been told countless times, “You need to enjoy them now,” and the worst ever, “You think they’re bad now, just wait until they’re teens.”  As Weins writes, these comments make one feel as if he/she is a failure for wanting some relief in their current situation.  The end results of these comments for me personally is that they lead to self condemnation, which leads to guilt, which leads to a shorter fuse, which in the end leads to me being an angrier father/husband.  The law that was intended to make me appreciated my kids more, provokes deeper resentment of them.  Zahl is right, “Law, whether biblical and universally stated or contextual and contemporarily phrased, operates in one way.  Law reduces its object, the human person, to despair.”

As with God’s Law, grace; one-way love; is the only remedy from the countless laws we encounter in life.  Zahl explains, “People do not wished to be challenged.  People wish to be comforted.  They wish to be supported.  They wish to be encouraged and sustained.  What people wish is to be loved.”  These grace-soaked words of Zahl’s are profoundly enacted in the closing to Weins article where he answers law with grace.  He writes:

You’re an actual parent with limits. You cannot do it all. We all need to admit that one of the casualties specific to our information saturated culture is that we have sky-scraper standards for parenting, where we feel like we’re failing horribly if we feed our children chicken nuggets and we let them watch TV in the morning.

One of the reasons we are so exhausted is that we are oversaturated with information about the kind of parents we should be.

So, maybe it’s time to stop reading the blogs that tell you how to raise the next president who knows how to read when she’s 3 and who cooks, not only eats, her vegetables. Maybe it’s time to embrace being the kind of parent who says sorry when you yell. Who models what it’s like to take time for yourself. Who asks God to help you to be a better version of the person that you actually are, not for more strength to be an ideal parent.”

Simply put, come to the end of yourself and call on God.  Beautiful!

All Paul Zahl quotes are taken from “Grace in Practice

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