I have always been a rule follower, and I attribute that particular personality trait to genetics. My grandmother believed in following the rules, too. She was the warm and loving matriarch of our family, but behind that playful twinkle in her eyes was a woman firmly committed to making sure her grandchildren understood that life was best lived by adhering to certain standards. This philosophy also applied to some of our favorite past-times. I remember one occasion, during an intense game of dominoes, when this character quality caused great angst for my then seven-year-old son, Tyler. Nannie stood her ground, relentlessly refusing to alter the rules in his favor. Perhaps he wanted to draw an extra domino or two, or maybe play out of turn, but she would hear nothing of it. I can still picture the tears welling up in his eyes as he stared across the table, pleading with her to cut him some slack. She was determined that he would learn once and for all to play by the rules. I mean, can you just imagine the chaos that would ensue if we allowed kids to run around willy nilly, making up the rules to suit their fancy at any given moment! Painstakingly crafted Monopoly dynasties would crumble and strategically played checkers matches would be void of all meaning. Nannie believed that life lessons could be gleaned from even the most benign events. Fortunately, though, her lessons were always tempered with a healthy dose of grace.
When I finally grow up one day, I hope my bent toward following the rules is seasoned with as much grace as Nannie was able to display. But until then, certain circumstances magnify this tendency in me. Admittedly minor infractions can sometimes cause me to careen down the road into legalism, momentarily thinking I am better because I obeyed my particular rule of choice. But I don’t do right all the time either, and nothing would make the enemy happier than for me to live in bondage to my attempts to keep the law. If he can contain me within my own self-imposed prison cell, then he severely limits my capacity to demonstrate love, compassion, and grace to others. My inability to perfectly follow the law points me to my need for the one who reaches down with grace when I mess up. He offers to exchange the yoke of slavery to sin for His easy yoke and light burden, promising to provide rest for my soul. Paul says in Galatians 2:21, “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.” It is foolish for me to attempt to gain for myself what only Jesus is able to provide through His death on the cross.
As it turns out, parenting provides some poignant illustrations of the intersection of law and grace. When my younger son, Evan, was about three-years-old, we moved half-way across the country from Texas to Alabama. As you would expect of any outdoors-loving little fellow, he was eager to explore his new surroundings. Our backyard happened to have a beautiful, crystal clear swimming pool, thus he was instructed to stay near me, and away from the temptation provided by that big dangerous hole in the ground. In a split second, he decided that the freedom I had allowed him to explore his new environment superseded my instruction for him to stay close. As he attempted to peer into the shimmering surface of the pool, he got too close to the edge and fell headfirst into the deep end. Like any proud little Texan, he was decked out in his favorite cowboy boots and jeans. Because boots aren’t designed for buoyancy, they began to quickly fill up with water. As he descended to the bottom of the pool, weighed down by the water in his boots, I jumped in to pull him out. The ordeal gave him a healthy respect for water and taught a valuable life lesson. I had given him rules to follow, but he also had the freedom to choose whether to obey or disobey. At the moment, his curiosity to step a little too close to the edge enticed him to disregard my instruction. He realized the need to be rescued by his rule-giver, and in turn experienced grace by being pulled up out of a position from which he was unable to save himself.
I wonder if this is how God feels when I ease too close to the brink of familiar temptations. Sin dares me to dip my toe in just a little bit, all the while seeking an opportunity to pull me under. It can happen in the blink of an eye when I let my guard down. I should be motivated by the knowledge that through grace I have been relieved of the unbearable burden of sin, but my tendency is to keep going back again and again. I’m reminded of the words of the great hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The fourth verse says, “O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be! Let Thy goodness like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee.” A fetter is defined as a chain or shackle placed on the feet. When I picture grace this way, I realize that it keeps me bound to the one to whom I am indebted, and keeps me from fleeing to the one to whom I owe nothing at all. As I inevitably wander, His grace pulls me back to safety. I’m thankful for the law which points me to my need for grace, and for grace which draws me into the loving arms of my Savior and Lord.