Desert Day 06: The Law of Love …

Laws and rhythms structured ancient Hebrew culture, forming the basis for Jewish religious practice. Christianity is grounded in the same laws, which serve as moral precepts and as shared commitments that have held communities together for thousands of years. Together these laws create a structure in which human beings can work and live together; they create harmony among human beings and between human beings and God.

According to Jesus’ summary of the commandments, love is the basis for law. After hundreds of years of communal Ten Commandment observance, Jesus said that he could summarize all the laws with just two commandments: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:37-40). In giving this summary, Jesus says to his listeners: The essence of the laws we follow is love-for God and one another-and we must enact the laws from this essence to follow them truly. What matters most is not our detailed, pious observance of the law but the heart with which we fulfill them.

This conversation between the letter and spirit of the law is also seen in Christian tradition as the “law versus grace” debate. In Romans we read that Christ’s sacrifice sets us free from the law: “You are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). Grace rescues us from the law’s harsh judgments; it promises God’s unfailing love to humankind. Living by grace means that we live by love; the law, when used well, serves the larger purpose of renewing love in the world.

The tension between law and grace illuminates our Lenten effort to build rhythms into developing practices. On the one hand, our changes need discipline; they need externally imposed laws to get started. On the other hand, for a practice to be authentic and lasting, it needs to arise from within-from a true, deep place of love and commitment. When made from love and grace, changes have an inner truth; they resonate in service of the life they impact.

Law and grace work together over time. Suppose a person wishes to clear time to improve her physical health during Lent; she commits to a discipline of walking for thirty minutes each morning. At first the woman must rely on the law: she has to force herself to arise thirty minutes earlier each morning, get dressed, get out the door, and take those first few sluggish steps. Maybe she even needs a walking partner, someone to call her at 6:00 AM and tell her to get out of bed. These first efforts are a legalistic way to start clearing space in her life. She forces herself to stick with her new routine.

At the same time, if grace does not come into play, the discipline will not serve its purpose. If a love for walking does not begin to grow in the woman’s heart through faithfulness to her discipline, eventually she will abandon it, and it will not serve its true purpose of improving her health. Without a love welling up and reinforcing the discipline, eventually the discipline will fail. This love is a form of grace-it arises in us unbidden; it is out of our control, and, in this sense, it is a gift from God, a gift of grace.

Law and grace repeatedly balance each other, challenge each other, and push the practitioner of the discipline to ever deeper engagement with the discipline itself. As in the example above, sometimes the woman will be so inspired by her walking practice that getting out the door seems almost effortless. She can picture her walk before she begins and see herself on a quiet street with trees curving in overhead. She sees herself blissfully alone and moving, with the smell of dew-soaked earth and crisp early-morning air all around her, and she has all the motivation she needs to begin.

But some days, weeks, and months the woman will find every excuse not to walk. She tells herself that she could use the time to clean house, pay bills, catch up on reading. At this point, the law becomes her friend again; it steps in where grace is temporarily lacking, saying, “No excuses; just start walking.” And gradually, with discipline, her love for walking returns.

At times change is easy; at other times it is difficult. Discovering a natural rhythm means listening to these shifts, allowing them to happen, and balancing law and grace as needed.
— Sarah Parsons from A Clearing Season: Reflections for Lent

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