Each night we go through the same drill with my daughter. She has her bedtime routine, we read the Bible, we pray, we have a story or game. Then, after we’ve said goodnight, we’ve now taken to spelling out one further thing: ‘you are not to come out your room unless you need the toilet or there is a real emergency.’
You can imagine why we have taken to adding that caveat. A caveat, it should be added, my son never needs. The list of reasons my daughter has for calling us and then wandering out of her room each night seems to grow daily. Last night, we were treated to ‘my thumb is feeling weird’. We asked whether it was hurting. ‘No’, came the reply, ‘it just feels weird’. Some other favourites have been, ‘my leg is itchy’ and ‘why don’t I have a bin in my room?’ (she has never had a bin in her room – it was a general question).
Every time we tell her that she is finding reasons to stay up a bit later, she protests her innocence. She insists that isn’t what she is doing. When we ask, ‘is that really an emergency?’ she will usually fire back, ‘but I didn’t know’. Quite why she was unclear that her binless room not having a bin, as it usually does, is an important emergency situation as she’s meant to be going to sleep is anybody’s guess.
The area where she does have a leg to stand on is the toilet trips. There is the usual one before bed, obviously. But the door usually opens several more times – despite there having been no further drinks – and padding across the landing can be heard from downstairs. If we ever do go to investigate, we are usually greeted by the cast iron defence, ‘I was just going to the toilet… And that’s allowed!’ Well, yes it is allowed. When one actually needs the toilet. It generally isn’t intended to provide a universal defence for any night time forays across to other rooms for reasons that are entirely unclear.
Of course, you know what’s going on (no, not my terrible and ineffective parenting!) My daughter likes to take the rules as far as she is able. Sure, she sometimes oversteps and realises that something doesn’t fly. But the next night, she’ll have another go to test just how far the rule goes. Okay, a weird finger might not be legit, but perhaps my room having no bin is a sort of emergency? The list of reasons grows each time. Almost never would it constitute an emergency you would recognise.
I was set to thinking how we can often be like this with God. The Bible may have a command, or a principle, and we love to see just how far we can push it. Whilst we want to avoid the kind of legalism that led the Pharisees to begin fencing the fences just to make sure nobody transgressed, that there are some fences at all is apparent. And some of those fences are less clear lines and more broad boundaries. We know exactly where the extremes are, but we do like to play about in the grey area too. Some of the time, we will be onside, but occasionally we are standing there making the equivalent argument of a weird finger feeling.
Just as with my daughter, the Lord wants us to obey the spirit of his commands, not just the letter. The Lord is, after all, more concerned with the heart. There are times when it is legitimate for my daughter to leave her room, but there is a broader principle. We want her to sleep and to obey us; whilst there are grounds for her to set that aside at times, more often than not that is what she is to do. The leaving the room isn’t the problem so much as why she is leaving her room. In the same way, the Lord recognises times when broad principles might need to be set aside because for other legitimate reasons of faithfulness. But more often than not, that is not the deal. The question he is concerned about is less what we ended up doing and more why we ended up doing it.
There are commands that are strict liability issues; you either do them or you don’t. You either obey or sin. But much of scripture is not that. Much of what the Lord demands is not specific commands, but principles that need to be applied. And as with any broad principle, we all know where the extremes lie, but there will be times when we have to work within fuzzy boundaries. The question is less where we land exactly, but why we land where we do. Are we seeking to be faithful in those circumstances according to the principles the Lord has given us or are we looking to push the boundaries are far as possible because we are, in reality, more interested in doing whatever we want but technically within the letter. Frankly, both could mean you come out of your bedroom, but one pleases the Lord while the other evidently does not.
This approach to these questions will help us avoid legalism too. If scripture is giving us principles to apply, we must avoid legalistically implying that because we landed somewhere in a particular circumstance everyone else must necessarily land in the same place. It may be that the heart issue – and the particular circumstances in each case – led to different outcomes. There should be no problem with that if both are genuinely seeking to faithfully honour the Lord, according to biblical principles, in the circumstances in which he has placed them.
But just as my daughter is typically not seeking to be faithful to the principle we have given her – she is really looking to push the principle as far as she can so she can do what she wants – so we have to be careful that we don’t attempt to do the same to the Lord’s commands. We need to check our hearts and ensure that we are genuinely seeking to honour the Lord according to his Word and aren’t trying to technically obey whilst giving ourselves as much wiggle room as possible to really do whatever we want. One way is faithful, one is not.