When they think about Christians, many people think about a lot of stifling rules. They can't party. They can't sleep around. They can't swear or get drunk. They can't go to strip clubs or tell little white lies. To some outside observers, Christians seem tied up in a whole lot of rules that just cut the fun out of life.
Of course, we all know that basic rules are necessary to protect us. As parents, our children don't know why we have half the rules we do, but we know. We know what they have to learn before they turn eighteen and they're out there on their own. We know better than they do, and our rules have reasons. We want to save our kids from experiencing the natural consequences of their mistakes.
God's rules for us are for the same reason. Rules are important, but they aren't the point, nor are they at the top of the list in our relationship with God. Obeying God's rules will save us from learning things the hard way, but by themselves they won't give us a personal experience with the God of the universe. In fact, a list of rules without having an actual experience of God are a pretty stifling experience.
There is a misunderstanding out there that God is waiting with a thunderbolt, ready to "smite" us when we mess up. If that were true, we'd all be smoking cinders right now. I've done wrong things and I've had to face the consequences of them. As I understand it, God isn't up there waiting to smite. He's up there pleading with us to choose a different path, to avoid the awful consequences He knows are out there. That's the reason for His rules. But while obeying those rules will protect us, obedience to His rules isn't the only thing God wants from us. He wants a connection, real contact.
It's easy to think about God's laws and say, "See? That's God. The law shows us God." It's true that His laws show us something about Him. But laws are no more a full definition of Him than my house rules are a definition of me. We have only a few house rules for the children at my house: " You have to obey what I say." "You have to be respectful." "You can't pound on the floors" (we live on the second floor of an apartment building). "You have to go to bed at bedtime." That's pretty much it. So if you know my house rules, does that mean that you know me personally? Not at all. The rules I set for my house tell you more about my child than they do about me. If he automatically obeyed when I told him to put something down or not touch it, I wouldn't have to have a "You must obey mommy" rule. If he didn't think it was fun to stomp around the house, I wouldn't have to have a rule forbidding it. If "please" and "thank you" came out of him naturally, our house rule of being respectful and polite wouldn't be necessary.
But following the rules isn't what bonds me to my little boy. We have a relationship completely apart from those rules. Our cuddles and snuggles, our talks and our play, are all a part of that very special relationship. When he follows the rules, we have a calm environment so that we can spend more quality time together. But my love for him is separate from the rules. Here's another question: How much would my son want to follow the rules I set if he didn't have this special relationship with me?
God isn't just a set of laws. Having a relationship with Him isn't the same thing as following a list of rules. Following the rules won't give you a personal relationship with God anymore than following traffic rules will make you a personal friend of the minister of transportation. When you get to know God personally, though, you'll see that He gave His rules out of love, out of a desire to protect you and me from the natural consequences of not following them.
I'm not writing to tell you to follow the rules. If that were the case, I would just say that the rules are there for our protection (which they are), and that you should follow them for that reason (which you should). But that's not good enough. When you meet God—and I mean really meet Him—it all just comes together. The rules that seemed so stifling before you knew Him will suddenly make sense in your life, and it will no longer be about trying really hard to do the right thing. It will be about this newfound friendship with God.
God is real. So if He's only an intellectual idea or a character in a story for you, you're limiting the pleasure you can have in a relationship with Him. If you don't experience God in a very real way in your life, you're just playing a mental exercise in your head, and frankly, you'll find His rules pretty stifling.
It's true that you need to know God's rules, and it's true that you need to try to obey them, just as I expect my son to try to obey my rules. But simply reading God's rules and trying hard to obey them can be a distraction from what matters most—Him. If He doesn't feel real, you haven't met Him. Do something about that first, and the rules will be a pleasure to obey.
So don't just go in search of rules to follow. You won't be able to follow them anyway. Just open yourself up to God and ask Him to do something with your life, something beautiful. Ask Him to make Himself real to you. That's a prayer He always answers, and you'll find that the rules will weave their way into your life in a way you never imagined.
It's not just about the law. It's about love. Find the love, and the law part will come naturally.
This article originally appeared in Signs of the Times magazine, March 2011.