In this week’s Epistle, among the warnings Paul sends to Timothy is this: “For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.”
Even from the start of Christianity, then, this “cafeteria Christianity” — the practice of picking and choosing among doctrines to suit one’s own desires, no matter how explicit are some of the tenets of the faith — has been a problem. And, of course, it is human nature to want to mold rules, and reality, to our own wants or perceived “needs,” and to try to carve out personal exceptions that make life easier (in the short term at least) for us as individuals.
On small matters, and in limited circumstances, for only specific purposes also consonant in spirit with the very rules we are traducing, this approach is understandable, acceptable, and occasionally perhaps even laudatory. Jesus himself criticized scribes, rabbis, and pharisees who insisted that others observe every niggling jot and tittle of the law even while they themselves were violating its spirit. He taught that the two Great Commandments effectively supersede all the minor strictures in, for instance, Leviticus.
But just because the obligation to love (the two Great Commandments) is the overriding imperative, Jesus nowhere says that a broad, fuzzy, feel-good “love” is all that is required of us — in other words, that a vague and formless love expressed through “good intentions” can excuse acts that in themselves are less than laudable. There are plenty of places in the Gospels where Jesus lays down very specific markers, with harsh consequences for failure to observe them — places where, in effect, He agrees with and teaches the lesson that would later be pithily summarized in the saying that “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”
Jesus never says we should fail to follow the Judaic code merely because it feels good or because it seems more convenient to ignore it; what He teaches is that we are allowed to violate a lesser restriction only in the service of a greater, more pressing commandment. We can’t just choose to violate the law because we want to; we may violate the smaller laws only because we are obligated to do so not by human desires but by God’s own higher law.
The Law, the Word, is not ours to alter. As he says a few lines before the passage cited above, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Note: All. Not just the parts that are easiest for us to carry out. Not just the parts that comfort us. Not just the parts that by ostentatiously upholding, will make us look good to others.
What we must remember is that God’s law isn’t there to punish us, but to help give us joy by bringing us closer to God himself. A proper understanding of doctrine would make the doctrines not a burden, but a pleasure.
As is written in this week’s Psalm (119) (with my emphasis added), “I do not turn away from your ordinances, for you have taught me. How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! Through your precepts I get understanding.”
The new covenant about which the prophet Jeremiah writes (in this week’s Old Testament lesson) is not written on paper (or on stone tablets, but, “says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
That which is written in our hearts is not something from which we can pick and choose the way one chooses from cafeteria displays. It is all of an integral whole. And it promises the joy that comes from being the people of the Lord.
And to be His people, we must abide His laws. All of them, if we are humanly able.
Quin Hillyer is a veteran conservative columnist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology from Georgetown University and has served for years in various forms of ecumenical lay leadership.