As I read through the book of Matthew, particularly chapters 5 through 9, I am struck by how easy it is to fall into establishing expectations about God and about how others should act if they know God. The Pharisees get a bad rap among Christians, and perhaps rightly so…somewhat. You see, if I were there, when Jesus was here on earth, I’m not altogether sure that I wouldn’t have sided with the Pharisees a fair amount of the time!

Jesus was doing and saying things that were totally blowing their minds. Yes, they had it all wrong in many ways but their wrongness came out of a desire to be obedient to scripture as they understood it (and had been taught it). To avoid sin, they had developed a very involved set of rules. Their desire was to not offend God. That’s a good desire. Yet they became slaves to their rules and lost the wonder of relationship with God.

It’s pretty easy for me to be like that. I am a much more disciplined person when I establish “rules” for myself. Having established those rules, sometimes I’m not able to live by them – I fall short of even my own rules. If I am not actively pursuing God in the midst of it all, I can fall into condemnation of myself. The enemy loves that. The point is, it’s not about living by the rules, it’s about pursuing a relationship with God. Sure, it’s OK to set up rules if they help you live the life God wants you to live, but don’t be a slave to the rules and don’t forget God’s grace.

God is all about grace. I ought to be all about grace. He is also exceedingly patient. I ought to be exceedingly patient. But it is so easy to fall into the trap of the Pharisees and establish a rigid set of rules that I believe I “ought” to live by. Sets of rules make it easy to know when I’ve done well and when I’ve failed. But sets of rules also lead to legalism and ultimately make me very much like the Pharisees.

Stage two of this process is when I extend the rules that I’ve established for myself to others. Oops! I’m become more pharisaical by the minute!

A few months ago, a friend and I were talking about changes that occur in the life of a believer and being careful not to place expectations on new believers, but rather extending grace to them as they learn to walk with Christ – allowing the Holy Spirit to do the convicting and changing instead of acting as if our nagging will help the situation. After a few minutes of talking, she said “but we do expect them to change, don’t we? And shouldn’t we?” I didn’t know how to answer her. Because yes, we do expect them to change, to become more like Christ as they grow in relationship with Him, and we should expect it because we know our God is wonderfully able to change even the most hardened person who chooses to follow Him. Yet, her tone and words conveyed a condemnation for those who didn’t change quickly enough to meet her expectations. And I found myself silenced because I know that deep within me, there is a tendency to establish expectations and then be disappointed when those expectations are not met. That’s a polite way of saying deep within me there is a tendency to judge others against my standards. Ouch! It sounded so much better the polite way.

Let me repeat myself: God is all about grace. I ought to be all about grace. He is also exceedingly patient. I ought to be exceedingly patient.

The Ten Commandments not withstanding, God is not about sets of rules. He is about relationship. And relationships develop at different speeds and in different ways. I must be careful to let God lead in each relationship He has, and not try to do the job of the Holy Spirit.

So let me encourage you in two ways: If establishing rules helps you live a godly life, establish rules. Then be willing to sacrifice those rules daily as you continue in relationship with God, because the relationship is always more important than the rules.

God’s love for you lives outside your rules – in other words, when you don’t live by your rules, God isn’t looking down at you and shaking His head wondering if you’ll ever get it right. Don’t let a slip keep you from pursuing God Himself. His love for you is deep and wide and long and high (Eph 3:18), and He has MORE grace to give to you every hour of every day. So you can keep up with those rules you’ve set!

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