Why are all your relationships collapsing around you?
Let me remind you of the urgent circumstances of your relational life. You, like the average American adult, probably have 3-5 friendships around you that are collapsing. You, like the average American church member, probably have 3-5 relationships in your local church that are falling apart. Why relationships are so fickle and frail, why conflict can feel so impenetrably impossible to resolve, is not a simple question to answer.
But I do think almost 100% of conflict arises and 100% of conflict remains unresolved for this one deadly fact: we always assume we are the innocent party. It’s hardwired into our nature: when we lose an argument to a friend, we stew over it for the rest of the week. Surely, we couldn’t possibly be the guilty party. You don’t ever operate that way, do you?
And yet, in James 2:8-13, the word of God gives us a social ethic radically opposite to this: “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.” Here’s the text in full. I suggest reading it, praying over it, meditating on how it informs your relationships with others, then reading the rest of the article:
“If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
We need a DTR. As Christians, especially as Christians within the gospel-centered tribe (I’m assuming this is you if you’re reading an article from Dead Men: A Christ-Centered Coalition), we need to define our relationship with the law, especially after reading a passage that references the law five times. Our relationship with the law is about as awkward as junior-high romance: are we going out? Are we just hanging out? What is this thing we have going on?
Maybe a good place to start is to contemplate God’s relationship with the law. Step back with me, and before processing our relationship with the law, let’s examine God’s relationship with the law. Two things to consider:
- God loves it so much he wrote it: Christians have a really bad tendency to turn the word “law” into a religious cuss word. Maybe you’ve experienced this. Maybe you have a beloved friend indulging in sin, and when you quoted a law from the Bible, he responded by calling you a legalist. Or maybe you have opened your Bible in a small group and said, “hey, the Bible says we have to do this, so we have to do this!” and your comment was rebuked by: “dude, easy with the law!”
When Christians make a cuss word of the law, we give others the impression that the law came from Satan rather than God. When we speak poorly of the law, it’s because we don’t recognize the source of the law, so we misunderstand the nature of the law, and we fail to rightly handle the law.
God is the source of the law, and he feels as tenderly towards it as sources always feel towards their work; as Shakespeare feels towards Macbeth, as Harper Lee feels towards To Kill a Mockingbird, so God feels towards his law. He wrote it. He loves it.
- He loves it so much he sent Jesus to fulfill it: On the law, Jesus Christ himself said: “do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Christ understood the law to have so much beauty and worth that when we failed to uphold it, Christ came into the world to demonstrate the splendor of the law embodied. The life of Christ was the magnificence of the law with a pulse, the beauty of the law with arms and legs, the perfection of the law with a heartbeat. To speak poorly of the law, then, is to speak poorly of what Christ accomplished for us.
One step towards defining our relationship with the law is to say that it’s good. So, we ought to relate to it by learning the skill of sitting under the law’s conviction, of meditating on it in silence, of allowing it to bring deep guilt and expose searing failure. In verse 9, James calls this strange, foreign feeling the “conviction” of the law. In verse 10, James calls this alien, unfamiliar feeling “accountability.” As Christians, this is the social fabric we should experience in our relationship with God’s law: conviction and accountability. This is a healthy relationship.
But it is possible to have an abusive, coercive, unhealthy relationship with the law. Our relationship with the law is never, never, never salvific. Obeying the law cannot save you, redeem you, or make you a Christian.
If you ever find yourself saying, “God would love me more if I could obey the law better.” You are in the wrong relationship. Break up! If you ever find yourself saying, “I would feel closer to God if I could obey the law better.” You are in an abusive relationship. Get out!
In verse 12, James defines our relationship with the law very clearly by modifying it, qualifying it, and naming it “the law of liberty.” If you are in Christ, God’s law is the law of liberty for at least two reasons:
- You are free from the penalty of the law: On the cross, Jesus so fully paid the ticket for every violation of the law that God the judge’s verdict of you is: “liberty!” For every step out of bounds, every break and crack of the law, every trip up, there was a penalty to be paid. And to every penalty, Christ extended his hands on the cross and said, “Mine!”
- You are free from the inability to obey the law: On the throne, Jesus is making us free after declaring us free. And the type of freedom God is working in us is a superior freedom: it’s not the freedom to do whatever we want, it’s the freedom to do whatever God wants! Before the freedom of the gospel, in the shackles and chains of sin, you were unable to do what the law required. But he sends his Holy Spirit to us as a helper, to give our spirits the muscle, the strength, and the power to do the law of Christ: to love others and to love God.
And this becomes James’ vision for the Christian life: we are to “speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.” In this life, we are not consumers in need of products, we are not customers in need of entertainment, we are guilty in need of pardoning! We are to live life in the courtroom, as guilty people pardoned.
And almost 100% of our conflict is arising and almost 100% of our relationships are crumbling because we don’t believe that.
Those 3-5 relationships around you that are crumbling, those 3-5 friendships that are falling apart, these are the rotten fruits of believing that you are the innocent party. You daydream about how you would point an accusatory finger in their face and tell them how they’re wrong. You can’t wait to sit down in front of them after having spent a full hour fabricating a list of 100 reasons that testify to their guilt, and you haven’t even spent a single minute contemplating a single reason you might be guilty.
Let me beg you, from the wellspring of James’ words, what if you approached these relationships assuming that you are guilty? That’s the type of radical Christian living that might cause introspection in the other person’s life and cause them to likewise confess their guilt. That’s the type of radical Christian living that might actually lead a conflict to the wellspring of resolution. This radical life, life lived as the guilty party pardoned, is beautiful.
These are the lives that the church needs.
The church needs people who sing worship songs like people who are guilty and pardoned. We need women who sing like free women and men who roar like free men. Sing like people who have been on trial for 10 or 50 years without the hope of an innocent verdict or the help of a defensive attorney, and just experienced a miraculous verdict: pardoned!
The church needs people who listen to sermons like people who are guilty and pardoned. We need people who approach sermons like their names have been accused on the headlines of major magazines, like their mugshots have been broadcasted to all the angels in heaven, who come on Sunday not in search of rhetoric or logic, but good news. Lean forward, scoot to the edge of your seats, physically inch closer to the pulpit, and plea with your pastor to preach the good news!
This is life lived in the courtroom of Christ.