As a young Christian I was introduced to the idea of fences. These fences would keep me from the evil and wickedness in the world and keep me dedicated to following God. This seemed wise at the time, but it led me to believe that even if God wasn’t true, that a good byproduct of Christianity was that I’d be a moral person. As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to disagree with this conclusion and also with the method to a certain extent.
Morality is an interesting subject in the Bible. The two places I think of first when dealing with morality in the Bible are The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). There are other places to be sure, but these are the ones that spring to mind first. Reading these it is hard to come away and not be challenged, particularly with regards to the Sermon on the Mount. However, this leads to an interesting question.
What is the point of these passages? Is it to challenge us so that we strive to be better people? Or is it to challenge us to understand our human sinfulness and wickedness and turn to God’s mercy, grace, and love? I think many Christians would agree that it is so that we can understand our human sinfulness and wickedness and turn to God’s mercy, grace, and love.
However, in my own experience I’m not sure that is what I’ve seen by the actions of a lot of Christians (myself included). It seems that once we’ve become Christians we put a lot more energy into trying to live out these moral and ethical codes, than we do in talking about God’s grace and mercy and how we need it in our lives. In this energy to live out these moral and ethical codes in order to please God, the fence building starts. This is where things can go down healthy or unhealthy paths.
There is a place for morality in the Christian life. We are in relationship with the God who created the universe and loved us while we were rebellious. There should be a gratitude and change of our behavior that reflects that. Just like after marriage there will most likely be a change of behavior that reflects our relationship to our spouse. It will never be a perfect change, we will do things simply out of duty sometimes and other times we’ll not do what we should at all. This is not necessarily unhealthy, because it is real, and it requires us to continually rely on the grace, mercy, and love of God. However, it can get very unhealthy if we start building fences and changing not due to an outflow of a relationship, but in a belief that following a set of rules will result in acceptance and not following would lead to rejection. When we start doing that, we often begin to make rules that are not even based in the Scriptures directly and can forget about the grace, mercy, and love that God showed to us in the first place. Our fences lead us down the dangerous path of works righteousness.
This was the flaw of the Pharisees. They dedicated their lives to God’s law, but forgot, or never realized in the first place, that they were not perfect. They forgot grace, mercy, and love because they only focused on truth and law (a good number of which were of their own making). I think we often find ourselves in the same place as the Pharisees in the church. We work so hard building fences to keep the “immoral culture” out of our churches and out of our lives that we forget it is our own hearts that are wicked. The sad thing is that sometimes these fences keep people who need to hear the Gospel out of our lives and out of our churches.
This makes me think of Robert Frost’s poem the Mending Wall, and the saying “good fences make good neighbors.” The question becomes why do they make good neighbors? I think it is easy to take this saying as a positive, but I wonder if that is really what Frost is getting at, because later in the poem he continues:
“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.'”
In our rush to build fences to we ever ask what we are walling in or walling out? Do we ever ask who we may be offending by the building of our fences? Even more startling is the beginning line of his poem, which is “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” This phrase is repeated twice and in all honesty while Frost may be talking about the damage of weather and time to real walls, I think there is something to this for the fences that we build in our own lives. That God will try to break them down, that he is the something there that doesn’t love a wall. He has already come to break down the walls and offer His grace to all. Why are we so intent on rebuilding them?
Mending Wall – Poets.org – Text of The Mending Wall