Teaching the Law and Breaking Legalism
Every since my church started using The Gospel Project in our children’s ministry, I’ve consistently been amazed by how easy it makes it for teachers and kids to connect the message of the Old Testament to Christ—and how challenging it can be for all of us when we start really thinking about what this means for us as we try to apply the lesson.
Take a lesson I taught a few weeks ago on the Ten Commandments, for example. I was given the task of addressing the last six of the ten with our 10-11 year olds. In the same way that the first four address our relationship with God, these are the “horizontal” commandments—the ones that, on the surface, deal principally with our relationships with other people. It’s sorely tempting to teach these in a crass kind of way that only addresses outward actions and avoids the heart matters that are at the root of each command. So as I was teaching, I asked the kids to reflect on each of the commandments as we learned what they mean, to consider whether or not they’ve kept that law (and naturally leading them to the correct answer, which is “no”):
- Coveting—wanting what someone else has—can be as extravagant as our jealousy over a friend’s family vacation, or our sibling getting a hot chocolate with mom or dad, and we didn’t. It’s an unhealthy desire, a craving, for that which does not belong to us, one that encourages us to not be thankful for what we have.
- We tell the truth not just because we can’t have healthy relationships if we’re considered untrustworthy, but because God always tells the truth.
- We don’t steal because stealing demonstrates a lack of trust in God’s provision (and then if you really want to get heavy, we can apply Jesus’ own teaching about murder and adultery to this one, which would infer that to covet is to steal in your heart).
- We fail to keep our marriage promises, not simply with inappropriate relationships, but by failing to nurture the relationship we have.
- When we feel hate toward someone, or we imagine the demise of a person, we’re as guilty as someone who has actually killed a person (at least, so says Jesus).
- We honor our mother and father, not just by doing what we’re told but how we speak of and represent them to others. Parents we are the authorities God has put in their lives, yes; but this goes far beyond teaching kids to be compliant. He has given us a responsibility to teach children what they need to know about him and how to relate to other people. (That’s kind of a big deal, isn’t it?)
For the most part, the kids seemed to follow along with all of this (though one kid seemed to balk at the idea that letting his parents have five minutes to talk to one another was possible). But there was this one kid who I could see was having a really hard time with everything.
This guy is the poster-child for your church kids: he knows all the answers, he prays and practices the kneel our pastor uses, he sings louder than the other kids… He’s the kind of kid that I worry about sometimes, the one I find myself wanting to pray for more than some of the others. The one that, despite his parents’ best efforts, could easily grow up to be a really good legalist—the kind of kid that knows what the Bible says, but doesn’t really know Jesus. And I could see that some of what I was saying seemed to make him uneasy.
So I did what I hadn’t planned to do: I poked at that uneasiness a bit.
We went back up a few verses in our Bibles, and started to talk about the connection between the groups of commandments, from the perspective of an oft-quoted bit of wisdom: that if you keep the first two, you never have to worry about the rest. In other words, that idolatry is at the root of every violation of the Law, and proceeded to connect the dots:
- Stealing and coveting are actually expressions of idolatry—we’re worshipping created things in even the smallest way.
- Lying is about protecting our own image, rather than being committed to the One who is always true.
- Misusing God’s name is more than using the Lord’s name as a swear word and deals with how we, as His image bearers, represent God to all of creation.
Every time we fail to keep the Law, it can always be tracked back to the fact that we are worshipping something other than the One who gave the Law.
Was it a bit over the kids’ heads? Maybe. But I didn’t see any of them acting as though it didn’t matter, especially not this particular boy. He admitted that was difficult for him to get, especially since taking the Lord’s name in vain had always only been explained as the “don’t use ‘God’ when you’re cussing” law. And the fact that he was having trouble with it gave me a little bit of hope. Because although I think I might have broken his brain a little bit, I may have started to break through the legalism that could cripple him later.