“If something’s worth doing, it is worth doing badly,” Chesterton famously quipped. And formational habits are the same way. They are worth doing badly.
More importantly, doing them badly is a gospel practice. Why? Because the only way that you can in principle aim your life at a beautiful vision, but in practice constantly fall short and keep trying anyway, is because you believe in the saving work of Jesus Christ and his ability to redeem the concept of law in your life.
At the time of writing this, I’ve been totally scattered by the demands of work and a newborn. I generally live by the habits of The Common Rule, but in the past two weeks I’ve been knocked off many of them. Even more, I’ve fallen into anxiety and absence. My friends and wife have noticed me coping in unhealthy ways – and they are right. And yet, over the past year or so of doing this, something has begun to change in me. I don’t feel guilty or bad, though I do feel a bit sad. I just have a longing to get back, because that’s where I believe the good life to be, I know these practices lead me back towards the presence of God.
I think the reason I can both advocate for and yet constantly fail at The Common Rule is because I believe Gospel-centered formation is worth doing badly.
There is some useful theology here. In traditional reformed theology, there are three uses of law, paraphrased they are:
The law shows us our need for Jesus.
The law restrains evil.
The law shows us the way to delight – of God and ourselves.
At least in my circles, most followers of Jesus understand the first use of the law once they understand the Gospel – the Gospel here, as Tim Keller has summarized, being that we are worse than we ever dared imagine but more loved than we ever dared hope. Once we hear the Gospel we tend to at least be exposed to the idea that the law reveals our need for grace. It’s a lifelong project to really internalize this, but in general it is taught often.
As to the second use, almost everyone intuits this from our public life. Even if we don’t talk about it, we know that we need laws to restrain evil. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that “It may be true that the law cannot change the heart… but it can keep [a man] from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also.”
When it comes to the third use, however, I believe our culture is generally either unfamiliar with or uncomfortable with the idea that we can actually rely on rules to help us live a life of loving God and neighbor. We are so obsessed with a broken and bizarre notion of freedom that we can’t begin to understand why the Psalmist delights in the law of the Lord. But this is a crucial counter-cultural message that we and our neighbors need, so we need to get comfortable with the reality that true delight and true freedom does not come from being whoever we want to be, but from being who we were made to be. That will always mean living within certain limitations.
It is worth noting that our misunderstanding is in part because contemporary teaching on legalism has been so good. Again, at least in my circles, followers of Jesus are often taught that any rule can become legalism, which is true and needs to continue to be preached. However, that is generally a first use of the law message. Just because we can turn a rule into a legalistic idol, doesn’t mean that we should avoid rules entirely. While the legalistic idols of the Pharisees were often Jesus’ example of religious idolatry, we may forget – if we don’t also study other passages – that Jesus did give the sermon on the Mount, and Paul was very comfortable doling out commands at the end of every letter. John says that to love God is to obey his commandments. There are redeemed ways to embrace rules that encompass all – not just the first – use of law.
In short, the fact that we turn rules into legalistic idols should point us to our need for Jesus, but it should not eclipse the other good uses of the law.
While The Common Rule is especially rooted in the third use of the law, it tries to work with all three understandings of the law. As for the first use, living according to a rule of life such as The Common Rule will show us how poorly we keep to anything we say we are going to keep to, but failures point us to Jesus. See A Meditation on Failure for more of that.
As for the second use, something like The Common Rule can really curb evil in our lives. Our addictive habits of screens really will actually hurt us in the end – these are not small consequences. Vulnerable friendships can really help pull us out of dangerous places of isolation. Sabbathing really does protect us from the harms of workaholism. This is not all that these things do, and we don’t do them only out of a fear of evil, but the restraint is not insignificant.
But there is more, than curbing evil and realizing your inadequacy, there is delight!
And this is where the third use of the law comes into play. Formational habits like The Common Rule bring the idea that we need practices to lead us into the love of God and neighbor back into our life.
This becomes all the more urgent when we remember that there is no neutral ground. When it comes to formation, there is no Switzerland. The question is not Are we being formed? but is and has always been By what are we being formed?
This is all to say that every minute of every day we are experiencing the third use of someone’s law, the question is, whose law is it? Is it the law of the one God who loves us? Or is it the law of someone else who wants to lead us to their idea of delight
Someone is leading us somewhere. Is it on a good path? Does it lead to love?
The Common Rule, in this sense, is intended to be a path for our moment. One that navigates the specific addictions and evils of our age, and leads use to delight in the Lord.
The first use of the law gives us comfort that our winding way on the straight path is OK. We fall off, we take detours, we cross lines. And yet we have no shame, we carry no guilt. Jesus has said that it is finished and that he will complete the good work in us too. If we stray, he will guide us. If we fall, he will carry us. It’s not our road to salvation, Jesus is.
The second use of the law reminds us that this life is not a game. Our struggle to walk the good path is one of life or death. People have died from veering this way and that. Our salvation is guaranteed, but our marriages may not be, our health is not a given, the formation of our kids is up in the air, our friendships are optional, and whether we will see justice done for the vulnerable is up to our decisions. Evil is real, but formational habits steer us away from evil.
Finally, the third use of the law reminds us that the whole project of following God’s law is not pride, it is not morality for its own sake, and it is not a way to feel good about our selves – it is beauty and delight in the most self-forgetful sense. When you believe that is where you are going, that becomes the kind of vision that keeps you walking, despite all the failures. When you are convinced of the aesthetic goodness of the path – that there is peace and rest where we are going, that there is love and generosity there – you are finally set free to the right motivations. You walk the path not because you want to show off, but because you want to go somewhere worth going.
I’ve had a lousy month, it happens to coincide with the time that I’m encouraging other to adopt The Common Rule while being a terrible example of it myself. But Jesus rose from the dead, so if someplace is worth going, its worth stumbling there.
I conclude with one of the more eloquent expressions of the third use of the law, from the Rule of St. Benedict: “In drawing up these regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love. Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.“