I’m Basically a Good Person, Right?
Matthew 5:31,32 It was also said, Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce. But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery.
Three times, Jesus quoted the Old Testament law and three times, He insisted that following the rules is not enough. He said that anger is actually like murder, lust is equivalent to being unfaithful, and here, that divorce is adultery. Why did Jesus raise the bar? What was his point? Jesus was saying that if we think we are good because we do not break the rules, we have made a goal of the rules, and we have missed God.
We will never earn God by following specific rules. When given specific rules to follow, it is often our nature to either rebel against those rules or to embrace them to the point where the rules themselves become the goal. Jesus’ audience had apparently become more interested in the rules than in the God behind the rules.
I think I often do this as well. It is easy for me to look at a list of bad behaviors in the bible and see that I am not really guilty of most of them. I am not a thief, adulterer or murderer and I do not own any idols (1 Cor. 6:9,10). I therefore, must actually be a wonderful person. I can now look down upon those who do not follow the same rules.
To this, Jesus says, You just do not get it. It is not about following specific rules outwardly. It is about that which resides inside of me. If my life is focused on God, yes, my outward behavior will show the signs, but I do not prove my godliness by adjusting external behaviors. Jesus compares those who do this to whitewashed tombs, beautiful on the outside but inside full of death and decay (Matthew 23:27).
When I focus on the list of rules, I convince myself of my own goodness and thus I really do not need God. Jesus however, insists that things are so much worse than I understand. I am actually still quite a mess. Even if the outside looks clean, inside I am full of defect. I still have adultery and murder inside of me, even if it is never expressed outwardly.
Jesus did not raise the bar so I would despair. The truth is, I was never going to be good enough to earn God. I am only saved by faith, not by rule-following. Jesus raised the bar so I would see that I could never earn God and so I would understand my constant need for him.
If I remain aware of my constant need, I remain on knees with eyes on him, where I belong. From this position, I am rarely judgmental of or condescending towards anyone else. When I see the condition of my own heart and my own need, I do not concern myself with whether or not my neighbor is following the rules. This does not mean I am unconcerned with their need. I just do not insist on rule-following as proof of godliness.
When I deny self and cling to God, my destructive behavior will of course change, but rule-following is not the goal. God is always the goal.