I used to be a math teacher. You might think, based on this whole writing gig, I would have been an English or Reading teacher... neh eh. I just cannot grade all those essays with all those words.
Me? I really like a clear formula. I like a DEFINITE right or wrong answer, no wondering, no questioning. I like that 2+2=4 and will always equal 4. I will never have to ponder if it's right or wrong. It's black and white. Objective. You can't argue it.
I grew up in a faith that loved itself a clear formula. I grew up knowing all the rights and all the wrongs, all the dos and all the don'ts, all the get-into-heavens and all the heading-straight-for-hells.
Don't sing with instruments.
Don't dance. (You'll get pregnant.)
Don't drink a DROP of alcohol. (You'll get pregnant again.)
Don't have sex. (For obvious aforementioned reasons.)
But seriously, don't touch boys.
And I get it. It was a formula. It was a simple, easy-to-follow, surefire way to determine an outcome.
X (all the dos) > Y (all the don'ts) = Z (eternity in heaven)
It's simple. Easy to understand. No gray areas.
So I grew up tallying marks for and against, learning blacks and whites, and always worrying whether my X > Y.
Now, I totally get how this happens. We humans love control. We crave to feel in control of everything. We plan and rationalize because that makes us feel safe and protected, in control of our lives and our destinies. We don't want to ACTUALLY place something so significant in the hands of something or someone we can't see or hear or touch. So we construct a formula that makes sense, gives us something concrete to refer back to.
But the older I got and the more scripture I read, the more I wondered about the formula. Because the formula seemed to be missing something pretty big.
What about Jesus?
What about grace?
What about my heart?
What about the Holy Spirit? (Yikes, the Holy Spirit. Don't go all willy-nilly.)
The problem with formulas (one of them) is that it allows us to take credit for our own salvation (if we do enough and don't do enough, we win. YAY.) which leads to pride, which leads to judgment, which leads to separation and division, which leads to being Literally The Worst.
If you have been following the formula like I did for so long, don't forget: you need Jesus. Maybe even more than the sinners you've been so quick to condemn.
Jesus quoted Isaiah when he said to formula-keepers in his day:
"'These people [the Pharisees and teachers of the law] honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men'" (Mattew 15:8-9).
Rules taught by men = The Formula.
"Listen and understand. What goes into someone's mouth does not defile [that person], but what comes out of [that person's] mouth, that is what defiles..." (Matthew 15:10-11).
Or maybe you feel like you've mastered the formula but in the meantime have found it hard to connect with people. And your heart feels less full of joy and more full of anger and resentment because the world is going to hell in a handbasket and IF EVERYONE WOULD JUST LIVE THE WAY YOU DID...
Jesus is saying that what you do or don't do, what you DID or DIDN'T DO, isn't what makes you unclean. It isn't what sanctifies you, purifies you, or makes you worthy of love or redemption or heaven.
It's your heart.
And you know how to make your heart clean? Well, YOU can't. You cannot cleanse yourself. But if you bind yourself, attach yourself like a vine is connected to a branch, your fruit will be good, your heart will transform. You will produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
If you can't see the production of those things in your life, it's time to reattach.
If you see a sinner and your initial reaction is fear and condemnation rather than love and compassion, it's time to reattach.
If you feel angry at everyone, it's time to reattach.
And probably detach from social media because this place will not always restore your hope in humanity.
And for those of you who still need a formula, here's a fool-proof one:
Jesus > You + X (all your dos) + Y (all your dont's)!
[Jesus told his disciples,] "I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing [NOTHING!!]. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples" (John 15:5-8).