I love stories with happy endings! My husband makes fun of me, but he has been known to graciously sit through a variety of schmaltzy chick flicks because he knows how I feel. The reason I like happy endings is because I have a strong sense of how things are “supposed” to be. This radar-like sense is always on, operating behind the scenes in every aspect of my life. In a movie or a book it tells me what the characters in the story “should” do and say in response to the circumstances presented. The tension, in a good story, is that initially they don’t do what they should and things are messy, but in the end, they come around and things work out the way I know they are meant to.
In real life, however, this radar isn’t as benign. For example, minute by minute it tells me what I should do or say; and then it tells me what I should have done or said that I didn’t. At the same time, it tells me what you should be doing in relation to me, and whether or not what you have done measures up. This applies to everything from your inattention to the fact that the light turned green because you were texting, thereby allowing only a couple of cars to make it through the light, to your sensitivity, or lack of sensitivity, to my vulnerability in sharing my pain with you.
I’m not the only one with this strong sense of how things should be. As a matter of fact, we all have it. It comes as part of the human package. Its expectations are universal enough that authors and film makers know how to use it, cross-culturally, to first frustrate and then satisfy their audiences; but it is also influenced by one’s culture and individual life experiences. It has been called many things by many people, but Martin Luther called it the Opinion of the Law, or “Opinio Legis”.
In Romans 2, Paul tells us that, whether or not we accept God’s Law, law has been written into our hearts and consciences; and, as a result, our thoughts are constantly expressing our internal Opinion of the Law, as we understand it. We are always alternately accusing or defending in every situation we encounter. Law is, quite simply, the default mode of all human beings. It is the lens through which we naturally and initially view everything.
If we were perfect, there would be no problem with the fact that each of us has law programmed into our DNA. Perfect people would obviously always know the perfect thing to do, and they would do it. Imperfect people, on the other hand, have a skewed sense of what ought to be done, very little ability to do it themselves, and an inordinately high expectation that others should possess that ability.
While this is true of everyone, I believe the implications are most profound for Christians and that without a clear understanding of this truth the rest of our understanding will be distorted. By nature, we are all judges; corrupt judges. The fact that Jesus told us not to judge does not empower us not to judge. If we remain incognizant of our innate, faulty, judgment-based operating system it will function unrecognized and unchecked; and we will damage not only ourselves, but everyone around us. We will live our lives alternating between pride and arrogance, and shame and condemnation, and we will project the same onto each other wherever we go.
We approach every new situation, relationship, experience, with the hope, however small, of a happy ending. If we do not grasp the fact that everyone is bringing with them their own internal Opinion of the Law, we will set ourselves up for failure. I remember once encountering a young man who was gushing about the new love of his life. He told me that even her faults were precious. I laughed and told him to get back to me in a few months when the blinding endorphins had died down and tell me how cute her faults were then. The relationship didn’t survive and the end wasn’t pretty.
No matter how much we want to, we will not meet the expectations of others. No matter how much they want to, others will not meet our expectations. We will let each other down. We will disappoint. We will not measure up. Even if we are going in with a theology which proclaims that we are all broken and in desperate need of a Savior who offers his perfect life in place of our messy life, his atoning death in place of the death we deserve, we will still, unconsciously, believe that things will not get messy; and when they do, when people reveal their screwed up human selves, when we do, when they do, the part of us which knows how things were supposed to have gone is always surprised, hurt, angry and repulsed and we are inclined to cut ties and run.
Why? Because we cannot silence the Opinion of the Law. It is as natural to us as breathing and just as autonomic. We can hold our breath in an attempt to stop breathing, but, we will either give up and gasp for air, or, if we are really determined, we might hold our breath until we pass out; but then we will begin to breathe again in our unconscious state. We cannot stop breathing without outside assistance, like someone holding a pillow over our faces, or, by our use of some aid to end our life; because death is the only thing which will finally stop our breathing.
Death is also the only thing which will bring an end to the Rule of the Opinion of the Law; the death of the Old Adam—in whom law reigns supreme, where expectations and demands are king, where shame and fear drive us to compete for glory, but where only failure is assured and success is illusion. This death, too, comes from the outside; through the written and spoken word of the Gospel confirmed by the ministry of the Holy Spirit who shows us our frailties, our feebleness, our inadequacies and our brokenness, in light of the Law, and slays us.
We rise, then, in Christ, understanding that, apart from him, we can do nothing. We bring nothing to the table which we have not received as gift; therefore, everything we have to give is his. Because there was nothing required of us that we could fulfill, we, in turn, begin to see that we have no basis for making demands of others. As we live into the truth that we are no longer under Law because it was satisfied by another on our behalf, we find ourselves desiring to offer that same mercy and freedom to those around us. We come to realize that all is Christ, and all is grace.
Since we are simultaneously saints and sinners, this slaying of the Old Adam and rising in Christ will occur concurrently for the rest of our days on this earth, until that moment comes when all of our pitiful, paltry pictures of the way things should be will find their final and true fulfillment as we stand face to face with our Savior and our Lord.