I was around 20 when I first started to move beyond what had always been a vague, and definitely non-urgent, curiosity about God. It was becoming increasingly clear that I couldn’t measure up to my own expectations or please everyone all of the time. I had a real sense of constantly missing the mark, even though no one had explained sin or grace to me yet.
Like many people sitting in our churches, my original motivation for seeking God was mostly thinking that Christianity would help me learn how to be a good, moral person. I wanted to be accepted and at peace. Little did I know that moral law and behavioral regulation, which were a part of what God gave His people on Mount Sinai, were only the first steps to true acceptance and peace.
The Lord reveals His love for humanity in every one of the covenants He made in the Old Testament, but for many people it’s hardest to see that heart of love in the Law. Quite a few people have given up on their goal of reading through the entire Bible right in the pages of Leviticus, the book of law. Is God a micromanager? Does He just choose to limit our freedom and make pointless rules to exert His sovereignty? Does He really have a thing for sideburns (Leviticus 19:27)?
We typically look at the outward behaviors prescribed by the Law and forget that even in the Old Covenant it was about our heart. Over and over, Moses reminds Israel — God’s treasured possession — that the goal of the law is love expressed in devotion.
“See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to Him, and to keep His commands, … So choose life in order that you may live … by loving the Lord your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him” (Deuteronomy 30:15-16 NIV, 19-20 NASB).
This is a covenant motivated by relationship, and a heart belonging to God must be holy. So when we read Leviticus through the lens of God’s call to “be holy, because I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44–45), we’re able to focus on relational intimacy because the standard is a heart set apart to Him.
Just like the Israelites, many of us spend a large part of our spiritual journey learning what it takes to be holy, but staying stuck in cycles of complacency, rebellion or defeat. The law proved it impossible for them to keep every command, but everything changed when Jesus fulfilled God’s intentions in the law. The new covenant was a promise that in this relationship, righteousness would no longer be out of reach.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeats “you have heard it said,” about the law, “but I say to you,” to help them see the new reality that He came to transform our hearts, not transmit rules. He declares to a crowd of people who are well-aware of the gap between their lives and the high standards of the 613 laws of the Old Covenant, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law … but to fulfill them,” and then shocks them by calling them to be more righteous than the Pharisees (Matthew 5:17,20).
One of the greatest surprises of Christianity is when the true meaning of righteousness is revealed to us. When we understand that holiness, perfection, and hearts inclined toward selfless love are all synonymous, we’re able to live it out because of what the Lord has done in us: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you. … I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them” (Ezekiel 36:26-27 NKJV).
This means that the Greatest Commandment — to love God with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves — is now possible for you and for me. This means that, instead of evaluating each other in terms of behavior modification, we’re meant to encourage each other toward that heart inclination. Are we encouraging each in our local churches to take holy risks to express the love of God? Are you willing to eat with the sinners and touch the lepers, regardless of your comfort, reputation or security, because this is the law lived out in love?
I’ve seen many well-intentioned believers throw in the towel on serving others when the recipient of that love doesn’t seem to change or even be grateful. After spending time in the same transitional shelter for 5 years, I’ve watched Christians who came to bless and serve disappear when the women fail to accept Jesus, can’t kick their addictions, or resist quitting unhealthy relationships. This response is logical according to the letter of the Law, but we live in the new covenant where we walk by the Spirit. He calls us to selfless love, not fostering behavioral compliance.
We follow after Jesus, who didn’t throw in the towel on hard people, but picked it up to serve even those who would betray or deny him. God doesn’t hold up a heavenly scorecard to evaluate the outcome of our love in action. Instead He knows and takes pleasure in the thoughts and intentions of our hearts to lay down our lives for the world He so loves. We need to regularly challenge each other and ask the question: Are we content knowing what love looks like fulfilled in Jesus, or are we compelled to keep living that out in practice?
To devote our hearts to this cause is the source of the acceptance and peace I started out seeking. Living out the law is simpler than most of us ever imagined but impossible without devoting ourselves to the Father who has always desired our holy hearts, the Son who secured them for us, and the Spirit who is our source and power for loving obedience.
Kaye Kolde is an ordained Free Methodist elder; the executive pastor of ministry at Sage Hills Church in Wenatchee, Washington; and the next lead pastor of Spring Arbor Free Methodist Church. Outside of her local church, she is energized by coaching churches and leaders in discipleship strategy.5