“Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” Colossians 2:21-23 (NIV)
Many years ago I had a friend who was a marriage and family therapist. About once a week he would show up in my office between sessions to take a break. We enjoyed our conversations and one day he began to talk about the fact that he spent one day each week counseling in a small town nearby. The town had a strong reputation as a pious, religious community that upheld very strict standards of behavior. From the outside, the community appeared the image of perfection. My friend the therapist, however, told a different story.
“It’s the sickest community I’ve ever experienced,” my friend said. “There’s so much social pressure to appear morally perfect that they stuff all of their troubles and imperfections deep inside and try to keep them hidden. In the darkness of secrecy they grow like an infection until they wreak all sorts of havoc on their lives and relationships.”
That conversation came to mind this morning as I read Paul’s words above. Along life’s road I’ve dwelt among many groups who fit his description of moral legalists trying desperately to tame their moral troubles with long lists of “do’s” and “don’ts” that allow for some kind of public moral measuring stick. In my experience, I have found the testimony of my friend, the therapist, to be quite accurate. The more we try to keep up moral appearances, the more spiritually sick we become. It’s what Jesus described in the legalistic religious folks he encountered: “You’re hopeless…You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.”
Last week on Independence Day I thought about how grateful I was for religious freedom. Today, I find myself thankful for spiritual freedom. They are two very different things. Jesus didn’t come to make us more religious, He came to provide us spiritual freedom. The former will never be able to provide the latter.