Lately I have heard several friends describe their teens as “rule-followers.” Sounds great from a parent’s perspective – rules are definitely good and necessary when they are in line with God’s law – but an identity like that can also be a red flag. These teens are facing temptations, opportunities and struggles that require a solid grounding in Truth and a firm grip on what is right and what is dangerously wrong. Unfortunately for a teen, those lines aren’t so clear.
What are the characteristics of a rule-follower, exactly? Rule-followers need definitive lines in the sand to tell them “only go this far.” They might be tempted to find any and every loophole to push those boundaries. They rely on bullet point lists a la the Ten Commandments to determine right from wrong. They strictly adhere to the “do”s and strongly condemn the “don’t”s. Rule-followers are the kind that would rather obey law after law than have to decide for themselves just how far they should take this grace and freedom thing.
The Galatians could relate. Apparently, from Paul’s admonitions, they were still looking for justification through the old rulebook instead of their faith in Christ. They had freedom, but didn’t know what to do with it except play the same game of legalism they were familiar with.So Paul rebukes them, releases them and challenges them: "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." (Galatians 5:1)
Stand firm in freedom? They have to actively resist being enslaved by rules?
It’s a hard balance because as much as Christians celebrate freedom, they are also called to holiness. Those who follow Christ desire righteousness. They want to be found a pure and pleasing sacrifice, good and faithful servants. And those are healthy desires. But perhaps students are missing the mark if they let their identity as “rule-followers” sneak into their faith and gobble up grace in the meantime.
As I write this, a quote pops up on my Twitterfeed: “Holiness is less a question of rule following and more a question of letting God tune us perfectly to His song.”
It turns out that being a rule-follower can actually be a really dangerous trait if teens rely on the “rules” to gauge healthy spiritual engagement. Far from being a barometer of holiness or a characteristic of a diligent hard-worker, rule-following can be an excuse for apathy in our faith. Rule-following says “Fill out this checklist: have you gone to church? Bible study? Had quiet time? Volunteered in a ministry?” Faith requires something much more difficult: cultivating a deep, vulnerable, trusting relationship with God. It requires surrendering control, perfectionism and to-do lists in exchange for the wisdom, maturity and discernment that comes with the freedom of grace.
Though it can sometimes be easier to depend on an unwritten rulebook of “Christian Living in 10 Steps (guilt-inducing checklists included),” real spiritual formation takes time. By getting to know God’s character, the sound of His voice and their calling as His freed children of the King, teens no longer have to depend on being rule-followers, but are free to live out their true identity as Christ-followers.