The No-Shoes Rule: An Analogy About Love and Obedience
Which is more important: to take off your shoes when you enter a man’s house so that his carpet doesn’t get dirty, or to love the man who owns the house and the carpet?
You probably answered “both”, and I’d agree.
If the owner of a home has a rule to take off your shoes when you enter, it’s likely that you readily obey the rule. It would no doubt show great disrespect for this man if you were to disregard his rule, walk in with your boots on, and get dirt on his carpets. Adopting a pattern of this behavior would quickly raise the man’s ire.
If, on the other hand, you take off your shoes when you enter his house, as he has requested, it’s a fairly neutral act. You’ve obeyed the rule, and he likely doesn’t particularly notice. It’s good, but a fairly low-grade background sort of good. This act alone is a relatively poor indicator of your relationship with the homeowner, or your general attitude toward him — let alone your character. To better evaluate these (deeper) kinds of things, one has to ask much broader questions about your life and interactions with the homeowner, not just about whether or not you adhere to this one rule.
If, for example, you scrupulously remember to take off your shows every time you enter, but you carelessly break things without apology or remorse… If you keep the carpets spotless, but you make a mess eating brownies on the sofa and help yourself to milk from the fridge as if it’s yours to take rather than your host’s to offer … If you routinely mistreat the man’s family or his beloved pet… Then of how much value is the whole shoe thing? If you otherwise act like a socially-maladjusted cad, it’s unlikely the owner of the house will think you to be a good guest because you obediently remove your shoes. In fact, it would be possible to act in ways which are so severe that all the rule following in the world wouldn’t matter to him. If, for example, you despise his son or think little of his character (distrust his word, devalue his promises, casually disregard his advice, disrespect him before others), then you will certainly not endear yourself to him by keeping his carpet clean or staying out of his fridge. At some point, the disregard for him in your heart could create such discord that even meticulous, conscientious attention to every rule you could think of wouldn’t smooth over the rupture in your relationship.
Now, flip the scenario around. What if you absolutely adore this man? You’ve known him for many years, you have great respect and love for him … and it shows. When you (often) come into his house, you never fail to take off your shoes, and you wouldn’t think of taking his things or kicking his dog or demeaning his son. You don’t need rules for this stuff, because you love him. You respect his property as if it were your own. You go out of your way to show kindness to him, not abuse his kindness to you.
Then comes a day when you forget to take off your shoes and get mud on the carpet, or inadvertently break a lamp, or carelessly trip over the dog, or say something stupid or even mean to a family member. What is the man’s reaction? Love! There may be some fracturing in the relationship that needs attention and repair. An apology is likely both warranted and required. But his love for you covers over the fact that you broke rules or acted carelessly, and caused damage in the process.
Or another scenario… The neighbor has been hit by a car. You run in the house to get help from the man and his family. You don’t even think about the mud on your shoes, you knock over a lamp and trip over the dog in your rush, and you bark harsh orders at the man’s son to dial 911. You’re breaking every rule we’ve talked about! You’re not acting lovingly at all! Surely now the man will set aside or suppress his gracious, loving tendencies toward you, stop you in your tracks, and demand decorum!
But he doesn’t. In fact, he drops all decorum on his side as well. He rushes out of the house barefoot, hair uncombed, in his night shirt … to help you attend to the injured neighbor. There isn’t even repair work to do in the relationship. If anything, the experience makes your relationship stronger. Why? Because everything happening here is happening for the sake of love. The love that tends to a neighbor’s wounds — keep in mind that this is just one example — is a higher, greater thing that the decorum and obedience of following rules.
What does this analogy teach us about life?
God also has a house
It’s a bit of a metaphorical leap, I know, but if you think about it, one way you could define “God’s house” is … the entire universe. Everything that exists belongs to the God, who made it and sustains it. The Bible is even clear about why He made it: for Himself (Colossians 1:16) … which is to say, for His pleasure and glory.
We, as creatures made by God, walk continually in the world that God made for Himself. Like it or not, everything you think, say and do is in God’s presence … in God’s living room, so to speak. And so what we think, say and do essentially constitute our “manners” in God’s house … it all speaks to how we view God, His house, His rules, and His Son.
God’s house has rules
This world is filled to the brim of laws — from laws of nature to laws of relationship, from emotional laws to spiritual laws. There are real, tangible consequences for good and bad choices in all these areas, because there are real, tangible rules which prescribe right and wrong, working and broken ways to function in life. But in our culture, most people have developed a seriously misguided hated for most rules. Many of us imagine ourselves to be both smart enough not to need the rules and free enough not to deserve them … or at least cagey enough to avoid them. But you can deny them or chafe against them all you want … it won’t change their reality. Physical, relational, emotional, and spiritual laws are all here to stay, and they’re unavoidable … no matter how smart, deserving or cagey we imagine ourselves to be.
If you think about it, though, the fact that we have laws from God to govern us is actually a sign of His love for us (His creatures). That’s somewhat astonishing when you stop to think about it. In the absence of divine love, God’s divine right to demand justice could very well have resulted in a divine impulse to simply strike us down the first time we disrespected Him in the Garden of Eden … without a single word about what thou shalt or shalt not do. But instead, God is long-suffering and patient, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Psalm 103:8). As such, He graciously instructs us in what’s best for us, installs boundaries into the very fabric of the universe to protects us, and in Jesus, He goes so far as to pay the price of our failures and rebellion Himself when we break the rules. That’s pretty amazing!
So if God’s house is the whole span of the universe and history, and God’s house clearly has rules, then it naturally follows that God would expect us to obey the rules of His house. As we stomp around on God’s carpets, hungrily eye the brownies on God’s counter, or otherwise interact with the rest of creation, it’s on us to follow God’s rules. And especially if you take God’s rules as loving gifts (certainly how He intends them to be received) and as part of who He is (which they certainly are), then doesn’t it also say quite a bit about our love and respect (or lack thereof) for God Himself in how we respond to those rules … just as our response to the “no shoes” rule reflects our love and respect for the owner of the house (who made the rule)?
And God has a Son
At the center of God’s universe is His Son, Jesus. For any loving parent, their stuff and their rules are of distant secondary importance to their children. You can (and should) follow the rules of someone’s house all day long, but if you reject or disrespect their children, it will not go well for you. But does it work the same in God’s house? In point of fact, not really. There are key differences we need to discuss…
If you think of God’s “rules” as separate from God and (arbitrarily?) created by Him to be imposed on us — maybe because He was bored or mean or stodgy or really important or whatever — then it’s very logical to ask… Which does God love more, His Son or His rules? We may tend to think this way about God, because it’s logical to think this way about each other or in our no-shoes analogy. This question makes sense when asked of a fellow sinful human being. But it actually doesn’t make sense to ask it about God.
First, it’s far better to think of God’s “rules” as an overflow or outworking of God’s character within the physical world. The universe is the way it is and the rules are the way they are because God is the way He is. God did not “arbitrarily decide” anything or “impose” anything. He just is, and we must deal with that in our lives. As the planets orbiting the sun must contend with the laws of gravitation and electromagnetism by the nature of the sun and their proximity it, so we must contend with the physical, relational, emotional and spiritual laws of the universe … because we live in God’s orbit. When we say that God has “given us laws”, what we really mean is that God has given us Himself. We live and move in His house, so by definition the laws of who He is affect us!
God’s Son is also an explicit expression of who God is. As humans, our children are our flesh and blood, and genetically express who we are. Hopefully they also act as we act, which further shows them to be our children … but that is a secondary way they “express who we are.” On the other hand, God’s Son Jesus is the second Person of the eternal Trinity. There is a oneness within the Godhead (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) that goes far beyond any concept of oneness within our human families — although human family structures do certainly reflect and teach us about God. God the Father and God the Son are not genetically similar, they are ontologically similar — the same in their very essence. So, you can’t talk about respecting God without respecting His Son, and you can’t talk about disrespecting Jesus without snubbing your nose at God the Father. Unlike our kids, God Son cannot be separated from God the Father.
So when you put that together, you end up with God the Son and the laws of God all essentially reflecting or expressing who God is. Take a shot at either, and you take a shot at Him.
So, follow the rules then?
Some people think God is all about the rules. They think that if they follow a number of “do” and “don’t” rules, then they will be judged by God to be a good person. But if they fail to follow them, then they become a failure … and God will have to condemn with them. So, life — and certainly “religion” — becomes about rules.
There is some basis in truth to this of course. God is, after all, perfectly just and spotlessly pure, and requires (rightly demands!) that same perfect purity from anyone who approaches Him. He will unequivocally not overlook or dismiss sin — even the sins that we, in our brokenness, would consider to be small or “respectable.” In fact, God takes His rules so seriously that when we break His rules, we die. Period.
Some say this is overly harsh. Maybe you agree. But if God’s rules are an expression of God’s character, then disregarding them means disregarding Him! If God is the Source of all life and we, in our sin, willfully separate ourselves from that Life, then what would you expect to happen if not death? That would be like the leaf willfully ripping itself off the tree expecting to stay healthy and green on its own. To think we can separate ourselves from Life and remain spiritually, eternally alive is satanic nonsense.
In fact, it’s “worse” than most people realize. “Following the rules” or “obeying God” does not just mean that we make all the right decisions and actions (as impossible as that would be in and of itself), but that we always do it with the right heart. Whether your actions appear to be “obedient” to you or not, doing what God commands without loving God Himself is meaningless. That’s just going through the motions … like a whitewashed tomb only appears to be pure and clean (Matthew 23:25-28). Maintaining some level of external purity without a heart for God and other people is of no value to God. Serving God to make myself feel less guilty or to get my small group leader off my back or to make myself look more spiritual … does not honor God. Doing something God’s way and smiling on the outside while grumbling on the inside is not what God would call “obedience.” Giving under compulsion in no way buys God’s favor. There is almost no value in these things. None of them speak God’s “love language,” and they will not be credited to you as righteousness (Romans 4).
The good news is that there is an escape clause written into the deep magic of the universe. Technically, I misspoke above… It’s more accurate to say that, when we break God’s rules, somebody has to die. Blood has to be shed. “But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). So, instead of my death for my sin, Jesus dies in my place. Following the rules is unequivocally required (and rightly so), but when I inevitably break the rules (wretched, rebellious creature that I am), God’s Son takes my well-deserved punishment upon Himself.
Knowing this, (hopefully!) we run to God. We turn away from all the things or habits or pleasures or successes that we could have loved, in order to have Jesus and Him only. In so doing, we receive forgiveness and restoration and reconciliation, because of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. And when we do, we realize how beautiful God is. And we end up falling in love with Him — not just because He saves us, but because of who He is and how worthy He is of our love.
So, love Jesus and forget the rules?
Experiencing God’s beauty and that He is surprisingly and all-surpassingly merciful, some try to turn God’s amazing grace into a license to do whatever they want … because “I love Jesus” or “God is patient and kind” or “I’m only human” or “love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). But a quick look back at our no-shoes analogy makes it easy to see how foolish this is! Show me the person who loves God, and I will show you someone who rushes to obey God’s rules. Jesus made this abundantly clear: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15). I’m not sure how God could make it much plainer than that. We demonstrate our love for God in our obedience to His rules, just as we demonstrate our love for the home owner by obeying the no-shoes rule.
So, do both?
In a word, yes. Where many seem to latch onto one or the other of these ideas — “dutifully obey” or “passionately love” — I believe God indeed requires both. But remember that the separation of these concerns is 100% in our limited human minds. God does not separate them. If you love God, you obey God. If you obey God, then you demonstrate your love for God in obedience. If you obey a bunch of rules, but deny Jesus, then you don’t love God. If you sing loud and passionate praises to Jesus, but don’t give two shakes about the 10 commandments, then you don’t know God. You simply can’t ignore Leviticus, Romans and Hebrews, while “focusing on the gospels”. The Christian life cannot consist of truth without grace or grace without truth.
There is simply no legitimate separation of God, His rules and His Son.
But what if I fail?
Toward the end of our no-shoes analogy, I mentioned two scenarios in which love prevailed over the rules. In the first, a friend who consistently demonstrates love for the homeowner and respect for his rules accidentally (carelessly) breaks a rule. In our analogy, we saw that some repair work might be needed in the relationship, but for the most part, love covers over the visitor’s sin. This is also true with God.
We are broken, sinful people. Augustine describes us as “bent in on the earth”. Hunched. Unable to stand erect. At least, that is, until we are resurrected into new life in heaven. In our current, hunchbacked state, there’s just no way to entirely avoid sin … no matter how hard we try or how diligently we train for righteousness. The presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian means you are no longer a slave to sin (choosing the right is possible), but not that you will never sin (in heaven, choosing the right will be guaranteed).
And just as the homeowner loves the friend who carelessly breaks a rule in the context of a loving relationship, so the God of the universe loves us, who belong to Him but inevitably trespass against Him. He who has adopted us as His children readily forgives us our sins, and does not count our failures against us. They are paid for by Christ. So, God defines us in terms of our belonging in His family, not in terms of our mistakes.
Some people will ask questions like, “How many times can I fail before God stops loving me?” That’s a particularly unhelpful question / way of thinking. It doesn’t work like that. Once a child, always a child, and no amount of sinful failure can counteract God’s love for you or your belonging to Him. But, remember that we are what the totality of our lives indicate we are, so there comes a point where “inevitable failures” become “the pattern of my life”. And in that case, we are proven by our ongoing rebellion that we never belonged to Christ in the first place.
Doesn’t love override the rules?
In the last scenario in our no-shoes story, the friend of the homeowner rushes into his house and breaks all the rules because of her overriding concern for an injured neighbor. Even though rules are broken, no rupture occurs in the relationship with the homeowner, because they are both serving a higher cause: concern for the injured neighbor. In fact, in our story, the homeowner and the friend actually become closer for having faced this emergency shoulder-to-shoulder.
But unlike the rest of the analogy, it doesn’t work like this with God. Why not? Because there is no higher or greater cause than God’s holiness! If God’s rules and God’s Son express God’s character (His very self), and God stands outside time as inconceivably great, utterly holy, and incomparable to anything in this universe … then there is no cause or concern that “trumps” the love and respect shown God by obeying Him, bowing before Him, and honoring His Son (which, as we’ve been saying, are all the same thing).
It comes down to this…
You cannot obey God without loving God. And you cannot love God without obeying God. Our finite natures make that pretty difficult to understand, but that doesn’t make it less true. And I believe that going through the struggle to merge these concepts in our minds and integrate them into our lives is essential to living a life than honors God.
Some of us must guard against legalism and a cold adherence to a set of rules. We must ask ourselves, “Does my ‘relationship with God’ essentially consist in a list of rules? Do I think that being a ‘good person’ obligates God to love me? What have I done with Jesus?”
Some of us must guard against sentimentality and hyper grace. We must ask ourselves, “Do I take God’s law seriously enough? Do I even really know what God’s law is? In a moment of deep honesty, would I say that it doesn’t matter what I do, as long as I’ve got Jesus?”
Although there is still much that could be said about loving and obeying God, it is my prayer that this is a good start, and that all of us would think more deeply, pray more fervently, and act more boldly in relation to these questions. As Paul exhorted the Philippians, I believe he would also encourage us, in so doing, to work out their salvation in fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).