As a young bride, I determined to be an excellent cook. I collected and experimented with recipes from my mother, magazines, and potluck dinners. There were a few disasters early on: my husband still remembers with fondness a certain tuna casserole we had to choke down. But over the years I learned enough to eventually deviate from the recipe cards in my file to create my own. It's always a little scary cooking without a recipe; I don't stop worrying until that first sampling bite. I guess I will always be a rule follower at heart.
We, as humans, love our checklists. We yearn for a formula to follow. The internet, books, and magazines are filled with how-to articles listing step-by-step directions to get a job done.
A checklist may work for many things, but it's not especially effective when it comes to spiritual life. We long for a blueprint that will guarantee our children will follow Christ, give us successful marriages, or make our ministry effective. Just tell me what to do, Lord. I want the A plus B plus C that will guarantee D.
The problem is that even if a formula is perfection itself, the ones attempting to carry it out are imperfect at best. Life is messy, and not much about humans is cut-and-dried. Formulas also tend to put God in a box, presuming on some level that we obligate him should we do the right things. Finally, most lists are inevitably us-centered, which is always a bad place to start. In short, the checklist approach is frequently a recipe for failure.
Mind you, the Bible is not short of instructions. But I find it revealing that Jesus identified the most important command as "Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind." Fellow rule lovers will note nothing specific enough there to accomplish and check off; it's really a more general principle to guide every action.
When the children of Israel left Egypt behind, God led them to Mt. Sinai, where he issued 613 Laws to set them apart as his people. The famed 10 Commandments were just the tip of the iceberg! But God later qualified his expectations by zeroing in on the intent of their hearts. "Now Israel, what does the Lord your God require from you," Moses reminded the people, "but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul...circumcise your heart, and stiffen your neck no longer."
What God truly desired was an undivided devotion to him. Yet a checklist mentality persisted through many generations and eventually led to the nation's downfall. God told Isaiah, "This people draw near with their words and honor me with their lip service, but they remove their hearts far from me, and their reverence for me consists of tradition learned by rote." When it comes to God, following a formula or a checklist just doesn't cut it. He wants our hearts.
Jesus worked to get this across in his Sermon on the Mount. With every example, he revealed the true intent of the Law, how it was always meant to be observed. The Law wasn't some finite checklist. It was intended to reach deep and affect the very hearts of God's people.
How can we cultivate that kind of heart today? When it comes to God, the old adage is true: to know him is to love him. The more we learn about God, his nature, his character, and his kind intentions toward us, the more we fall in love. This in turn stirs a desire to please Him, to respond in gratitude to what he has done. Every action is a mere overflow of our devotion.
So put down the checklist and pick up your Bible. Get to know and love the God of the Universe. He gave everything for you. All he wants in return is for you to love him back.
"The eyes of the Lord move to and fro throughout the earth, that he may strongly support those whose heart is completely his." 2 Chronicles 16:9