The Cold Predictability of Law and the Utter Loving Chaos of Grace

In this week’s episode of Bad Theology and Good Intentions, a podcast/film/concept album I have […]

Stephanie Phillips / 10.5.17

In this week’s episode of Bad Theology and Good Intentions, a podcast/film/concept album I have no intention of actually creating, I read a friend’s post on social media in which she admitted grappling with her short temper around her kids. She cited having a newborn and a young toddler and not getting any sleep as contributing reasons for her blown fuse and confessed to yelling at her children and feeling horrible guilt about it. The flood of responses that followed were wholly supportive–but with an undercurrent of law. I saw verbal nudges to take a rest wrapped up by barely veiled threats–but they’re only young for a little while! I groaned over Bible verses transformed into memes with swirly writing: “Be slow to anger.” I read pep talks on the order of “chin up, you can do better tomorrow!”

I wanted to write my own comment: “Chin up! You may do worse tomorrow! You’re definitely screwing them up one way or another! And a swirly Bible verse isn’t going to save you from your worst self, which parenting totally brings out every day because we suck at it!”

But I kept silent. I’m getting more restrained in my old age.

Wait–no I’m not! Because I’m writing about it here! Because this kind of shit makes me crazy. It’s the law, written in calligraphy and handed out as pithy advice. And while driving me insane, it also fuels and motivates me like I’m an addict and the law is my heroin. I am nothing if not a walking contradiction.

Soon after this particular virtual debacle, I noticed an acquaintance’s Instagram post, which featured her handwritten “Prescription for Anxiety” based off Philippians 4: pray about everything, think about good things, practice what you’ve learned. A threefold route to spiritual success sponsored by the Apostle Paul. Except…not? Because my particular prescription for anxiety involves Lexapro, an occasional Xanax, and a lot of alone time, none of which were written about in that letter to Philippi. So am I a crap Christian because constant prayer, happy thoughts, and (failed) life application don’t cut it for me? Are my additional interventions a sign of divine abandonment and/or indicative of a lack of enough effort on my part?

You know because you’re reading this at Mockingbird that the answer is no to all of the above. A no that I am happy to shout from the virtual rafters whenever I see a post that offends my grace-needing sensibilities, but when I’m really honest with myself I know that when it behooves me, I will betray grace in an instant for the sweet, sweet elixir of a law-driven job well done.

I was raised in the South, where Sunday School doles out law once a week and Emily Post covers the remaining six days. It is an inborn trait I will never quite shake, this addiction to predictable rules that define good behavior and create tidy Us and Them categories for personal reference. Thank you-note-writers vs. ungrateful Neanderthals. Curtseying debutantes vs. girls who smoke in the bathroom. Church attenders vs. weak-willed Atheists. The world feels so much safer when the dividing lines are clearly drawn and the rules provided up front.

Until the day you can’t keep those rules.

(You being me, of course. And you. And even non-medically-licensed prescription-writing Instagrammer chick over there.)

Here’s the deal: I want that prescription to work. I want to flip right to the New Testament, read a few verses, do what they say, and immediately feel better. It’s so not fair that I can’t! So much…less quick.

Cut to a final post I’ll mention, one from a moms group I am a member of for hate-following purposes. A woman recently took to the page to ask for advice on whether her husband is doing enough around the house. She proceeded to break down, via percentages, the way various tasks are split between her and her man. My reaction took the following journey:

Oooh, girl, you go on with this math!

PREACH ON about that deadbeat!

You do THAT much?

And yet you took the time to calculate this statistical rendering of your life?

This has gone on for awhile.

I feel icky.

Ugh. GTG.

Law overload, y’all. Every once in awhile its crushing demands are revealed in a way that knocks the air out of us and leaves us gasping for something more life-giving. Don’t get me wrong–if there were an app to determine who’s pulling more of their fair share around the home, I’d download that sucker in an instant and wave it around with abandon–unless it didn’t pick me as the winner. I resent this and I resemble it. This inner dichotomy discomfits and shames me even as it marks me through and through, to the very quick, which is that of simul justus et peccator.

While I fight this living according to a balance sheet, I am held by the one who rendered it filled. Who, despite my short memory, continues to remind me of this daily.

My two boys are currently fixated on two things: rules and Moana. Recently I caught my older son stopping my younger one, who was zipping around the house on a scooter. “STOP!” James, our oldest, said. Will dutifully obliged, waiting. “Police! I’m giving you a breath test!” I laughed (we had recently, as a family, been pulled over as part of a routine traffic stop and my husband had to breathe into a tube; clearly James had been rapt) and I cringed. The boys always want to know what’s against the rules and it’s all too easy to divide the world, and behavior, between those lines: good/bad, wrong/right. A non-nuanced life is simple and easy for instruction purposes. And I am a tired parent who gravitates toward simple and easy.

Then there are stories–like Moana–and nuance, and moments of redemption. They just take longer to tell. In a moment of defeat, Maui the demigod mutters, “I’m nothing without my hook.” Later, his tune changes: “Hook or no hook, I’m still Maui.” I watched my boys watching and held out hope for the nuance, the shades that life will begin to take for them over time. For doorways of opportunity to show them how grace appears: in this scene that, in the moment, reminded me of the props I try to rely on besides God for identity and worth. Of the fact that I often turn even my children into these props–things I use to try to fulfill the law of achievement-based parenting–while their constant forgiveness and wild, chaotic love are all grace. Of the fact that, prop or no prop, achievement or no achievement, hook or no hook, there is the cross, and it is there where I became God’s child.