Long ago, a friend and I were a team in an event called "Write It/Do It." The object was for the team to build a replica of an item. But there was a catch. Only one teammate got to see the item. Then she had to write instructions on how to build it. The item was then taken away, and the instructions and components given to the partner for them to build it.
We never won that I remember, but I learned a lot--primarily that a list of instructions, even good ones, doesn't always produce the intended results.
I find that living life follows the same pattern.
Don't get me wrong; I have benefited from explicit instruction many times. In fact, some of the best advice I've ever gotten has been explicit. Like my mom's "People like people who smile," and my dad's "If you have to ask yourself if it's loving, then it's usually not." My mother-in-law says, "Leave it alone," implying that time fixes many problems if we are only patient.
But certain pieces of advice have never helped me. "Be more normal." What's normal? "Don't talk." Should I just do what I want then and ask you if you liked it later? "Don't do it that way." Well then what way should I do it? "Don't eat with your mouth full." Well then how do you get the food in?
Like I said, I don't do very well with instructions, especially "don't" ones.
But that doesn't mean that I don't get to a place where I just know I've got it wrong, instructions or no.
Let me tell you a story. I was five, sporting a newly-minted Lilt home permanent that my mother had just given me and which smelled strongly of chemicals in high humidity or after a good sweat. I was playing with my sister, then three, our next-door neighbor, a boy aged two at that time, and my two-doors-down neighbor, then six. Let me just say straight out that my two-doors-down neighbor, whom I'll call Trouble for the sake of this story was trouble for us. She was that neighbor whom my parents swore was a bad influence. And, while my sister and I could get into quite a bit of trouble all on our own, it seemed to take a bit of Trouble to really blow the roof off the house--or the egg out of the microwave (which really happened, but that's another story).
I've forgotten the name of the game we were playing--if there ever was one--but it was loud, full of running up one side of the hill in Trouble's yard (the rocky side which was a little easier to climb) and sliding in tandem down the other side, which was nearly vertical, grassy, and therefore much easier on the butt. Now I don't know why, but apparently we all decided to slide train-style down the hill and leave my sister behind. She had little legs, you know, and didn't always move as fast as we wanted her to.
Now it may sound small, but I knew not to leave my sister behind. Whatever I did, she did too. Once I learned to share, I took it very seriously--even making sure she got half my pizza when she was but six-months-old.
But I didn't think about my sister. I listened to my friend.
And when we finally skidded giggling to a halt in the never-quite-dry muddy patch of Trouble's backyard, I tumbled over and glanced to the top of the hill where my sister stood crushed--shoulders slumped, knees wobbly, and tears already dripping off her nose. She met my eyes, scrubbed her nose with the back of her fist, then pirouetted and raced toward our gate.
"Who cares about her?" Trouble asked, shrugging her shoulders as she pulled up our next door neighbor. "Let's play with that." She pointed at something on the other side of the yard and then bounded over with our two-year-old neighbor.
I just stood, gazing up at the place where my sister had stood. I knew I did that to my sister. I scaled the slippery side, pulling out clods of grass with my fingers as my feet searched for some traction. At the top of the hill, with the late spring breeze ruffling my permanent, I hid myself in Trouble's forsythia bush and wept.
"God, have mercy on me, a sinner."
I'd read the Bible story with Daddy. I would've beaten my breast like in the story, except I didn't have any yet.
Yes, I was modeling what I'd read about it. But in that moment, I knew I was the sinner and that prayer was for me.
Of course, I didn't quite understand the permanence of it--and maybe this is part of that implicit understanding, maybe that permanence isn't as permanent as we might think, maybe there is something to working out your salvation with fear and trembling--and often found myself back in that spot begging forgiveness again. Usually after playing with Trouble. Maybe my parents were right about something.
But you see, that is how it works with me. All the rules in the Bible, from Sunday school, from my parents, teacher, society--they meant nothing in and of themselves until, courtesy of the Holy Spirit, I felt the knife of sin twisting in my own heart.
And since that time, God has been generally gentle with me. Oh, it never feels gentle. It feels like clay in the hands of a potter, complete with the wedging, pug mill, and firing. But He shows me what I'm doing wrong. Sometimes it comes through the words of others, true. But most often not, and it never comes without that deep kerthunk of something falling into place deep in my heart, a surge in the pit of my stomach, and the faintest whisper in my ear, asking, "Do you hear Me now?"
And that's why, after three decades in this vein, I'm very hesitant to tell someone else that they are sinning unless I hear it explicitly in His Voice. I'm not sure I ever have. That's not to say that I never say anything. Quite the contrary! I am never hesitant to say, "Something here smells fishy," or "I don't think everything is quite right." We need to be discerning--and there are definite guidelines for that, but I wouldn't call those guidelines rules either.
And you see, God gives us some pretty good reasons to doubt that we have the rules right. Jesus's lineage contains a woman who had her son by her husband's father, a prostitute, a foreigner, and an adulterer. Jesus's birth was greeted by shepherds and by foreign (read that gentile) kings, but not by the teachers of the law. And then, of course, there's the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus basically turns the law on its head, challenging, "So you think you understand the law? Well, let me tell you what it really means."
But aside from the fact that the only people Jesus called "sinners" were the ones who were convinced that they weren't, when Jesus called, "Repent," we came because we knew we were wrong. I am convinced that if anyone wants to know what they're doing wrong, God will let them know. I am not needed for the finger pointing.
Besides I am wrong everyday, and it helps to know that going in.
I don't know the answers, and that helps keep me from telling you (both Christians and non-Christians) that you're wrong. But I will say that if you take it to Jesus (especially us Christians! If Jesus had to pray, what makes you think we have a chance of figuring this out without His constant insight?), He will let you know.
And He's the only One you really need to listen to.