I Don’t Have a Relationship, I Have Rules

November 16, 2012

Christians like to say that we have “relationship.”relationship

Not rules.

Not religion.

While “rules” or “religion” have connotations of stuffy, outdated, legalistic, overbearing control, relationship seems to open and inviting, doesn’t it? While the former might carry the image of an angry nun with a ruler, ready to rap your knuckles, the latter looks like Jesus holding his arms out for a big bear hug.

If there’s one phrase modern Christianity has embraced, it’s that one.  We have moved past religion, and now we have relationship.

And I wonder how much damage that phrase has caused to the relationship we have with God.

No Rules, No Relationship

David Petraus is proving, once again, what is blindingly obvious, and what no one wants to admit:

That relationships and rules are not opposites, or are somehow mutually exclusive.

Relationships, by their very nature, are predicated upon rules.  When rules are broken, so is the relationship.  Right now, Petraus is fighting for his life by trying to cling to the fact that his affair did not start until after he was out of the military (which hands down significant punishments for adultery.) But the point is that a rule (fidelity) was broken and so a relationship (his marriage) has been damaged, just like every marriage which has endured infidelity.

Is it any wonder that over and over, the prophets use adultery as an illustration of how people act with God?  People break the boundaries and rules of their relationship with God, and so their relationship with God is damaged.

Every relationship is built on rules.  Even two friends have expectations about time spent together, phone calls, or any number of things which both people have to fulfill in order for the relationship to survive.  Every relationship can be boiled down to a set of rules. Two people with no rules or expectations between them are…strangers.

God is a Legalist

But wait! you are thinking.  You run the risk of being a legalistic Pharisee jerk by emphasizing rules!

That may be true, but do you know who the biggest legalist in the world is?


Jesus made it clear that even when people thought they were obeying the rules, the real rules were so much higher than where they were aiming.  God cares about each and every rule He has set.  In fact, according to Jesus’ words, Petraus’ career-ending affair did not begin when we consider an affair to begin.  It began when two hearts entertained lustful feelings for the other.  And God only knows when that happened.

In fact, God is such a massive, overbearing legalist that the death of Jesus was the only thing which would repair the ruins of our relationship with God.

The Rules Have Changed

It is not that God has moved past rule-making with us and just opened His arms up for a big bear hug.  We still have rules because we are still sinful people.

It’s just that the rules have gotten less concrete.  And maybe a lot more difficult at the same time.

Instead of a checklist of specific behavior, we are told to love God above all and our neighbors as ourselves.

Instead of making sacrifices to compensate for ourselves, we are told to trust Jesus in faith.

Yikes.  Those are steep rules.  And our relationship with God is absolutely built on that foundation.  Breaking those rules is the same effect that it was in the Old Testament: idolatry.  Try it and see.  I promise, you will be practicing idolatry!

So we are telling people a terrible lie when we lead them to believe that following Jesus is not about rules.  Following Jesus is still about rules; maddeningly abstract, endlessly difficult, insanely beautiful rules.  If you are following no rules with God, then you are strangers with God.

We have relationship because we have rules.

What do you think? Is it time we stopped lying to people and told them the truth about rules and relationships?

29 responses to I Don’t Have a Relationship, I Have Rules

  1. The rules God gives our for our good and help us to have the best life possible while here on Earth. Yes, there are commands (rules) to follow as a believer in Jesus, but when we come to love Jesus, realizing all He has done for us, we follow the rules because we WANT to please Him and He gives us the Holy Spirit to make it all possible. (see Galatians 2:20 and I John 5:2-3). His commands are not grievous when we love Him.

  2. I’m struggling with this post. Coming from a spiritually-abusive background where rules were the focus and the relationship with and love of Jesus were kept in the backseat, I can’t read this post without cringing and getting angry. The post may be true, but what happens to me is all these voices from my past (or Satan) crawl up on my shoulder and chant how I’ve been doing it wrong and how I’ll never be acceptable to Him, whether I have Jesus living in me or not. I think for some people with situations like mine, there is a period of time where we just need to be loved on. For me, the rules come naturally because of His love. I may still go astray because I sometimes think, “Oh, breaking this rule isn’t a big deal, He’ll still love me anyway”, but the Holy Spirit won’t let me get away with that. He gnaws at my heart until it becomes unbearable to continue on in my sin. The only way I can hear the Holy Spirit is when I’m walking in relationship with Him. If I ever focus on the rules, my relationship with Him suddenly becomes in jeopardy. I know you’re not saying “focus on the rules”, your saying they’re mutually inclusive. And I guess what I’m saying is “I’ve got issues.” ha! And can’t see the word “rule” without getting defensive because I’ve been smacked upside the head with them for so long. Thanks for letting me rant. Obviously, I still have some forgiveness issues to deal with.

    • I am sorry for your experiences, but you are right – you need to be loved! That is the need Jesus knew people had, and you have been hurt because – it sounds like – that need was not fulfilled by others in your church.

      I hope you come to a point when you can think of rules in this positive way – that they bring us security when applied appropriately. We have a great God who chooses to operate in the boundaries of the rules he has set for himself:

      “All who call on my name will be saved.” God isn’t going back on his word when we die.

      Over and over, God declares that he restrains himself out of his love for us. He has set rules for himself, which he does not have to follow, but does. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever – one of my favorite verses. God doesn’t change the rules on a whim.

  3. The rule makers and rule lovers asked Jesus what he thought the #1 rule was and it was love God and others with all that we have. Can we really make love a rule? It seems that when love is the rule then the relationship is healthy and then we don’t need rules.

  4. This is a frequent topic of discussion in our small group.

    God is loving AND holy. When we focus on one of those and not the other we get into trouble, IMHO.

    Speaking of rules, would you mind updating the CSS for your comment section? Gray on gray is a little hard to read. These should do it:

    #comments .comment {color: #EEE;}
    #comments .comment-head a { color: #EEE;}
    #comments .comment-reply-link { color: #EEE;}
    #reply-title { color: #EEE;}

  5. Wow, can’t read comments at all without highlighting them….

  6. I thought the “I don’t have religion; I have a relationship with God” stuff was all about making converts. Ply people with the love of God and then after they join the church, they figure out they’re supposed to tithe, attend church each week and most Wednesdays, read the Bible and pray for an hour a day, and so on… No-one tells people the truth up front because that would seriously cut into soul-winning. :)

  7. as a religion major, i always found the “it’s a relationship not a religion” to be a bit grating, but i don’t agree with your view of the atonement:

    “In fact, God is such a massive, overbearing legalist that the death of Jesus was the only thing which would repair the ruins of our relationship with God.”

    to my understanding, the cross is about love triumphing over violence and God proving that his love is stronger than worldly power, sin, and death. Christ’s resurrection makes all things new and restores shalom–it doesn’t confirm God’s overbearing legalism at all.

    • I’m intrigued, Suzannah, and I’d like to hear some clarification about what it means for the cross to be “triumphing over violence” and your other assessments. I agree with you on the effect of the resurrection – I think – that it restores peace between us and God. I think we diverge on the need or cause of the cross and resurrection, and I’d like to hear more from you on that.

      • there are so many people who know so much more than me on this front, but the view of atonement that focuses on satisfying the wrath (or legalism) of God is not the only christian perspective.

        God’s covenant was always a covenant of grace. yes, there was an element of blood sacrifice, and yes, Jesus fulfills the law, but we see God’s mercy long before Christ, and many see the cross as being about much more than settling accounts or legalism. Jesus was put to death by the state and then makes a public spectacle of their power and violence. the cross, a tool of oppression and execution, becomes an instrument of God’s liberation and love, his setting right of everything sin wrecked, personally and socially. this of course includes our relationship to God, but i have a hard time seeing the cross as an image of legalism when Jesus speaks of fulfilling isaiah and loosing chains, and we can trace a narrative of covenant, shalom, and grace throughout the story of scripture.

        didn’t mean to hijack your comment section:)

  8. I see it a bit differently. I believe there is a system of justice set in place by God. It’s a matter of if/then. If a command is transgressed, then it requires punishment.

    I believe Jesus changed all of that because He came and paid the price for that punishment. Now we live “by the Spirit” which is the whole new level He was actually talking about when He raised the stakes in Matthew 5 (“you have heard it said…but I tell you the truth”).

    I see a very different concept in boundaries. Rules require punishment, boundaries require consequences. Since Jesus paid the debt for all the broken rules past, present and future, we no longer fear punishment (Rom 8:1). We couldn’t pay that debt anyways. But that doesn’t absolve us from the consequences of our actions. We are responsible for those consequences and responsible for cleaning up our own mess.

    If there is a “rule” of fidelity broken in Petraeus’s relationship then it is required that he be punished. He “deserves” to be divorced and maybe even worse.

    So where does forgiveness come into play in that situation?

  9. Jesus said that he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. I think I said this in an earlier comment. In the past, we had rules we followed because we were motivated by a fear of punishment. When Jesus came, he changed our motivation for following the rules. Now, we follow the rules as a way of returning the love that God showed us when He sacrificed His son to pay the penalty of our sins and because we have His Holy Spirit to help us.

    So, yes, it is both, but the relationship comes first.

  10. This is an excellent post, and you can bet I will be “stealing” (read: reblogging) this! I can also see that it has struck a cord, and hopefully some heartstrings and to bring about healing.

    If I had any issue with it, it would be that this line is not entirely true:
    “Every relationship can be boiled down to a set of rules. Two people with no rules or expectations between them are…strangers.”

    Most people in civilized society expect strangers to still be at least somewhat considerate. Why do you we think we get so upset with stupid people and jerks? We expect a certain amount of respect and decorum from others (or at least that they can follow rules and laws of the community and morality).

    To be fair, though, some people seem to not have this strict legality with strangers.

  11. I think you’re certainly right that a New Covenant relationship with God has rules in it, the agreements of the covenant. Of course it is also a relationship.

    Also, the color you have on the background of reader comments makes them impossible for us to read. It destroys the conversation, can you fix that?

  12. Thanks so much for changing the background color, now we can read everyone’s comments!

  13. The theology of ‘glory’ vs the ‘theology of the cross’ is brought to my mind here.

    Rules, and having ‘to do’ something for a right relationship with God is our natural, or default position. That is why this stuff is everywhere.

    This speaks to it pretty well, and it’s not too long:


    I hope you enjoy it.

  14. Thanks for a thought-provoking article about the fallacy of viewing rules and relationships as opposites. In a similar way some people think that law and grace are opposites. They are not enemies but friends. Grace does not free us from the Law, it frees us from the curse of the Law. The Law, in its broadest sense, is a word used to describe God’s moral standard for all people for all time. He is the Creator. He is the Lord. He is God and He is good. He can make whatever rules He wants to make whether it is the law of gravity or the law contained in the Ten Commandments. God’s law is good but it cannot save us. That’s not the purpose of the Law. It can only show us how far we fall short of His standard. The Good News of the Gospel is that Jesus lived a perfect, sinless life in order to be our perfect substitute and, by His grace, we are made perfect in God’s eyes. The law and grace are not opposed to each other. One shows us the way the other gets us home.

  15. True, relationships don’t survive without “rules.” But the relationship determines what the rules are, not the other way around. It’s the difference between following the spirit of the law and the letter of the law. Simply following rules will not result in relationship, but having relationship will definitely prescribe rules.

  16. This freeing, Matt. Thank you. I’ve always felt pressured that if I was following the rules, I was doing it wrong. But I don’t know how else to have a relationship with God. And so I almost gave up. But I understand now.

  17. As a Catholic, I am quite pleased with this article. I have dealt with the no rules thing, and as you pointed out the rules are what keeps the relationship intact, as much as, breaking those rules breaks the relationship.

    Of course if you suppose, like the Pharisees, that you can follow the bare minimum of the rules (following the letter of the law, rather than fulfilling the Spirit of the law) you are a true legalist. However, if you fulfill those laws…that is a game changer…you have a relationship. This goes without saying that all this has to be done in Christ. As without being redeemed we can do nothing, but through him we have the strength to do anything. The witness of the Martyrs attests to this fact.

  18. Great post, your summary is spot-on about the shift because less concrete but harder. I could keep tabs if it was just a matter of scarificing this and cleaning that but loving my neighbour, thats a bit harder to judge…

  19. This is an interesting read. I’ve often wondered what the role of the NT commands were concerning the “relationship” thing. Recently I was talking with a classmate who was considering atheism, and one of the objections he raised was that even though Christianity is supposed to be a relationship, not rules, there are still rules in the NT.

    I’m not entirely bought on the “relationship” aspect. I’m more toward the idea that God wants disciples, not “friends,” although certainly in a way we can be seen as friends… I forget which verse mentions that.

    There are rules, but as you said, they’re more abstract and harder to follow. I’d suggest that they are rules, not of external observance (like the Law), but matters of the heart. Which sort of ties in to the “faith vs. works” debate. Although our salvation isn’t based upon following the rules, a truly redeemed person will want to observe the rules out of devotion to God. Of course, we’re not perfect, and learning to follow those rules – I think the proper term is sanctification? – is a long term process.

  20. What relationship ?
    Jesus died for my sins
    I accept that
    There is no relationship or friendship etc
    There can’t be , literally
    Salvation is not based on this relationship anyways
    Or why did Jesus die to begin with ?
    Jesus paid for my sins by dying for me and rising
    Not some ” walk ” or ” personal relationship “

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  1. Reblog: The Church of No People – I Don’t Have a Relationship, I Have Rules « a simple man of God - November 16, 2012

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