When I was younger, on very rare occasion my parents would tell me not to do something that I really wanted to do. When I asked my dad for a reason or explanation as to why I should not do these things, he would often respond “Because I’m your dad and I said so.” Why did he answer in that way? Well, 2-year-old Kevin wouldn’t have understood the danger of putting his hand on the hot stove… 14 month-old Kevin wouldn’t comprehend the electricity that would be jolted into his body by shoving silverware into an outlet. In some moments, “What” is more important than “Why”. I couldn’t have understood the detail of the consequences of following through on my intended actions, but I needed to know what to do and what not to do. But what about down the road? As an adult, why do I not do those same things I was once instructed in? It isn’t because “Daddy said so” anymore, but because as a man I understand the reasons and the wisdom behind what he once told me. In the midst of growth, I’ve recognized not just “What” dad told me to do, but “WHY” he told me.
Its easy to have the What figured out, and it seems that sometimes this foundation is accepted by many believers in Christian living. However, in life of a maturing follower of Christ, knowing simply just “What” IS NOT ENOUGH.
Understanding only the “What” of all that a follower of Christ is to do is relatively simple, but leads one dangerously close to a form of Legalism. This is not the “far-right legalism” that is found at “all those other churches.” No, this is a legalism founded in ignorance and even laziness, that can fester in each of our hearts. This legalism can be identified simply through reading through the Gospels, and taking a look at one of the common groups: the Pharisees. Before you lose your ability to connect with them, be reminded of this. The Pharisees had “the What” down. They nailed it, with a Marine-like dedication. The detail with which they did these things is remarkable and even admirable. And What they did was incredible! Lives devoted to service to God and giving of their possessions, What they did was great! The issue with the Pharisees is that they missed “the Why.” See, while the Pharisees had the What down pat, they were still dirt-bags. They They didn’t understand Why they did the What, and managed to forsake every principle behind the doing of the What.
Returning once to those childhood examples, my mother often would correct me, saying “doing the right thing with a disobedient heart is still sin.” If I cleaned my room with a disrespectful, unrighteous heart, I hadn’t pleased God. It is entirely possible to do the What and still be disobedient and displeasing to God. What the Pharisees failed to realize was that there was a purpose, and we can fall into that trap as well. As we grow in our relationship with God, we must grow in our understanding of What He has called us to. Something more than just What. As followers of Christ, if we make our focus the What instead of the Why, we lose sight of His sacrifice. Our What must flow out of our Why, instead of being the end-all. Where the What becomes that end-all, is where legalism is found. A feeling of satisfaction or great accomplishment over the What, without growth, understanding, or focus in the Why brings us to that same point that the Pharisees arrived at: a misplaced sense of being right with God based on actions alone.
We miss the goal when we feel as though we have pleased God by doing only the What, and neglected Why He had us do them in the first place. Paul hammered home on this too in 1 Corinthians, pounding away at this group of believers who believed themselves to be mature as they argued over the things they could or couldn’t do. Instead of telling them the What as they had asked, he turns them to the Why. In 1 Corinthians 13, “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” When we live pursuing Christ, our hearts are transformed. We are called to do the What not just for the sake of doing it, but because of its purpose. Doing the What is a testimony to the “hope that is within us.” The What is a reflection of the change that Christ has brought about in our hearts, not the change itself. The What will always be important, but until it flows out of the Why our deeds will be nothing more than that clanging cymbal. Empty Noise.