the letter and the spirit of the law

At my office, we have a no smoking policy. Not only is it prohibited in all of our buildings, but it is against the rules to smoke anywhere on the property. While this is a pretty extreme rule, I think it’s a great one. Smoking is objectively not good for you, and to have policies that limit it makes sense to me.

But over the last couple of weeks, I've noticed something interesting.

At any given time of the workday, there are people standing in a grassy area just past the boundary of our property. What are they doing? You guessed it, they’re smoking. It’s a strange site, to see men and women in business casual standing around in a field 100 yards from the building. I imagine that it must be a kind of ritual for them at this point; lock your computer, leave your desk, walk across our significantly large parking lot, and light up for a few minutes. For some, I’m sure it’s a communal experience; I often see the same people talking together as they smoke. Others seem to be on a mission, get their hit of nicotine and get back to work.

Now, there is no question that these people are adhering to my company’s policy. They are certainly obeying the letter of the law by not smoking on our property. They have satisfied the rule’s demands by moving just past the border. But is that why the rule is there? Was this mandate put in place in hopes that smokers would be driven into a field on the other side of the parking lot? Were the creators of this rule hoping to isolate or suppress this group?

Of course not. This rule was made to help people live healthier lives. This policy is just one of many initiatives my company has made to encourage the health of its employees. You could say it this way: these rules were given with concern, not with criticism. Or another way: the spirit of the law is that they may be more free, not more isolated.

Now let’s not be too quick to judge these people, these smokers on the border, because I think you and I do this too. We all live by the letter of the law in some ways. We all tend to stand on the border of right and wrong.

Take cheating as an example. In college, usually we were allowed a 1 page formula sheet to use on exams. Often times this wasn't enough. So many people, sometimes myself included, would load extra formulas and information into our calculators.

It was often justified with statements like, “well he never said we couldn't” or “they can’t really expect us to memorize all this, it’s their fault for assigning us so much” or “there’s no way I could pass if I don’t.” While all those things were true, we all knew that we were not keeping in the spirit of the law. Maybe we didn't technically cross the line, but we were as close to it as we could possibly be.


Many people, Christians especially, live life on the border. Inch up as close to “the line” as possible, and as long as you don’t cross it, you’re fine. The letter of the law, the literal interpretation, is what is most important. Maybe you've heard or said one of these:

“I never actually broke the rules”
“It’s not technically wrong”
“It wasn't really cheating”
“We were on a break!”

All of these statements reflect a mentality of walking on the border. A person saying these things is trying to show that they are upholding the letter of the law, despite how close they may be to breaking it.

But I think when we live like this we are missing the point.

Jesus actually teaches something completely different in Matthew 5:

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all…Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”

Jesus takes the old commandments, the rules the Jews held so dear, and takes them further. He shifts the emphasis from the letter of the law to the spirit of the law. Rather than focus on the action, Jesus seems more concerned with the condition of the heart. Not the murder but the anger behind it. Not the adultery but the lust behind it. Not the oaths but about integrity. Here is what I takeaway from that: Following Christ is about more than finding the boundaries of morality and not crossing them. It is about the condition of your heart.

When you live your life on the border, you live in constant fear of crossing it. ‘Have I gone too far.’ ‘Was that a sin or not?’ That is not the life the creator intended for you.

Paul echos Jesus’s teachings in at least two places I can think of.

First in 1 Corinthians 6:

Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.

And again in 2 Timothy 2:

Now flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.

What is Paul saying here? What does it mean to flee from sin? Does it mean get as near as you want to sin as long as you don’t cross the line? No. It means go the other direction. Get as far away from it as possible. Do not stand on the border. Paul is saying that to follow Christ is to move in the opposite direction of sin, to pursue better things. The invitation of Christianity is to glorify God, not merely satiate him by following some moral code.

Further Up and Further In!

Understanding these verses has been transformative in my life. Before I understood this, I would try to walk the line, I would inevitably cross that line, and then I’d feel terrible.

Now, for me, it is less about a line and more about a direction. I now try to answer this question: would ______ action be sending me in the best direction? Would watching this, drinking that, going there be sending me in the best direction?

This is not easy, and I fail in a lot of ways, but my goal now is not to pay lip service to a set of rules, but instead to understand the heart of the rule giver. Why? Because as Christians we’re not called to live on the border, we’re called to move toward the center.

This reminds me of the C.S. Lewis book ‘The Last Battle.’

As the characters in the story experience the death of their world, they are brought through a door into a new, better world. As darkness falls on Narnia they are awakened to a more real, more lush, more exciting world. “Further up, and further in!” they cry with joy as they move further and further into this new country. As they do so, they necessarily leave their old world behind.

But one group of people doesn't buy in. They stand in the new world with their ears pressed against the door. They cling to the old, dying world. They remain on the border, and miss out on the beauty and joy of the new creation.

As believers we are called to be like the first group. We are meant to move further up and further in each and every day. Further into grace, further into the life God wants for us and Christ died to give us. While borders and boundaries (the letter of the law) can be useful, the invitation is to move toward the interior (the spirit of the law).

image credit

So back to the smokers. Rather than following the letter of the law and smoking in a field, wouldn't it be better for them to lean into the spirit of the law and live the healthy life my company wants for them? It seems to me that it’s not the rule itself that is stifling, but their resistance to the rule. The spirit, the intent of the rule actually leads to a better life.

In the same way, Christian, if you are just trying to follow the letter of the law; if you are just trying to walk on the border of right and wrong, it’s gonna suck. You will probably feel isolated, you may feel restricted, boxed in, and exhausted. Maybe you feel that way now. Perhaps you have thought being a Christian means “do this not that.”

What if, instead, we were to focus on the spirit of law? Instead of focusing on boundaries, we focus on a direction.

So what does that look like? Are you walking the border in some area of your life? What would it mean for us to flee from sin?

I think a good place to start is asking these questions: What direction am I moving in? Am I moving toward the old dying world, or toward the new creation…

Thanks for reading this week. If you liked it, please pass it on! Check out some of my other posts below, and be sure to come back next week for something new!


more: Apartment Tour — Ring — Vapor — White Space — Regret — Community

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