The Law: Big L and Little l

Here are some random thoughts that have been on my mind lately:

In our sin-stained world, approval precedes acceptance. You and I must prove ourselves before others will accept us. We must do something in order to receive someone else’s love and approbation. Because of this, our world is an exhausting place to live. At times it can seem unbearable. We’re all parched souls searching for an oasis, some kind of relief from the barren desert that is our home, our world. Let’s put it in a sentence: Our world is long on law and short on grace.

Jesus summarizes what the law of God teaches in Luke 10: “Do this and live” (Luke 10:28). With these words, Jesus is simply restating God’s message to his people in the Old Testament: “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them” (Lev. 18:5, emphasis mine). In short, God demands obedience. What does this have to do with everyday life? Well, consider this thought from theologian Paul Zahl: “The principle of divine demand for perfection upon the human being is reflected concretely in the countless internal and external demands that human beings devise for themselves.”[1]

Zahl skillfully explains how the Law of God as outlined in Scripture expresses itself in concrete ways in our world. To do this, he makes a clever distinction: The Law, as revealed in Scripture, he labels “Big L”; the Law’s concrete expressions in our world, he labels “small l.” Here’s how he explains the latter: “Law with a small ‘l’ refers to an interior principle of demand or ought that seems universal in human nature. In this sense, law is any voice that makes us feel we must do something or be something to merit the approval of another . . . In daily living, law is an internalized principle of self-accusation. We might say that the innumerable laws we carry inside us are bastard children of the law.”[2]

Perhaps some examples will help. I recently heard a story about a man named Jorge. He had just moved to New York City to get a fresh start on life. He got a good job; he was making decent money; he had a nice apartment in the city. Then things took a turn for the worse. It turns out that the woman on the hit TV show The Bachelorette was “dating” a man who lived in his apartment complex. Once Jorge saw the inside of this guy’s apartment, he was immediately overcome with despair. Why? Because he compared his apartment with someone else’s apartment. In seeing this other man’s quarters, he discovered “the Law of What An Apartment Should Be,” to borrow a phrase from Ethan Richardson.[3]

Do you see what’s happened? Another person’s apartment has taken the form of the Law in his life. It has accused him and made him feel that something’s wrong with him. In turn, he feels a sense of “not enoughness.” He feels he must do something in order to have approval.

This type of thing can also happen with parents who burden their children with excessively high expectations. I heard of a father recently who is demanding that his son be an Olympic gold medalist. To paraphrase the father’s words to his son: “You have to win a gold medal. No one remembers the person who wins a silver medal.” Can you imagine what this child’s future is going to be like? His father is taking on a law-like expression in his life. How so? Remember: The law is an accusing standard of performance.

One of the most beautiful things to experience in this world is unconditional acceptance. The joy and exuberance of being able to be yourself, of having at least one other person in this world truly know who you are, to know all of your flaws, imperfections, and sins and still love you. This is a clear embodiment of God’s love. Walker Percy was right after all: “We love those who know the worst of us and don’t turn their faces away.”[4]

This is what Jesus does for us. He loves us, not some caricature of us. I look at it this way: Because Jesus approves of me, I don’t need anyone else to approve of me. Therefore, when I begin to sense that someone is attempting to make me prove myself to them before they will accept me, I make a beeline to the gospel. I have to remind myself that I don’t need anyone else’s approval. I don’t have to prove myself to anyone. You don’t have to prove yourself to anyone.



[1] Paul F. M. Zahl, Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 28.

[2] Paul F. M. Zahl, Who Will Deliver Us?: The Present Power of the Death of Christ (NY: Seabury, 1983), 6.

[3] Ethan Richardson, This American Gospel: Public Radio Parables & the Grace of God (Charlottesville: Mockingbird Ministries, 2012), 13.

[4] Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins (NY: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1971), 106.


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