Leviticus isn’t my favorite book of the Bible. Big surprise, right? But I read it again a month or so ago, and was surprised by how it affected me this time.
I think when I’ve read it in the past, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to sort through which laws apply to me and which ones don’t. (e.g. I can wear polyester-cotton blends, right? [See 19:19.] It’s just stuff like lying and stealing that’s not-okay today, right Lord? [See 19:11.])
This time as I read, I tried to think about what it would be like to be an Israelite living in the time when there was no doubt about it: every law in Leviticus had to be followed or else there was a price to pay (usually by a lamb or goat or bull, but sometimes by the sinner him- or herself to the tune of excommunication or execution).
It wasn’t just wearing blended fibers that worried me. It was also stuff like eating fat (3:17), failing to testify against wrong-doing I’d witnessed (5:1), touching an unclean animal (5:2), letting my hair go (10:6), not standing in the presence of the elderly (19:32), and working on the Sabbath (23:3). I would read the laws and think, “Oh dear, I’m guilty of that one. And that one. And that one, too. Gosh, I would need a large herd of goats to keep up with all the sinning I’m doing!” And that was just Leviticus! When I added in all the commands from the New Testament (e.g. forgive as I’ve been forgiven, love my enemies, give to everyone who asks, turn the other cheek, only speak words that build up, etc. etc.) I realized that I was in really big trouble.
By reading Leviticus this time with a “no excuses” approach, I saw very clearly how far short I fall of God’s righteous standards. If the point of Leviticus is to establish God’s holiness and my sin, it does a good job of it.
Fortunately for me, I have also been studying Romans this year. I’m only up to chapter 5, but my main takeaway so far is, “Yup, you’re a sinner. And the sooner you own up to that and stop trying to justify or excuse yourself, the sooner you can receive God’s mercy and kindness.”
I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve been a Christian all of my adult life. I know that I’m a sinner, and I know that apart from God’s mercy and Jesus’ sacrificial death on my behalf, I have no hope. That’s the very essence of salvation. There’s nothing new there.
I guess the “news” is what God is showing me about how to respond to my sin. In these decades of walking with God, I still struggle with sin. I want to be further along than I am. Yes, I know God has forgiven me. I know my eternal destiny is secure. But I feel like I ought to have made more progress by now. And when I see that I haven’t, I have this nasty habit of shaming and condemning myself. But God is teaching me a different way, and it involves prayer.
Before when I would read all the ways I had fallen short, I’d feel discouraged and defeated. I’d wonder when I’d ever get it right—as if that were the goal. But now I’m finally starting to understand that the goal isn’t really “getting it right.” The goal is trusting in God’s mercy, in Jesus’ forgiveness, and in the Holy Spirit’s help.
So now when Scripture convicts me, I am starting to respond with hopeful prayers instead of despair. For instance, when I don’t love as I should, I can pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
When words blurt out of my mouth that shouldn’t even be thought, let alone spoken, I can pray “Create in me a clean heart, oh God!”
When I fret instead of resting in God, I can pray, “Open my heart to trust in Your love.”
And when I read Leviticus with its myriad ways to mess up, I can pray, “Thank You God for rescuing me from the law of sin and death!”
My focus is shifting from me the sinner to God, my Savior, Helper, and Friend. And that is a welcome shift indeed!