We just finished “At the Movies” (an idea stolen from Craig Groeschel). It’s a series where we explore the spiritual themes of popular films. This year my hands-down favorite was The Lego Movie. It’s creatively written, full of humorous pop-culture references and surprisingly deep. Oh, and there’s also the part about the prophecy of “the special.” A seemingly ordinary guy who rises from humble beginnings to save the world through an act of selfless sacrifice. As obvious as that one was, I didn’t go there.
I talked instead about legalism, freedom and the balance of truth and grace. Blame it on my strict religious upbringing or my rule-keeping denominational background but that’s what I saw in the movie. Emmet’s escape from Bricksburg was an escape from legalism and he did the same way many of us did. Kicking and screaming while crying “I can’t do this! It’s against the instructions!”
I couldn’t help seeing the parallels with legalistic faith. Emmett is an ordinary guy living in an ordinary world where “everything is awesome” as long as you carefully follow all the instructions. Don’t deviate. Don’t think for yourself. Just follow the rules. All of them. And if you dare question the instructions or worse, interpret them differently, you’ll answer to Lord Pastor and his Deacons (otherwise known as President Business and Bad Cop).
Thanks to a friend, Emmet is able to escape the rule-keeping obsessed world of Bricksburg and enter another reality that he never knew existed (even though it had existed right beside him all along). President Business had constructed walls to keep the worlds separate. Freedom was just on the other side but Emmet didn’t even know about the other side. Not entirely different from the way I felt when I first discovered grace. It had been there all along, just on the other side of the walls we had constructed to conceal it. Thanks to some friends, I was finally able to peer over the wall and my eyes were opened.
Kind of like Paul on the Damascus Road. All he knew was legalism. It was the world in which he lived. But when he encountered Jesus, his eyes were opened to the reality of grace. It changed his life forever. And mine. His stuff in Philippians 3 about discovering grace and leaving behind his “former way of life” (referring to his religion more than his sin) is powerful. And his letter to the Galatians feels like was written directly to me. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (5:1) and “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love” (5:6) are still music to my once-legalistic ears.
But they also come with a word of caution. A few sentences later in v. 13 Paul speaks of not abusing our freedom. He urges us not to use our freedom “to indulge in the sinful nature; rather serve one another in love.” Grace doesn’t mean we toss out all the instructions and do whatever we want. Far from it. Grace, properly understood, leads us to a deeper appreciation of the instructions and a willingness to follow them for the right reasons. Not out of obligation and guilt but out of love for others.
That’s one of the surprise twists in The Lego Movie. You think it’s going to be this message about how the instructions are bunk and the only way to live is to ignore the rules and do what you please. It doesn’t say that at all. In fact, it pushes against that in a funny way. Emmett and his friends end up in a world called Cloud Coo-Coo Land. Here there are no rules, no consistency and everyone is free to do whatever they want. Turns out this approach is no more effective than legalism and the message of the movie becomes one of balance. Emmet is finally free from the tyranny of instructions but, in the end, his plan to save the world involves following the instructions.
I found this part of the movie to be most interesting and worth a few discussions with church leaders. We have a tendency to swing the pendulum too far in one direction or other. Some churches are so fearful of becoming Cloud Coo-Coo Land they remain entrenched in Bricksburg where nothing ever changes and faith is stifled. Others are so anxious to run away from Bricksburg they become Cloud Coo-Coo Land where rules don’t exist and anything goes. Neither is a great option. Neither is a Biblical option.
The Scriptures call for balance. Speak the truth…but always in love (Eph 4:15). Embrace grace…but not as an excuse to sin (Rom 6:1). Experience freedom…but for the purpose of serving others rather than indulging your own selfish desires (Gal 5:13). Repeatedly, Paul calls for balance between grace and truth, rules and freedom, control and chaos. He sometimes leans more on one or the other depending on the message his audience needs to hear. To Jewish Christians demanding that Gentiles must observe the Law of Moses he speaks of grace and freedom. To Gentile Christians continuing to practice pagan rituals and immorality he speaks of truth and obedience.
We need both. We need balance. We need obedience to the instructions. And we need freedom from the impossible task of following them all perfectly. The answer lies somewhere between Bricksburg and Cloud Coo-Coo Land. Churches that figure this out are churches where the kingdom flourishes. Places where faith is not choked out by an insurmountable list of rules but where grace reigns in a way that motivates more love, more service and more faithfulness.
It ain’t an easy thing to balance, but when it does, it’s a beautiful thing to see.