James: Have-to or Get-to

What do you get to do, and what do you have to do?

Have you ever made a list of the things you do in a day or week, big and small, and sorted them out between the things you get to do and the things you have to do? The guys who started Life is Good consider “get to” magic words – if you frame whatever is before you as something you “get to do,” no matter what it is, even unpleasant tasks can take on a positive energy. But I think, more than just as a Jedi mind-trick, the get-to/have-to dichotomy is a helpful tool to discern where our hearts are.

People who have worked closely with me have probably heard me recommend something like this diagnostic exercise to sort out what their strengths are – the work activities that they love – from their weaknesses – the parts of work that suck a little bit of their soul away. The idea is, figure out how to do more of the strengths and less of the weaknesses.

But outside of work, I think the get-to/have-to split helps sort out who you really love. There are plenty of things in my life – from changing diapers to taking care of sick people to cleaning, well, anything to delivering special-order coffee to shopping – that, were they things I did for strangers, would weaken me like nobody’s business. You would need to pay me, a lot, to do those things. And yet I actually look forward to the opportunity to do those things when they are for someone I love. Don’t get me wrong; my “get-to” list is heavy on things that are entirely self-serving. But on those thankfully rare occasions when April is sick and I get to take care of her, even though I would rather her not be sick, I’m sort of happy to have the chance to tend to her needs. (Because usually, it’s the only time she slows down enough to catch up to her.)

So let’s talk about James and what he says about the law. This was, you could say, the trigger for Luther and the reformers to put James’ letter on the back shelf. While Paul frames observance to the Jewish law as an obsolete barrier for Gentile believers that needed to be torn down, James, writing to Jewish Christians, speaks of the law as still a thing, as the kids say. As modern Christians, we tend to have baked into us the Pauline view, and we think of the law as a bunch of obscure religious restrictions. Very much have-tos, not get-tos.

But look closely. When James talks about the law, here’s what he says: 

  • In 1:25, James talks about the “perfect law” as “the law of liberty” in the context of doing and not just hearing the word (for the Catholics, St. John Paul II referred to this paradox of law and freedom a lot). He follows that by explaining “I any think they are religious…Religion that is pure and undefined before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
  • In 2:8-13, he references the “royal law” within the context of showing favoritism to the rich, but the law he references is the Golden Rule: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He goes on to make a point about how obeying this rule, like obeying the Ten Commandments, is not a buffet; you can’t say “well, yeah, I killed that guy, but I didn’t commit adultery, so I’m good.” And he references the “law of liberty” again, this time connecting it to the triumph of mercy over judgment.
  • In 4:11-13, James says not to talk trash about fellow believers. (My translation. Also a message we should maybe emphasize a little more than we do.) He says “whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks against the law and judges the law,” and you can’t be a doer of a law what you’re too busy judging.

So James does talk about the law favorably, in ways that don’t show up in other parts of the gospel. But the law he refers to isn’t the stereotype list of esoteric rules we think of, like the tax code or NCAA regulations. It’s “Love your neighbor. Take care of people who need it. Don’t be judgy.”

And it’s a law of liberty. The way I read this, the law James writes about isn’t’ the have-to law of a transactional god, for whom, if we do x, y and z, we’ll get some reward. It’s the get-to law of bringing back your spouse’s complicated coffee order even when she didn’t ask you to. It may not be easy and many not be something you’d do just for kicks, but it’s something you’d do for love in a heartbeat. That’s the relationship God wants with all of us. One in which we grow our circle for whom have-tos become get-tos.

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