Ever since the birth of democracy, politicians and activists have been waging wars over laws. I’m not talking about literal war, although sometimes debates over laws have certainly resulted in literal wars (e.g., the American Revolution, the American Civil War). I’m talking about people exercising the freedom of speech through political debates, public demonstrations, print media and social media methods, etc., in order to get their opinions and agendas to become the law of the land.
Sometimes these wars stay civil. But sometimes they can get pretty nasty, with people attacking one another, undermining one another, exposing one another’s flaws, and employing all sorts of political manipulations and legislative loopholes in the process.
Regardless, much time and energy has been invested by all sides, from debating to condemning to shaming to protesting to recruiting to mocking, all for the purpose of passing (or fighting the passage of) laws.
Of course, in the arena of government law, there are many worthwhile battles to fight. The laws of our nation have drastic consequences. However, I want to suggest (to everybody, but to Christians in particular) that as we are fighting this war over laws, that we do not neglect a much more important war: the war over hearts.
Recently, we recognized Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Dr. King was a man who fought many wars over laws, but even he warned his contemporaries to not neglect the war over hearts.
In his sermon “On Being a Good Neighbor,” he said,
Court orders and federal enforcement agencies are of inestimable value in achieving desegregation, but desegregation is only a partial, though necessary, step toward the final goal that we seek to realize, genuine intergroup and interpersonal living. Desegregation will break down the legal barriers and bring men together physically, but something must touch the hearts and souls of men so that they will come together spiritually because it is natural and right. A vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws will bring an end to segregated public facilities that are barriers to a truly desegregated society, but it cannot bring an end to fears, prejudice, pride, and irrationality, which are the barriers to a truly integrated society. These dark and demonic responses will be removed only as men are possessed by the invisible, inner law that etches on their hearts the conviction that all men are brothers and that love is mankind’s most potent weapon for personal and social transformation. True integration will be achieved by true neighbors who are willingly obedient to unenforceable obligations.
In other words, desegregation laws can only go so far. Civil rights laws can only go so far. Laws can force a man to attend desegregated schools, but as Dr. King points out, they cannot rid a man of his “fears, prejudice, pride, and irrationality.” Laws cannot bring about “genuine intergroup and interpersonal living”, “personal and social transformation”, or “true integration.” Ultimately, these goals can only be accomplished through the changing of hearts.
I am afraid that many Christians today are trying too hard to make Christianity the law of the land without concern for the hearts of the people. In fact, sometimes we even resort to strategies that harden the hearts of our political opponents. So while we wage this war over laws, we are slowly losing the war over hearts.
Some may argue that when the wars over laws are won, then the laws will trickle down to the hearts of the people. But history reveals otherwise.
In the 1920s, Americans prohibited alcohol. But alcoholism remained. In the 1960s, Americans passed the Civil Rights Act. But racism remained. In the 1980s, Americans started fighting the War on Drugs. But substance abuse remained.
In all of these cases, people won the war over laws, but they couldn’t win the war over hearts.
And it isn’t just American history. It’s also biblical history.
There was a time when the people of God had actually won the war over laws: Old Covenant Israel. The laws of God had been made the official laws of the land. But even so, idolatry and greed and injustice were rampant. God even said of them, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught” (Isaiah 29:13).
The nation of Israel had God-ordained laws, God-ordained kings, and God-ordained prophets. However, what could be said of all humankind still applied to them: “They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:3).
So what did God do? He promised that something better than government laws would come.
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”Jeremiah 31:31-33
The Old Covenant had established God’s laws, but the problem was that these laws were not etched on human hearts. Therefore, God’s New Covenant promise was to write his laws, not on stone tablets or on the bills of Congress, but on our hearts.
And when Jesus the Initiator of the New Covenant arrived, he chose not to set up an alternative government, but he chose to set up a church. The church is God’s primary strategy.
Therefore, the church is more equipped to change the culture than the government is. All the government can do is change some laws. But the church can change hearts.
What are the implications for us today? I’m not discounting political engagement. Obviously we as Christians should still seek to influence government policies. Just as William Wilberforce’s faith drove him to seek the abolition of the slave trade in the early 1800s, we ought to allow our faith to drive us to influence the laws of the land. But I would say that this should be secondary to an even more important task—the task of influencing the hearts of the people.
So let us vigilantly fight the war over hearts. Let’s make disciples, love our neighbors, speak with gentleness, turn the other cheek, befriend the least of these, and humbly share our faith. Because if we stick to that agenda, we will change hearts, we will change the culture, and we will change the world.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article first appeared on Larry Lin’s personal blog.