Subtraction by addition

Addition by subtraction … it’s the concept that removing something from an environment actually adds to the quality of the environment. At times in my businesses, I’ve used that notion to explain the benefit of removing “bad apples” from the business … people who don’t fit the culture of the company, the standard of deportment, etc. Similar to the work world, I’d argue that many areas of life can operate in this manner. All sorts of stuff can apply … lately I’ve been really trying to get a lot more workout time to fit in my schedule with the goal to lose 20 pounds. Clearly, addition by subtraction … my subtraction of weight will increase my overall health, of course, and will increase the pants I can wear without feeling like a sneeze will bust me out of them in an abrupt, adverse way. People who break unhealthy habits like drug abuse, smoking, etc., would also be able to attest to the “addition by subtraction” nature of subtracting the bad habit, and enjoying the nearly instantaneous addition of healthier, longer life. As you would imagine, I could go on and on. Addition by subtraction, while sometimes cheeky, is a relatively universally relevant concept.

Except when it comes to God’s Word. I’ll explain …

In my reading the past two weeks (I missed a week of writing for the first time in a while … ugh!), which has continued in the Gospel of Matthew (over the past couple weeks from Matthew 14 – 21), I came across a rather direct, easy-to-understand admonition from Jesus to the leading religious rulers of the day. And, of course, to us …

In Matthew 15, we see one of the many times when the Pharisees, the religious elite of the day, confronted Jesus to try to trick him into admitting breaking the Jewish law … verses 1 – 9 help us frame the topic:

Some Pharisees and teachers of religious law now arrived from Jerusalem to see Jesus. They asked him, “Why do your disciples disobey our age-old tradition? For they ignore our tradition of ceremonial hand washing before they eat.” Jesus replied, “And why do you, by your traditions, violate the direct commandments of God? For instance, God says, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ In this way, you say they don’t need to honor their parents. And so you cancel the word of God for the sake of your own tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’

As we can imagine, there are multiple applications we can draw from this, but I tend (being a simpleton) to lean on what might often seem like the simplest. The Pharisees are rebuking Jesus and His disciples for not following the “age-old” traditions that the Jews practiced. Jesus essentially redirects their question to the heart … both the heart of the issue as well as the heart of the purveyor of the question or challenge. That is, He essentially points out that tradition, when it conflicts with God’s Word and the intentionality of God’s Word, is useless … and often also destructive. That is, tradition can often create a situation of “subtraction by addition.”

In their day, the Pharisees were certainly incredibly devout people. They were driven to memorize over 600 individual commandments and prohibitions from the Jewish tradition, laws that initially came from the scriptures, but that gradually grew to ways the Pharisees exploited others in their culture. So, while the origination of their beliefs came from God’s Word and His commandments, they gradually grew into extra-Biblical traditions, interpretations, and sometimes insidious abuses. Tradition often adds to the truth of God’s Word, and in that sense can become subtraction by addition.

Let me be clear … I believe the entirety of God’s Word as expressed in the Bible is 100 percent true. I believe the Bible is a love story, written by God through ordinary people, directed to all humanity. At a later time, I’ll delve into why I believe that is true. But insofar as the Bible is 100 percent true, it is self-sufficient. It needs nothing else to substantiate or validate it. God wrote it and intended for it to be complete. Tradition, or rules, guidelines, interpretations, supplementations, and the like, detract from the Bible’s sufficiency and precision. That’s because they are inherently human contrivances. Since we humans are fundamentally sinful and flawed, then any such contrivances are as well.   Hence, subtraction happens by addition.

It’s not that ALL tradition is wrong, evil or deleterious. But, we have to align the tradition to the truth … the truth of God’s word. Suffice it to say, many things we celebrate and do are outside the Bible. And, I think we have to evaluate them and hold them in the proper context … loosely … and to the extent there is any departure from or contradiction with God’s Word, we should abandon the tradition. The reason is similar to what Jesus pointed out to the Pharisees.

When we create our own traditions or set our own standards, in our humanness it’s almost unavoidable that our personal ownership of them tends to raise them to a higher standard than even God’s Word. We also tend to create them to begin with as a way to prop ourselves up in our own esteem … to allow us a means of knowing that we’re being more pious or holy than others, and hence in a false sense we’re adhering to a rules-driven, relativistic measures of qualification for heaven. In other words, if we can tell we’re better than others, chance are that we have a higher than likely chance of reaching heaven. One rather obvious problem with this is that, as the Bible aptly points out, that’s not how heaven works. The other problem with this is that it takes us away from the truth and draws us away from fellowship with God (subtraction by addition) because we’re too busy worshipping ourselves and our tradition to worship God.

This also conveys a diminution of our heart’s condition in terms of its devotion to God. As Jesus points out, the increase in the traditions and practices of the Pharisees ultimate led to and revealed a flaw in their heartfelt surrender to God’s standards. God would rather we live in love toward Him and others, rather than live in obedience to a bunch of manmade rules and laws. We wind up judging others rather than loving them, repelling them rather than showing them the blessing of a life of surrender to God. The addition of tradition causes subtraction in our attraction.

So … how about you and me? Are there traditions, practices, interpretations that are in our way?   That are blocking us from true and complete fellowship with God? From loving others the way God wants us to rather than judging others according to our own made-up standard? If so, we are living a subtraction by addition life … not as God intended. The great thing is there is an antidote to the problem … addition by subtraction. Remove the tradition, increase the truth. God’s Word is all we need … all we’ll ever need. Let’s not seek anything over and above it. After all, nothing is.

Sola scriptura (by Scripture alone),



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