Principles Are Better Than Laws – Part 5

So far in this series I’ve been thinking about God’s laws, that is, the way God designed things to work properly. This includes the best behavior for us to achieve abundant life as he originally intended it to be when he invented life and existence.

I’m thinking about this, because I’ve developed more and more of a sense that God actually intended for us to have a magnificent life on earth as his image bearers, even going so far as to send his Son to forgive us for our failure to have such a life. This is another way of saying what we are used to hearing: All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Why did we choose to fall short (first Adam, and then the rest of us)? That’s a good question, but at least part of the answer is confusion. God is not the author of confusion, but satan is, ergo, we are confused. We are so confused that we think obeying God is about earning his favor so he will bless us. If that is true it is a primitive way of putting it, and one which leads to failure.

If you think that God has given us rules to follow so that we can earn his blessing, then you will be a legalist.  You will assume you ought to follow those rules, but you will constantly battle the desires to do something else instead, and you will constantly feel guilty.  Driven by guilt, you will obey the rules sometimes, leading to pride, and disobey them other times, leading to shame.  

But there is a better way to think about it. This is why I say principles are better than laws. God’s laws are nothing less than principles for living according to the objective reality that he has caused the world to be subject to. God’s rules are simply the principles of reality by which we function best in this world. They are the means whereby we will experience life as abundant. They are the means whereby we will achieve the most ethical success possible and the greatest joy possible. They are the means whereby we can achieve something closer to Jesus’ standard, “Your righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees” (Mt 5:20), and “you must be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).

God has given us grace in that he sent his Son to take our sin, and give us his righteousness, but most people fail to make use of that righteousness to achieve joy and the glory of God (the same glory that we had previously fallen short of).  

In an earlier post I said that being a Christian is its own reward. This is what I meant. But because we fail to see God’s ways as the honest and true ways to live in creation for the greatest life possible, we fail. We don’t have to.

In part 4 of this series I was looking at the first commandment as the first principle.  I wrote about what God does not mean when he tells us to have no other gods before him.  Now, I want to consider what it DOES mean.  I can be brief.  

When God gives the law that he is to be our only God and the most important thing in our lives, he is saying that he is the source of all truth and goodness. Everything that is true emanates from him, from his nature. All the other laws, or principles, flow from who and what he is. He is love, he is truth, he is goodness, and he is all the fruit of the Spirit. To bow down to God is to bow down to reality, to the way things are, and, of course, to the author of all of it.

To bow down to any other is to put something before God. As a person, he deserves our highest praise and allegiance because he is truly the highest and greatest. But it also means putting his ways above all other philosophies, and his morals, including the rest of the commandments, above all other systems of morality or philosophy. The rest of the posts in this series will continue to look at several of those, but for now, we start with the first and best, to love and honor the first and best, God, as the first and best. We honor God and all his ways. Everything else is a derivative of that.

Principles are Better Than Laws Part 4

In the first three posts in this series, I wrote that God has given us laws. He gives us laws so that we can obey them and live. Because God is not a tyrant, but a wise creator who wants to be our Father, we are at our best when we see his ways not just as laws, but as principles.

We considered the greatest commandment to love the Lord with all our heart…and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  As a principle this works very well, and not only will lead to good relationships, but will impact our own being.  When we follow this, we become like Jesus, more loving, more peaceful, and more gracious, and when we love God with our whole heart, we don’t have to think about all the little sins we don’t want to commit.  The whole law is summed up in this.  Live the great commandment on principle and your life will change.  

Then we began thinking about the ten commandments as ten principles (not discarding the fact that they are commands to follow). “You shall have no other Gods before me” is the first one, and perhaps the most important. But I said in part three that this is hard to understand. Many Christians enjoy something and then feel guilty about it. They’ve been taught that to really love something makes it an idol. They have been taught that they should only love God.

This is false.  

At times like this, I think about God as he has revealed himself to me, as my Father.  I have five children.  They all love me.  I can tell.  They also love other things and people.  Three of my children love to draw and are amazing at it.  One of them loves animals and spends every waking moment studying, training, and caring for animals.  Another loves to do gymnastics.  He doesn’t do it on a team.  He watches YouTube videos and learns how to do various flips in the backyard on a mat.  Of course, they also love video games, certain TV shows, and playing games with mom and dad.  They have sports they love, friends they love, all kinds of things they love.  

I have never gotten worried that they would love any of these things more than me. I have never seen them take some of their love from me to give it to their hobby or their mom, or gramma, who they also love a lot. Love doesn’t work that way. Have you ever seen a dad who would get made about their children loving someone or something with their whole heart? If you have, you have seen an insecure and sinful dad who is doing great harm to his kids. I know that this happens, but it is not right.

Do you think God is insecure? God is not insecure. When the Bible says he is a jealous God, it is not like when you and I get jealous. It does not mean that he doesn’t want us to enjoy any of the good gifts of creation that he has given us, or the skills and talents with which he has endowed us. It means that if we actually worship idols, he is jealous. If we do worship idols, it is because we believe a lie that the idol will do for us what our Father in heaven can do. And it cannot. Part of God’s displeasure is that we are making a first thing out of something that is not a first thing. God is the first thing, and if he is not put first in our hearts, things will fall apart. Idols don’t deliver.

Back to our fatherhood example:  If one of my kids came home with another man and said, “This guy is going to be my dad now.  Your services are no longer needed.  I’m going to listen to him and let him raise me.  You guys have different opinions, and I like his better.  He lets me do whatever I want.”  How I would feel is similar to how God feels about our idolatry.  It is just not right.  I would be “jealous” and do something about it.  

But on the other hand, if my son brought a man in who had been a positive influence on his life, saying, “I really love this guy.  He has taught me a lot, dad.  I want you to meet him.”  I’d be delighted.  I’d thank God for another good and godly influence on my son.  If he were not a godly influence, I would not be jealous, only concerned, and I would deal with it.  I would seek to correct the situation.  

But for my kids to love something, especially if it is something that I gave them, makes me extremely happy and does not diminish their love for me.  

What do you enjoy?  What activity causes you to thank God for it?  Consider it a gift that leads your heart to the giver.  

Now that we have considered what the first of the ten commandments is not saying, in part 5 will we consider it as a principle, and seek to discover what it is saying.

Principles are Better Than Laws Part 3

God has given us laws.  In part one of this series I offered that seeing his laws as principles can help us see them not just as rules to make God happy with us, but also keys to God’s hope and plan for us as his people.  In part two I reconsidered the Great Commandment to love God with all our heart, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  These two easily lend themselves to being principles to live by.  What Christian would not consider love for God and others a principle of life?

Today I want to start considering the Ten Commandments in the same light.  I think this is slightly more difficult than the Great Commandment, but I also think that understanding them this way can be more profound and helpful.  Let’s start at the top.  

Commandment One

“You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:3 ESV).

If the Great Commandment is the greatest law, then the first commandment is the law with the greatest consequences for failure to obey. Loving the Lord with all your heart is hard to measure, but bowing down to false Gods is easy to measure, the more literally you take it. Today, much is said and written about idols in our hearts and about loving something else more than God. But the first thing God had in mind with this is the propensity of ancient people, even the Jews, to worship whatever local god had a following. Though God was explicit in his command against the practice, the Jews repeatedly fell into idol worship. This led to some of their most severe consequences. Of course, the law still stands for Christians (1 Jn 5:21).

As a principle, this works pretty well.  In all that you do, put God first.  The reality is that God is first.  He created all things, and he created the way things work.  Putting him first not only gives him the glory and honor that is appropriate to him, but it also lines up everything else in your life.  

The first and most practical way to apply this principle is to start your day acknowledging God, reading his Word, worshipping him and praying. Five minutes, ten minutes, or an hour will do.  Doing it first is a way to put him first in your heart.  Some people will fail to do this on the grounds that they are not quite awake yet, and giving their first would violate a desire to give him their best.  Maybe the point is valid, but how about five minutes first, and fifty-five minutes of best later in the day when you are in your prime?

Now, here’s a problem right now in the Church.  To most Christians, loving God above all else and having no idols means loving only God.  There is one word behind this notion.  I’ll tell you what it is in a minute.  But let me rephrase it.  

To love God, according to many, and to keep the first commandment to have no idols, is to love only God.

If they love anything else, they feel anxious and do one of two things, they give up the thing they love, or they find a way to rationalize it, usually by doing some sort of penance.  

Let’s take an example: Alex loves to play the piano.  He finds that he gets a great amount of joy from tackling a hard piece, struggling to master it, and then playing well enough to work on the many nuances of musicality that really bring him joy.  He revels in the music itself, having found masters to play.  And don’t get him started on the Steinway that his grandmother left him.  It’s a beautiful instrument, and he still cannot get over the fact that it is his.  He enjoys playing for the entertainment of others, but that is a distant secondary to the sheer joy of making music. 

Alex is a Christian. He feels anxious in church when the pastor says, “If you really love something, or find a lot of joy in it, you need to consider that it is an idol.” Alex wonders if his piano hobby is an idol. Maybe he should join the worship team at church to justify his talent, but the fact is, he doesn’t really know much about playing from chord charts the way the band at church does. He’s willing to try. Maybe that would assuage the feeling that has been rising every time he hears the pastor speak on the subject.

And what is that feeling?  It is anxiety.  And where does it come from?  That one word I promised to share above:  Guilt. 

What is Alex to do? Driven by this guilt he has only two choices. The first is give it up. He can sell his piano and give the money to the church. He could play in the praise band, but he runs the risk of enjoying that too. That’s just too risky. He’s better off having nothing to do with music at all.

This would be a tragedy. What about a second possibility? He could continue to play, but ratchet up his spiritual disciplines. For every hour he plays, he will read his Bible and pray. This will be hard, but hopefully he will become somewhat unhappy. If he becomes unhappy, then he can feel much better. Surely his lack of joy is proof that he doesn’t love anything more than God. He has made his life as hard as possible. Yes, he still plays, but he doesn’t really like it that much anymore, maybe he’ll give it up now anyway.

Obviously, the second solution is just as wrong as the first.  God gave this command to the people who would build idols and then call them their god.  They would offer sacrifices, even human sacrifices to these gods, and beg them for a good harvest or a fertile wife.  It was spiritual adultery.  

This is not what Alex was doing with his piano.  He loves God and thanks him every day for his talent, his grandmother’s piano, and the joy of music.  But still, the pastor said…

The pastor is wrong. I’ll tell you why in the next article, part 4.

Principles are Better Than Laws Part 2

In part 1 of this post, I said that God has given us laws to obey, and I said that I wanted to also consider these as principles for living the life he originally designed for us. In this part I’d like to start looking at some of his laws, and consider them as also principles. I’ll start with the best. I know it is the best, because Jesus said so:

34 But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Mat 22:34-40).

Love the Lord with all Your Heart and with all Your Soul

I am not sure how you would make a distinction between heart and soul in this context.  Jesus may have meant for there to be one, but I don’t find any teaching on the subject biblically conclusive enough to make a big deal out of.  If heart and soul are different, they at least overlap. I’m going to take them together.  

The greatest law is to love God, totally and completely. Jesus knew that all the other laws were just specific ways to love God. He knew that if a man or woman cultivated a love for God, they would not disobey him. To refuse to obey God is to prove that you don’t love him as the real him. To love God as he is, is to know that he would have us obey. Obedience is his “love language.”

Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15). So here is the principle: We show love to God by seeking what he wants us to do. What parent would not want his or her children to obey them because they love them, trust them, and want to show it. They know that their parents are teaching them right, and that listening to them is best for them. They don’t obey grudgingly, but affectionately.

Another way to look at this is to see it as a fact that when we worship him, that is, spend time expressing love to him—alone and corporately, we are loving him. When we do that, we grow. We are strengthened. We are grounded in his presence and are more fully ourselves, more fully alive. This is our joy. This “principle” of loving God above all things is the path of life. Make worship your principle. Worship him by engaging in singing to him, but also by the way you live your life unto him, doing all things for the glory of God. This is a law and a rock-solid principle for living.

And With all Your Mind

The law to love God with your mind, all of your mind, is also the principle that you should engage in the act of thinking. Philippians 4:8 says we are to “think on” certain things if we would be transformed. To be human, an image-bearer of God, is to be required to think. If you don’t decide what to think about, then the world will decide for you.

First make the decision to think, then decide on what to think about. Paul suggests, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise…” Engaging our minds for love of God is a powerful principle for transformation and for walking in the truth that sets us free.

I like to read about whatever I’m obsessed with. When I was a new Christian, I read everything I could get my hands on about the God of the Bible. Even though some of those books weren’t even good, the fact that I was engaged in thinking about God and about “whatever is true…” caused rapid early growth in me. Go all in with your life, and with your heart, soul and mind. By this “principle” God will guide you through a life like you could not have imagined for yourself.

Next week in part three I’ll move on to “and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Principles are Better than Laws, Part 1

We’re Christians.  We have laws.  We have the Ten Commandments.  They are not called The Ten Principles.  Still…

Principles are better than laws, even when our principles happen to be laws.  

The nice thing about laws is that they don’t require thinking.  We just have to be afraid of the law giver, and voila, order.  But if you know anything about Christianity, then you know that laws don’t have power to save.  

3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Ro 8:3-4).

The law cannot save us because our “flesh is weak.” This means that we may know we are supposed to do something, or not do something, but when we try to obey that law, we fail time and again. We assume that we cannot help it. Isn’t that why Jesus had to die? Because we are so bad at not sinning?

Well, yes, it is. But there is more. Jesus fulfilled the “righteous requirement of the law,” for us who, “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Now what does that mean? I’d like to propose that one effect of walking according to the Spirit is that it makes all our laws into principles. In our sin, the “thou shalt nots, and thou shalts” seem like hard restrictions, keeping us from having any fun in life. But in the Spirit, sin having been “dealt with” by Christ, we are able to see the laws of God as a path to true personhood.

Our destiny is eternity with God that began at our salvation.  We will never lose our free will, but we will one day learn to always choose God of our own joyful volition.  We will always seek his kingdom and his righteousness, because we will have learned that it is the only way to be.  It is the only path to joy, and to pleasures evermore in and under Christ.  It is the only way to truly enjoy the good gifts of God without putting them above him.  

In my next posts, I’ll take the Great Commandment and the Ten Commandments and see if they also work as the Great Principle and the Ten Principles.