The Christian Life

Principles are Better than Laws Part 12 Don’t Take People’s Stuff

Besides part ten, “thou shalt not murder,” I’ve most been looking forward to this post. When I write anything, often my goal is to flesh out thoughts. This will be that, and if you are reading it, that is a bonus for me.

The seventh commandment says you cannot take other people’s stuff. “You shall not steal” (Ex 20:15).

Once again, I start out wondering how there could be a principle behind such a straightforward law. Shouldn’t this be one where God the Father gets to say, “Because I said so!”? It seems like that’s what he wants to do, since this is one of the commandments with zero explanation. 

God should get to say whatever he wants, and we should listen. But I am committed to this project of considering his laws as principles, so how is the law of keeping our hands off someone else’s stuff to be applied as a principle to live by? In other words, what does this commandment say about God and about the way he has created the world to work? What does is say about how he has created mankind to relate to one another?

This commandment is tied closely to all the others, especially the commandment prohibiting murder. God does not want us to murder, becuase life is precious. Life is precious because God created it. Existence exists, and the way we must live springs from this fact. A person is a created thing. A created thing has a right to be. And humans especially have a right to be. Continuing to “be” is a key purpose for our efforts in life, and the most fundamental way we glorify our Maker. 

This requires us to have the stuff we need to exist. 

There is something profound about possessions. Jesus said a man does not get his identity from his possessions. He said it this way, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Lk 12:15). Then he told the parable of the rich fool whose land produced abundantly, so he tore down his old barns, built bigger barns, and relaxed. This was foolish, because he died the next day. 

Whatever else this means, it means that “life” does not consist in what we have. “Life” is something else. But then, who cares if someone steals our abundance of possessions? 

This apparent contradiction is why Christians are confused enough on this point to never save enough, AND/OR never give enough.

A man does not get his identity from his possessions, but possessions do get (part of) their identity from the man or woman who owns them.

This is tied to the principle of stewardship. God stated it again when he told Noah, “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything” (Gen 9:3).

Everything in the world belonged to the man who lived on it alone with his family. What was the purpose? To live. It was God’s stuff that he gave to Noah to use for life. This is what he gives us our stuff for. When we possess it, we become stewards of it. This means that we become responsible for it. We own it. Our name is on it, but it is for God that our name is on it, because his name is on US. We belong to him.

I believe that this is profound. I own something. My life does not consist of that thing. My life owns that thing. That possession does not own me, but I have put my name on it. I don’t get identity from it, but it gets identity from me. It is not just a car. It is Jeff’s car. It is not just money. It is Jeff’s money to use for Jeff’s life for the glory of God (because Jeff’s money is God’s money, because Jeff belongs to God). If it is going to be given away in generosity, it is going to be given away by me, because I am generous. If it is going to be hoarded, it is because I am stingy, and I am hoarding it.

God will and does hold me accountable for that. And possession and identity are important to God. Stewardship and responsibility are fundamental biblical principles. He does not want someone else to take what belongs to me for the same reason he does not want someone to kill me. This is a part of my life once I put my name on it. I am using it to further my life. Whether it is food for my physical sustenance, or even if it is something for my “spiritual” sustenance, like a piece of art. If it furthers my life according to my biblical values, to take it, is to violate my life as you would by any use of force and violence against me.

We are not to steal, because to steal is to subtract from life, it is to kill. Sometimes it looks explicitly like that. If you took the last scraps from a starving man, he would die because you stole his property. 

This still does not mean a man’s life consists in the abundance of his possessions. His life is still something separate and spiritual. Jesus told his parable and made the comment because two brothers were fighting over their parents’ estate. Jesus saw they were greedy for the possessions. He saw that they thought “things” were the key to their value, their identity. The opposite is true. 

Now, I think Christ would say, “Do not steal other people’s stuff.” But I also think he would say, “Let them steal yours if they are going to do that, because my Father in heaven will take care of you.” I believe he wants us to trust God that much.

Why? Because there is a fine line between knowing you have responsibility for your stuff, which is to further your life, and being fearful that God will not take care of you, or just plain old loving money and possessions more than God. 

Jesus and his Father want us to be free. Money is important, especially if you are trying to raise a family. And I imagine that most Christians feel some guilt about making very much of it, but we shouldn’t. We should make the most we can if we can do it without compromising biblical values and our Christian character. We should live in such a way and think of it in such a way that we could still be happy in God if we lost it all and were made to start again. 

We should not be like the man with the bigger barns. What is the point of relaxing for the rest of your life and not being productive? Have you ever seen anyone who did that? I’m thinking of what happened to George Foreman when he first won his title. He retired young to go fishing and hang around drinking beer and spending his money. He nearly died until he became productive again, even gloriously coming out of retirement to box professionally again and sell grills. 

Humans aren’t made to be unproductive, even when it seems they no longer need to be. 

So What Does This Mean for How We Relate to One Another?

Everyone has a God-given right to his or her life, and they have a God-given right to what possessions they have their name on. It is theirs to dispense with, whether it is sold, or given away. When we relate to others, we relate as traders, value for value. We seek win-win arrangements with everyone from our boss, to our customers, employees, spouses, children, neighbors, and even our rivals. Life is truly not meant to be a zero sum game. The seeming inequalities that exist are an illusion, because abundant life means there is enough for everyone who uses their God given capacity to produce and stewards it appropriately. In our trades we create value and should both win. 

When this is not happening, it is because someone is violating reality and righteousness. But for those people, there are ways that God ultimately deals with them and evens the score. 

Theft comes down to force, just like murder, and they are in the same category of taking away from a person’s life. I know there is more to say. Feel free to comment if you want to continue the conversation.

Christian Marriage, The Christian Life

Principles are Better than Laws Part 11, No Adultery

God gave his people hundreds of laws and commandments in Scripture, and while as Christians we don’t observe as many as the Jews did under Mosaic law, we still have plenty. We’ve been discussing the major ones in this series, and today we’ll continue through the Ten Commandments with Exodus 20:14.

“You shall not commit adultery.” 

This is fairly straightforward: there is someone who is not your husband or your wife… don’t sleep with them. But Jesus already came and made this more complicated in his Sermon on the Mount when he said,

“27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt 5:27-28).

I said that he made it more complicated, but perhaps he actually simplified it. Is it easier to avoid adultery when you allow yourself to lust at your leisure, or is it actually easier if you don’t even toe the line? The very next thing he says is radical: 

“29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”

How could your eye cause you to sin? If he is still talking about adultery, and he must be, then surely the action begins with looking. After that, the hands get involved. 

There is one way to look at this. Traditionally, you might say that Jesus is saying, “if you commit adultery, you will go to hell. If you even look lustfully at a woman, you will go to hell. In order to avoid going to hell, you must do whatever you can to avoid these two things.”

I suppose this is all true in some sense, but the reality is more complicated than that. The speaker here will at some point die for those who commit adultery and for those who lust. They will not be able to save themselves. Even if they cut out their eyes and cut off their hands, it won’t make them good enough to stay out of hell. We need Christ’s atoning sacrifice for that. So why all the bother with commands and rules?

Why does Jesus give them so much instruction for living? Why does he take rules that are already kind of hard to follow and make them impossible by saying that even if you imagine sexual sin, you are committing sexual sin, because it is about the heart? Why not just get to the punch line and tell us that he is going to atone for our sin with his own blood?

There are a lot of reasons that have been fleshed out by theologians. An important one is that we need to know the extent of our sin, or at least some extent of our sin, before we can understand that we are desperate for a savior. Why would we turn to Jesus if we think we are good enough already? There is nothing wrong with thinking you are good enough if you actually are, but reading the Bible and getting into the presence of the perfect God will cure that.

But the reason I want to chew on here is that there is a principle at play. Jesus is not simply talking about the place we will go to pay for our own sins when we die if we don’t believe. He is also talking about the place we are already in on this earth if we walk in that kind of darkness, hell on earth. Let’s consider adultery more carefully.

What is the big deal about it? Why include it in the commandments? Why should God care if we commit adultery? We have to start with the question: what is marriage? The Bible tells us that God invented the institution of marriage for the sake of multiplying his image-bearers on the earth and for the sake of showing the eventual relationship between Jesus and his bride, the Church (Eph 5:22-33). This is known by sociologists as the conjugal view of marriage. Along with the conjugal view of marriage came laws about divorce. At one time, you could not seek a divorce except on the grounds of adultery, because the state thought your marriage was in the best interest of society, because society, and particularly the next generation, was dependent on the stability of the family.

While I believe there are problems with civil governments legislating morality, the fact is that marriage was redefined by no-fault divorce laws (and probably birth control). With no-fault divorce laws, the conjugal view was replaced by the revisionist view. This view says that the goal of marriage is happiness. People get married and stay married because it makes them happy. This is shaky ground for a marriage, because it means that if for some reason your marriage is not making you happy, you can quit. If happiness is the main priority, then you should quit if it’s not making you happy.

Again, Jesus said render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s, so I don’t believe in secular state governments legislating morality (there is a difference between fundamental laws like murder and property rights versus laws about non fundamental reality, like decency laws, marriage laws, etc. I’ll talk more about this in the next post about stealing stuff). That said, for a serious Christian, and I would counsel a non-Christian the same way, there should be a higher goal than happiness if you want your marriage to work out in the long run, and if you want your life to be great…which should make you happy.

I’m all for happiness. I just know it doesn’t come by pursuing it directly. What’s more, I fear God, and he said that marriage is to be permanent in this life. What God has joined, let not man separate (Mk 10:9). So what happens when we commit to the conjugal/biblical view of marriage? Why is this a helpful principle for living?

First, I can make a right decision before I am able to understand it. The prohibition against adultery comes with the prohibition against most divorce. If I have locked the door and thrown away the key on my marriage, and if I am committed to no one but my wife, then I don’t have much to consider when facing the choices. If I subscribe to this as a principle, then it orients me as a person who fears God enough to do what he says. I become a man who fears God and lives as though I do.

The impact of that decision on my marriage over time will be positive, because if I don’t have any option to quit, I might as well try to learn how to make it work. If my marriage is hard at anytime, then it will build my character and teach me powerful things about myself, about God, and about life. And what’s more important to me as a Christian is that it shows the world around me the commitment of Jesus to his own bride, the Church. 

Second, if I not only obey this commandment but also go as far as Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, I will constantly direct my mind towards God, truth, and purpose. How else does one live the Sermon on the Mount? Doing this is the key to an amazing and abundant life in God. Other than putting my faith in Jesus, putting my mind on Christ, reality, and his Word is the most powerful thing I can do to live well.

Be committed to the wife or the husband that you have on principle, and of course, out of obedience to God. Go even further and follow Jesus’ standard in the Sermon on the Mount. It is one of the most counter cultural practices that Christians are called to, and one of the most powerful principles for the abundant life.

The Christian Life

Principles are Better Than Laws Part 10

You Shall Not Murder — Exodus 20:13

We have been considering for several months the laws of God, beginning with the Greatest Commandment to love God with all our hearts, and now continuing into the ten Commandments. In our consideration, we are seeking to understand the laws not as laws only, but also as principles. To be sure, they are laws to obey, but my premise is that all of God’s laws can be thought of as principles too, because…

God did not give us any laws that will not give us a better existence if we follow them.

Today we are on to the commandment, “You shall not murder.” This seems fairly straightforward. Don’t kill people. Do we need to discuss this? I think so, because understanding the reason for the sanctity of life will revolutionize your own life. This is the law that I’ve waited the most impatiently to get into.  So let me get into it. 

The first question to ask about any of God’s laws is “why?” Of course, God is our perfect Father, and he has every right to say to us, “Because I said so,” but let’s ask anyway. 

God made men and women in his image (Gen 1:28). In fact everything he made is important, because he made it. Why would he make it if it wasn’t important to him? Everything that exists has a purpose to be that thing that it is. We can count on that. God is perfect. He made a rock to be a rock and do all the things that rocks can do. He made a river to be a river, a mountain to be a mountain, a grain of sand to be a grain of sand. 

The same is true for the living entities that he created. He made an ameba to be an ameba and do ameba-like things. 

All things, from rocks and rivers and living things; from single-celled organisms, to plants, to animals, and finally to humans are made with a penultimate purpose and an ultimate purpose. The ultimate purpose of a thing, rock or human, is to glorify God. The penultimate (second highest) purpose of a thing is to be that thing. This is easy for the inanimate objects, they just sit there being. This takes more work for the living beings. They have to do something in order to keep on being. They have to live.

The purpose of a living being is to live.

This takes work, but every living thing does the work whenever it is possible. Microorganisms do what they do. Even coronaviruses will spread in order to keep on living if they can. They just will. There is no principle that a living thing will seek to die. It may seek to change, for instance from a caterpillar to a butterfly, but that is in order to continue living. 

In fact, in order to glorify God a thing has to prioritize being the thing God made it to be, and that means keep living in the manner that God made it to exist. He built the plant to seek nutrients from the soil with its roots, to suck up whatever water was near, and to face the sun for its food. It will do that everytime the resources are available. Animals are a higher order than plants, because their intelligence is higher. It has to be, because their life, also a priority, is more complicated to maintain. They will need to move, to hunt and/or gather, to avoid predators, to find shelter, to find a mate, because their existence is also tied to the existence of their species.

God has equipped them with instincts and claws so that they can know what to do to live, and do it every time, because living is what they were made to do. When a lion or a microorganism lives, it glorifies the God who created it. 

Man is the same in that regard. He is the highest created thing, so says God. God gave him all the other living things for food and usage to further promote his life (Gen 1:29, 9:23). Man’s flourishing above all the other created things and beings is a priority for the God who created him. 

But what does this mean? Man’s life is precious to God, and should be precious to us. To kill would be a grave sin because of this. If even an animal, just being itself, were to kill a man and eat him, God said that animal shall not live (Gen 9:5).

But how is this a principle ?

Things get very interesting when this commandment is considered as a principle. It means that man, whose purpose is to glorify God, has the penultimate purpose of his own life. Life is precious to God. God has entrusted each of us with an important responsibility of being. The related biblical principle is stewardship. A man or woman’s life is his or her first responsibility. Even if we are to consider others as better than ourselves, we first have to consider ourselves as of primary importance to ourselves. The way I know you are supposed to be your number one priority is that you, and only you were given charge over your own choices by your Creator.

This is why, even when we give charity to someone, we know (hopefully) not to do it in a certain way that will cause them to stop bearing the majority of the responsibility for their own life and well-being. It dehumanizes them, just like the ill advised policies that say people who commit crimes should not be held responsible and punished by the state, because they obviously couldn’t help themselves.

This is why we instinctively feel joy at winning, and sadness at losing. Or we feel joy at gaining something, rather than losing something, especially if we are in great need of that thing (consider a person in a survival situation who almost catches a fish, but then loses it).

Let me push this principle of life even further to happiness. I want you to see that happiness is a product of a man successfully gaining the values that lead to the furthering of his life.

The elements of this kind of happiness are self confidence, and self esteem. You might add a good kind of pride (which is not the kind of pride that gets inflated by comparisons to other people). If you know what you are trying to accomplish for the sake of furthering your life, whether it is basic food needs, or romance, or creating art to enjoy, then you will feel good about yourself when you are being productive and accomplishing these things. To feel bad about failure in this regard is not sinful, it is biological and spiritual. We’re made that way.

Failure to understand this leads to the widespread depression, anxiety, and fear that we see all around us today, even (or especially) in the church. Without life as a principle and a penultimate goal leading to the ultimate goal of glorifying God, then we are purposeless. The “purposes” we create for ourselves after reading books about mission statements, or listening to self help gurus, don’t really cut it, because they skip this crucial principle. I imagine that instead they replace it with love for others. Love for others is a key biblical principle, as stated previously, but without an understanding of one’s life as purpose, then there is no “I” in “I love you” (I wish I was the first to point that out, but someone else, Aristotle or Rand did).

Life is precious and life is purpose. It is precious to God, so we don’t kill, and we take seriously the fact that he has entrusted us with our own life, which includes the body, the mind, the abilities, the opportunities that it comes with. Enjoy it by making the most of it and seeking to flourish. There are many other things to consider, like engaging in worship, mission, and blog writing, but that comes after simply existing as a creation of God, a life.