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.

Principles are Better Than Laws, Part 9 Honor Your Mother and Father

Exodus 20:12 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”

In these posts we’re exploring some of the key laws of God in the Bible and considering them, not only as commands of God, but also as principles for how life can and should be well-lived on earth and beyond.  

Moving along the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20, today’s command is to honor your father and your mother. The reason is for long days in the Promised Land.

Different cultures have different takes on this. In America where I live, we don’t “follow” our parents for life as they do in other countries. In many cultures, and in most cultures of the past you are born to obey your parents. They will raise you, and then you will spend the rest of your life following them, and eventually caring for them. There are some benefits to this system. One is that it dispenses with the necessity of finding an identity. Your identity is the family you were born into, along with the career that comes with it, that is, the family business.

I recommend the book, The Pastor as Minor Poet, by M. Craig Barnes. In it he explains this idea. Today in the West, we often search for a job with the idea that it will give us identity, while in other cultures and even our culture in the past, the identity was covered already by birth. You grew up already knowing who you were. My name is Miller, so I suppose my ancestors were millers. I’d be born to run the town mill. Work identity covered, I could focus on developing my character instead of “finding myself” in a job.

This applies to our commandment, because this would be part of honoring your father and mother.  But in our context, this just doesn’t happen the same way.  So how does a 21st century American think about this, and more importantly, how do we practice it?

As a son (or daughter): I am nearly fifty. I love my parents, but realized at some point that they were not perfect (nor did they claim to be). I know that I am not obligated to obey them at this point even if they were perfect. In fact, I think it is crucial that a person “leave his (or her) father and mother at some point, and do what they think is right. An example could be when a young person wants to have a career in a certain field that is different than the one his parents wanted for him. If he ignores what he wants because he wants to please his parents, he will not grow up. He will not take his place as an autonomous image-bearer, responsible for his choices and beliefs. This will lead to a sense of instability and anxiety. At some point, everyone must separate themselves from their parents in this way.

Most people, unless they have zero self-awareness, will find themselves resenting their parents for the way they were when they raised them. A lot of that resentment will fall away when a person begins to make their own choices and decisions, especially if it requires “disappointing” their parents. But many of us may find that it is necessary to confront our parents, lovingly and gently, to tell the truth about how they have made us feel, or still are, and then genuinely forgiving them for those things which have caused resentment. We should hope that our own children will do the same to us someday.

In this case it is not necessary to get a certain response from the parents. It is nice if they acknowledge their sin and apologize, but it is not the point. If you think it is, you will not be free. It is enough that you can say what you honestly feel, and then forgive.

That said, we should always be respectful to our parents.  We should not pretend they are something they are not, but the very fact that they are our parents is cause to honor them.  Don’t speak ill of them.  Don’t talk down to them, even when they are old and at your mercy.  You will be judged for it.  

As a father (or mother): Teaching our own children to respect God and biblical wisdom is done by teaching them to respect their parents. You must not try to control your children with shaming and manipulation. Give consequences for disobedience and disrespect and apply them dispassionately. Insist on respectful attitudes, but NEVER take it personally when they fail. Simply discipline accordingly and lovingly, explaining the importance of honoring their parents. Don’t allow sassy tones, eye rolling, disobedience, yelling at you, or anything of the kind. If it happens, stop them and say calmly, “My dear, I love you too much to let you treat me (or your mother) that way. You will be disciplined for it. There will not be warnings.” The discipline must be appropriate and not out of anger.

Valuing your parents’ traditions: Be slow to throw them out. Doing them “just because” can sometimes give you the benefit of taking advantage of the practices without totally understanding them yet. It is often hubris that causes us to assume our parents and grandparents are dumb and don’t know anything. Until you know exactly why you are chucking out their time-honored traditions, seriously consider just continuing them.

The “principle” of honoring your parents is a principle of humbly honoring the God who made the commandment, and who identifies himself as “Father.” It is the opposite of a spirit of rebellion, while it leaves ample room for proper independence as an autonomous image-bearer who can be useful to others, especially his or parents. I invite you to see an earlier post for more details on biblical parenting.

Principles Are Better than Laws Part 8, Sabbath

In these posts we are looking at some of the main laws of God and considering them as principles for a godly life.  This is not to say that they should not be considered as laws to obey, but that they should also be seen as the principles God put in place for a man or woman to live the life that God had in mind when he invented life.  

The commandment to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy works very well in this light.  Exodus 20:8-11 says, 

8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

Christians always struggle with this. Nine out of Ten Commandments are moral no-brainers. No one thinks that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus fulfilled the laws against murder, lying, adultery, etc., to the point that we are not supposed to keep those laws anymore.

But the command to keep the Sabbath is tricky.  It is somewhat of a ceremonial law.  Jesus is the “true and better Sabbath,” so resting on the Sabbath can be thought of as believing in Jesus, trusting him for salvation, that his work is enough for God to accept us.  

We know that “in repentance and rest is [our] salvation” (Isa 30:15).  To top it off, most of the church considers the Lord’s Day, Sunday, to be the replacement for the Saturday Jewish Sabbath.  Historically, businesses in America did not open on Sundays (this was called Blue Law).  But, aside from Hobby Lobby and Chick-fil-a, most have discarded the practice.   I myself am a pastor and often have my busiest workday on Sunday.  I have wrestled to see Sunday, worshiping with my church family, as my Sabbath with mixed results.  

There are many resources that you can study if you want to figure out this law for yourself.  But for now, allow me to consider Sabbath as a principle.  The principle is resting in God.  We are supposed to find our home and our rest in him always as we “pray without ceasing“ (1 Thes 5:17).  We also know that the Sabbath was for setting aside the day to holiness.  Everyday should be given to holiness, but the Sabbath helps us to stop and think about it every seven days.  Give every day to holiness, and check in once a week to make sure by stopping everything.  

There is another important “use” of the Sabbath (You can “use” Sabbath.  Jesus said it was “made for man.”).  A Sabbath day can help you know how strong your idols might be.  Let’s say you love working out.  You are driven every day to do it.  Can you skip a day?  Can you stop?  More importantly, let’s say you might be a workaholic.  Can you stop on Sunday (or even some other day?). Can you skip whatever it is that you are compelled to do on the other days?  If you cannot, you might be idolizing an activity.  

To see it as a principle, see it as permission to stop. Be driven the other days, but show yourself that you love God even more than those activities. Holiness usually applies to things, but the Sabbath is holiness applied to time. This is a really cool aspect of it. Let it bring you back to God. It is permission through a command not to stress about what you are usually tasked with stressing about. Rest in God. You were made for it, and the Sabbath was made for you.

Principles vs. Vision

What is your vision?  

What is your five year plan?

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

What do you want to be when you grow up?

What are your goals and how do you plan to reach them?

These are the questions that make the world go round. Everybody who is anybody knows that you have to have a vision. Nothing has ever been accomplished that wasn’t first a goal.  Don’t you have to see what is wrong and lacking in your life so you can develop an idea of how to change it?  Then you can set some big, hairy, audacious goals to go out and achieve for the glory of God! 

I would respectfully like to challenge that notion and say that I believe that is not God’s way, but it might be satan’s. That is not how the Kingdom of Heaven operates, but it is how the dominion of darkness runs. How can you possibly know what you are to be in five years? “God told me.” No (respectfully) He didn’t. James 4:13-17 says,

13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin (ESV).

Unless, of course, God did tell you. But how would you know? There are several ways that a prophetic word of God could come, but none of them are “a sentence popped in my head while I was feeling: anxious, empty, insecure, fearful… just plain bad about myself and where I am right now.” 

An angel could show up (although you’d need to screen him based on Gal.1:8). There could be an audible voice, a burning bush, or an enormous hand writing on a wall.  There could be a dream, which would also need to be screened in some way. 

But for 99.99999999% of the time, God will not tell us the future. He will guide us and let us create it as we go. How will He guide us?  By His ways, His principles. His wisdom.

Biblical Principles

God’s ways are clearly communicated in Scripture by His commandments and the example set by His Son, Jesus. God tells us in the Bible how we are to live.  Jesus spent His entire ministry showing and telling about the Kingdom of God and how to live in it.

In addition, He fills us with His Holy Spirit when we are born again so that we can be guided by Him.  Every Christian has access to these two things: His Word, and His Spirit. So why do so many Christians have such a hard time getting by in life, and why do so many get obsessed with hearing God’s voice for their life? 

I think it is because following God, rather than satan is harder in many ways. Everything in our bodies and brain chemistry makes the way of the world more natural for us.  But the way of the Kingdom takes an ability to constantly push against that and trust God. 

Just like God, who identified Himself to Moses as I Am, we mostly are to exist in the present. James has it right. 

  • All such boasting about the future is evil.
  • The point is to know the right thing and do it. 

How then should we live?

God is I Am, not I hope to be.

Wake up in the morning, get into the presence of God and His Word, and then go throughout your day doing what’s right in your context as you continually practice His presence. He will present opportunities. He will provide. You cannot even imagine what He has in store for you, so you couldn’t possibly make it a goal to achieve. Just be and do, for the glory of God, by the power of God, thanking Him and trusting Him. 

Here are a few Biblical and practical principles that I follow. Feel free to add some of yours in the comments.  Also, I welcome conversation about my thoughts on vision vs. principles.  

My Principles:

  • Truth – The outcome of (telling, believing, accepting, insisting on) the truth is the right outcome.
  • Relationships – All relationships are to be horizontal, not vertical except the relationship with God. God is higher, everyone else is an intrinsic equal. It is never right to manipulate or coerce any fellow image-bearers, even your own children.
  • Recognition – Seeking recognition is always bad, always comes from insecurity and feelings of inferiority, and it will never deliver.
  • Stewardship – It is not about what we have, but how we use it. God will add to he or she who proves faithful.
  • Love – The absence of love is only hate (1 Jn 3:11-12). Love brother, neighbor, enemy, everyone.
  • Leadership – You can lead a horse (or people) to water but it is a sin to make them drink. Jesus said the gentiles lord it over and exercise authority over those they lead but it shall not be so with you. (Mk 10:42) Leadership is by example and reason.
  • Abide – The most important thing at any given time in any place is to abide in Christ (Jn 15).
  • Justice – God is totally just and to be like Him, so should we be just. This means trading value for value in the marketplace, the church, and the home. This is why Jesus had to die for us, to satisfy God’s justice because, being God it is not mathematically possible for Him to forgive sins without the cross.
  • I Am – God is a being that exists primarily in the present and so am I. In His image I am a little “i am,” meant to act like Him, and create, produce, bring order for my sake, for His sake.
  • Mercy – I am free in Christ to be merciful, as God is merciful.
  • Thankful – Thankfulness is part of stewardship. It is misery to sit around wishing we had something else, or some different situation. Instead, thank God for any little sign of God’s grace in your life, and you will experience more of it.