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.

Pride: Two Kinds

There are two kinds of pride. A good kind and a bad kind.  

What is the difference?  Indeed, what is the difference?  

The Good Kind

God created man in his image.  He delegated him to rule the earth in his name, to subdue it. To make things of it. To steward it.  He gives him gifts and talents to steward for his glory. Man should delight to function in these, to push himself to the limits of these for their own sake, for the Lord’s sake, because of the joy it brings.  

Isn’t that the way we were made to function? Would there be an exaltation in being man that would not rob glory from the Creator?  Could we not exult and still honor the one who is greater still than we could ever be?  

Could we not glory in Being itself?  Could we not take great joy in breaking out, and out, and out still further?  Could we not glory in doing a job well done, in bringing order to chaos, or chaos to totalitarianism?  

Could we view other men as intrinsic equals who are free to pursue the end of their own merits and potential?  Could we judge them, but not impartially, and not from a desire to defeat them, or to dominate them, or to take pride over them?  Could we love them and love their achievements as much as our own? Could we not give glory to God who made them as well as us?  Could we not join together in a “wise crowd,” and pool our talents, and energy?  Could we not glorify God in this pursuit?  

Could we not speak the truth to one another unashamedly?  Fearlessly? Lovingly, without fear of rejection? Rejection is a sign that someone is unworthy of us because they are not bearing God’s image properly. We can love them and move on. 

The good kind of pride loves life, affirms it.  The good kind of pride loves the Great God who made us, and Jesus Christ, the best of us. The good kind of pride loves its fellow man and expects the best of them, won’t settle for less. Won’t settle for less than total truth, total effort, total godliness, total righteousness. 

The Bad Kind

The bad kind of pride is envious of others.  The bad kind of pride seeks the recognition of men and puffs up when it gets it. The bad kind of pride gets mad at God for not making me better that I am, which means better than the men around me.  The bad kind of pride seeks the worship of others. The bad kind of pride hates. Hating one is hating all. Hating anyone is hating myself. Hating myself is hating God. 

The bad pride is suspicious of everyone and keeps score of status.  The bad kind of pride revels in dominating others because of our deep fear that we are nothing.  There is no joy in the bad pride.  There’s only suffering, arrogance, depression, anger, and fear.  The bad pride is hell. 

Cultivating the Good Pride

  1. Know God.
  2. Abide in God.
  3. Do right.
  4. Abide in God.
  5. When you have a chance to be courageous or cowardly, be courageous.
  6. Abide in God.
  7. When you have the chance to lie or tell the truth, tell the truth.
  8. Abide in God.
  9. When you have the chance to be responsible, or irresponsible with what God has assigned you (brushing your teeth, starting a company, raising a child), be responsible.
  10. Abide in God.
  11. When you see that you are holding a contradiction that to let go of will cause pain, choose to let go and go through pain. Wholeness and integrity is worth it. 
  12. Abide in God.

The good pride comes from knowing who God is, who you are in light of that, and walking according to what that means. It feels like being solid, settled in soul, happy, strong in spirit, and loving towards all. It feels like perfect peace. Don’t settle for less, and don’t go for the satanic bad pride. It’s hell.

The Unworthy Servant and Non-Contradiction

Christians are not as happy as they should be, given reality.

For a while I wrestled with some nagging thoughts that were far enough in the back of my mind that I could not quite articulate them. They would wake me up in the middle of the night and rob me of rest, but they would never show themselves. What I know now is that I was living in some contradictions with which I had not come to terms. The reason Christians (and nonChristians) are not happy is that we have contradictions that must be worked out.

I believe that the vast majority, perhaps 98% of all people I have met, are living this way.  They just don’t realize it.  They know they have some problem, but to diagnose it would require some sacrifice. First of all, thinking is hard, so most people do not do it.  They medicate. They search for fulfillment. They envy. They boast. They yearn for “likes” on social media.  They worship all manner of idols in order to get around that feeling of nagging contradictions.  Or, they try to be religious and please God, which doesn’t work for reasons I’ll explain later. But one thing they will not do is truly think about the problem of life, and why, if they know what they say they know, are they so bleh about life, or even downright sad about it.

But that just isn’t me. I have to think. The less peace I have, the more I feel compelled to do it,

because the contradictions and the unrest that goes with those contradictions are unbearable for me.

They were unbearable for me before, but now that I understand what they mean, they are excruciating. I believe that a contradiction is some sort of lie, an evasion of the truth, that causes us to be fragmented, disintegrated, not whole, not confident, not peaceful. Christians live this way all the time.

And because Christians live this way all the time, they are not living the abundant life.

They know that Jesus said that he came that we would have life and have it abundantly, but they have no idea what it means, and they feel a nagging guilt about it, and a nagging fear that they might not be the real deal.

They gravitate to teaching from those who say life is awful, and the more awful it feels, the greater your chances of getting to heaven.  They gravitate to teaching that says life is only suffering.  To suffer is to be like Jesus. The more you suffer, the more you can hope that you might be saved.  This is nefarious, because it is a half truth, which is the hardest kind of lie, because it is so tempting to swallow whole. It feels good, because it validates your experience with a kernel of a true sounding explanation.  In this case the half truth it is that suffering is indeed a part of a good life.  Our hope is that even though we suffer, and sometimes even as a result of it, ultimately it is supposed to feel amazing to be alive.  Sometimes it is amazing because things are good. We are winning, happy, and blessed with abundant provision, health, and good relationships. God in fact gives us the tools to achieve those things. 

But at other inevitable times, we are not experiencing those things. Rather, we are experiencing the fact that the world is fallen. We might be sick, broken, broke, suffering loss, losing at the game we’re playing, a victim of some evil or disaster.  The secret is that even in those times we can feel that we are living the abundant life that Jesus promised. How?  By truly understanding how God has created the world and how he has created us to operate in it.  

We can actually be…happy. No matter what. If you are uncomfortable with that word, then use “Joy.” It’s more biblical sounding.  The secret lies in a parable that I’m sure is often misunderstood and applied in the opposite way from which it is supposed to be.  The Parable of the Unworthy Servant.

Jesus said, 

7 “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? 8 Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? 9 Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Lk 17:7-10).

You’re thinking, “I don’t get it. What is in that that would make me happy?”  I’m glad you asked. 

I have said already that Christians suffer because they have not realized that they are holding various contradictions as beliefs. One of those contradictions is that they think that life for the Christian is that we live our lives trying to please God, and then he will owe us some kind of thanks.  The unworthy servant in the parable needs to understand that nothing is owed him. He is just doing his duty.  

“OK,” you might be saying, “But so what? Why should that make me happy?”  I know it’s difficult, but for now, just imagine the unhappiness of someone who expects to be constantly rewarded, thanked, praised for his or her work for someone.  When they don’t get it, they will generally have to think one of two ways: 1) “How dare they not thank me, or reward me. Here I have been bending over backwards to serve them, and this is the thanks I get? Thanks for nothing!”

This is not a good way to think about God.  It is called self-righteousness, or pride (The bad kind of pride. There is a good kind, but it is tricky and we’ll talk about it another time). But self-righteous people are not the unhappiest Christians, if they are Christians at all. The unhappiest Christians are those that think in the second way: 2) “God says he’ll reward me if I live right, pray enough, give enough, help enough, worship enough, serve enough, and, most of all, love enough.  But since I don’t seem to be getting any reward or praise from God or even man, I must not be doing anything enough! Ugh! Life is so hard.  At least I can say that my life is hard. Maybe that will earn me something. At least if my life is hard enough, if I am sad enough, I can probably, maybe, get to heaven someday.”  

These people make up the majority of the church, especially pastors.  I know very few of us pastors that do not look at the paltry fruit of our ministry as a sign that we are not doing enough for God.  Well, at least we can be messed up and depressed about it. Maybe that will make up for the fact. This is all a contradiction because we never say these words consciously.  What we say is what the Bible says, Jesus came that we “would have life, abundantly” (Jn 10:10).  “Rejoice always” (1 Thes 5:16).  But we know deep down that we don’t believe this.  Our emotions betray us.  

But look again at the parable.  Why would Jesus tell us that it is good to say, “We are unworthy servants, we have only done what is our duty”?  If I’m unworthy of reward, then I am less apt to be looking for one.  But there is another tricky spot. His words don’t sound very nice. We hear it as, “You despicable, unworthy, waste of space. How dare you think you deserve anything from God. You make me sick.” But that isn’t what he is saying. Try this instead:  “God has made you for a purpose. Following God and serving him is its own reward.  Stop looking for some other evidence that you’re ok. Stop listening to the evil one telling you you’re no good. Instead, do what you were put on this earth to do. Yes there is a heavenly reward, but worry about that later.” 

You might be thinking I’m stretching.  That’s because you are messed up.  I’ll prove it by showing you something from a much nicer parable, the Prodigal Son. Luke 15:11-32 says, 

11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”

Now, look past the nice part about the younger son that goes out and has all his fun after telling his dad he wishes he would hurry up and die, then gets accepted back into the family by a super loving and gracious father who’s been watching for him the whole time.  Skip that part.  Look again at 25-32 at the part about the older brother.  

He comes in from the field and hears the music. He’s upset to find out that his younger brother came home, and his father had killed the fattened calf to throw a party in his honor because he is so glad that he is back. This really ticks off the older brother. Why? Because he struggles with the same contradictions as you and I do. Look at what his father says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Read that again.

“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

What is the older brother missing?  He doesn’t realize several things. He always has the father. He is always with him.  He owns everything that the father has.  All the young goats belong to the older brother and if he wanted to, he could kill one at any time and have a party. Why doesn’t he?  

And what the father does not say, we can figure out if we think hard enough about it. It is no fun to be the prodigal. We mistakenly see this as: younger brother gets to go have fun while older brother stays home and works. But is it really fun to live a bankrupt life of following your bodily desires and impulses until you are destitute, far away from the Creator that made you and loves you? I have lived that way. It is not fun. It is scary. Sad. Bankrupt. I’d rather have the life of the older brother. That is the good life. The life of the older brother is its own reward.

Just like the unworthy servant, the problem is not that the older brother doesn’t have an awesome life. It is that he doesn’t know it. He does not see it that way. He is holding unbiblical contradictions in his mind and hasn’t worked them out. So he’s self-righteous, mad at his father, hates his brother, and unwilling to party. Grumpiness is a badge of honor to him.  Furthermore, the older brother suffers from a syndrome that most of us at some time or other, and in some form another, suffer from: a desire to feel important.  Just like the unworthy servant, the older brother has no actual need to be important, but since he doesn’t know that, he can only see the party thrown for his brother as proof of his own unimportance.  This is no way to live, and it is thoroughly unbliblical.

Let’s root out the contradictions keeping us up at night and figure out the joy of being an older brother, the unworthy servant, a joyful Christian.