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.

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 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.

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 Are Better Than Laws Part 7

I have been using the last six posts to explore some of God’s key laws in the Bible and consider them not only laws that should be obeyed, because they are God’s laws, but also principles to follow in order to live the kind of life God had in mind for his image bearers when he created them. 

What I have said is that, as a father, none of my own rules for my children are arbitrary.  Even if I happen to say, “because I said so” when I am defending them, they all have a purpose in training them to be happy, productive, God-worshiping adults.  

If I, though I am evil, don’t make arbitrary rules, why would we think our perfect Father in heaven would?  He wouldn’t.  The next law we will look at to consider as a principle is, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7).

It is true that we should not say the words, G-D, or J-C as an expletive.  That is surely taking the Lord’s name in vain, but what else might we do to take the Lord’s name in vain?  

Claiming to do something “in the name of the Lord” without proof that God wants us to do that thing would certainly be worse than using G as a cuss word, especially if that thing hurt others or impinged upon their freedom. Consider the narcissistic and abusive church leader who constantly says, “The Lord told me…” followed by some subjective statement that is impossible to prove and requires a sacrifice on your part.

Many holy wars have taken the Lord’s name in vain, inquisitions have taken the Lord’s name in vain, and countless other church injustices have taken the Lord’s name in vain. When “Christian” slaveholders claimed that the Bible justified slavery in the American south, the Lord’s name was taken in vain.

If I were to see this as a principle, then I should have the fear of God about presuming to claim that I am speaking for God when I move into any subjective territory that cannot be proven by the whole of Scripture. 

I don’t have a great deal more to say about this.  I need to think about it and may write again before moving on to the next commandment, which is to remember the Sabbath.  

If you have any thoughts about “taking the Lord’s name in vain,” feel free to comment.

Principles are Better than Laws Part 6

I’ve been discussing God’s laws as principles for how he would have us live on the earth.  I have posited that God designed us to have magnificent (abundant), eternal life that starts now, even here on earth.  I mean that even if we suffer, which we will, or even suffer a lot, we can still see it that way, because our experience of life in God is, in some ways, relative.  

By that I mean that you may be poor, or you may be rich. There are certain feelings associated with those two states, but joy is relative in that sometimes poor people have joy, and often, rich people are in misery. The same principle can be applied to sick versus healthy, romantically fulfilled versus being alone, autonomy at work versus micro managed. All of the standards people usually use to evaluate joy or suffering are less relevant to the follower of Jesus.

Even to the most committed Christian, I would assume that plenty is preferable to poverty, health is preferable to sickness, and loving relationships are preferable to loneliness. Still, the wonderful fact of the matter is, for eternal beings like us, circumstances and outcomes are only of secondary importance. If they become primary, you are in for some hurt. But if kept in their proper place as gifts from God, undeserved in an ultimate, cosmic way, but earned in a “God’s created laws of cause and effect” way, they are icing on the amazing cake of eternal, abundant life in Christ.

In this light, we are looking at the Ten Commandments and considering them as principles. I’ll say again that I don’t mean to reduce them from the important and serious laws of God that we should approach reverently and obediently. I only mean to point out that they also work well as principles for an incredible life, revealing the way God originally created his image bearers, you and me, to function in this world and the next.

All of this, of course, assumes that you have put your faith in Jesus’ death on the cross to forgive you for breaking these laws all along.

In part 5 we considered the first commandment, now let’s look at the second: Exodus 20:4-6 says, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love and keep my commandments.”

This commandment is not prohibiting the creation of a carved image, but it prohibits creating a carved image in order to bow down to it as your god. It is very similar to the first commandment to have no other gods. The principle is pretty much the same. Idolatry is an offense to God, and he created us to worship him. That is enough to know. But if we want to go further and consider it as a principle, idolatry is a competing principle that doesn’t work. Worshiping an idol or anything else as a god is an evasion of reality. Evading reality will always end in a bad outcome.

Much has been written about idols of the heart; money, sex, power, comfort, the approval of man. These are the false gods of our culture that do not deliver what they promise, leaving us anxious, ashamed, fearful, envious, and unbalanced. To obey the second commandment (along with the first) would be to avoid all these traps. If money is not an idol, it is a neutral tool that represents your labor. If sex is not an idol, then it is an amazing gift of God to share with your wife or husband for fun and connection, and to create new people. If power is not an idol, then it is power over earth and elements, NEVER men. If comfort is not an idol it is a Sabbath rest, or a reflection of it. If the approval of man is not an idol, then it will not rule you and drive your actions. It may or may not be a nice encouragement, but will never get in the way of truth and meaning in your life, and the pursuit of your purposes.

To break this commandment is to incur the wrath of God. Mans’ breaking this commandment is what caused Jesus to have to come and die for us. God is a jealous God, because he loves us and longs to see us do well. These verses indicate that our willingness to heed this law and principle will have an impact for good or ill on our children’s children for years to come (Ex 20:5-6).

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 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.