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.
In the first two posts we talked about some common ways that our brokenness negatively affects our ability to bear the image of God in the way that he originally intended when he dreamed up and created mankind to reflect him and represent him on the earth. Because of sin we have never been able to pull it off, but because of Christ we can begin to learn what God intended for us, and we have the tools: truth, redemption, the Holy Spirit, and the example of Jesus to make it possible.
But today I want to explore some of the more insidious ways that our broken image can manifest so that we can not only watch for signs of these in our own hearts, but also know them when we see it in others around us.
A crook is a person who does not understand that according to the true knowledge of good and evil handed down by God, it is an abomination to steal from others. As we said in an earlier post, God institutes the sacredness of property rights in the Ten Commandments. In order to elevate one’s status, some will become thieves of one kind or another, whether by breaking in and stealing physical property, online theft, identity theft, scam business practices, false advertising, cheating, or other such activities. This violates the very principles we’ve been discussing about the sacredness and dignity of human beings. God says our stuff is our stuff to dispose of any way we see fit, hoping we will look to him for direction. Crooks deny his existence by denying the necessity to follow his ways and by trampling his image in their victims.
A glance at Scripture may make it seem like it is a sin to be rich. But a careful and balanced study of the Bible will show that the issue is not how much money one has, in itself a neutral thing, but how one acquires it, and what one does with it. Many of the passages that seem to condemn wealth assume that those with wealth will have gotten it by means of oppression (Ja 5:4). Indeed, to acquire wealth by oppression violates the principles we’ve been discussing. It fails to see the inherent dignity of the oppressed and is wicked.
Closely related to crooks are liars. Remember we are discussing the manifestations of the shame that began in the garden (Gen 3:10). Why do people lie? They lie in order to project a false image, or to gain something. If when we were kids, we were expected to be perfect, at least outwardly, we may have discovered that lying was easier than being good. In a sense, this whole blog is about being good, but not like you think. Not looking good. Not pleasing anyone. Not gathering other people’s opinions that you are good, but actually being good, which is a major key to the abundant life of being a glorious image-bearer. Since no one teaches us that as kids, we find out that the rewards are for looking good, and getting other people to recognize that. Well that is difficult, but we can short-cut the process by lying when we fall short. This can go with any of the other categories of the manifestations of shame.
Any of the above characters could choose to escape all that shame and interpersonal complexity by becoming a recluse. There was an article in GQ called “The Strange and Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit” (Aug 5, 2014; Finkel). Christopher Thomas Knight lived in the woods of central Maine for twenty-seven years. He was affectionately known to the locals as the North Pond Hermit, and when he was finally caught stealing by the police, he admitted to around forty robberies over the years. He’d go into the town when he needed food, or batteries, or clothing, fattening up on Smarties and Oatmeal pies in the fall against the harsh Maine winters (never lighting fires to avoid being seen).
When they finally caught him it eventually came out that, while he felt a fair amount of shame for being a thief, it was ultimately worth it to him because it meant that he could avoid interacting with people. When he was twenty years old, he had just had enough. Not that he’d had a bad life, but interpersonal relationships made him anxious and uncomfortable, so he ran, and though it was really tough to survive out there in the woods all those years, he said the anxiety and stress just stopped the day he left, and started up again the day he returned, twenty-seven years later. But God made us to be in relationships. It is healthy and good to become a self-reliant person who is emotionally resilient enough to spend lots of time alone, but not forever. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in his book, Life Together, “Let him who is not in community beware of being alone” (pg 77).
The recluse can manifest on a spectrum, like any of these. Some just have a tendency to stay home and avoid people most of the time. Some go into the woods for twenty-seven years. But either way, it is still a function of our brokenness when we are unable to deal with being around other people.
Tyrants come in all shapes and sizes, but what they have in common is that their favorite mode of coping with people is to dominate them. Jesus was clear that God created us for what psychologist Alfred Adler called, horizontal relationships. No one is meant to be above us, and no one is meant to be below us. This does not mean we cannot have or be a boss, a teacher, a police officer, or some other such authority. Christians are called to submit to authority (Ro 13:1). But none of that is ever meant to be personal authority. If we have authority over another person, there is some higher entity that they are actually submitting to: the state, who has the power to protect rights; the company, who has the power to fire, or promote; or even the parents, who are invested by God.
But no person is supposed to dominate another person because it violates that person’s selfhood. It does violence to the image of God in them. A Tyrant, because of his shame, will seek personal power over people, rather than trade value for value as a servant leader. A boss, a parent, a friend, or the worst, a pastor, may use you to soothe their insecurity and the anxiety of their self-doubt by seeking dominance over you.
But this is the broken image of leadership as God intended it and as Jesus described it to his own status-hungry disciples (Mk 10:42-44). All relationships should start with the acknowledgement that here before you is an image-bearer of the Almighty. To seek dominance is to destroy that image. The techniques vary from obvious and physically violent, to subtle and highly manipulative. Either way, as Jesus said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you.” (Mk 10:42-43 emphasis mine).
On the opposite end, are the extreme followers. There could be no tyrants if there were not those who were prone to give over the keys to their identity and their responsibility for thinking to these tyrants. People long for heroes and infallible leaders, because they long for God. Many people did not quite get what they needed or wanted from an earthly Father, and so they are susceptible to any fatherly type of tyrant. Others just like having someone to trust in, who will take care of them, of everything, and sometimes, who they can blame when things go wrong.
You don’t have to look all the way to the cults like Jonestown and Waco. There is some level of a sinful willingness to follow in every sphere of human life, and at most otherwise good churches. Consider the teenager who lets the cool kids get him into trouble. Why is he doing what he knows to be wrong? Because of the powerful desire to follow the one who will give him status by association. Isn’t this what happens in spiritually abusive churches? Men and women seek status, so they seek to hitch themselves to the highest status leaders in the church. These followers will eventually become tyrants if they can, and for the same reason.
Gangs, online communities, clubs, secret societies, and pretty much any grouping of people has great potential for this sort of thing, but none is more destructive than when it happens in a government. The extreme version of this might be seen in fascist (Hitler) or communist (Mao) countries, but even democratic political systems will bring out the sinful tendency to want to give over thinking responsibility to an all powerful leader who has tapped into a need in the masses and become a cult of personality.
So What Do We Do?
These are just some of the ways that our sin manifests to break down the image of God inside us and derail us from living the life we were made for and to live for God, ourselves, and others. Sometimes, to look around, or to even look at yourself can feel hopeless. Does anyone come to earth and live like an image-bearer, fulfilling the purpose God had for humanity when he lovingly created us? There was one. And his work on earth has made possible the restoration of us all, if only we will have eyes to see what he has done, and ears to hear what he has said. His name is Jesus. He knows you and loves you, and he was everything he is calling us to be.