God’s kingdom is life-giving. Sin–life outside of God’s kingdom–is life-destroying. Thus, my choices are less about right and wrong than about life-giving and life-destroying.
How traditions, laws and rules work
Have you ever wondered why we drive on the right-hand side of the road? Or, if you live in England, the left-hand side? There are historical reasons, likely having to do with mounting horses and carrying swords, along with the development of the horse-drawn wagon, but at this point it’s about tradition. With traditions, one either upholds them or defies them.
Laws that promote order
For safety reasons, laws have been made about which side to drive on, but there is nothing morally right about driving on a particular side. That is, one breaks no particular moral code by driving on the opposite side. Simple orderliness is the reason for a country’s choosing one or the other, and so it is with many other laws: their job is to bring order, rather than to reinforce a particular moral code. With laws of this kind, one either maintains order by obeying them or brings disorder by breaking them.
Laws that reflect values
Other laws and rules reflect someone’s values. Perhaps in your home there is a rule about talking with your mouth full of food. While having such a rule does encourage order–less spewing and cleanup, for example–the rule itself actually reflects your family’s values.
In the United States, we have laws on the books promoting free speech. Allowing free speech does not promote order, but it reflects a shared value. These are examples of rules and laws that reflect someone’s values, such as those of a family, a society, a legislature, or a king. When one breaks a value-based law, one is flouting the value or claiming there is a higher value to be upheld.
Laws that prevent harm
There is one more reason for a law or a rule: to prevent harm or promote health. If you have ever visited a mountainous area you’ve likely seen a sign that says “Caution: Loose rock. Stay away from edge.” The purpose of that rule is to keep visitors from falling, rather than because loose rock is immoral. Children are taught to hold their parent’s hand while crossing the street because cars are dangerous and drivers are unlikely to see them. If you believe that drinking eight glasses of water is good for you, you might have a rule about that. The more powerfully you believe in the validity of these rules, the more likely you are to obey them as law. Laws like these tend to be life-giving when obeyed and life-diminishing when broken.
God’s law is something else
Is God’s world ruled by law, and if so, what are God’s laws? Are there 2 or 10 or 613? Are God’s laws meant to keep order, or to reflect God’s values, or to promote health and wellbeing?
While most would agree that God has laws, there is something else going on as well. The New Testament refers to the something else as grace. Grace comes from relationship with God. Grace transforms the nature and purpose of law. Because of grace, obeying God’s laws is not the main activity of faith. Maintaining and developing one’s relationship with God and God’s creation is the main activity of faith.
The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
-John 1:17-18 NRSV
God’s law gives life
God’s laws give life and strengthen relationship. Obedience is thus not mainly a matter of doing right or wrong, but of giving life or destroying it. From this perspective, Adam and Eve didn’t get cast out of Eden because they broke a law. Sin came into the world as Adam and Eve separated themselves from God. They damaged their trusting relationship with God. On the other hand, King David, though he broke a bunch of God’s laws, was known for being “a man after the Lord’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14) because he maintained and strengthened his relationship with God.
God didn’t make laws to uphold tradition. God’s laws aren’t in place just to maintain order. Nor is God simply throwing his weight around, saying “Because I said so!” like a frustrated parent with a boundary-testing kid. God’s laws reflect God’s values, and God’s primary value is life. Because God loves us, God wants us to have an abundant life. The laws God makes are meant to give life.
On another sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” He got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” After looking around at all of them, he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was restored.
-Luke 6:6-10 NRSV
Because they give life, they also reflect God’s values. When they are obeyed, a certain amount of orderliness results…but that’s not their primary purpose. Their primary purpose is to enable an abundant life. When taken in the context of relationship with God, God’s laws are life-giving. Without relationship with God, God’s laws are just binary rules that have power only because God has power to enforce them. Law within relationship gives life. Law without relationship destroys life. The Pharisees strove to uphold the law for the sake of the law. Jesus upheld the law for the sake of life, and broke it for the sake of life, too.
Aim for giving life instead of being right
I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
-John 10:10 NRSV
Rather than thinking about our actions as “right” or “wrong” it might be useful to think in terms of “life-giving” and “life-destroying.” Jesus’ healing the man on the Sabbath broke a law, but it gave life. The Pharisees asking Pilate to crucify Jesus upheld the law, but destroyed life. Now, it is better to be in the habit of obeying God’s law than of breaking it, so we develop the habit of obedience by obeying. But in those times when our understanding of God’s values and of God’s law seem to conflict, God’s value of giving life is supreme. This is especially important when we are considering someone else’s actions rather than our own. We will be more merciful and grace-full if we judge others not by our standards of right and wrong, order and disorder, or tradition and novelty, but by Jesus’ own standard: abundance of life.
This post is part of the God Ideas Series.