Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Laws, Rules, and Boundaries

Recently I was driving home at night as the power was out. Coming to the intersection at which I needed to make a left turn, I panicked a little. How long was it going to take to get through the intersection safely? Drivers were hesitant. No one knew whose turn it was or if it would be safe to take his turn. Usually, I grumble when I come to a red light especially when I’m in a hurry. That night, normally functioning lights would have been a blessing.

I remember back to when my family was purchasing our home. We walked through the unfinished house, thinking about which bedroom would belong to whom and what would go where. As we stood on the balcony, we all shrunk back from the ledge. There was no railing up yet and an instinctive fear kept us from standing too close for fear of falling. Once we were in our home, however, all of us felt confident to peer over the balcony, knowing that that guard rail would keep us safe.

Some time ago, the leadership of an elementary school decided that the fence around the playground was too confining to the children and would make them feel imprisoned. They removed the fence. Strangely, the children moved less freely when the fence was gone. They huddled towards the center of the play area and didn’t run and play as much. When the fence was reinstalled, the children ran and played all over the playground as they had before.

Laws. Rules. Boundaries. There is something in the heart of man that balks at having to obey rules. We feel that we are being confined, restricted. We feel less free. No doubt there are some man-made laws that are intrusive and annoying. Many are outdated and should be repealed, having served their purposes. Yet properly enacted laws are a blessing, providing a more harmonious environment for all of us and in the end bestowing greater liberty and peace of mind upon us.

Rules differ. There are man-made rules that are enacted because they make sense at the time and should help everyone to get along better---things like, “Do not walk up the down escalator,” or “Do not climb over the escalator rail.” Yet, if any one of us were riding the down escalator and noticed that a person who had just reached the top of the up escalator were choking, we would instantly choose to override that rule and try to reach that desperate soul to assist him, especially if no one else were nearby to apply the Heimlich maneuver. Or all of us are required to obey the speed limit whether there is anyone else on the road or not; but who wouldn’t drive faster if the road were clear and he were rushing a friend or loved one to the hospital?

…which brings me to my point.

Many people are angered by the laws that God has placed on mankind. People believe that God’s moral laws are restrictive. Some see God as a cosmic killjoy who takes great pleasure in squashing our fun. Nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, God is as the wise parent who knows better than humans what dangers to our souls and bodies exist. As a parent, I can foresee the consequences to my children’s behavior more clearly than they, due to the greater wisdom and experience of age. When I tell them to avoid certain places and behaviors, it is not because I get my jollies from restricting their “freedom” but because I love them and know that causing them to toe the line will bring them greater freedom and opportunities later. Even more so, God has the wisdom to know what is best for His children. He knows how humanity can experience the greatest liberty and peace. This is the point behind all his rules. I believe this is why the Scriptures tell us that His laws are not onerous.

Even God’s laws fall into different categories. There were laws that were meant as civil laws for the ancient nation of Israel. They were not meant to be binding for all time and in all places on all the peoples of the world. The United States, for example, is not expected to pattern all its laws on the ancient nation of Israel but to enact laws that benefit and protect our citizens today. Naturally, we can study the ancient texts to glean principles upon which to base our rules today wherever they may be applicable to our lives, but there is no reason to believe that we should live strictly by them.

There were also laws that were meant for religious observances long ago. Clearly we are not expected to follow the laws laid down in the Torah when worshipping God today. Nevertheless, it is still beneficial to study how the priests and the laity were supposed to conduct themselves, yet there is no obligation to follow those rules. The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well demonstrates this fact. Wishing to turn Christ’s spotlight off her immoral lifestyle, the Samaritan woman attempted to engage Him in a philosophical discussion:

The woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.”

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, shall you worship the Father. You worship that which you do not know; we worship that which we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.” (John 4:19-23)

Likewise, the apostles understood that the Gentiles should not have to convert to Judaism to follow God:

“For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves from such things, you will do well.” (Acts 15:28-29)

The Gentile believers would have to get along with the Jewish believers who were still following their religious laws, and these simple rules would help them. Yet the apostles saw no reason to lay the whole of the religious law upon them, just these few things and one mention of the moral code.

There are, however, some laws that were meant for all time for all people in all places. Again, these were never meant to be onerous or to steal our joy, but to enhance our peace. They are all based on a higher moral law:

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.” This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 22:37-40)

If we always love God first and foremost and love others as much as we love ourselves we won’t go wrong. All God’s rules revolve around these two principles. Again, God’s intent is always our good.

In confrontations with the religious leaders, Jesus demonstrates that God’s Law is not meant to harm us but to bring us a fuller life. The Jewish leaders were jealous that their people were following Jesus, and they wanted to accuse and entrap Him:

And it came about that He was passing through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples began to make their way along while picking the heads of grain. [The edges of fields were to be left for travelers and the poor to reap.]

And the Pharisees were saying to Him, “See here, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” [It was against God’s law to work in the fields on the Sabbath.]

And He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and became hungry, he and his companions: how he entered the house of God…and ate the consecrated bread, which is not lawful for anyone to eat except the priests, and he gave it also to those who were with him?”

And He was saying to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:23-27)

And He entered again into a synagogue; and a man was there with a withered hand. And they were watching Him to see if He would heal him on the Sabbath, in order that they might accuse Him. [It was illegal, in their minds, to doctor on the Sabbath because it is work.]

And He said to the man with the withered hand, “Rise and come forward!”

And He said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save a life or to kill? But they kept silent.

And after looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and his hand was
restored. (Mark 3:1-5)

The Pharisees had misunderstood the reason for the Law. God intended man’s good. They focused on the letter of the Law and missed the spirit. They were supposed to say “no” to work one day a week so they could say “yes” to relaxation, restoration, and time of fellowship with God and others; they were not supposed to say “no” to helping others.

On the other hand, some people have balked at obeying the “no working” rule of the Sabbath. They felt it cramped their style. They felt they could be more productive if they kept working that day instead of taking a day off. Yet God was not trying to keep them from anything, but provide for their good. He understood the bodies that He had made and knew that they would function better if they had a day off from grueling physical labor. The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.

Most of us don’t have much problem with rules like “Do not murder” and “Do not steal”. It is obvious that society functions better when we all respect the property of others and don’t kill each other. But somehow that understanding falters when God’s rules get in the way of “fun”. For example, God’s Word instructs us “Be not drunk with wine wherein is excess…” This grates on people. But God knows how bodies are designed. Excess alcohol overloads the liver, and extreme excess can kill in an alcohol overdose. More common is the experience of discovering one has behaved in a particularly embarrassing manner. God is not trying to destroy our amusement but to protect us, body and soul.

Another law our culture especially rebels against is chastity. God designed human sexuality to function most healthily in a loving, committed marriage. STDs do not affect those couples who saved themselves for marriage-- an odd concept in the era of birth control and abortion-- and are purely monogamous. The pain of betrayal and rejection does not stab one’s heart when both partners are true to their commitments to God and each other.

“Don’t lie”, “don’t gossip”, and all the rest of the “don’ts” are only extensions of God’s higher Law to love Him and to love others as ourselves. If we love ourselves we will respect our bodies and refrain from self-destructive behaviors. If we love ourselves we will not degrade ourselves and take risks with sexually transmitted diseases. If we act in love toward other people, we will not lie about them or gossip about them. If we act in love toward other people, we will consider their well being and needs when we think of our own. The rules are merely examples of what that love will look like. God’s rules may feel restrictive and confining, but they were never meant to fence us in, spoil our fun, or detract from life. Instead, they bring us greater liberty, or as Christ said, “I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly.” And in the end, life and life more abundantly are really what the rules are all about.


At 10/04/2006 11:42 PM, Blogger Paul Smith Jr. said...

Great post, Anna.

I once had a discussion with a friend about a specific moral issue with her taking the side against traditional morality. I finally asked her, "Don't you think God knows what's best for us?" That's kind of what you outlined here. All of God's laws are for our betterment even if they sometimes seems to chafe.

At 10/05/2006 9:00 AM, Blogger AnonymousOpinion said...

You know, your post reminds me of a C.S. Lewis quote:

"...Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased."

At 10/05/2006 1:26 PM, Blogger Duffy said...

It is a great irony that only with law and order is man truly free.

Your comment about the power outage for the traffic light reminds me of that 60 minutes story about how they removed any sort of traffic signs and controls from a very busy intersection in Holland and the rate of traffic accidents plummeted.

At 10/05/2006 6:34 PM, Blogger Anna Venger said...

Your comment about the power outage for the traffic light reminds me of that 60 minutes story about how they removed any sort of traffic signs and controls from a very busy intersection in Holland and the rate of traffic accidents plummeted.

Really? How interesting. I wonder why that worked like that.

Near where I live, they finally put up a traffic light because the accident and death toll was far too high. Since the light went up, I rarely see car parts strewn across the road anymore...which is a good thing. As much as I hate getting stuck at that light in the morning, I am thankful that I don't have the stress of wondering if there will be an opening and if I will make it through alive.

Of course, my post wasn't really about traffic lights, but the importance of rules...which is a huge concession from someone who really, really, really, really hates being told what to do. (Ahem, note to peanut gallery: Please be nice to Anna, here)

At 10/06/2006 8:20 AM, Blogger Duffy said...

The intersection in question was a roundabout that was in a smaller town and was notorious for accidents. They found that the number of signs, signals and other visual stimuli served to confuse people rather than help them. Cleared of the clutter, people are better able to process the scene and determine the dangers for themselves.

At 10/06/2006 4:54 PM, Blogger Anna Venger said...

I despise roundabouts.

At 10/14/2006 11:59 AM, Anonymous Nancy Willing said...

I like roundabouts because they save on gas and time.
They are one of life's big dividers some really hate them and some really love them and not much in between!!

At 6/12/2007 1:48 PM, Blogger Gary said...

I found this blog (Anna Venger, 4 October 2006) when Googling for the familiar "playground fence" story. It makes a wonderful point. I've heard variants of it used by preachers and teachers countless times. But I'm wondering if its true, or just a homiletical legend. Before I use this story, I'd like to find a solid reference for it, so I'm trying to track it down. Anna, can you help me trace a source for this story? I confess that I don't understand the culture or rules of blogging; if you could contact me at that would be very helpful.

-- Gary


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