Actress Mackenzie Phillips confessed this week to a 10 year incestuous relationship with her father, pop superstar John Phillips. In an interview with Oprah, Phillips said of her father, “He was a man who lived in a world where the rules didn’t apply.”
Didn’t they? By her own confession the fact that her father broke “the rules” at her expense brought her nothing but pain, shame, and confusion. John Phillips might have pretended otherwise, but the sad results speak for themselves. Running headlong against the tide of common decency devastated his daughter’s life. In the end, we never break the laws of God, we simply demonstrate them.
This week, ABC’s “Nightline” begins a series of reports on “The Ten Commandments,” the fundamental life instructions handed down to us in the Jewish and Christian scriptures (Exodus 20). These, simple and straightforward boundaries around human behavior stipulate what “shall not” be in our lives – meaning that we’re free to do and be anything other than these 10 restrictions.
So what business is it of God to make rules and to hold us to them? Can we opt out? Can we, like John Phillips invent our own way of life?
It seems that there are two kinds of “laws.” One category is arbitrary and personally imposed and enforced. The other is descriptive and universal. When I was pulled over and ticketed for doing 47 in a 35-mile per hour zone a “law” was enforced by one of Minneapolis’ finest, and my bank account paid the price. This law was created and enforced by humans seeking to create a safe social environment. I chose to break that law; they chose to enforce it.
On the other hand, when I fell off a ladder last year no police officer came along to enforce the “law” of gravity. Gravity didn’t need enforcement help, and I paid the price with a twisted ankle. “Laws of nature” do not prescribe action, they describe action. I don’t break gravity, I demonstrate it.
The question here: Are the laws of God given as the Ten Commands the first or second type of law? Are they arbitrary decisions like a posted speed limit drafted and enforced personally, or are they descriptions of the way things are?
I believe they are the latter. I don’t think it’s possible, in the end, to break the Ten Commands. Instead, if we go against them, they break us – Ala John and Mackenzie Phillips. We demonstrate their reality, we don’t, we can’t create our own reality.
God, the Designer has mercifully given us a manual explaining his engineering principles. When I bought new car I had the manufacturer’s guidebook in the glove box to tell me how often and with what products to change the oil. These are the “laws” for how the car was designed. I’m perfectly free to ignore them and put sand in my engine instead of 10w40. But I’ll pay the price. No engine-oil police come to arrest me for stupidity; the car will punish me itself.
In the same way God’s stipulations about sex, respecting other people’s stuff, telling the truth, maintaining balance in our schedules do not prescribe, they describe. I can ignore the fact I’m made to live with intervals of rest (as in “Keep the Sabbath”) but I’ll blow an emotional or physical gasket as a result. These laws are God’s way of mercifully telling us ahead of time how to manage the life he loans us.
There are two ways to learn life lessons: We experiment and learn from experience, or we listen and learn from other people’s experiences – better yet, from the ultimate Authority behind life itself game. Life is painfully short. By God’s good grace we can learn his ground rules from the start, assuming of course we resist the temptation to make up our own.
Here’s a prayer for strength to accept and apply God’s standards in our lives:
“God, we thank you for creating our lives and giving us the gift of choice. We thank you too that you have not left us alone, to learn by trial and error what will and what will not work. You have given us clear guidelines. They are not complicated, or long, or too restrictive. Give us the grace to know them, accept them as true, and the strength to keep them. We know that our impulse is to go our own way. We will in fact do that. When we break your laws, forgive us and cover the consequences, and instead, give us your strength to fulfill the very things you require of us. We ask you humbly to bless our lives. We ask for power to live as you have designed and intended. And we’ll thank you for the results!”