Who Needs the Rules?

Ever get tired of the spiel that airline attendants give before takeoff and landing? "Tray tables locked and in the upright. . . " Every passenger could repeat it verbatim, but most don't even pay attention. After all, is a locked tray table going to make takeoff that much safer?

Rules irk us, especially when they seem arbitrary. Though we're raised to obey the rules — of the road, of school, of God — if we don't understand why the rules exist in the first place, we feel as though our freedom is being hindered. Parents understand this well because of the barrage of whys from children whenever Mom or Dad says no. We all want to know the why behind a rule, especially those given by God. Have you ever considered that freedom is the crucial reason behind divine rules?

"Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (2 Corinthians 3:17). Freedom — something we all long for — is part of God's nature. He wants us to be free, but He is always telling us what to do and what not to do. How do we reconcile a God who gives His people a bunch of rules with a God who desires us to be free?

These two topics — freedom and rules — may be two of the most misunderstood aspects of Christianity.

Against the grain

When God gave the Ten Commandments to the Israelites, they were just beginning their first experience with freedom. They had been slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years, which means generations had lived and died within a slave culture. Think about what they must have felt when they were freed: at first, ecstasy — then as reality set in, confusion and anxiety. These people had never had to answer questions such as:

  • Where do I work?
  • Where should I live?
  • How do I own land?
  • What if someone takes something I want?
  • What do I do if I don't like someone?

Freedom was a new concept. So into that chaos God reminded them of who He is and where they just came from: "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" (Exodus 20:2). Then He gave them commandments to help them learn to live in freedom and remain there.

They needed to know that only one God should be worshiped; they must not return to the bondage of other gods. They needed to know that respect for others' lives, property and families allowed everyone in their community to enjoy their newfound liberty. They needed to know that stealing, cheating and lying would only put them back into bondage to their selfish desires.

This was just the beginning of God revealing freedom to humanity. When He sent Christ to earth hundreds of years later, He set the stage for all people to find freedom in Him.

These two topics — freedom and rules — may be two of the most misunderstood aspects of Christianity.

Accept or reject?

Each of us was once a slave to sin, but Christ's death and resurrection brought freedom. Now that we're free to obey God, do we understand why He demands certain actions and attitudes from us?

To start, God's rules reflect His nature, His character. Some of those reflections are easy to understand. We don't murder because God is the creator and protector of life. We aren't dishonest because God is the author of truth. Rules like these clearly keep our relationships free and trusting, so it's easy to accept them.

But many other rules aren't so easy to understand. For example, why are we commanded not to forsake meeting together with other believers (Hebrews 1O:24-25)? Wouldn't just praising God at home or listening to a sermon on the radio be sufficient on a Sunday? Yet by meeting with other Christians, we encourage each other and hold one another accountable to avoid sin, to love and to do good deeds.

When we don't understand God's rules, our response will be either to embrace the rules as if keeping them were the chief end of our spiritual life or to reject them as unimportant or arbitrary. These beliefs reveal themselves in the following attitudes:

    I am going to measure my spiritual success and other people's relationship with God by our ability to keep His rules. As long as I'm keeping the rules, God and I are OK.

With this mind-set, we start to see God as a controlling slave master — the opposite of who He really is. We fear disobeying His rules and losing our standing with Him. We then take this approach with others. If they don't follow the rules, we judge their worthiness as a Christian. Sound familiar?

This is the religious setting Christ came into when He started His ministry in Palestine. The Pharisees, who were exceptional at keeping God's commands — as well as their own created rules — had forgotten that the Law was put in place to bring Israel freedom. They had turned it into a bondage of judgment and pride.

    God didn't really mean "Don't do that." Rules are just for people who don't have maturity and common sense. I'm different; I have a free relationship with God.

This attitude allows us to overlook the truth that even though we want to be free, slavery feels most natural. We get deceived into thinking that doing whatever we desire is liberty when in reality it is enslavement to the wiles of the Enemy,

Embracing freedom

"It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1). When God tells us to do something or not do something, it is because He has set us free and He wants to teach us to live as free people.

As you grow in your faith, consider the commands of God and ask this question: How does this teach me to be free from bondage, or how would observing this command keep me free?

Until you can understand God's commands in a context of freedom, you won't keep them for the right reasons, and you won't be able to help others find the freedom God offers. But when you understand His loving purpose in giving us commands, you can obey Him for the right reasons and be excited about freeing others.

Even airline rules exist for a reason. If you understand that the guidelines for takeoff and landing are to allow passengers a quick, clear exit in case of an emergency evacuation, then you might be more interested in listening to the flight attendant.

Taken from Focus on the Family magazine, August 2007.
Article copyright © 2007, Jonathan Cleveland.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
Used by permission.

Jonathan Cleveland is a pastor at Pulpit Rock Church in
Colorado Springs, Colorado.