Many people believe God's laws restrict us, but Garth Bainbridge says that they actually give us freedom.
In Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Mandalay,” a soldier hankers after his carefree days of service in the Far East and a particular woman he left there. The memories are stimulated by the “gritty pavin’-stones” of London and “the blasted Henglish drizzle.”
Once you’ve been there, he says, “you won’t ’eed nothin’ else but them spicy garlic smells, an’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple bells.” And he cries out, “Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst, where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst.”
Many people today would agree with Kipling’s soldier. They think of the Ten Commandments as a list of “thou shalt nots” that restrict their freedom and rob them of their pleasure. They would prefer to be far removed from an accusing voice telling them they’ve failed to obey God’s laws. Even some Christians believe that the Ten Commandments belong to a bygone era and no longer have any authority over us whatsoever!
Yet the apostle Paul, the New Testament’s greatest thinker and writer, said that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). And James, Jesus’ own brother, called the Ten Commandments “the law that gives freedomt” (James 2:12).
Born To Be Wrong
Why do so many people have such a strong aversion to a law that is “holy, righteous and good”—a law that makes us free? What is it about the Ten Commandments that makes us want to get as far away from them as possible?
Perhaps the problem isn’t with God’s law at all but with us. Paul gave us the answer: “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin” (Romans 7:14). A few sentences later, he said the basic issue is that “the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so” (Romans 8:7).
There is in us a deeply rooted inclination toward mischief and misbehaviour, so that it comes far more naturally for us to do wrong rather than right. Indeed, so much is this the pattern of our lives that Paul called it “the law of sin at work” in us (Romans 7:23). He said we are slaves to this way of behaving, even against our better judgement: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (verse 15).
The confusion is that we know what’s right and we agree that it is right, but we easily and repeatedly do the opposite. “So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin” (verse 25).
Our minds are captive to God’s law, which we know to be good; but our hearts are captive to another law, the law of sin. And more often than not, we go with our hearts rather than with our minds.
The Good Law
How can we resolve this inner conflict? Let’s begin by looking at why Paul described God’s Ten Commandments—birthed out of God’s great heart of love—as good.
God wants us to live happy lives, to engage in the healthiest of relationships and to be at peace with Him, ourselves and others. The Ten Commandments give us the secret of life at its best. The psalmist wrote, “Great peace have they who love your law, and nothing can make them stumble” (Psalm 119:165).
Long ago, God said to His people, “I am the Lord your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go. If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river, your righteousness like the waves of the sea” (Isaiah 48:17, 18).
The function of God’s law is to point out and define sin. The sins we commit are nothing more or less than expressions of our inner brokenness and God, in His law, makes us aware of the seriousness of perpetuating that cycle.
Sin isn’t bad just because God said so. It’s bad because it’s so destructive of our peace, our wellbeing and all our relationships.
Paul said, “I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet’ ” (Romans 7:7).
Examining The Ten
Every one of the Ten Commandments expresses God’s wisdom and love. Let’s examine them to see why they make sense:
The First Commandment says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). With good reason! Every other “god” we could invent would be a dead-end street in our search for happiness and fulfilment. They cannot satisfy the deep and real longings of our broken hearts. Only the true God can fill the space in our hearts that’s made to be filled by Him alone.
The Second Commandment forbids the worship of idols: “You shall not make for yourself an idol” (verse 4). History shows that the most detestable practices, such as sexual orgies and human sacrifices, have often accompanied the worship of idols, dragging whole nations into degradation. The Bible mocks idolatry. Carved idols, it says, “know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand” (Isaiah 44:18).
God cannot be contained in some image crafted by us, nor can we know the Living God through a dead object. God can only be truly known by faith, connecting our spirits to His. Spiritual things are spiritually discerned (see 1 Corinthians 2:14).
The Third Commandment says, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God” (verse 7). It’s irrational to use God’s name as a curse. Even worse is uttering it as part of a magic formula for making Him a personal genie, especially when we do things in His name that totally misrepresent His character. We should hold His name in the highest regard.
The Fourth Commandment is about the Sabbath. It says, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” (verse 8). The Sabbath invites us into a special intimacy with God. At the end of the Creation week, “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done” (Genesis 2:3). Now He calls us to rest with Him.
Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The Sabbath was made to meet our continual need for rest, both physical and spiritual. The Sabbath reminds us that only in a relationship with God, our Creator and Redeemer, can we experience true rest for our restlessness. “For anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his” (Hebrews 4:10).
The Fifth Commandment tells us to “honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (verse 12). A country and its people are only as safe as its families are intact. The most basic contributor to our mental and emotional wellbeing is healthy home relationships. As we treat our parents, so we will treat others with whom we come into a relationship.
The Sixth commandment says, “You shall not murder” (verse 13). What a world we’d live in if anyone could kill anyone else whenever they wanted to! Fortunately, most of us don’t go around killing other people. However, Jesus said that we violate this commandment when we hate someone (Matthew 5:21, 22). And the truth is that most actual murders are prompted by hatred. How much better the world is when we all care about each other instead of holding resentments! The sixth commandment really does make sense.
The Seventh commandment says, “You shall not commit adultery” (verse 14). While most people are faithful to their spouses, Jesus also expanded our understanding of this commandment. He said that for a man to look on a woman lustfully is the same as committing actual adultery with her (Matthew 5:27, 28). The stability of families depends on husbands and wives being sexually faithful to each other. The seventh commandment is essential to a well-ordered society. Adultery often presents itself to our bewitched minds as an attractive option. But by condemning it, God is turning us away from a pathway of pain and the destruction of all that is precious to us, leaving behind a trail of broken hearts.
The Eighth Commandment says, “You shall not steal” (verse 15). Some people own more things than others, but each of us wants to protect whatever property we have. God understands that and He gave the eighth commandment to protect us from the thieves and robbers who would gladly appropriate for themselves everything we own.
The Ninth Commandment says, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour” (verse 16). The judicial system of Israel rested on the testimony of at least two or three witnesses. This command protects the integrity of the courts; but, at a personal level, it forbids gossip and the wilful blackening of another’s good name.
The Tenth Commandment says, “You shall not covet” (verse 17). Most of the other commandments deal with our actions, but this one deals with our motives and desires. We covet when we want to use God’s Sabbath time for ourselves. We covet when we try to damage another person’s reputation or wish we had as nice a house or car as they have. In a very real sense, this tenth commandment summarises the other nine. Jesus warned that life doesn’t consist in what we possess but in our relationship to God and our service to others (Luke 12:16–21).
God’s law is indeed “holy, righteous and good” (Romans 7:12) but it can’t make us good! That isn’t its function. We don’t become good by doing good. We do good as we become good and that takes a miracle—and our God is a God of miracles!
The greatest miracle is a changed life, which is precisely what He promises to do for us: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws” (Ezekiel 36:26, 27). He says, “I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts” (Hebrews 8:10).
Our natural human nature, which is so antagonistic to God’s law, is supplanted by a new nature, created in us by the Spirit, whose converting action implants that law in our new hearts.
When that happens, God’s law, His Ten Commandments, ceases to be oppressive and restrictive. Instead, it sets us free of the sins and addictions that truly restrict us.
And that’s why the psalmist could say that he delighted in God’s law (Psalm 1:2).