Friday, November 30, 2012

Good rules, bad rules, and the human impasse

I went to a Bible Study group the other day and we talked about the Law. You know, the Big Ten. The study we were working with started us out thinking about the Law by presenting a little story about an adopted child. This little girl was from an impoverished country. The adopting parents, I suppose relatively prosperous Americans, adopt the girl and give her a good home, with lots of love but also the usual rules of family life. In time the little girl begins to chaff against these rules, which so often seem to deny her what she wants most. She forgets what her adopting parents had saved her from, and she fails to realize that these rules protect her as she grows, are good for her, and are driven by love.

After this little parable, which of course is designed to mirror the story of God and His people, we Bible Study participants were encouraged to answer questions like this: “Think back to your own childhood. What did the rules of your home (or lack of them) communicate to you about your parents? If you have children now, how do the rules you set for your house convey something about who you are and what kind of life you desire for your children?”

Well, plenty of discussion ensued about rules, and, who knows, maybe it's just a Southern Baptist thing to sit in a circle and talk about how rules are good and important and we have to have rules and rules mean we love our children enough to want to protect them, etc. There was some reminiscing about the rules of our childhood homes, and even some mention of punishment when the rules were broken. Here the implication was that though the punishment might have hurt we now understand that rule-breaking must have consequences and it was all driven by love, and anyway children must be given boundaries.

The discussion never got around to the little matter of bad rules. Rules that are not love-driven. Of all the rules in the world, all the rules even in a family, one wonders how many are love-driven and how many are driven by lots of other things. More on that in a moment.

As I see it, the Bible Study needed a focus-adjustment. First, the story of the adoptive child from an impoverished country with the loving adoptive parents and their love-driven rules, paralleling the story of God's law and His chosen people, sets us up to think of rules in a generally positive light. The problem in some families, it seems, is the lack of rules (rather than maybe bad rules and bad enforcement).

And then of course we have the child chaffing against the rules and wanting freedom from these seemingly unfair limitations. That's just children for you, right? This realistic portrayal of the human condition (like Adam and Eve, we are eventually inclined to chaff against the rules) is applied to the rebellious child, but--interestingly enough--not to the rule-making parents, whose rules we are never encouraged to question.

The material never encouraged us to think about rules carefully, but the fact is that the problem of bad rules driven by other things than love is a major piece in the puzzle we call the human condition. Now, as adult parents, we have probably spent a lot of time justifying our rules to our children. We're not inclined to think discerningly about how we ourselves may be a part of the problem. Our study material should have nudged us in that direction, at least. What is really the motivation behind all our rule-making and the nature of our rule-enforcing? May be it's at least as tinged with sin as the child's supposed inclination to rebel against them?

We need to think more carefully about this matter of rebellion, because if rules are not always inherently good, then rebellion against rules may not always be inherently bad. In fact, the problem associated with rebellion is not rebelliousness itself so much as that which we choose to rebel against. The choice in question is not between rules on the one hand (insert rosy picture here), and rebellion on the other (under the guise of freedom, painted in bright colors at the start, but turning bleak soon thereafter), but in fact between good rules and bad rules. Even the devil, after all, loves rules, as long as they are his own rules. In rules and rule-making and rule-enforcing we find much temptation and much sinning.

Well, ever since the Fall, authority has always been a problem for us. Authority is the devil's playground, methinks. The great problem we have, here in the midst of our fallen condition, is that it is precisely because we are fallen that authority, power, rule-making, is highly valued and eagerly sought. In this wilderness to which we have been banished, we fear death, we fear weakness, and so our instinct is toward power. Blessed are the meek, Jesus says, but every fiber of our being reacts against that notion with vigor. Blessed are the winners, we secretly believe. Blessed are the powerful. Blessed are the rule-makers and the rule-enforcers. That's how we live. We seek out ways to wield power for our own selfish purposes (self-love-driven rules rather than other-love-driven rules) and become, in our little worlds, as far as we are able, the rule-makers. This is not to suggest that rules are inherently bad (big mistake, that) but to suggest that every rule-maker that has ever lived, from the Caesars down to dear old Dad, was a deeply sinful individual whose rule-making was consequently deeply tinged by sin.

This is not to privilege rebellion as a better or more noble option than obedience. Our rebellion is tinged by sin as well. But the Bible Study material was inclined to see and name the sin in rebellion, but to ignore the problem of sin as it relates to rule-making. We're encouraged to be unquestioning about the sins of authority, but discerning only about the sinfulness of rebellion. And when this blueprint is applied to the family, it allows us to cast a cozy patina of good intentions over what we ourselves as parents do. We flatter ourselves that our rule-making is entirely love-driven, but I think Jesus would have us wonder, “Is it really?” It is not particularly Christian to remain comfortably convinced of the righteousness of our intentions.

In the end this kind of attitude leads to a Leave It To Beaver portrait of family life. But what we know is that fallen people make faulty rules and often enforce those rules with sinful motivation. Kids whom we describe as rebelling against the rules may have simply come to understand the household situation keenly. The particular form of their rebellion may not be justified, but their exegesis of parental motivation may be right on the money. I think we run the risk of justifying much of the sinfulness that lies behind our rule-enforcing with these unstated but undergirding presumptions about parental rule-making and childhood rebellion. Our teaching here almost leans to an apologetic for Phariseeism.

In the interests of those people over whom we wield authority ourselves, we ought to be very careful about how we think about rules and rule-making. We have to be wary of these things. Wary of power, because it really does have a corrupting influence, even on parents. So I would always want to add, right after we declare that rules are necessary and kids need rules, etc. (all true), that we still need to be very careful that all our rule-making doesn't go to our heads, because where we wield authority, as parents do over their children, there is going to be a need for vigilant self-examination. Parents, I would suggest, have a particularly hard time being Godly, although they often feel like playing God. The temptations inherent in their situation as parents are bedeviling and subtle, so we shouldn't let ourselves off the hook too easily here.

As I've said, the choice is not between rules and no rules, and similarly it is not between obedience and rebellion. Obedience is a word we Christians associate with faith, and so it often carries a positive connotation for us. But again the question is, obedience to what? The choice is really between good and Godly and “love-driven” authority, and sinful love-absent authority.

When we presume good intentions of rule-makers (a significantly un-Christian understanding of the human condition) we follow up with the corresponding presumption that therefore obedience is the rightful response. Obedience good, rebellion bad. But if our rules and our rule-enforcing are in fact tainted by sin themselves, we ought to be careful about ascribing sin to only the rebellion side of that equation.

All of which leads us to a kind of impasse. Since our wielding of authority is problematic at best, our obedience is therefore problematic, and our disobedience (driven by the same troubling motivators that lay behind our the authorities against which we rebel) is problematic. And therefore recognizing our “impasse” is exactly where we should wind up if we're thinking accurately about authority and obedience. We are brought, as usual, to an impasse. An untenable position. A position, in other words, where both the rule-makers and the rule-breakers are in need of a savior.

Here's another way of saying it. As rulers and as followers we find ourselves in this same position: we do the wrong thing that we know enough not to do, and we don't do the right thing that we want to do. What an impasse! In words that may seem overwrought, too impassioned, too blunt (because we think of ourselves as essentially nice people) Paul cries out, “Who shall save me from this body of death?”

It's Jesus of course. My obedience, such as it is, grows only from my faith, such as it is, in what Christ has done for me. If I want to be obedient (and I do) my cry should be, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” Then perhaps even my ruling will be as obedient as my following.

1 comment:

nance said...

I am grateful for these thoughts that you have written out. It adds a lot of understanding to my own daily, real-life situations.