About two weeks ago, I battled a ten day migraine. I don’t usually get migraines, and when I do have something of a headache, I can usually push through or shake it off. But this one took me out – for days. It hit me hard and full-throttle, and made me lay my head down any time Emerson was down for a nap (causing Austin to exclaim, WOW you must REALLY not feel well – ha!).
I tried a lot of different remedies (and, truth be told, I’m not looking for them here), but it wasn’t until a trip to my chiropractor that I made any headway. Because I hadn’t been there in a few months, he asked if I had any new stress in life. Well, let’s see – a toddler who won’t nap, two full time jobs, church planting through 2020 … But my pride betrayed me, and I stuck with my usual lie: “Nothing in particular comes to mind!”
He told me that I was clenching my jaw at night, and after a very weird, very painful jaw massage, he told me that tight jaw muscles were causing my headaches. These little clenching muscles, were tightening the muscular structure around my skull, and making my head pound for days on end. The massage, he said, would help in the short run, but there were some rules he was sending me away with – rules that would likely enable these muscles to remain relaxed.
Most of them were fine. One of them was stupid.
The third rule on the list was this: no chewing gum.
I suppose it makes sense. But it was an annoying rule. Seemingly trivial and nothing to be bothered by … except that I was bothered. I was irritated that I couldn’t pop a piece of gum in my mouth, as is my habit just about every time I get in the car. The rule took away a little bit of freedom that I enjoyed. It was a small limitation, but one that I would experience every time I clicked my seatbelt in place post-appointment.
Rules of Relationships
You and I have likely heard this mantra: We are a people who tend to dislike rules. We bend away from them, not toward them. We resist limitations and limits. We hear rules imposed on us, and our natural instinct to fight them kicks in. We don’t want to be limited.
But the biblical portrait of reality paints a slightly different picture. While it is true that humans kick against restrictions, the Bible reminds us that this hasn’t always been the case. In fact, humans were made to thrive in relationship. And all relationships have rules.
The first man and woman were given paradise restrictions. They were rules that would enable and allow them to flourish in God’s good creation. Obeyed and delighted in, these rules would serve as guardrails that kept them on the path of life and kept their feet from walking toward death.
Rules and relationships were always meant to go hand-in-hand. Which is why, when man and woman first broke God’s command, their relationship with God (and all of creation), shattered as a result.
God’s commands – ever since the very beginning – have been commands that give context and structure to our relationship with him, and invite us deeper into the heart of God. After the fall, God reaches out to his people in covenant relationship – offering them hope of life and relationship with him. These covenants were an invitation to live in communion with him, but they were not without rules.
Through the Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants of the Old Testament, God’s people were invited into relationship with him. God gave them commands that would lead to their flourishing and enable them to commune with him. God’s covenantal promises encapsulated two primary promises: if they would follow his commands, he would bless them; if they did not, they would receive just consequences.
Over and over God assures them: they would be his people, and he would be their God – that covenantal language was the undergirding of their entire relationship. As God’s people followed his commands, God kept his promise to bless them; as they broke his commands, well, he kept his promises, there, too.
Created for Covenant
A friend recently asked me about homosexuality. After having so many friends deconstruct their faith and affirm same-sex relationships as holy, she was starting to wonder about this aspect of God’s Word. The crux of her questioning: the counseling patients she sees who cannot remember a time when they were not attracted to someone of their own sex, and they have no desire to be in a romantic relationship with someone of the opposite sex. As she heard the Christian voices in conservative circles insist that God created men and women for heterosexuality, she started to wonder if they were missing the point altogether.
I think these voices have gotten one thing wrong: we were not created for heterosexuality, but we were created for covenant. We were created to be in relationship with God – and to do it on his terms. We were made to commune with God and walk in his ways. We were created for covenant – and covenants have rules.
Here is a part of Scripture that we simply can’t dance around: God commands his people to obey him and follow his ways. He invites them into relationship with himself and by his own sacrifice, and let me say this loud and clear it is never our obedience that saves us. But God’s invitation of salvation leads us into relationship with himself and ushers us into covenant with him – a covenant of rules that we, by the power of his indwelling Spirit, will delight to obey.
Bucking the Rules, Seeking False Life
Anytime followers of Jesus buck against his rules, we do it to our own detriment. As Eugene Peterson so aptly put it, when we follow God’s ways, we go “with the grain of the universe.” When we walk according to God’s commands, we walk in the path that he has promised will lead us to flourishing. As we are faithful to walk in his ways, we walk in his path of blessing. And, when we go against his commands and against the grain, we bound to get splinters.
Underneath my desire to not follow rules – my chiropractor’s or others – is my desire to be my own authority. I want to rule myself and will resist any other rule in my life. I want to seek life on my own terms. That’s my sinful impulse. But it’s not what I was created for. When it comes to God’s commands and his authority in my life, it is my greatest good. I only rebel in a vain attempt to seek life on my own terms (and I always find it to be a false version of the life that I seek); I only break God’s commands to my own detriment.
Rules, Rules Everywhere
Every healthy relationship has rules. Whether or not we acknowledge or voice them, we often know what they are. It’s the unspoken (or sometimes spoke) arrangement between two roommates on what to do with plates in the sink or what “should” go in that drawer in the fridge. It’s the arrangement between two spouses about what part of their personal struggle is shared publicly, and what is considered private. It’s the agreement between co-workers and bosses, servers and restaurant guests, the government and tax payers – rules undergird literally every aspect of our lives.
But only God’s rules contain a promise – that as we follow him, we will be walking in the ways that are best for us. God’s rules make us feel small and unauthoritative in the most ultimate sense, yes – but that is our greatest good.