By William M. Cwirla
“Rules, rules, and more rules! All you want to do is take the fun out of my life!” It’s a common complaint from teenagers to their parents. Parents seem to be into making and enforcing rules; kids seem to be into stretching and breaking them.
Is this how it is with our Father who is in heaven? Is God just a big rule-making, rule-enforcing parent who wants to squeeze the last bit of joy and fun out of His children? Are the Ten Commandments nothing more than ten ways to poop on our party?
Do This; Don’t Do That
We’re accustomed to thinking of the Ten Commandments in terms of dos and don’ts. We should fear and love God so that we don’t do certain things and do other things. Because we do not fear, love, and trust in God above all things, as we should, we don’t do the things we should, and we do the things we shouldn’t (Romans 7:15-16). As we who dare to be Lutheran like to say, “Lex semper accusat” (the Law always accuses).
This is the chief purpose of the Law–to show us our sin, to shut up our mouths before God, to amplify sin to utter sinfulness–so that we are driven to Jesus Christ, to His death and resurrection, to the righteousness He gives us through His blood, to our Baptism, to Absolution, to the Supper.
But the commandments are not just rules we can’t keep, nor are they principles to make us happy, healthy, and wealthy. They are each a protective fence built around a gift from God. Look at it this way. Sin takes a good gift from God and uses it against God. Sin takes the gift of sex and uses it against God outside of marriage. Sin takes the good gift of wine and uses it against God in drunkenness. The commandments guard against the wrong use of the gifts and describe their right use for our own blessing.
The First Commandment is “You shall have no other gods. “What does this mean? “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things. “What is the gift around which the commandment is built? God. God is the ultimate gift. We don’t create our gods; God creates us. We don’t choose God; God chooses us. He is the ultimate gift from which all other gifts flow.
Idolatry Is a Dead End
Luther says where the First Commandment is kept, all other commandments are kept. Where the gift of God is received, all other gifts from God are rightly received and enjoyed, too. Idolatry takes the gifts of God and turns them into gods. In Romans 1, the apostle Paul describes the root of all idolatry as the exchange of the creation for the Creator. Without God, we will make creation into a god, and give her divine attributes, and even call her “Mother Nature.” We might make a created thing a god. Or we might just fear, love, and trust in something above God.
The girl who idolizes her good looks never enjoys how she looks. The boy who idolizes his athletic skill never enjoys his sport. The person who has made money his idol never enjoys his riches for a moment. The person who idolizes his work or her family never enjoys them out of fear of losing them. No thing and no person can support the weight of being a god. When we make something or someone our idol, we will eventually break them.
People sometimes say, “I put God first, family second, school or work third, and so on.” But that just makes God one of a list of gods. He wants to be God alone for us. That’s why the First Commandment is central rather than first. God must be at the center of our family, our work, our play, as well as our worship, not just first on a list. Without God in the center, that thing becomes an idol. Only God can be at the center.
God Pursues Us
God is a jealous God who zealously pursues us and wants us all to Himself. He tolerates no other god in His face, because He has turned His face to us in His Son Jesus. In God’s jealousy, we also see His love, a love that lays down His life as a Servant to save us. He baptizes us–declares us dead and alive in Jesus, forgives us, feeds us, and gives us a new mind, a new way of looking at ourselves, at God, and at the things around us.
To have God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–is to have every good gift from God in the way He wishes to give them: His Name, His Word, authority, life, sex, property, reputation, contentment. His commandments guard these gifts and teach us their right use. Instead of taking the fun out of life, the commandments guard the enjoyment and blessing God intends when He gives His gifts.
Rev. William M. Cwirla is the pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Hacienda Heights, CA, and is a president emeritus of Higher Things.
This article was originally published in the spring 2008 issue of Higher Things Magazine.