Children love the edges of things and so they build their castles on the shore. It’s the lines, the edges, that bring definition and beauty. Without the lines, life is a formless void.
The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance. (Psalm 16:6)
The lines matter. We need the rules and know they are important.
But it’s just because they are so important that we have a tendency to multiply the lines and pile up the rules.
For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little. (Isaiah 28:10)
Or as the New International Version puts it, “a rule for this, a rule for that”. And so we pile on the rules, rob the weary of rest (Isaiah 28:13) and burden one another with a heavy load (Matthew 23:4).
Rules are like fences. They provide security and keep us from going over the cliff. This explains why we become anxious or fearful when those rules are taken away.
This phenomenon was brought home a number of years ago in a series of experiments conducted in school playgrounds. While the fences were in place the children typically moved to the edges and played freely across the whole yard. When they removed the fences the children all huddled toward the middle of the playground and rarely explored the newly opened area.
Without the fences, the world suddenly became more threatening. Especially when the rules are man-made. Especially when the rules are their rules.
We see this in our own day where rules about personal space, masks and lockdowns are mandated and then later relaxed. Things that weren’t even sins ten minutes ago suddenly begin to make us feel like transgressors. Should I stand here? Can I breathe? may I touch?
Our lunch, said Chesterton, should change daily and what should remain unchanging are our morals and principles. But we have it all backward. Our principles change by the hour but our lunch remains fixed. No salt, no sugar, no fats! And my sandwiches must be cut in four. These are the rules!
But love for neighbour, truth, liberty, well, it depends.
God has given us good rules and they are helpful when they are drawn from unchanging principles and applied in the right places. But the rules are always secondary, always negotiable. The principles are not.
And so, as important as the rules are, the Christian life is not a life lived by the rules. It is a life governed by a few great and unchanging principles from which we apply the rule for the hour. Charity, truth-telling, fear of the Lord and love for neighbour. These are the glorious unchanging principles that we consult in order to apply, with wisdom, the rule of the hour.
And so Jesus healed on the Sabbath, refused to call Caesar Lord, yet still paid Caesar’s taxes.
I saw this play out beautifully in the lead up to a recent wedding. At the bucks party, the wine and the beer flowed freely. True charity, true hospitality.
At the wedding reception a few days later there was no beer and no wine. This was also true charity and true love for neighbour.
The Pharisee in each of us wants to pound a multitude of unchanging rules into every corner of life and feels threatened when King David breaks ranks by feeding his hungry men with the bread of the altar (Mark 2:24-27).
But the wise are learning to love – and be governed by – a few great and glorious principles, hammered into every changing moment.