Imagine God on Mount Sinai, waiting for Moses to come that last 100 yards to receive the 10 commandments. This is, of course, the omniscient, omnipresent God of the Bible. Even before the tablets are carved He knows how fundamental the Ten Commandments will be for mankind, and you are a fly on the wall watching this monumental moment transpire.
He opens his mouth, and begins…
“I am the Lord your God, who delivered you from Egypt, from the house of bondage.
Seem a little… lack-luster? Prosaic? Utilitarian? I mean, for the creative genius behind the conception of heaven and earth and all things that in them are, this struck me as rather unimaginative at first.
His one-line introduction, His elevator pitch preview to some of the best known, most studied, and most debated scripture and this is it? It certainly isn’t what I would have picked. I mean, with an international audience in mind (especially one spanning across several millennia), delivering Israel from Egypt isn’t exactly the most relevant example of God’s power, or the most impressive. Why not introduce Himself as the God who created the Heavens and the Earth? That would be more widely applicable AND way more impressive.
Then again, maybe God wasn’t trying to impress us.
So then, why?
I believe that our Creator doesn’t make mistakes. The Mount Sinai moment didn’t sneak up and catch Him unprepared. He said what He said on purpose, so why say this? Perhaps He was sharing something that really matters to Him, describing Himself the way He hopes we will remember Him: as the God who delivers. The God that makes men free.
True freedom comes from laws?
That may seem like a strange idea. Thoughts of God do not always conjure feelings of freedom, especially when juxtaposed with a list of “THOU SHALT NOT…’s”. Hasty analysis sometimes leads us to conclude that freedom means an absence of rules. How can you really be free with somebody else giving you commands?
This opinion is fed by the thousands of bad laws that have been created over the course of human history, sometimes on accident, and sometimes intended to manipulate, control, enslave, and even destroy others.
I’m not talking about those kind of laws. I’m talking about perfect laws… Laws that reflect things as they really are.
Take the law of gravity, for instance. We are literally stuck here on Earth thanks to gravity. Talk about a limiting law. Mankind’s dreams of flight were thwarted for thousands of years because of this thing. And gravity isn’t just a dream-killer. Literally thousands of people have died from gravity. What kind of monster thought up this nightmare?
And yet, no one with any kind of understanding of the law of gravity would seriously suggest trying to get rid of it. In an article titled “Gravity Hurts (So Good)” http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2001/ast02aug_1/) NASA describes the negative effects that come to astronauts following exstensive time in a gravity-free environment. “Gravity hurts: you can feel it hoisting a loaded backpack or pushing a bike up a hill. But lack of gravity hurts, too: when astronauts return from long-term stints in space, they sometimes need to be carried away in stretchers. Gravity is not just a force, it’s also a signal — a signal that tells the body how to act.”
And hey, as mankind has learned more about the law of gravity… followed the signals… mankind has also found ways to defy gravity… to fly… to explore space and to circumnavigate the negative consequences.
So perhaps freedom doesn’t come from getting rid of laws, but rather from perfectly understanding the laws.
Is God a tyrant?
There are so many incomplete assumptions about God and his commandments. One prevalent idea is that God gives us commandments to test us… to see if we love Him enough to jump through a series of hoops. Another is the idea that God gives us commandments to keep us safe, which pairs perfectly with the assertion that God sits in His heaven doling out punishment to each being that crosses Him. Each of these ideas carries with it an ounce of the truth, but when contrasted with what we know about the character of God they do not entirely make sense.
In my opinion we put too much stock in the idea that God makes the rules. I think it would be more accurate to say that the rules make God. Or rather, that the forces God put into motion to bring about the conditions of our lives can also work against His purpose to destroy us, and therefore he works hard to make us aware of those forces.
In some ways the laws of God do test us. They test our faith and test our self-control. These are good and useful side-effects, but this is not all the commandments are intended to do.
In some ways the laws of God are intended to keep us safe. To keep us from breaking ourselves against the forces that made it possible for us to come here… to keep us from stunting our growth in eternity because of our limited perspective. But God did not send us to Earth in order to keep us safe. Ask anyone who has lived life following the word of God and I’m betting they would all tell you there were moments that did not feel particularly safe. Ultimately, even Jesus Christ Himself, the only truly obedient child God here on earth, found God’s commandments leading Him a long, long way from safe ground.
In some ways it does seem like God is quick to punish. As if He looks for reasons to condemn us. But we know that our loving Father in Heaven is not a malicious being. Perhaps the consequences we face when we sin, painful though they may be, serve the more important purpose of sending us a signal… “a signal that tells [us] how to act.”
Eyes to see.
One of my favorite quotes is from the great teacher Anne Sullivan. At a very young age and with almost no training, she was hired to teach Helen Keller, a young child who had been deaf and blind from 18-months of age. When Anne was hired I’m sure it was difficult for Helen’s parents to settle upon suitable expectations for their daughter’s education. What could they really hope to accomplish? Anne Sullivan certainly couldn’t teach her to see. She couldn’t teach her to hear. MAYBE she could teach her to communicate, but that was a pretty big maybe. It was probably easier to settle upon obedience as the ultimate goal… to simply hope this teacher could tame the beast. Keep Helen from hitting, biting, screaming, kicking, putting her fingers in other people’s food, ripping other’s clothing etc. As it happens, such obedience was only possible for someone who was willing to be a tyrant toward Helen. Willing to enforce ridiculous-seeming rules upon an innocent child who had no way of understanding them.
Luckily for Helen, teaching Helen obedience was never the ultimate goal for Anne Sullivan. She was willing to be the tyrant that forced Helen to wash her hands and use a fork and do all of the other things civilization expected, but only as a means to teach Helen communication and relationships. She was willing to do the difficult and painful job of disciplining Helen in order to open her mind to all the other wonderful things the world had to offer her. Anne Sullivan said:
“I have thought about it a great deal, and the more I think, the more certain I am that obedience is the gateway through which Knowledge, yes, and love, too, enter the mind of the child.”
Think of that! Before Anne Sullivan could teach Helen ANYTHING else, Helen HAD to be obedient. Before Anne could tell her she loved her, or communicate anything substantial about the world around Helen and the wonders it held, Helen had to decide to be obedient.
In my mind Helen Keller’s early life is a perfect analogy for all of us here on earth and our relationship with God. Compared to Him are we not all blind and deaf? Blind to the future and deaf to the voices of the past. Blind to the workings of the elements around us and deaf to the needs and sufferings of even the people closest to us. How often did Jesus say, “He who has ears to hear let him hear.” How frustrating it must be for God to watch us refuse His help in favor of our own puny, little “freedom.” Little isolated Helen Keller had all that kind of freedom. Literally no one could tell her what to do, but no one could tell her anything else either. She was free to atrophy in her own prison while the bright, beautiful earth and all it holds sat waiting at her door. Likewise, we can sit on our own and stubbornly refuse to be “told what to do,” labeling God as a tyrant with unreasonable rules, and assuming that only we know what is best for us. Or we can try following God’s commandments and see what follows.
I cannot tell you exactly what you will find while following God’s words. I can tell you that it won’t just be faith and it won’t just be safety and it won’t just be a healthy dose of self-control. God knows and loves each of us and as our loving Father in Heaven He has wonders to unfold to our view. “Behold and lo, mine eyes are upon you, and the heavens and the earth are in mine hands, and the riches of eternity are mine to give.” (Doctrine and Covenants 67:2) He wants to give us ALL THINGS, but the only way to receive them is to follow Him and see.
“I am the Lord your God, who delivered you from Egypt, from the house of bondage.”
I bear witness that His ultimate goal is to deliver us. When we are obedient to His words we pass through the gateway to vast knowledge of all things including His ever-enduring love for us.