Rules

So here’s a question for y’all: why do we have rules?

This is an especially fun question for Christians, seeing as we go on quite eloquently about how our salvation makes us free, and how we are no longer Under The Law. If I were the kind of person who liked baiting, I would have lot of fun with this. “Christians are free, correct?” “Yes! We are saved by grace! We live under Love, not the Law! Christ has set us free!” “So why do we have rules?” “Oh, see, but–”

‘Cause we do. We have rules. We have laws handed down by governments. We have social rules. We have rights – we’re always going on about rights. If anything is called Good, if anything is called Bad, then the lines we draw between them are Rules. There are philosophies where these lines get very fluffy, but they are there. What are they there for? What do they do?

And I thought about this, especially in the context of the Christian life (mainly because my life is a Christian one). ‘Cause my church has rules. We have a whole constitution, about how things ought to be done in our congregation. How elders are elected, how pastors are chosen, how the budget is laid down, everything. We have rules of conduct, rules of service. We have to have Communion at least once a quarter, for instance. And there’s a whole tangle of quite strict rules about how the nursery is run. Yet we call ourselves free. Why the rules?

Couple of reasons: rules define things. Rules tell us what a thing is. Science will often figure things out entirely because of rules. Gravity, for instance, remains a mystery to physics. No one knows what it is, or why it is. Why should mass attract mass to itself at all? Yet we know a lot about it because it follows rules. We express those rules as math, and out of math we can come up with new ways to deal with it. The rules of driving are all based on the fact that thousands of pounds of metal are hurtling around on streets at 30-40-50-60 mph — the rules give me an idea of how dangerous it is to drive too fast, to stop too hard, and I can guess what would happen if I disobeyed.

Rules make things easier. Again with driving: without rules, going anywhere in a car would be far more difficult and dangerous. If we had no rules of syntax and meaning, language would be impossible. Social rules, to me, are just wonderful, because I am often oblivious to other people’s subtle hints and suggestions. If I know the rules of how to behave in public, and the rules of how to express oneself in public, I do way better understanding the people around me, what they want of me, and how to tell them I like them and appreciate them. The rules give me context for understanding people.

And there is one more reason for rules, and that’s the one thing I don’t think we like to admit. We need rules, even when we know what a thing is, and when having rules is just making things harder or more complicated. Because we are not wholly good.

We all have a great desire for goodness. We all have a great capacity for goodness. But we are all inclined toward evil. However you define evil, be it selfishness or hatred or cruelty, or apathy, it’s something we just do, even when we know better. (Especially when we know better.) We lay down these rules not to hinder good, but to hinder evil, to make it harder to do. I learned long ago to sabotage my less helpful desires, doing things such as not having candy around the house or forbidding myself from saying certain words. These actions are not in themselves good or evil, but I know they circumvent my inclination to do evil. I have nothing against candy, and I love a good chocolate – it is to me a small and lovely pleasure. But I know I will misuse that pleasure if I keep it around the house. Or even if I don’t, there are better reasons to exercise my self-restraint.

Rules have been used for evil. Rules can be nothing but nuisances. But they are not in themselves wrong. Someday we’ll be free of temptation. Someday there will be no doubt that everything we do is in love. Until that time, I do not even trust myself, and will free submit to the rules.

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