June 15, 2011

Are You a Keeper?

When you are playing in a sandbox, the Ten Commandments seem very simple. “Thou shalt not steal” means “Don’t take the neighbor kid’s toys.” “Thou shalt not covet” means “Don’t even think about it.” “Thou shalt not murder”—not really a temptation. “Thou shalt not commit adultery”—what’s that?
Then you go to school, and your teacher asks you where your homework is, and you reply that you have a four-legged paper shredder named Fido. Then you start cruising the Internet and find out that you can get almost any music you want for free, even if it is not “strictly legal.”
Then you enter a professional career, and another guy at the gym tells you that the biotech company you’ve invested your future in is about to come out with some bad news, and that you have a few more days left to dump the stock without looking suspicious. Married folk around you start to talk about how their needs aren’t being met at home; and you hear stories about soldiers who were ordered to kill unarmed civilians.
2011 1517 page26Before long the law and the covenant begin to swirl around your head until you are not sure if you’re keeping them correctly. You sit down and realize that maybe it is simpler than it seems. You get back into the sandbox and realize that life may raise the stakes on choices and sometimes you get more by doing worse things, but in the end it really is as simple as you used to think. You are just complicating it—making it a mess—because you want to justify what you know is wrong.
Evil: Not So Simple?
A few years ago, before they were as rich as they are today, the founders of Google came up with an informal motto that would describe the way they’d run their business: “Don’t be evil.”
For a bunch of upstarts beginning a new company against a backdrop of antitrust litigation and cutthroat tech companies, it was elegant in its simplicity. It did not even require them to do good—they just needed to stay away from doing evil things. With a lightweight smattering of the theology that always pops up when you describe something as “evil,” Google’s founders were playing in the sandbox where everything seemed so easy and so well defined.
Then China came along in 2006. Google had an opportunity to provide service there, but China wanted to do some “evil” things when it came to finding out who was looking for what online and censoring data. While many other businesses had entered the fray without remorse, knowing that they would be legally protected, Google had to face down its motto and either drop the Chinese market altogether or find a way to shift its paradigm so it could still do business under these conditions without feeling as though it was doing evil.
Google did an analysis and, in words that only a nerd could appreciate, developed a sort of evil minimization algorithm. In the words of the CEO, Eric Schmidt: “We actually did an evil scale and decided that not to serve at all was worse evil.”1
So there were levels of evil. Censoring data was evil, but not serving the stockholders by making money in China would have been, well, “eviler.”
When it comes to avoiding evil, the world can be harsh and complex, and avoiding evil can be more and more difficult. This provided endless frustration to the apostle Paul, who wrote, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”2 
Commandment Contours
Unlike modern laws, which are narrowly drafted and describe each conceivable situation or ambiguity in order to satisfy the courts, the Ten Commandments are purposely left open-ended and do not describe every possible infraction or possibility. In so doing, they describe the contours of what behavior is compatible with a relationship with God. They are framed in clear terms that, with the exception of the Sabbath and honoring one’s parents, are largely designed to discourage certain behaviors.
It is also difficult to justify any action that goes contrary to these commandments. For instance, a defendant in a criminal case may argue that what they did wasn’t really killing, because they didn’t know what they were doing—or that it was in self-defense, which they may argue is a higher good. But a criminal who hopes to win will never attack the basis for the rule and argue that they should be granted a blanket license to kill.
Under the current legal system in the United States, a person cannot kill, steal, or bear false witness, but will probably never go to jail just for coveting, committing adultery, or not honoring their father and mother, or breaking any of the other commandments, unless in doing so they happen to break at least one of the government statutes.
When it comes to the rest of the commandments, then, only the individual really knows whether he or she is actually keeping the law. You can go to church on Sabbath, but if you are sitting there in church pondering the meeting on Monday morning, you are working, because that’s where your mind is. Under Jesus’ description of the point behind the Ten Commandments, you can break almost any of the commandments without moving a muscle or speaking a word. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus acknowledges that if you murder you will be judged. But the same applies if you are angry at your brother.3 If you look at somebody lustfully, you have begun the process of committing adultery with them.4 
Part of the Relationship
Allowing others or things to get between you and God, falsely pretending to speak for God, denying God’s creation by dishonoring Him on the Sabbath, dishonoring your parents, killing people, committing adultery, stealing things or reputations, giving false testimony, and failing to be satisfied with what you have and wanting your neighbor’s things are all prohibited in the Ten Commandments. But in the vast number of cases, unless they manifest themselves in outward behavior that escapes your attempts to conceal them, nobody else will know whether you are keeping the commandments. Only you will know.
Yet, far from being some kind of platonic ideal that can never be reached, God calls us all to keep the Ten Commandments. They are a requirement for maintaining a relationship with God, and for keeping in harmony with His will for our lives. Following the Ten Commandments by avoiding certain behaviors isn’t a recipe for salvation, but the Ten Commandments can point us to Christ, who is able to keep us from falling—and who provides us grace for the journey.
In Mark 10 we read about a rich young ruler who knew everything there was to know about the law of God, or so he thought. When he asked Jesus what he could do to gain eternal life, Jesus asked him if he had kept the commandments. “Of course,” the man replied. “I’ve kept them since my youth.”
But Christ asked him for more: “Sell all that you have and give it to the poor, and pick up your cross and follow me.” It wasn’t only about keeping the law, which was good, but also about following Christ.
There are legalists who will try to tell you how much you cannot do, and legalists who will try to tell you how much you can get away with, but ultimately these attempts fail to reach into the heart. None of us will get into heaven based on a technicality, or based on what we can do. After all, we can jump only so high. Instead, we accept the gift of salvation that Christ has offered us.
Then, rather than living a marginal life reined in by the restrictions of the commandments, we live a life of grace full of the expansiveness of God’s law, which can truly make a change in the heart. Outward behavior—what we experience in the sandbox—is only the tip of the iceberg. The real evidence of the transforming power of God’s love that draws us to keep His law lies deep beneath the surface.
1 Stacy Cowley, “Google CEO on Censoring,” Info World, Jan. 27, 2006; available online at www.infoworld.com/article/06/01/27/74874_HNgoogleceocensoring_1.html.
2 Rom. 7:19.
3 Matt. 5:22.
4 Verse 28.
Michael D. Peabody is an attorney living in Malibu, California. This article was published June 16, 2011.