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Ten Commandments Are a Promise, Not a Threat

Two weeks after writing about the unfortunate misunderstandings leading nearly a third of all American “secularists” to believe conservative Christians literally put them at physical risk, I am still haunted by that horrid misperception.

It dawns on me, though, that it’s likely that just as many secularists see not just conservative Christians but God himself as an angry, threatening figure. Somehow, somewhere, what registered in their minds about the Judeo-Christian tradition is the concept of judgment – the “fire and brimstone” awaiting sinners – rather than the overriding message of mercy and abundant grace.

To be sure, there are Biblical passages, including some from Jesus himself, saying that the torments of Hell await those who turn away from God. And of course the most famous “rules” from God – and the ones conservative Christians put so much stock in that they fight to put them into civil courtrooms – are that series of “thou shalt nots” called the Ten Commandments.

If all one understands about a religion is that its god tells you not to do things and threatens eternal torture for those who transgress, then perhaps it is just a tiny step to project that same image of God onto the characters of God’s most fervent, and thus strictest, adherents.

Yet even in the Old Testament, meaning even before Christ came into the world to re-emphasize the ultimate truth of God’s mercy, love and grace, that image of a wholly vengeful God – the God of harsh and impatient judgment – is not an accurate one. Whether out of honest ignorance or some psychological resentments, the secularists who believe this image are missing both context and divine intent.

Today’s first two readings (option one) demonstrate the true and ultimate reality of our Judeo-Christian God. The first reading is largely comprised of the famous Ten Commandments themselves. The second, the famously beautiful Psalm 19, explains how those Commandments are to be understood.

The psalm makes clear that God’s laws are intended not to rebuke us, but to benefit us.

“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul…. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart…. [The ordinances of the Lord are] more to be desired …than gold, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey.”

In short, the most important feature of The Law is not its punishment but its promise. The rules are there for our edification and enlightenment, leading us to happiness.

For a very rough analogy, consider the warnings on cigarette labels. They tell us that if we smoke a lot, we’re likely to get lung cancer, which usually means dying an early and painful death. But is the label-maker the one punishing us with that fate, or are we in effect choosing that fate for ourselves? The warning on the label is there to keep us from that fate, so that we may live more healthily, more happily.