God Gives Us the Law
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If we observe the world around us we will see that there is a certain order or consistency in the way things happen. When we throw a stone in the air it falls back to the ground. We say it does that because of the law of gravity. Wild geese will fly for miles and miles to return every year to the same place to nest and hatch their goslings. It is said that they do that by instinct. And if we look at men now and through the ages, in different countries and cultures, we find that they always have a rule about right and wrong: "Do good and avoid evil." Human beings all over the earth have the idea that they ought to behave in a certain way.
Now, the difference between this rule of human behavior and the law of gravity or instinct is that the law of gravity or instinct tells us what things do, and the rule of human behavior tells us what we ought to do. In other words, the stone or goose has no choice in the matter. The stone doesn't decide to fall back to earth - it must. But while the rule of human behavior may tells us what is right and wrong to do, we are still free to decide just what we will do.
This presents a problem or two. The first is that though all men might agree that we should "do good and avoid evil," they don't always agree about what is good and what is evil in our acts. In fact, people are often mistaken as to what behavior is right and wrong. So how can we know for sure?
The second problem concerns our motivation to follow this law of human behavior. Since, unlike the stone obeying gravity, men aren't forced to act in accord with law but may freely choose, why do they?
The Master Plan
So where can we find the solution to these problems? Well, as you probably know, the best way is to look to the Master Planner and see what he had in mind.
As we all know, God is the Creator and Lord of Heaven and earth. In his great wisdom he made the universe and governs it all. Now, just as he made the law of gravity and instinct, he made all men with this notion of doing good and avoiding evil. But he also made men with free will, allowing them to decide for themselves what they would do.
Well, we all remember what happened when Adam made his choice. One of the results of original sin is that it is harder for all men to know what is right and wrong and to behave accordingly. And if we read the beginning of the Old Testament we can easily see that men soon made a mess of things acting on their own.
But God promised Adam that he would not abandon us and would give us a means of salvation. So God called upon Abraham and made him the father of his chosen people. And when God wanted to establish his covenant with the Israelites, to show that he would be their God and they would be his people, he gave them the Decalogue - the Ten Commandments. God wanted his people to know what was right and wrong and what was pleasing to him, for he was preparing them for a special role in salvation history.
Some people think that God simply wanted obedience to a set of rules. But what he really wants is a particular kind of people. He gave his people a law to teach and guide them in every part of their lives.
Fulfillment of the Law
When Jesus came to establish the New Covenant, he did not set aside the Old Law, the Ten Commandments, but completed them. He said: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have come, not to abolish them, but to fulfill them" (Mt 5:17). Jesus teaches that the foundation of all law is love: to love God above all things, with one's whole mind and heart and soul, and to love one's neighbor as oneself. Jesus wants all men to turn their minds and hearts to God with love. Disobeying any of the Ten Commandments is a failure to love either God or our neighbor.
But how do we know that one action is right and another wrong? Along with free will God has given each man the ability to judge if something is right or wrong. This ability is called conscience. Our conscience is a very practical tool. It tells us what would be right or wrong behavior in a given situation. We are to obey our conscience, for God gave it to us so that we could live according to his law.
Now, every person is born with a conscience, and even a member of some primitive tribe that has never come into contact with civilization has the same law in his heart to do good and avoid evil. And his tribe will probably have some code of what they think is right and wrong. Before God he will be responsible for doing what he thinks is right and not doing what he thinks is wrong. In this way he can please God. But his code of behavior might differ somewhat from the Ten Commandments. Since he has had no contact with the Commandments, he will not be held responsible for obeying them. But his conscience is faulty.
A conscience has to be taught - and taught correctly. We call this "forming" a conscience. The conscience of the primitive man, since it was not formed correctly, is called an incorrect conscience. Since he could do nothing about that, he will not be held responsible for his incorrect conscience. But all men who have access to the Word of God have a responsibility to form a correct conscience.
God has given us the means to form our consciences correctly. He has revealed truths about himself and given us the Ten Commandments. To live according to the will of God we must follow and obey them, and if we disregard or break God's law we sin.
But besides giving us the law he has given us reasons why we should want to follow it. First, God is the giver and author of that law, and since he is our Creator he knows what is best for us. The observance of the law is necessary for our salvation.
But even more compelling is the knowledge of the great love God has for us. Jesus tells us: "If you love me you will keep my commandments" (Jn 14:21). What better way do we have of showing our love for God than by doing what he asks of us?
The Ten Commandments
1. I am the Lord your
God; you shall not have strange gods before me.
2. You shall not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain.
3. Remember to keep holy the Lord's Day.
4. Honor your father and mother.
5. You shall not kill.
6. You shall not commit adultery.
7. You shall not steal.
8. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
9. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife.
10. You shall not covet your neighbor's goods.
Used with the permission of The Ignatius Press 800-799-5534
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