One of the critiques that many make of the Church is that we are sometimes known more for what we are against than what we are for. This critique, and fear, exists even within the Church. A similar critique is made of God’s law, wherein some wonder, “Why are the Ten Commandments generally worded as negatives: ‘Thou Shalt not …’ ?”
It is a fact that, at least in modern culture, many prefer to say what they are for rather than what they are against. Somehow, being “positive” is valued over being “negative.” Thus, even in the tragic conflict over abortion, both sides declare that they are “pro” something, either life or “choice.” I am certainly “pro-life,” but as to the matter in question, I am anti-abortion. But most of us who do any media work are strongly cautioned to avoid the prefix “anti-” altogether.
In fact, even when a group gathers to denounce something (e.g., war, poverty, or taxes) the participants are called “protesters” (a word that refers to those who stand up for or witness to something) rather than “contesters” (a word that refers to those who stand or witness against something). Frankly, “contester” more accurately describes what is going on in a “protest.” If I am protesting higher taxes, I am against the idea, not for (“pro-“) it. But we are funny this way, and very sensitive about it. We don’t like to be perceived as being against things.
And of course this is problematic for a preacher of the Gospel, who needs to engage a culture that is increasingly heading to some very dark and sinful places. At some point we simply have to be willing to say that we are foursquare against many things and endure the “terrible” charges that we are “negative,” even if our overall goal is to affirm something that is better than the practice we are against. Thus we are against abortion because we are for life and the potential and dignity of the unborn. We are against fornication, pornography, adultery, and homosexual acts because we are for chastity and God’s vision for sexuality. We are against euthanasia because we are for the wisdom of the Cross and the glory that our life brings to God. We are against greed because we love the poor and think our excess should be shared with them in appropriate ways.
But at the end of the day, we DO have to be willing to say that we are against certain things. We will not always have the luxury of being able to give elaborate speeches that attempt to show how we are really “for” something else and therefore are not bad people or sour-faced “downers.” Our ego needs to be a little stronger so that we do not feel the need to always seem nice, pleasant, positive, and affirming. These all have their place, but they can also be pernicious enemies of the truth.
And this leads us back to the Ten Commandments, wherein eight of the ten unapologetically use the formulation “You shall not …” God is not all that worried that He might be perceived as being “against” something—and neither should we be.
But there is another reason for the negative formulation that is worth exploring as well. Simply put, it is often easier to say what something is not, than to describe what it is. The commandments are depicting love, but if I ask you to wholly and completely define love you’re going to have a difficult time, since love is so comprehensive and multifaceted.
Thus, if you ask me, “What does it mean to love God?” I could go on for pages and pages trying to describe it and its implications and I would barely scratch the surface. Alternatively, however, I could say, “Well, to love God is to stay faithful to Him by not sleeping with other gods or giving them my love and worship. To love God means that I will not disrespect His precious name, but will honor it for its precious dignity and for the sign of intimacy it is. To love God means that I will not fail to spend time with Him on Sunday and enjoy His blessings.
If you ask me “What does it mean to love my neighbor?” I am going to have a hard time saying all that it means. But surely I can say that if I love my neighbor I will not kill him; I won’t use her sexually; I won’t steal from or lie to him; I won’t covet her; I won’t greedily seek to possess what he has.
And thus God begins by telling us essentially what love is not, and then enriches the “shall nots” with examples that help to fulfill the vision. Thus “not killing” is more than merely not taking a life. It is letting go of all the things that lead to murder such as hatred, bitterness, mercilessness, ridicule, extreme competitiveness, and so forth. The “shall nots” lead to positive implications and a summons to freedom wherein one is set free from anger, hatred, bitterness, fear, and so forth.
This is essentially what Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount, His great moral treatise in which He speaks of fulfilling the law. To fulfill the law means to fill it full, to consider all the implications of the commandments and precepts.
It is also what I try to do in my new book, The Ten Commandments, wherein each commandment, though precise in its formulation, is seen in its richer implications. Pardon the shameless plug, but this blog post has its origins in a radio interview I did today with Matt Swaim on the Sonrise Morning Show. I go on the show about every two weeks, but today Matt was kind enough to interview me about my book.
The bottom line though has to be this: we need to expose the lie (or at least the fear) in our culture that being against things is always a bad thing. We need to have the courage to admit and even to be bold in saying that we oppose things. This, of course, does ultimately mean that we are also for some other thing. But even if we cannot fully proclaim all that we are for, which admittedly is hard to do, it is necessary to say what we oppose.
As for this video, I happened upon it as I was looking for the song “Signs” (Sign, sign, everywhere a sign …), a “protest” song against rules that was so typical of the rebellious ’70s. I found it, but it also has this humorous collection of strange signs. So enjoy the funny signs even though the song is emblematic of today’s “be nice,” and “don’t have any rules” mentality.