Whether we want to admit it or not, many of us long for simplicity, which means, by extension, we long for rules. Clear rules make life and the tasks we’re given easier, simpler. If we learn the rules and allow them to be written deep within our hearts, we can relieve ourselves of the burden of having to think about everything we do and avoid any troubles along the way.
But it’s never that easy. Perfect obedience doesn’t necessarily ensure our success or safety or security. For example, obeying the rules of the road is important, but doesn’t guarantee another driver won’t disobey them or simply fall asleep at the wheel, making your own adherence to the rules irrelevant. Then there are those unenviable positions in which two deeply rooted rules seem at odds with each other. For instance, imagine the classic ethical dilemma of whether to tell the truth or protect life in the event a Nazi came to the door of your house in which you were hiding a Jew and asked whether you were hiding a Jew in your home. The bottom line is it’s never as easy as we’d like it to be.
This is not to say rules are unimportant; they absolutely have an important role to play in our lives. It is important, however, to recognize their limitations. It’s practically impossible to craft a set of rules to address every situation that could ever arise. After all, it’s simply not possible to envision every possible scenario that could play out in the future. Thus there is a reason constitutions are able to be amended, rulebooks subject to regular revisions, and codes of conduct are routinely reviewed. It is equally important, therefore, that we train others not simply to follow rules but to think responsibly, ethically, and critically so that they can make wise decisions when faced with choices or situations we could not have predicted. To do so is, in a sense, to heed the old saying, “Give someone a fish and you feed them for a day; teach someone to fish and you feed them for life.”
This is, I think, what Paul, like Jesus before him and the prophets before Jesus, tried to do for the young Christians he encouraged. As one of my favorite writers, N.T. Wright, has written, “[Paul’s] version of the saying seems to be: Give people a command for a particular situation, and you help them to live appropriately for a day; teach them to think Christianly about behavior, and they will be able to navigate by themselves into areas where you hadn’t given any specific instructions.” I wonder what might result if the church today adopted Paul’s philosophy as its own philosophy for spiritual formation or education. I think we might be amazed!