October 2015

“Thank you Granddad, Grandma!”  Euan’s eyes shone.  He has a mobile phone.  When Tom & Jen joined us recently, they were in a discussion about Euan needing a phone – preferably not too expensive – to give him more freedom and responsibility now that he’s 9.  We had an old mobile phone, the robust Nokia, but still working fine, so we offered it – and it was accepted with joy.  All weekend, Euan was checking on its charging, loading numbers, playing ‘snakes’ – the only game it has – and even caressing it.  As he left to go home, he rushed back and thanked us, clearly very happy.

As we tidied up after everyone had gone, we found a small piece of paper, covered in writing.  Neatly written out were all the rules for Euan to observe in the use of his phone; the piece of paper was a crib, an aide-memoire, for the talk Euan had evidently had with his parents.  All the rules were very sensible, but seeing them all written out – there were at least 13 – gave us a set of giggles, as we wondered if Euan had felt the weight of responsibility in taking on his phone.

As I said, they were all very sensible rules – he was warned not to give out his number and to ask before adding others to his phone; his phone would be checked for abuse & use and only he was to use it; restrictions were imposed on calls, text and time spent on games, a ban imposed on use in bed or at the table; expectations about being kept informed of his location, the addition of the ICE number, warnings about the responsibility and consequences of 999 calls, of losing and replacing the phone – and the chilling “it will be used as a punishment.”  After we had read the list, we wondered that Euan still saw the phone as a gift.

It is a perennial problem, the tension between gift and rules, or grace and law.  St Paul wrestles with this issue, especially in his letter to the Galatians.  God gives us as an act of grace life itself and a world in which to live; we mess up; He shows through Abraham that He is willing to accept messed-up humans through faith as an act of grace.  Some 400 years later, Moses issues guidelines to live a life of grace, the 10 commandments or ‘The Law’ – a bit like 13 sensible rules to use your mobile.  The trouble is how we tend to work with rules or law.  The rules are there to guide us, but we treat them as fixed points, to be navigated around or to sail as close to the wind as we dare.

Take a couple of simple everyday rules or laws:  firstly, 30mph zones.  What they are intended to say is – ‘this is the maximum speed deemed safe for all road users in this zone.’  How do we respond?  “You can go at 30+10%+1=34, so if I drive at 34, I won’t get prosecuted.”  “This is a 30mph zone so why is this idiot doing 20mph?”  “I have a right to drive at 30mph here, so pedestrians ought to take more care.”… We treat the law as an absolute, rather than a marker to considerate driving.  Secondly, dog-dirt rules.  Rules for clearing up after your pet are trying to say ‘leaving dog-dirt is unhygienic and unpleasant for other walkers – bag it and bin it.’  The highly responsible owners are disheartened by those who’s line is “The bin’s full.” “It doesn’t say this area is covered.”  “I’ve already scooped one on this walk.”  “What’s the point? – Look at the other piles of dirt.”… Again, the law is treated with precision rather than a guide to considerate behaviour.

If you think about it, we have a tendency to treat all laws like this, and they have to be refined and clarified to remove wriggle room.  St Paul goes on to show that the Law is good in itself, but can only convict us when we break it; it can’t actually help us to keep it.  Jesus sharpened the challenge: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions.” (The Bible, Mark 7.9), and in his greatest sermon (Matthew 5-7) re-points the law – murder starts with anger in your heart, adultery with lust, so it is your heart that needs to be changed, not the law.  Changing hearts and our status before God’s Law was the purpose of Jesus’ mission.  Jesus said …the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10.45) and St Paul promised “You are all sons of God, through faith in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3.26) – right before God by the letter of the law, able to follow the spirit of the law by grace, by gift.

Praying that you may hear the loving will of God in Christ and walk confidently in his path, enjoying his blessing and bringing glory to his name.

Your servant in the Lord Jesus Christ,

Simon Cox.

You can find the full October 2015 Herald Magazine here