Every family has rules. We use rules to keep our kids safe and healthy, and to help them be successful. Rules provide a structural framework that enables the family to function and to have good relationships. Everyone would agree that families are not about rules, they are about relationships and love. We would even say this knowing that families have many rules that are incredibly restrictive of a child’s daily life and choices. Think about some of the rules we have…
when to get up,
how long it should take to get dressed,
what to wear and what not to wear,
what you can or can’t have for breakfast,
what to take to school,
you have to go to school,
what chores and homework needs to be done before you can play,
how long you can be on your computer,
what you can watch,
how you sit at the table,
how you ask for food,
how you eat your food,
on and on and on…….
From a certain perspective, not seeing the loving relationships that rules help the family create and maintain, a person could say that families are all about rules, and they could rebel against that and state, “I am going to have a family where we just love each other, and not have rules.” I think we all know that this just plain wouldn’t work.
What is true about the family is also true about the Church. The family of God has specific rules to follow. The rules are not there as an end unto themselves, they are there to keep us safe, healthy, and successful. They are there to facilitate relationships, (especially our relationship with God). But we have a problem. And that is that for at least a couple of generations we were raised with lots of rules but no relationship. And this caused people to come away from their experience of Catholicism believing it was all about rules, and only about rules. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. Christianity is all about relationship: about a Father’s overwhelming love for his children, his desire to create a family, and to have his children enter into his own eternal, blessed life. So he has rules that can lead us to be healthy children, free children, who know how to live well and to truly love.
I think this false associate between rules and boring, useless church, is the root of a pervasive attitude that many people in our modern culture have: people want to be spiritual (rules are unnecessary baggage) but not religious (which means, of course, following lots of rules). In other words, they want the benefits of a loving family but don’t want to follow the rules that sustain the family and make it functional. When we realize that the rules are there to help us enter into the life of peace, joy, and hope that Jesus has for us, we can embrace them. Indeed, we can even grow to love them. Read Psalm 119. It is one of the longest psalms, filled with joy, and it is written by a person who has grown to love God’s laws.
Think about the responses a child can have to his/her parents rules. When children are little, 2, 3 or 4 years old, they are constantly testing the rules, pushing the envelope, sometimes defiantly breaking the rules. Good parents learn how to lovingly discipline, to react to a child’s testing in a way that motivates them to learn to obey, to show them that obedience really is the best path. We know, as parents, a child must learn to obey, it is literally a matter of life and death. Once a child learns obedience, family life can settle into a routine of trusting, loving communication, and support, which then becomes the foundation for that child to grow in independence and confidence, and to experience the wide array of blessings that are the fruit of a loving family.
What would happen to a child who saw the rules only as the efforts of power hungry parents trying to control him, and decided to steadfastly refuse to obey the rules? Would he not have separated himself from the very thing that he most needs?
God’s family is the very same as our own, our families are modeled after God’s family structure. God gives us the important rules for living, rules regarding respect, kindness, gentleness, mercy, sexuality, marriage, and a host of other things that are a part of our everyday life. I can choose to see these rules as something man-made, made by the church to control people, seeing them therefore as arbitrary. Then I can believe that I can choose my own way to go. Or I can see them as the steps of a stairway that the Lord wants me to climb in order to become the person he has created me to be, that I might have the abundant life of peace, joy, and hope that he died to give me. I can learn obedience, which takes a certain brand of humility. I can choose to believe that God actually knows, better than I do, how I should live. Or I can walk away, and spend the rest of my life searching for the experience of knowing God as my dad, my best friend, my lover, my supporter, my provider and never find him; because all those things happen in a family, a family with rules.
Don Smith is a "revert" to the Catholic Church. After being a Protestant minister for over 20 years he is happy to be "home."