When “law” is used as a religious term, it is usually in reference to God’s Law, which for the Jews of Jesus’ day, was believed to be contained in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible’s Old Testament). Not only were there the 10 Commandments, which tradition tells us were given to Moses by God on Mt. Sinai, but the Torah also records a total of 613 commandments or mitzvah covering many aspects of daily life, including family, personal hygiene and diet.
I, for one, do not believe God gave human beings even a list of 10 commandments, let alone 613; however, this doesn’t mean there is nothing behind the notion of God’s Law. Human beings wrote every one of the 613 commandments in the Torah, plus all of the other ‘laws’ that people have tried to pass off as divine statutes over the centuries. Nevertheless, it is true to say that there are natural laws that are a part of creation, and are ignored or broken at one’s peril. Some are physical laws, such as the law of gravity, which one can count on to be valid every time one jumps into the air or trips over a shoelace. These certainly can be said to be part of God’s Law. Others are not so readily observable, but are just as much a part of creation as the physical laws, and have been identified by the more insightful among us. Many of them are passed on through folksy proverbs such as “You will catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” meaning it is much easier to get what you want by being polite rather than by being rude and insolent. It may not be as infallible as the law of gravity, but it is still a pretty reliable guide to human behaviour.I like to think of God’s Law as like the current in a stream. You can choose to swim with the current or against it, and whilst you might make some headway going upstream for a time, in the end it will defeat you. This ‘defeat’ is known as ‘judgment’. On the other, hand swimming with the current is …well…heaven.
The ancient Hebrews considered God’s Law to be a life-bearing gift. Unlike a lot of human laws, which are restrictive, God’s Law is freeing. Whereas human laws are of the ‘thou shalt not’ variety, God’s Law is stated positively, i.e. ‘thou shalt’, as expressed in Jesus’ summation of the law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” (Lk.19:27)
Of course, even Jesus’ summation is still limited by human language, so how is God’s Law to be known and recognised? The prophet Jeremiah was helpful: “I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts.” (Jer. 31:33) In other words, our highest selves have an innate knowledge of God’s Law. Instinctively, we know that, when our decisions are bringing love, harmony, justice, peace and connectedness into the world and self-awareness to ourselves, we are probably living according to God’s Law. Conversely, when our decisions are contributing to disunity, injustice, hatred, bigotry, violence and war, then we are not following God’s Law.
Unfortunately, too often we think we are on the right track when we are obeying all the human laws, but human laws, even the best of them, tend to distract us from God’s Law. I remember reading a theory about why drivers in London are more polite than those in Melbourne or Sydney. And, in fact, the road toll in England is significantly lower than in Australia, also. The author posited that Australian road laws are much more comprehensive than those in England; so because English drivers meet more situations which are not covered by road regulations, they must make more decisions as to the best action to take than the Australian drivers, who are have a regulation that gives direction for every possible event. Whereas an Australian driver can almost always exercise a specified ‘right-of-way, the English driver is more often forced to make a decision as to the ‘best’ action. The lack of clear direction from human law thus opens the door for God’s law to operate.
In fact, the only real reason for human laws is that our species is still primitive. Laws are necessary to constrain the recalcitrant human spirit, with its instincts for self-preservation and the absence of the self-awareness needed to connect with God’s Law. Given that our evolution as a species is still in its infancy means that human laws will need to be around for a long time; however, it is important that none of these laws, including the biblical variety, is passed off as, or confused with, God’s Law.
Human laws often give rise to the notion of individual rights, which are completely absent from God’s Law. God’s Law is focussed on loving the ‘other’, whereas human laws give people a basis on which to punish, or demand something from, others. This has expressed itself in the practice in the United States, which unfortunately has spread to Australia, of going to court and suing for damages whenever one’s so-called rights have been violated. This practice reached obscene extremes in the recent COVID-19 pandemic, when suits were brought against governments for restricting personal freedoms, even though the restrictions actually worked to protect vulnerable people. People who are more concerned about their own rights than the safety of others have allowed human laws to obscure God’s Law.
Although it has been around for a long time, the Golden Rule remains a gold-standard clue when wondering if a choice is one that correspond to God’s Law: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.