There’s more than one way to construe “rules” or “laws” or “commandments”. Reflect for a moment on the “consequences” of these few verses: Matthew 23:23; Mark 2:27; Matthew 12:7. A “law” will always retain that “legal” complexion until it becomes the heart’s desire of someone you love and who loves you and then something happens to it. I wonder what is it that happens to it!
Franky and Jennifer grew up together. They went to the same school, shared some of the same classes, outside interests and became good friends. They not only admired and respected each other, they began to miss each other when the other wasn’t around, and to worry when the other was sick. Nobody was surprised when the two close friends announced they were going to get married.
They had talked a lot about what they wanted out of life and high on the grand list was, “a warm, loving family”. How would they achieve that? Well, they’d both been part of families that gave them clues—positive and negative—how to go about it; they were reasonably well-read and though they were young, they weren’t dumb. They’d seen and heard much that would act as groundwork on which to build. So they set up home.
A few years later the babies began to arrive. For all the best reasons the two of them found a lot of pleasure and deep joy in the children and, of course, they were committed to holding, feeding, clothing, bathing, loving and providing them with what they needed.
The babies earned nothing, they didn’t need to—the parental love was unconditional and unashamed.
As the time slipped by they laughed and rejoiced at every sign of progress in the children. Progress they nurtured and encouraged. There was David’s first time to hold the spoon for himself (even got some food to his mouth), Rachel’s first tottering steps, Andrew’s successful (and unaided) first read. There was the tying of shoes, the brushing of teeth, the making of beds, the putting on of socks, a bath all by one’s self (with nervous parents calling in every thirty seconds, “Are you all right?”) and other social challenges which grew more difficult and more complex as the years slipped by.
There were house-rules, of course! No one was allowed to play around with electric sockets or sharp knives, scream at someone, use bad language they heard at school or maybe on TV. There was bed by 8.30 and lights out by nine, there was homework to be done (usually) before a favored TV program was watched and there were chores to be done—before or after play didn’t matter—but they had to be done.
The rules weren’t created to enslave, narrow or deprive the children. The opposite was true!
The children learned the behavior that pleased or displeased their parents but it never entered their minds that Franky and Jennifer loved them because they kept the rules. And it never entered their minds that when the rules were sometimes broken that the parents stopped loving them. If someone had suggested that their parents only loved them when and because they kept the house-rules, the children would have scoffed! They knew they sometimes disappointed or displeased their parents; they even knew what it was to be disciplined but it was utter rubbish to suggest that Franky and Jennifer loved them only when they did what they were told. That may have been the case in other homes but not in this home!
The two older children noticed that the “lights out by nine” rule didn’t apply in Rachel’s room when she developed a real fear of the dark. That made sense. The “lights out by nine” rule was for their benefit, to allow them to get enough sleep but since Rachel had become terrified of the dark, she wasn’t getting any sleep at all. In Andrew and Robert’s room the rule still applied because it was achieving for them what the parents were aiming at.
One response to Rachel’s fear might have been, “Rules are made to be kept no matter what the circumstances, so, nightmares, cold sweats and endless tears notwithstanding, the lights go out at nine.” But that would have been a poor response.
Franky and Jennifer would insist that “the law was made for the child and not the child for the law.” They would leave the light on while they tried to help eliminate the anxiety.
Since the law was introduced for the child’s benefit it’s assumed by the parents that the child is more important than the law. To insist that the rule be kept when it’s clearly contrary to the child’s welfare is to regard the rule as more important than the child and it would violate the parental purpose for the child.
It wouldn’t help the other children either to see their brother or sister mauled by a law which was supposed to be a blessing. Parental credibility would be under siege and the relationship under threat. This helped the kids to see that the rules weren’t the fundamental realities; that behind the rules was the will of the parents for each child’s good. They were learning not only the importance of rules because by a wise application of them the parents were teaching them the place of rules.
As they grew older the parents changed the “to bed” and “lights out” times. That made sense to the children as well. At five years old, in bed by 8.30 seems sensible but at fifteen it isn’t geared for their age and maturity. (A maturity which had been helped along earlier by rules such as an 8.30 bed time and the childrens’ glad submission to them.) They couldn’t always understand why some of the rules were made, even when they asked and the parents explained but the children trusted Franky and Jennifer and supposed that they would understand better later.
And there were times when the rules didn’t suit, even when they did understand the whys and wherefores of them. Sometimes they broke them and paid the price of discipline. For example, any eating was to be done in the kitchen at meal or snack times and there was to be no eating done in bed. (Too many children had nearly choked while they ate lying down.) No one was tarred and feathered if they didn’t resist the temptation to a snack in bed but there was some sort of discipline ranging from a stern rebuke to loss of privileges.
There were other house rules that hardly needed mentioned because they would have been such a radical departure from family values and aims. Physical abuse of one another, marked verbal or emotional abuse would all have been taken as serious crimes against the family. This was clear from the way persistent squabbling was handled, squabbling that led to some pushing and unbridled speech. It was made plain too by the frequent discussions about some TV programs, news and fiction, as well as experiences at school.
The very idea that someone in a fit of temper would set light to someone’s room or hit them with a sharp instrument made coming in fifteen minutes late or smuggling some biscuits to bed appear to be mild transgressions indeed.
This showed that while all house rules were to be kept, some were more important than others. It would have been nonsense to view every house rule as of equal importance. The parents made it clear to the children that there were more important and less important matters in “the law of the house”.
I could easily leave you the impression that what the Wilson family did was spend their lives thinking about rules and laws. This is far from the truth!
The proper response to the rules of the home is a wise loving commitment to the family and that’s what was nurtured in the Wilson house. They didn’t go about thinking of “rules”. They didn’t always consciously think of their being a family—because of their shaping they simply understood that they were and much of the time they lived out their place in this loving family without analyzing the situation.
The rules were seen as servants to the family unit. They were seen as protecting, promoting, defining and revealing what it meant to be a loving family and not just a collection of free-standing individuals.
I mentioned earlier that a generally wise rule was set aside when Rachel’s need was not only not being met by it, she was being injured by it. And the change of bed-time and lights out was made when the rule no longer reflected the conditions/age and new needs of the children.
Let me make the point again: only the rules changed—the aim was maintained. If the rules were contrary to the family’s well being, they wouldn’t have been made in the first place. If due to changes in circumstances the wise rules no longer gained what the parents aimed for, they were either altered or removed. But as long as the rules served the grand purpose for which they existed, they stood and were gladly obeyed by all the family.
The rules didn’t determine the over-arching aim, the rules expressed and were there to support and help achieve the over-arching aim: fullness of life for all within a loving family relationship.
Because “life” within a family unit had change and difference written into it, many rules were understood to relate only to specific sets of circumstances and specific times.
David, the older son, noticed that his parents held him more strictly accountable than his brother and sister. He would hear Franky say to him on occasions when all three of them had been disobedient, “You should know better.” At first he didn’t understand or like this but as he got older he understood, and though he smarted under it at times, he felt good about it. It meant they saw him as more mature and so expected more of him. (He was also pleased because his maturity brought privileges with it. He was free from some of the restrictions the younger ones were still subject to.)
Andrew noticed that while they all had so many things in common, each of them had their own roles in the family. For example, David wasn’t the dad and wasn’t expected to carry that responsibility. Rachel wasn’t the mother and he wasn’t David. And dad wasn’t Andrew so he didn’t have school-work to do. Of course there were jobs that the whole family pitched in to do, jobs that weren’t exclusively assigned to anyone (dishwashing and clearing up would illustrate the point) and it was OK for David to give Rachel advice, as Jennifer would do. Just the same, while there was plenty of dialogue and everyone got a fair hearing, it was clear that some responsibilities couldn’t be passed off to someone else.
There was no competition in the home to see who kept the most laws or who kept them best. Nobody assessed himself or anyone else on the basis of the number of laws kept or broken. That would have been too simple and it would have missed the whole spirit of the family. Franky and Jennifer would have been appalled if the children ever felt that that was what the parents wanted.
“No,” they would have said, “If we gave you that impression we’ve misled you. The keeping or the breaking of the rules is not the bottom line here. The final issue is: are we committed to each other in love, seeking one another’s joy and best interests?”
If Rachel came to Franky and Jennifer every day with a “laundry list” of rules kept and broken, seeking approval from her parents and seeking to be seen as the ”child most committed to the family”—if she did that, they would set her down and made some things clear.
Because there could never be enough rules to cover every conceivable life-situation, where guidelines were needed, the parents made new rules. For example, when they went on vacation, they faced new conditions (crowds, fair-grounds, river rides, and the like) so new rules were created that weren’t necessary at home. In a large fairground Franky said, “If we get separated for more than thirty minutes, we go to the entrance of that big marquee marked CENTRAL, okay?”
This was a new rule but it served the same purpose that all the other rules served: the protection, enrichment and care of the family. And because this was true, the whole family willingly subjected itself to the new rule. Nobody wanted any member of the family to get lost or hurt or be subjected to needless anxiety.
Safely back home that rule was forgotten while family commitment remained as fresh and vital as ever.
The fact that new rules had to be created because they were on vacation confirmed to Franky and Jennifer what they had always realized: it isn’t possible to have enough rules to cover all situations—even if they had thought that was desirable—which they certainly didn’t. Besides, in having enough rules would mean there would have to be rules on how to apply rules.
Let’s suppose, one of the rules is: you will be back in the house no later than 10 p.m. On winter evenings. If unintentionally one of the children came in at 10.05 that would be one case but what if one deliberately chose not to make it home by 10? He arrives back in at 11.15 to worried parents who are about to verbally reprimand him and he tells them of a friend who was hit by a passing motor-cyclist and needed to go to the emergency room. He could have made it home by ten but deliberately chose to ignore the “curfew”.
Franky and Jennifer would be pleased. That sort of decision could be fitted into the spirit of the family. It shows the maturity and compassion that the parents are aiming to create in the children. In this case, the breaking of the rule honored, and was intended to honor, the parents and the family (“my parents would want me to do this”).
To deliberately choose to break the rule to spite the parents, to exercise pride, to “do what I want to do” would have been a different kind of decision altogether.
It was in areas like these that Franky and Jennifer realized with special clarity that they were shaping hearts and lives and not just handing down laws. There were occasions when the children were older that the parents were away and decisions had to be made without their input.
How could the children know, know for sure, what the parents would have wanted under some serious circumstances? Well, they couldn’t know for certain just what they would have said, but they had been shaped by their spirits, wisdom and values so that the decisions they came to by themselves weren’t completely without parental input. There were some options which just weren’t possible for the children in the light of their raising. Of course they could have physically carried them out, but they couldn’t have done it and thought they would be pleasing to their parents.
And while people who didn’t know the Wilson family perhaps could have suggested other sane options if they had been given the facts, they wouldn’t have been as well qualified to know what would please Franky and Jennifer and fit in with the spirit of the family.
The Wilsons learned as they grew together as a family that life wasn’t a static “thing”—it was dynamic, it was a relationship, not something you could take in your hand or set on a cabinet and admire; not something “finished”. Being a family involved the biological connection (they were all related by “blood”) of course, but it meant being committed to one another, seeking one another’s highest good. It meant giving and receiving, adjusting or standing firm.
It was loving one another!
“Love” wasn’t simply an emotion, it was a “bias” toward each other, a loyal commitment to one another which showed itself in different emotions depending on the circumstances. Sometimes they cried because the others were crying, sometimes they laughed for the same reason. All the emotions that are part of being human and which are constructive were exerted toward each other.
Behavior and emotions were tested by their relation to the over-arching meaning of “a loving family”. They sometimes mistreated each other, forgave and/or confronted each other. The wrongs committed were wrongs that could (and were) gladly tolerated as “within the covenant”.
But there were wrongs that were immediate violations of the “family covenant”. These involved not only the nature of the acts but the attitude which went with the deeds.
Physical violence was always frowned on but this had to be worked out in light of the foundational values and commitment of the family. A slap in anger would have its consequences but prolonged sly beatings or some form of inflicting pain would be in a wholly different category. A disrespectful word against the parents was unacceptable but a day after day stream of obscenities would be something else.
David in his very late teens got caught up in wrong behavior and the wrong company. He became addicted first to booze and then to cocaine. It was the beginning of a nightmare. The whole family pleaded and worked with him over an extended period, tears were shed, practical help was given, money was spent, abuse was endured, advice was sought but all to no avail. It came to a head after about two years, with David seriously injuring Rachel and holding a knife to his mother’s throat, demanding money.
You understand, it wasn’t just what David did that turned harmony into chaos, it was his disposition and attitude toward the parents and the children. The wrongs were not only of a foundational nature, they were done in a spirit which demonstrated that at that point the family meant nothing to him.
With sorrow in the hearts of the two children, the parents removed David from the home as someone no longer capable of/willing to live as part of the family. (For two more years he would come back, abusive, smashing windows, ripping tyres and threatening the family.)
What had been lost was more than the willingness/ability to abide by the rules of the family—what had been lost was loving commitment to the family.
No one was pleased at the loss of David! Every member of the family felt the pain of the loss and wished things were different.
Now and then they’d sit and look at each other. Jennifer, in particular worried about their exclusion of David. Franky assured her that what they did was not loveless. They owed something to Andrew and Rachel as well as to one another. A “conflict of interests” had arisen. Love toward the other children meant offering protection to them and it was that expression of love that led to David’s exclusion. David wasn’t excluded because he was hated or that the family didn’t wish him well or had easily grown tired of him. And it certainly wasn’t that they had lost all feeling toward him. (Even as they discussed the situation they felt pity toward David and wished things could be as they once were, as they had sought them to be and they hoped that excluding him would bring him to his senses when he felt the loss.)
As Franky and Jennifer reflected on the way they pursued family joy and enrichment through the years, they knew they didn’t do everything right. They had made some rules they thought were useful but with hindsight they realized they hadn’t been. But their intentions had always been good; their motivation had always been for the blessing of the family as a family.
As deeply as they loved the children they could never have made rules that were purposed to narrow or hurt or cheat them.
Both parents and children knew that love was not without content. There were certain types of behavior that love wouldn’t approve–there were things love wouldn’t do! On the other hand, there were things love could not avoid doing. It was more than a feeling, it was a commitment and a purpose and it was shaped by a vision of what a deep, rich, full life was.
Later, when the children left home and had families of their own, they would follow the loving guidance of their parents. This wouldn’t mean they would do everything the same way, have the same number of rules, the same emphasis and the like. Their family would be a different family with different needs, dispositions and temperaments and while families would always have things in common and have the same over-arching purpose—changed circumstances would require a different approach to things.
In order for the wise loving parents to remain the same they would have to and want to change!
( We thank you wise, and loving Holy Father that you too are “the same yesterday, today and forever,” and that because that’s true you “change” in order to remain the same. This thanksgiving in the name of the Lord Jesus.)