When I was a child, I remember learning the ten commandments as a long list of negatives: Thou shalt not, thou shalt not, thou shalt not… The commandments were so heavy that I wasn’t at all surprised to see pictures of Moses carrying them on big stone tablets. They seemed to focus so strongly on the things I shouldn’t do that I never stopped to think about the positive things these commandments were recommending. Over the years I’ve begun to consider that perhaps these commandments are more effective in our lives if we stand upon them instead of being crushed under them (or choosing to beat others on the head with them). I can choose to live a “ten commandments-negative life” or a “ten commandments-positive life.”
A ten commandments-negative life would be a life of fear and doubt – always double-checking to be sure I’m not doing the things I’m not supposed to do. That sort of life seems absurd to me now. Imagine walking out into the world each day thinking to yourself, “I’d better not kill anyone today”; “I’d better not steal anything today”; “I’d better not have sex with anyone else’s spouse today.” This negative way of living with these commandments seems to limit our behavior and our imagination.
A ten commandments-positive life would focus upon the attitudes and behaviors the commandments favor: “I’d better honor the life and health of everyone I meet today (Including my own!)”; “I’d better recognize and respect the things, places, and people in my own life and the lives of others, and treat others with generosity”; I’d better strengthen and honor the relational commitments I and others have made to one another.”
The fifth commandment is already stated positively, and comes with an explicit promise: “…your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” Honoring relationships strengthens bonds and lengthens days. Instead of a proscription and a penalty, we are offered a prescription and a promise.
These commandments offer us a blueprint for full lives that honor God and strengthen our lives together, if only we can understand them positively.
What would positive living look like in all areas of our lives? Jesus has told us. When asked what is the greatest commandment, he did not say, “Thou shalt not hate God and thou shalt not hate your neighbor.” He said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
That’s positive living! Love God! Love yourself (God does)! Love your neighbor (God does)! Instead of something to fear, those heavy tablets can become a platform on which to stand and a foundation from which to live.
How else might we live positively? What prescriptions for life, love, community, and health will bring us the most promise?