Loving the law?

Would you agree that there are better and worse ways to try to resolve an argument?

I’ve spent many hours helping couples learn to communicate better with each other. It’s not rocket science. Calm down first. Listen carefully, and make sure you really understand what the other person is saying. Don’t call each other names. And so on. I’ve seen couples resolve long-standing issues in a matter of minutes when they’re forced into a new way of speaking and listening that’s foreign to them.

Couples react differently to what they’ve learned. Some ignore it. Some receive it as one might treat a prescription for a temporary medical problem — they use the skills just enough to get past today’s crisis, then tomorrow go back to their old habits.

But others delight in their newfound ability to connect. I know of one couple, for example, who created a code to signal each other when they needed to use better communication skills. When one of them realized that a conversation was going downhill, he or she would say, “Family Wellness!” (the name of the approach I trained them in). Both would then pause, take a few moments to compose themselves, and reengage the conversation with the commitment to doing better.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that learning a few communication skills will fix whatever ails a marriage or other relationship. What I am saying, however, is that sometimes we know the right thing to do, and may even understand why — but we still don’t do it.

The Bible has a word for that.

It’s called sin.

. . .

As we’ve seen in previous posts, Psalm 119 is a loving ode to Torah, which can be translated as God’s law or instruction. Woven through the intricate poem are multiple synonyms for Torah — commandments, precepts, statutes, word, etc. — suggesting its multifaceted nature.

But the language of “law” puzzles some Christian readers of the psalm: how is it possible to love the law? Is the psalmist some kind of legalist?

One hurdle, I suspect, is that we react to the word “law” as something restrictive. We treasure our freedom, and don’t like being told what to do. But as it’s been said so often, there’s a huge difference between “freedom from” and “freedom to.” Being free from our piano teacher’s insistence that we practice our scales doesn’t make us free to make music. Being free from externally imposed rules of communication doesn’t make us free to have better and more productive conversations.

I teach principles of communication that I encourage couples to follow. But the new behaviors won’t stick as long as they’re only seen as arbitrary. They have to accept that such principles or rules are distilled from hard-won wisdom about relationships. Folks are always free to follow their own inclinations, to do whatever they please. But until they accept that their “free” behavior is often unwise, rules will be nothing more than an imposition.

The psalmist is not saying, “I love rules and love following them for their own sake.” The background assumption is that there is but one true God, who created all that exists, who brought order out of chaos; that God knows the human heart to its core, and intended life to be lived with certain limits; that only a fool would ignore wisdom handed to us by God.

The psalmist thinks of Torah as the word of God. It is worthy of devotion because the God who spoke that word is worthy of devotion, of praise, of honor. The psalmist can envision a world of peace, justice, and moral order in which all is as it should be, and such a world cannot be had when God’s instruction is ignored.

This is not legalism, though such devotion can degrade into that when observance of the law becomes an end in itself. When that happens, the law ceases to be the instruction of God and becomes a god, a harsh and demanding god.

That is not the Torah the psalmist loves.

Can we learn to see what the psalmist sees?