spirituality of the ten commandments

There’s so much more to the ten commandments than meets the eye.  I think I first realized that in reading Gilead and reveling in the extended reflection on the fifth commandment that happens about halfway through.  It was a treat to return to them last week in study and sermon prep.  We began a new sermon series at Bethany yesterday on Consecration, and started with the ten commandments as they’re recorded in Exodus 20.  Could these ancient commandments be an invitation to consecrate our everyday-walking-around-lives, to view even our most secular moments as sacred?

Audio’s below and the text is after the jump.

We’re starting a new series this week.  Our texts and worship for the next six weeks will be centered around one word: Consecration.

Consecrate, ˈkänsiˌkrāt: means to devote something exclusively to a particular purpose.  At my mother’s house, there is always a consecrated dish drying towel.  That towel is not to be used to wipe up spills or to rub one’s dirty hands on.  It is set aside for the purpose of drying clean dishes.  It is consecrated for that task.

Religiously, to consecrate something means to declare something sacred, to dedicate something to a divine purpose.  This room, for example.  It could be a movie theater or a concert hall, without the pews—a space for dancing, or dodgeball.  But those who preceded us set it aside for worship.  This space is consecrated.

What does this have to do with us?  With our lives?  With stewardship?  Here’s the basic theme: following Jesus means nothing less than consecrating our whole lives.

Today we start in possibly the most un-hip place imaginable—the Ten Commandments.  They’re basically self-explanatory, right?  Don’t kill people.  Period.  Don’t steal.  End of story.  How much is there for us to learn here?  It’s just ten rules.  And for a lot of us rules just seem, well, lame.

Rules assume a world that is black and white, where things can be easily categorized into right and wrong.  And part of us rebels, saying the real world’s just not like that.

On top of that is our particular Christian slant on the law.  We Christians are more or less prone to act like we’re too cool for that school.  We’re saved by grace through faith, not by works or the law.  It’s a perspective that comes in handy when we want to eat shellfish.  But it’s incomplete.

Because most of the time when Jesus talked about the law, he didn’t dismiss it as so much nonsense.  He said things like, you’ve heard you shouldn’t kill, but I say even anger is a problem.  Jesus seemed to take the law seriously.  Really seriously.

Maybe he took it seriously because he understood the law not as a set of constricting, stuffy rules, but as a gift.  For Jews, and for Jesus, and for us too if we’re open to it, the law is a gift from God.  These commandments are God’s first gift to the people after they’ve been freed from bondage.

Could the ten commandments be a gift?  Could following them change us?  Consecrate us?

That’s ultimately the value of any rule.  The practice changes you.  I’m a runner.  A slow, not particularly elegant, runner.  But my rule is that I get up five days a week, regardless of weather, or my attitude, and I go for a run.  Most days I huff and puff and wonder who I’m kidding.  But every once in a while it’s a fantastic run.  I would never have those amazing runs, or I’d have a lot fewer of them, if I didn’t go run almost every day.

Likewise with anything worth doing well.  These commandments that God’s given us offer an opportunity to practice reflecting the image of God more fully in our everyday, walking around lives.  God calls us to be set apart by these rules, to live differently, to consecrate our lives and our hearts by our practice, and failure, and practice again.

That’s abstract.  What does it look like when we consider the ten commandments as an invitation to consecrate our daily lives?


1. Have no other gods.  This is the command on which all the others rest.  The ultimate love and freedom that resides at the heart of the universe asks for our undivided loyalty.  Jesus (and Deuteronomy) put it this way, love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.  Why is this the starting place?  Mumford and Sons put it as well as anyone: “where you invest your love is where you invest your life.”  What we love defines us. God wants us to abandon all the other things that would shape us into smaller, less loving, less free creatures.  How deeply would it change us if every moment began with the question, how can I love God first in this moment?

2. Do not make idols.  We might be tempted to dismiss this one, idols having gone out of style a few centuries ago.  But what if we think of an idol as an image or an idea which we use to define God?   We’re reminded that we may know of God, but we will not, this side of the grave, fully know God.  Our words fall short.  Our theologies are inadequate.  Our images, limited.  Our experience, finite.  This command counsels caution in the face of our certainties about God.  How could this change our prayers?  Our politics?  Our religion?

3. Do not take the Lord’s name in vain.  This command is not primarily about whether or not you use the phrase “omg.”  God’s name is God’s very being, reflected in the beauty of creation, the joy of worship, the living witness of the scriptures, and the endless diversity of humans.  How would it change us to consider all of these, especially all the other people we share our days with, as reflections of God and to treat them as well as we would treat God in our midst?

4. Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.  We’re going to talk about this consecrated day next week.  For now, we’ll give it a pass, except to ask, how might our lives be different if we took the command to rest one day a week as seriously as we take the command not to kill?

5. Honor your father and mother.  This can be a hard one, particularly in families where parents have been absent or abusive.  A couple of thoughts: Biblical scholarship has tended to conclude that these commands were addressed to adults and thus related to adults caring for their aging parents.  The command, then, is not directed to powerless children, but to adults in the prime of their life who have the option of walking away.  That changes the dynamic somewhat.  And though it still may be difficult, many of you can testify that caring for your parents, while difficult and challenging, changes you, deepens your love, maybe even makes that relationship more holy, perhaps it even consecrates it.

6.  Do not kill.  The Westminster Shorter Confession has a nice rhythm to it.  For each commandment it asks, what is required?  And what is forbidden?  Every shall not also contains a shall.  In this case the shall not is more or less clear.  Life is sacred.  We are not to take it away.  And conversely, we are asked to pursue all those things which would give life to others—from casseroles and cards given to one who grieves to checking the emissions on our cars.  The simplicity of the commandment hides the complexity, doesn’t it?  Wow would our days be different if each decision were weighed by asking what, in this moment, will kill?  What will give life?


7. Do not commit adultery.  Another that seems straightforward.  Jesus complicated this one considerably, telling us that even lust for someone outside of our marriage is as good as adultery.  The point isn’t that dissimilar from the first commandment.  Small loves have the power to eat away at our big loves.  There are relationships in our lives that we consecrate above others.  Tending to those relationships, caring for one another, continuing to seek out the sacred in the other person, all of that is not separate from our spiritual lives, but in fact is part of it.

8. Do not steal.  Yet another that seems easy.  But what, truly, is ours?  I suppose it’s the recent season of creation that makes me think of our earth.  Psalm 24 come to mind: the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.  God gave us the earth to tend, but at what point does tending the land become pillaging?  Jesus said if we have two coats, and there is a person without, we should give one to them.  The prophets tell us that right worship of God is ensuring that all have enough.  At some point does a refusal—personal or social, to share from our bounty, to give back to the Lord and give to our neighbors, move from simple selfishness to stealing?  What if this is an invitation to consecrate all of our property, to look at it all as a tool for God’s purposes?

9.  Do not bear false witness against a neighbor.  When I was younger, I took comfort in a literal interpretation of this one.  Lying, in all cases isn’t ruled out, just lying in a judicial setting.  The commandment, though, is more challenging than that.  Our words have the power to do such harm.  The childhood cliche isn’t true.  Sticks and stones as well as words can wound, and while bruises can heal, harsh words linger for years, and the webs woven by dishonesty aren’t easily untangled.  How can we consecrate our speech?  What if each word that came out of our mouths reflected well on our neighbors?

10. Do not covet.  Covet’s an old word.  It means to yearn to have something, anything.  The wisdom is not so very different from Buddha’s insight that desire is suffering.  Not all longing is bad.  Longing for a better world, a kinder heart, gentler words, these longings lead us to life.  Perhaps the point is that what we desire has the power to define us.  Our desires can be like blinders, blocking all else from our view.  If we’re busy looking at our neighbors’ house, car, clothes, and spouse with desire, then we completely miss our neighbor herself.  This command asks nothing less than that we consecrate our very hearts.  It brings us full circle, reminding us to love God first and let all other longings flow from there.

How could we possibly live up to this?  We can’t, of course.  John Calvin said the law has two purposes: to show us what goodness looks like, and to call attention to how far we have to go.  That’s humbling.  And it’s not necessarily a feeling we enjoy.  But, what if we think of this feeling as something akin to plowing.  It shakes things up in our hearts, and prepares them to receive the seeds of grace.

The One who commands us is always the One who forgives.  We can’t live up to this.  Of course not.  Getting it all right isn’t the point.  The gospel is true.  We’re claimed and saved by grace alone.  But then what?  What does a life lived in response to that grace actually look like?  How do we grow closer to each other, to God?  How do we live out the gratitude we feel?  And glorify the One who has loved us first?  We follow because a life that is given over to this path and longing for this way, is a consecrated life.

God gives us the law not to taunt us with our imperfections, but as a marked trail leading toward goodness, and godliness, to what our hearts most deeply desire—to live in harmony with others, to be consumed by love for the only One who is truly worthy, to rest in that love and let it shape our days.

So we’re invited, as we embark on this journey of consecration to meditate on these ten commands.  What is God calling you to consecrate?  Where do you need to rededicate your life, in order to follow more nearly?

Because, ultimately this is what stewardship means.  We don’t just set aside one part of ourselves or our lives as the spiritual part.  We view every day, every moment as God’s and therefore sacred.

Because the truth of the matter is this: our lives are gifts from God.  Our purpose on this earth is to attend to the holiness, the goodness, the freedom and life that is God as we go through all of our days—the good ones, the hard ones, the easy ones, the beautiful ones, the ones we wish never to face—all of our days.  We turn them all over to God, and in doing so rest in the faith that God walks with us, through it all, leading us little by little into life.  May it so be.

by Sarah Wiles
October 16, 2011
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA
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3 Responses to spirituality of the ten commandments

  1. Carolyn Joy says:

    Thank you for reminding us that all of our days are holy.

  2. Jean Bone says:

    Great insights on the “shalls” countering the “shall nots” (especially like #8)

  3. mahrilf says:

    really beautiful, Sarah.

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