From the beginning of mankind’s history, we have not liked rules. And we often deceive ourselves, not by saying a rule is bad, but by convincing ourselves that we are an exception to the rule.
In 1 Samuel 13, we read that Saul knew it was wrong to offer sacrifices to God without Samuel present, but he did it anyway, because of the “special situation.” Throughout the Bible, we read example after example of people who broke God’s laws because they felt in their hearts that their situations were “exceptions” to the rule.
It is human nature to feel that we are “special”—that we somehow deserve that things go our way, no matter what obstacles we might face. Self-will is a powerful force, and can blind us to the reality of our circumstances, so God inspired the prophet Jeremiah to write, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). God knows that the human heart, making decisions without the aid of God’s Spirit, is quick to tempt us to justify rule-breaking by convincing us that our situation is an exception.
How does this apply to you and to me?
As God began working with the Israelites, He taught them to obey basic rules called the Ten Commandments. Those rules have a two-fold purpose. First, they train us to love and honor God. Second, when obeyed, they establish harmony between our neighbors and ourselves.
Yes, “when obeyed.” It is instructive that the Israelites, almost immediately after receiving those rules, fell into a situation that illustrates our topic. The First Commandment taught the Israelites to have no other gods before the true God. The Second Commandment prohibited them from making any carved or graven image in order to worship God. Yet, within days, they defied both rules by declaring an “exception.” Moses had gone up Mount Sinai to receive stone tablets from God. Scripture tells us what happened next: “Now when the people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mountain, the people gathered together to Aaron, and said to him, ‘Come, make us gods that shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’”A few verses later, we read that Aaron received the gold that they offered to him and molded a golden calf. They then said, “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:4).
They did not say that the first or second commandments were bad or wrong, they just said that they had a “special situation.” They did not say that they did not want to love God. In fact, they considered what they were doing to be showing love towards God! They were simply using the calf image to “visualize” God more clearly. In verse 5, we read that Aaron built an altar before the golden calf, and made a proclamation, “Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord.” They believed that they were honoring God. But in reality, they were dishonoring God. They felt they were drawing closer to God. The truth was that they were moving away from Him. And it all began with an “exception to the rule.” Because Moses was not around, and seemed to be taking way too long to come down from the mountain, they decided that they would worship God as they saw fit.
We could find dozens, even hundreds of examples of ways in which our modern society follows the regrettable example of ancient Israel.
For instance, God commands us to keep His Sabbath day holy (Genesis 2, Exodus 20). What is the purpose? The objective of the Sabbath is to remind us that God is the Creator and Sustainer, to draw closer to God, and think about the future millennial rest under Christ’s kingship in the future. When we observe the Sabbath day, and obey God’s command, what is the result? Exactly as intended! We accomplish those objectives. But many who call themselves “Christian” are under the mistaken impression that we can draw close to God without obeying God’s rule. They believe that the Sabbath was only for the Jews, and that we in modern times are “exempted.” They believe that we can worship God on any day, in any way, and make a habit out of worshipping God on Sunday. They contend that the Ten Commandments are all good, but when it comes to the Sabbath Day, we have an “exception” as to our application of it.
Another example involves God’s annual Holy Days. God provided a schedule of Holy Days in Leviticus 23, reinforced by other scriptures throughout the Bible. Observance of these days is a vital part of obedience to God’s rules for mankind. As we keep these Holy Days, we gain greater understanding of God’s plan for humanity in general and for us individually. Sadly, most modern-day churchgoers believe that their church has the authority to change the observance of those days, or that God somehow exempts Christ’s followers from observing the same days He observed and taught His followers to observe.
One mistaken idea, a very common one, is that observance of the Holy Days is only for the Jewish people. Christians, or so the theory goes, have their own holidays. But what holidays have most professing Christians chosen? They have substituted pagan holidays in place of God’s annual Holy Days. During those holidays, it is considered okay to lie to children about Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Easter Bunny. Of course, for the rest of the year, we teach children that lying is wrong—but, when it comes to Christmas and Easter, there seems to be an exception to the rule! And what is the result? Instead of drawing closer to God and learning more about His plan, the average churchgoer knows little or nothing about the truth of God’s plan for humanity.
The Bible gives us rules about marriage, sexuality, finances, economics and a host of other topics. Its rules teach us how to interact with our neighbors, and how to honor God. These rules are not given as burdens to make our lives more difficult, but to make them more successful. So, the earlier we learn those rules and make them part of our thinking, the more successful and fulfilled we will be. In a way, it is like playing a sport. If we learn the rules, play fairly, and learn to play well, others will want to play with us. They will want to be on our team, and even to learn from us and follow our successful example. On the other hand, no one likes to play with someone who will not play by the rules—and the player who considers himself an exception to the rules will surely be frustrated and ultimately unsuccessful.
What about us? Human beings have a long history of the “exception to the rule” mentality. But if we can resist the pull of human nature, and can think as David did when he wrote, “Oh how love I your law” (Psalm 119:97) we will be well on the road to success.