God's Law and Our HappinessEDWARD SRI
Why does God give the moral law?
Imagine if I sat my toddler down on the living room floor and surrounded him with his favorite toys — blocks, trains, cars, balls. Then I sternly looked him in the eye and said, "Do not touch any of these toys."
"Why Da-da?" he asks.
"Don't ask why! Just do as I say or you'll be punished — I'm testing whether you'll obey me!"
No good father would do this. A father gives laws to his children for their well being — because he loves them, wants what is best for them, and does not want them to get hurt. The law is an expression of a father's love. For example, when my 12-month-old son tried to climb the monkey bars in our backyard, I knew we needed to issue a new "law" for him.
After observing his older siblings repeatedly climb a ladder on the side of the play set and race across the monkey bars that stretched over the swings, little Karl decided he wanted to give it a try. He made it up the side ladder, reached for the rung of the monkey bars and found himself stuck hanging seven feet in the air. Suddenly I heard my kids rush inside screaming, "Karl's stuck on the monkey bars!"
I dashed outside and found him dangling with both hands clinging desperately to the wooden bar and a look of horror on his face while his older brother squatted below him, propping him up until I came. The boy was rescued, but I declared a new "law" that day: little Karl was not allowed to climb the monkey bars!
I issued this monkey-bar decree not because I was on a power trip with my 12-month-old. Rather, I gave this law because I love him and wanted to protect him from getting hurt. This law flowed from my fatherly heart.
The same is true with our heavenly Father. Consider the first prohibitive law in the Bible, given to Adam: "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die" (Gen. 2:16-17).
God does not give this law to Adam in order to control him and restrict his freedom. In fact, God's words underscore the broad liberty He was giving Adam to eat freely from every other tree in the garden. There is only one tree from which God does not want Adam to eat, the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
Neither is the law given merely to test Adam's obedience. There is a much deeper purpose to the command. The text says God warns Adam about this one tree because He does not want Adam to be harmed ("For in the day that you eat of it you shall die"). In other words, God gives this law to protect Adam from some danger that is symbolized by the tree of knowledge of good and evil (cf. Catechism, no. 396).
Here, we can catch a glimpse of how the moral law flows from God's love for us. As Pope John Paul II explained in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor: "God, who alone is good, knows perfectly what is good for man, and by virtue of His very love, proposes this good to man in the commandments" (no. 35).
God's moral law is like an instruction manual for our lives. When purchasing a car, one receives an owner's manual that tells how best to operate the vehicle. The manufacturer who made the car knows how it works and instructs us on what we need to do to ensure that the car functions properly. No one views these instructions as impositions into our lives. They are not given to control us or restrict our freedom. They are given to help us use the vehicle well.
Similarly, the moral law is like God's instruction manual for our lives. God is the divine manufacturer. He made us and knows how we work. He knows that certain actions will lead us to happiness while other acts will end only in frustration and emptiness for ourselves and others. That's why God gives the moral law — to help guide us on the pathway to happiness.
When a friend of mine purchased a Fisher-Price exersaucer for her baby, she told me the instruction manual had some interesting warnings, such as: "This play saucer does not float . . . Do not use in water" and "Do not use for sledding." (Imagine a six-month-old sledding downhill in a play saucer or waterskiing in it on a lake!).
What would you think of someone who purchased an exersaucer, read the instruction manual, got angry, and tore it up, saying: "Fisher-Price, who are you to tell me what to do with my exersaucer? This is my exersaucer, and I have the right to do whatever I want with my play saucer. Don't impose your views about exersaucers on me . . ."?
Is that person able to go against the instructions and do whatever he wants with his exersaucer? Yes. But if he takes his six-month-old waterskiing in it, he will probably ruin his baby's life.
Similarly, can we use our free will to go against God's moral law? Yes. But when we do so, we ruin our lives and the lives of others. In the end, when we break God's moral law, we break ourselves.
The law flows from God's love for us. But the devil wants Adam and Eve (and all of us) to view God's law apart from His love — to see the command as a rule, not as an expression of His relationship with us.
Consider the serpent's first words to Eve: "Did God say, 'You shall not eat of any trees of the garden?'" (Gen. 3:1). First, the serpent simply refers to the Lord as Elohim ("God"). This title is used in Genesis 1 to describe God as the Creator of the universe. The serpent's use of this title here is particularly striking because the rest of Genesis 2-3 characteristically refers to God as Yahweh Elohim ("the Lord God"), which elsewhere in the Bible expresses God's intimacy with His people as Israel's covenant partner. In Genesis 2, it is the "Lord God" who creates man from the ground and breathes life into him, who creates the animals and allows Adam to name them, and who creates the woman from Adam's side. Indeed, the "Lord God" is a loving God, involved in Adam and Eve's lives, providing for them as His children.
But the serpent will have none of this. He wants Eve to think of God as a remote deity, a distant Creator — one who gives a burdensome law. It is as if the serpent is saying, "Did that distant Creator, powerful lawgiver say, 'You shall not eat of any trees of the garden'?" The serpent wants them to think of God as an oppressive law-giver whose rule limits their freedom.
The woman responds by mentioning that they can eat from other trees, but that if they eat from the tree in the midst of the garden they would die. To this, the serpent says: "You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (Gen. 3:4).
Feel the gravity of the serpent's words: In saying, "You will not die," the serpent is calling God a liar. According to the serpent, the tree is not harmful. It is actually something that will make them like God, and God is so afraid of Adam and Eve eating from the tree and becoming like Him that He makes up this law in order to suppress them and keep them under His control.
Notice how the devil is not simply trying to get Adam and Eve to break a rule. Ultimately, he is trying to get them to break a relationship. The first sin involves questioning God's fatherly goodness. As the Catechism explains, "Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God's command. This is what man's first sin consisted of. All subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in His goodness" (no. 397).
In conclusion, the first temptation and every one since involves an attack on God's loving fatherhood. In our relativistic world, many people adopt the serpent's view about God's moral law — they doubt that it is really there for our good. When a culture views religion as "just a bunch of rules" and morality as the Church "trying to tell others what to do with their lives," it no longer sees the moral law as coming from the heart of a loving Father who wants what is best for us. Like Adam and Eve, our modern world has not just abandoned moral truth; it has bought into the serpent's lie about God. When we reject God's moral law for our own preferences, we are ultimately rejecting the Father's loving care for us.
Edward P. Sri. "God's Law and Our Happiness." Lay Witness (May/June 2011).
This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.
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