Living Well: why it isn’t as simple as keeping the rules

And for those of you who prefer reading than listening:

How do we live well? Wouldn’t it work if we all just kept to the rules

Keeping the rules is one way people believe life can be made to work well.

We are all getting used to an ever-changing and hugely complex set of rules to live by currently. At this moment in the pandemic in the UK you are allowed to go to a zoo but you can’t go and visit your mother-in-law inside her house and she can’t come inside yours, unless you were to pay her to clean your loo in which case you would be employing a cleaner and she can come in!

Living by the rules is a model for life that some people think will work. But the difficulty with rigid rules is that living by them is unrealistic and inflexible: very rapidly we will come up against situations in which the rules don’t seem to apply (and not just because we selfishly don’t think they apply to us) take for example a fairly straightforward rule “always tell the truth”. You would think that would be non-negotiable, you’d think so but what if a murderer were to ask you where his next victim is hiding and you know the answer?

Ah yes, well there are always exceptions that prove the rule and as every lawyer knows you have to be continually adding on new rules and clauses to cover unforeseen circumstances or more nuanced situations. So a single person household is now allowed to bubble with another household-this rule requires us to define single person and household, all of which opens up varying interpretations.

The more rules you have for life the more unbending and ill-fitting it all becomes. Steve Chalke in his book Being Human wrote about this and he said “rules codify the past, they are designed to deal with what happened yesterday, they are a map of the past”. This is not to say that rules are unhelpful. They are definitely good and helpful. So we can understand that new rules have been brought into place regarding cladding on tower block walls and this is an example of rules that codify the past and event happened and we change the regulations to try to ensure that similar tragedies did not happen again.

So it’s not that rules are a bad thing and we should definitely keep them but just like maps no book of rules is totally up-to-date just like a map is not reality it’s just a map. Maps and rules are helpful guides to the way ahead-they are not useless, in fact they are very useful but they do have limits.

Are they are way to help us live well? Not so sure.

The other problem with living by rules is the huge sense of entitlement felt by rule keepers. “Well I did this or I did that and therefore X or Y should happen: I pay my taxes, I don’t break the law, I deserve free healthcare, a decent pension”.

And it’s not that you are NOT a deserving, decent, upright, rule keeping citizen but for all of us whether we are rule keepers or rule breakers, here is one universal truth:  life is not fair.

That is one of the hardest darn things to accept “life is not fair”. You may be a devout, generous, exemplary, decent human being but your child/wife/mother might still die in a tragic road accident.

And that’s pretty rubbish so in response to this you might be tempted to say “well, if that’s the case, what’s the point of being a rule keeper?” there are a whole load of reasons why being a rule keeper makes life better for everyone even if it doesn’t guarantee us immunity from hardship or tragedy. But, just hold that thought, I’m going to come back to that in a moment.

First, a little bit more about this sense of entitlement, because whether we believe in God or we don’t are all tempted to think this way. As Eugene Peterson puts it, codes of conduct (a.k.a. rules) put us in charge and we move God off the field into the judge’s podium, we keep the rules and we expect him/her to grade our performance at rule keeping and applaud us accordingly. Not surprisingly we get miffed if he/she doesn’t seem to notice. We use rule keeping as a string to control God. If I do this and this then God ought to do X, Y or Z – hmm, it doesn’t work that way, we are forgetting about that previous universal, the one about life being hard and unfair.

So what’s the point of God if he doesn’t change that? Good question. But before we think about the point of God, let’s think about the character or nature of God.

What if God is not a stern judge waiting to wrap me over the knuckles for my lack of time in church or my fondness for cupcakes?

What if God is not some mean miserly superpower waiting to catch us out and tell us off.

What difference would make if we saw God as a loving parent who had provided an incredible and amazing world a richness of people and creation and wanted us to enjoy it all. Then God wouldn’t need to have a point, God’s very existence would be enough to make us happy.

Just like, assuming you’ve had a good relationship with your mum or your dad, you don’t say ‘what’s the point of having a mum or a dad?’

That would be an odd question, if you have a loving relationship with your mum or dad that is the point, you don’t need them to have a point for their existence, they are not there to grade you, or feed you or remind you to clean your teeth, they might do these things but the point of their existence, the meaning in your connection with them is all about being loved, and that’s enough.

Yes, but if God is like a parent who really loved me wouldn’t he keep from harm? Yes, absolutely he would and he does because whatever harm does befall you he promises it won’t ever be enough to separate you from his love. Bad things, unfair things will happen and the reasons why that is really need to be the subject of a whole other video.


The point about God is that he’s not there to grade our performance, he’s there to love us flaws and all. He’s on our side, he’s for you.  Remember that line from the movie ‘you had me at hello’ well God had you from the moment you came into being…  God looks at you and says ‘you had me at hello’.

And that kind of acceptance is not about rules.

When we live by ‘moralism’, which is just a fancy word for rule keeping we are constructing a way of life in which we have this wrong picture of God, in which ‘Me, myself, I all by myself, can earn all the acceptance that I think I deserve, over-looking the fact that I’ve already been offered that acceptance.

If I can keep the rules, I have no need of saving God. I just need an approving God who will tell me how well I’m doing and reward me appropriately by guaranteeing me protection from punishment or disaster.

But the flaws in this system are:

  • I can’t keep all the rules anyway so it’s never going to work – turns out, I do actually need a saving God
  • The rules don’t cater for every situation so I’m not going to know how to behave in some circumstances
  • The God the Bible describes is not a God who is the mean judge but he IS a saviour “for God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world but to save the world” yes, the Bible says that.

So if keeping rules is not going to guarantee you a safe and happy life, why would you keep them? I told you I’d come back to this point.

Apart from the fact that it’s good for everyone else if we can just agree about a few things eg which side  of the road to drive on. The reason we might make an effort to live by the rules that God gives us, say for example the 10 Commandments is because they describe a way of life and this way of life turns out to be the way to life, life ‘in all its fullness’.

We think about the 10 commandments and forget or have never read the preface:  when God gave the 10 Commandments he prefaced them by saying words to the effect that “look I love you anyway and I know you’re gonna screw up but here is a way of life that will help you thrive and help society thrive, just do your best okay but when you mess up your gonna need forgiveness and restoration and I am really into those things.

So the rules are not a tough set of requirements set by a demanding deity who insists on us keeping them before he blesses us. They are an indication of an ideal way of life offered to us by a God who created us and knows how we are likely to function best. This God says trust me, follow me, live this way and life will go generally better. If you don’t lie or cheat or steal or murder, if you live life at less than at frenetic pace making sure that you rest properly, if you have in essence a respectful relationship with other people eg your parents, if you don’t spend all your time envying other people’s lives your life then your life will be enriched, you will be more peaceful. This is the way of life that Jesus summed up as “love God and love other people as you love yourself”

‘Love’ is the summary of the law – God who loves you, would love life to go well for you, well would you believe it? Well would you?

The next in this series of videos about living well, will be called “living well- why we all can’t just do what feels good”


Here is the book I mention in this blog.

being human

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