Law, the First Use

What do you think is the most difficult word in the English language? Would it be “lachrymose” (causing tears, tearful) or “contumacious” (insubordinate, rebellious) because we use them so rarely? Would it be “hemacytometer” (instrument for counting blood) or “boanerges” (skilled orator) because they are tricky to spell? Or would it be “Asseocarnisanguineoviscericartilaginonervomedullary” because it is perhaps the longest words in the English language (it refers to a structure of the human body, by the way)?

I think that, if forced to choose, I’d take a different route, suggesting that the most difficult word in the English language is also one of the shortest, easiest to spell, and most common: “no.”

I remember watching as my then-toddling children first learned how difficult “no” is. “No, you can’t run ahead of us into the street.” “No, you can take that toy from your sister.” “No, you can’t play with the knobs on the stove.” No. We don’t like it because it is, well, just plain negative. Even more, it stands in our way, negating our immediate desires and wishes, withholding something from us that we want.

My children, now in middle and high school, still struggle with the word “no” – as do, truth be told, their parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and, I’d wager, everyone in their larger human family. We want what we want for a reason, and “no” always runs contrary to those reasons, wants, and desires. And, more often than not, that makes us mad, defensive, and in some cases rather aggressive, as it’s hard to imagine not getting what we want.

Evolutionary biologists will likely tell us that our tendency to look out for our wants and desires over those of all others comes from evolving in a landscape of scarcity where, quite literally, only the strong and the selfish survive, even as they invite us to “evolve beyond” such a limited view. (On this point, see John Stewart’s recent conversation with Richard Dawkins on just this topic.) Christian theologians are just as likely to describe our predilection to “look out for #1” as evidence of human sin, arguing that whatever benefits it may have provided, it also and has always greatly limited human flourishing and stands contrary to God’s will that we care for each other.

One things all kinds of people agree upon, however, is that the primary way to curb our penchant for putting our wants and desires first is through the law. Law, in short, are simply the rules we create to keep us from harming others in our pursuit to satisfy our wants. Laws tell us what we can and can’t do, in this way creating the boundaries in which we are more likely to flourish.

For many people, religious and non-religious alike, the embodiment of this kind of law is the Ten Commandments. Interestingly, the Ten Commandments aren’t exactly rocket science. Rather, they are rather basic rules – don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie, etc. – that create room in which we can live with each other.

When Christian theologians talk about these kinds of rules, they often describe them as the “first use” of the law. Why? Because rules like the Ten Commandments – or, for that matter, speed limits – curb our instinct to do whatever we want regardless of the needs of our neighbor. And when they do so, the law is serving its primary function to help us get more out of life by restraining us from hurting each other in the pursuit of our private gain.

This first use of the law is also called the “civil use” because it creates room for us to flourish. It nurtures human civilization by causing us – through threat of punishment or promise of reward (but usually, truth be told, threat of punishment) – to be civil to each other. Or at least more civil than we might be absent those threats and promises.

The first use of the law – as opposed to the second use (we’ll get to that later) – sets the basic parameters of human flourishing. Hence the basic, even common sense, nature of the Ten Commandments. It’s hard, after all, to live in human society if it’s okay to steal, lie, or murder. And while we may experience the “thou shalt nots” of the Ten Commandments and others laws as fairly negative, ultimately we reap huge benefits from these prohibitions because they create a measure of safety that we’d likely not experience apart from them.

As Louis CK argues in this brilliant bit of a larger comedy routine he recorded with HBO, for instance, while we’d like to think of ourselves as basically good people, a lot of our behavior comes down to context, to our taking heed of the threat of punishment that always stands behind the law. And so we need the law because, as he says, citing murder as principle example, “the law against murder is the number one thing preventing murder…because it really sucks getting caught murdering.”

That’s the law, in its first use, functioning as a gift from God to tell us – children and adults alike – “no” so that we can then say “yes” to a richer and more abundant life together.

(A quick note about the video: Louis CK, as with many comedians, using some profanity. He’s incredibly funny, and I’ve tried to edit this clip accordingly, but know that if that offends you than Louis is probably not your guy.)

Notes: 1) If you are receiving this post by email, you may need to click here to watch the video.
2) This post is the first in a series of “Speaking Christian” articles that will try to make Christian theology more accessible by illustrating Christian “vocabulary” with popular culture. If there are terms you’d like me to try to illustrate, please share them in the comments (not email, please). Thanks!
3) Thanks to Andy Root for directing me to this clip. And if you have clips that you think illustrate Christian theology, please feel free to share those in the comments as well!