Rules. Like them or hate them, we have them. Some of us struggle with them. Some of us thrive under them. Some are rule-followers. Some make a life and a career out of breaking them. Some of us can’t drive 55. Others take the bus.
One of the more interesting things, however, about rules is how many people today are hungry for them. Self-improvement books are flying off the shelf at an alarming rate. The reasons why are hard to say. Some think that because previous generations emphasized rules too much, a group of people who are now reaching adulthood have few rules or limitations are now craving them. One particular best seller, Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, is a paradigmatic example of this. Despite what one may think of his ideas, the fact that a book with the word rules in it is selling so well says something about the state we are in.
Fortunately, at least for the Christian, a great resource lies close at hand. Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount is the Mt. Olympus of NT teaching. If there was anywhere in which to find some “rules,” this would be it. What follows is part one of a three-part series. It is not meant to be a comprehensive theological, exegetical, or even contemplative summary of Jesus’s greatest teaching, but merely a new translation of sorts for our culture that is suddenly strangely open to rules. Ideas here are drawn from many places—from biblical scholars to Dallas Willard and Rob Bell to Brené Brown.
Thus, I present to you, quite humbly, Jesus’s 12 Rules for Life.
1. Blessing is not what you think it is.
Despite what the commercials and advertisers tell you, some of the most depressed people in the world are the richest. Happiness, as you will learn, is more than things. But our world is so backwards and upside-down, we use people and love things instead of using things and loving people. This is no small problem because life, as it turns out, is quite hard at times. Tears will be shed. Things will be unfair. And other people will treat you less that you deserve. Sometimes less than anyone would deserve. In those moments, something mysterious invites us to see that true blessing is not the absence of these hard times, but the ability to stand tall in them. To be hurt, but still be merciful. To make peace with someone who only wants war.
Actually trying these things lets you in on a new reality buried right here in the midst of this one. Jesus called it the kingdom of heaven. It pops up in the weirdest of places, like a dandelion creeping up through a crack in the sidewalk. And it offers a strength and perspective not from this world. A strength that sees the philosophy of “gotta get my slice of the pie before it runs out” as silly. In this kingdom, we can always make more pie. Here, the universe is not a place of lack and fear, but of joy and abundance. When you are at your best, you are already living as if you are from this place, even though you’ve never been there. You’ll know you are on the right track if you want more of it. This kingdom gives you a special kind of hunger and thirst, one that longs to see blessing break out in places where others can’t imagine it would be, with the poor, the lonely, and the depressed. The good news of this Jesus we claim to follow is not that we won’t be these kinds of people at some point in our life, but that being these kinds of people doesn’t exclude us from the greatest things the universe has to offer.
2. Everything you do matters.
Everything. So ask yourself this question: “Does your presence make things better or worse?” If you were a food, and you were added to a meal, would you make it better? Would it bring out new flavors? New tastes? Or would you be the thing that people pick out of their tacos that they didn’t order but somehow got in there anyway? I’m looking at you, Taco Bell.
There are plenty of people who can point out the bad in everything. The world has enough critics, naysayers, and negativity. Being cynical is easy. It’s really not even a challenge. So why not try something different? The truly great and challenging thing is to hope and to see the best in even the worst situations and people. Not in a way that is silly or disconnected from the suffering of the world, but in a way that actually does something to make it better. A way that believes in a God who already is and will ultimately put it all back together. So why not join in? There is nothing better you can do with your life than this.
3. Everything you say matters.
There are two types of murderers: one kills bodies, the other kills souls. Every person you meet has a soul, and the words you speak to these souls can bring heaven or hell crashing into earth. I cannot emphasize how much power you have to change a life by what you say, for good or for ill. The Bible says God created with words, Jesus is called the Word, and the thing that makes us uniquely human is our words. Choose them wisely; they create things. So don’t call people idiots, or they might take you up on it. Seriously. Call them and yourself to something higher, something better. Words can be used to unite people or drive them apart. To hurt or to heal. There is no middle ground here. You’re heading in one direction or the other. And in the end, that direction will determine not only the shape of the souls around you, but the size of yours.
4. When you are mad at someone, go talk to them first.
Don’t give in to the temptation to talk to everyone else first. If you do that, you may never actually talk to the person who made you mad. And by that point, most likely because you don’t have all the information, you will have created a story of your own with your own team of writers and will have begun production on a movie where you are the hero and the other person is the villain. At that point, you are trapped in a strange prison of your own making, and even the truth itself will be a threat. Don’t do that. Nine out of 10 times you can save a relationship by talking to someone first, not last, and this will save you a lifetime of scars and brokenness. Develop this habit now; you’re going to need it. God takes this sort of thing so seriously he would rather you do this than go to church, by the way. And yes, that’s in the Bible. Because that’s what a truly holy (H-O-L-Y) person does—they make things whole, complete, and full. Outrage is not a fruit of the Spirit. What you choose will lead to habits, and habits lead to identity. If you choose anger too many times, you won’t just be angry, you’ll be anger, and you won’t be able to see things any other way. It’s an awful way to live. Don’t do it.
Stay tuned next month for more of Jesus’s Rules of Life.
Adam Daniels is a freelance writer who has worked in ministry for 12 years, most recently as the Campus Minister at the Campus View Church of Christ in Athens, Georgia. Despite his years of experience in full time ministry and working through a couple of theological degrees, he still has more questions than answers. He is a husband to Jessie, a lover of books, a stumbling disciple of Jesus, and the worst player on his church league softball team. He blogs occasionally at https://idlefaith.wordpress.com.