On the importance of doing God’s will (contra mundum)
I’ve joked several times about how hard it is to slog through the legal/ritual books of the Pentateuch: Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. But these do contain a number of dramatic historical episodes, from plagues to wars, including acts of both cowardice and courage—from going along to get along to zeal in doing the will of God. In Numbers, we are even given the delightful story of Balaam’s ass. But in light of our contemporary confusion about the importance of doing God’s will, perhaps we should draw a special lesson from the Book of Deuteronomy.
Deuteronomy is written in the form of a long speech by Moses, just before his death, to remind the Chosen People exactly how God has formed them for His own, how often they have failed to trust God and even rebelled against Him, and how important it is going forward to remain faithful to every command of the LORD.
Many modern Catholics, both in the hierarchy and in the pews, now teach and act as if doing God’s will—that is, accepting and following the rules of life He has revealed to us—is relatively unimportant compared with what we call being “loving”, which is generally used as a synonym for being “nice”. But “niceness” implies a more or less deliberate refusal to say anything that will upset another person, even if it is for their own good—a refusal to be a much-needed sign of contradiction. Since the very definition of love is to will another’s good, our modern version of being “loving” very often becomes the antithesis of authentic love.
The first mistake
When reflecting on what God has revealed through Sacred Scripture, the first mistake too many commentators make is to assume that the Jews were incapable of distinguishing between the will of God and mere rules, between moral principles and the particular laws and customs—out of many possibilities—by which the community ordered its daily affairs and religious rituals. Thus we frequently encounter the argument that there were a zillion rules which the Jews had to obey, but that fortunately we can dismiss rules as irrelevant, as long as we love God. In other words, loving God is neatly divorced from behaving in accordance with His will.
But this misperception is a convenient over-simplification of God’s relationship with His Chosen People. Our Lord recognized it as such when he rebuked the Jews for laying great stress on customary rules while neglecting the weightier points of the law (Mt 23:23; Lk 11:42). Indeed, far earlier in Deuteronomy, after Moses specifically repeats the Ten Commandments, he offers this instruction in that specific moral context:
You shall be careful to do therefore as the LORD your God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left…. Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD; and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. [Dt 5:32-6:9]
It is eminently clear that the Jews were taught that every moral law God had revealed to them was a kind of specific instruction in what it means to love, and that the entire moral law took its force from a single imperative: The absolute necessity of loving God, and of loving Him as He teaches us to love—for God alone knows perfectly what love requires, what love means.
The second mistake
The second mistake made by too many commentators and moral theologians today is that the Jews did not perceive any connection between keeping God’s commandments and either love of others or life for themselves. This has given rise to many false theories of the moral life, all of which hold that our hearts can be in the right place not only when we fall into sin but even when our attachment to evil leads us to refuse to accept what God has taught us about the relationship between love and the good. Instead of simply admitting the possibility of invincible ignorance, too many writers and teachers today suggest that it is not only possible but normal for people to draw close to God while clinging to even the most miserable and unnatural of vices, and while refusing to open their minds to God’s instruction.
As an aside, we might notice that the list of acceptable vices for such persons usually runs along the lines of what is culturally fashionable. Gay marriage, for example, became quite acceptable almost overnight but polluting the air or butchering cattle suddenly reveals a hardness of heart which God cannot possibly forgive. Could it be that it is not the Chosen People but today’s ethicists and moralists who cannot distinguish absolute moral principles from prudential rules and arrangements?
Anyway, Moses unveils the folly of the second mistake by teaching repeatedly that obedience to God’s law is for our own good because it is life-giving: “You shall walk in the way which the LORD your God has commanded you that you may live… [T]he LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as at this day” (Dt 5:33 & 6:24). Or again:
And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I command you this day for your good. [Dt 10:12-13, emphasis added]
Circumcision of the heart
Even more astonishing is the degree to which God reveals in this speech of Moses His understanding of the human heart in every age:
Beware lest you say in your heart, “My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.” You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth…. And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you this day that you shall surely perish. [Dt 8:17-19]
Is this not exactly the moral crisis we face today, with so many proud and affluent men and women who forget God, men and women who both define and take credit for their own well-being—from the Wall Street banker to the professor of Moral Theology? That is why Moses warns us: “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn” (Dt 10:16).
But so many of our leaders and teachers are blinded by their own worldly success. They refuse to admit that the one necessary message is simply this:
[T]he LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, who is not partial and takes no bribe…. You shall fear the LORD your God, you shall serve him and cling to him, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise, he is your God, who has done for you these great and terrible things which your eyes have seen. [Dt 10:17-21]
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