I have noticed with young children that saying, “Stop banging your fork on the table” is not nearly as effective as saying, “Set your fork on your napkin, please.” That sweet child can hear the command to stop, but the fork is still in her chubby little fingers and she needs to know what to do with it.
In the ancient battle between “Do” vs. “Don’t,” “Do” will win every time. “Do” embodies invitation and freedom. “Don’t” implies rejection and burden.
I know there is a time and place for “Don’t.”
Scripture is full of don’ts. The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3-17) have an 80% “don’t” rate.
- Don’t have other gods.
- Don’t make idols.
- Don’t misuse the name of the Lord.
- Do remember the Sabbath.
- Do honor your parents, that it may go well with you.
- Don’t murder.
- Don’t steal.
- Don’t commit adultery.
- Don’t lie.
- Don’t covet.
Colossians 3:5-9 is a whole list of don’ts:
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. … But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another…
But Scripture doesn’t leave you with just a list of what not to do or without reason for ceasing one action and starting another.
The Ten Commandments are preceded by
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the Land of Slavery.
– Exodus 20:2
And Colossians 3:12-17 continues on with the biblical equivalent of “Set your fork on your napkin, please.”
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
The parallel passage in Ephesians 4:22-32 pairs the “don’t” with it’s “do instead” a little more directly:
… to put off your old self,which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.
Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.
Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.
…Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
God must have known I am like my toddler. I need to know what to do if I am going to do it. I need a context of His love and faithfulness to learn to love and faithfulness to be faithful. I have greater freedom when I know what I am striving for than I do when I simply have an instruction to stop.
“Don’t” comes so naturally to me, I need to focus on “do.”
I need clear instruction on what to do with the fork in my chubby fingers. Simply telling me to stop banging it isn’t enough.
Have you ever noticed we don’t make “To Don’t” lists to make progress on anything?
“Don’t exasperate/provoke/embitter your children” (Ephesians 6:4, Colossians 3:21) isn’t enough instruction for me. It implies rejection and straps me to a burden too heavy to bear.
I need an invitation to something different. I need all the other verses about training my children, walking in the Spirit, defining the fruit of the Spirit, and verses explaining what it means to sacrifice for others as Christ sacrificed for me if I am going to stop exasperating my children.
God’s grace is revealed in the expanse of Scripture. As I begin to plumb the depths of His word, I see all the “do’s” I need to live a life worthy of my calling (2 Thessalonians 1:11-12). And that is grace.