“ On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:40
It is popular in culture today to reject negative instruction. Parents are told never to tell their children no, don’t. Adults are told not to criticize lest we damage someone’s self-esteem. While there is some validity to the thought that positive reinforcement has a more lasting and uplifting effect on behavior, we do a great disservice to our neighbors when we fail to understand the proper context of its use.
Early in the Bible, in Exodus, God gave Moses His commands for His people. We all remember the King James list of Thou Shalt Nots. Early in mankind’s history, we were young, untrained in righteousness, unskilled in discernment, as God in His infinite love and grace did as any loving parent does. He informed His children what not to do. He gave them strict commands without explanations they could not yet fathom, the first being a demand for our obedience to Him as the one and only God. In our youth, we needed the don’ts because we could not yet understand the context of the dos that would come later.
Here in Matthew, when Christ is asked about the greatest commandment, He refers back to Deuteronomy, and then delivers this last line in answer. Love the Lord, love your neighbor, on these all the other commandments and prophets hang. Here, in the growing maturity of mankind, in the age of the coming new covenant, we are given the context of all the don’ts from the Old Testament. We suddenly see them in a new light, with mature faith, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Christ teaches us that because we love God with all that we are, we will have no other gods before Him, we will make no graven images, we will not use the holiness of His name to curse, we will keep the Sabbath holy, we will honor our parents whom He has given us to guide us in His will. Because we love God, we will love our neighbor, and because we love our neighbor, we will not lie, steal, murder, covet, or commit adultery. Christ gave us the underlying truth that provides the positive why for the lost of negative instructions.
The trouble with this modern philosophy of positive reinforcement alone to promote a sense of self-esteem is that it is false, and it misses half of the equation. In our immaturity, whether as an individual or as a society, we must know what not to do until we have grown enough in wisdom to understand the positive motivation behind the prohibitions. Otherwise, we have no basis for discerning righteousness from unrighteousness, and we have no way of seeing the harm we will cause to ourselves and others in our uninformed bad behavior. Positive reinforcement of bad behavior only results in more damage, with no hope of reaching the point of understanding and acceptance of Christ and His gift of love. We must teach both the dos and the don’ts. Be blessed and be a blessing.
Father, we struggle sometimes to understand Your infinite and complex love. We often misunderstand Your instructions, assuming they are meant to test us or make us unhappy. Open our hearts and our minds to see the beauty and protection of Your don’ts as we grow in the love for You and for one another that You have given us as Your highest command. In Jesus Name, Amen.