Morality and living the 'good life' is a universal topic that transcends religions and cultures, albeit how the topic is understood varies greatly. In its own particular way, every culture has a set of do's and don'ts meant to guide people into right living, however that's defined. Ideally, people will approach morality with a balance of do's and don'ts that combine to form a (somewhat) coherent moral life - e.g. do treat your children with love and don't speak badly of others.
Yet so often religions and cultures are perceived, and even understand themselves, as being one or the other - you are defined by do’s or don’ts. Christianity is no exception.
In terms of do's and don'ts, what are Christians known for? What is the Bible known for?
For many in North American culture the answer is clear: Christianity is a “don’t” religion and the Bible a self-limiting rulebook full of countless prohibitions. Relating the Bible to modern conceptions of the 'good life' is an oxymoron for many. And sadly, Christian history doesn’t do itself any favours in dissuading this notion (e.g. 20th Century Evangelical Fundamentalism).
More difficult is the fact the Bible is full of passages calling people to refrain from attitudes and activities thought too worldly for the faithful (e.g. 10 commandments!). We can’t ignore the “don’ts” of the Bible.
And certain contexts do require certain prohibitions. For example, the summer camp I’ve been speaking at this week has a staff rule to not date other camp staff. By itself, said to a bunch of lively young adults spending the summer together, such a rule (however necessary), serves to perpetuate the “don't” perception.
But we need to ask one more question: What is Jesus known for?
For many, the perception changes when applied to Jesus. He’s more known for his “do's” - love your neighbor, love one another, take up your cross, etc...
How have the perceptions of Christianity and the Bible become divorced from Jesus? It shouldn’t be!
I recently suggested the need to read the Bible through the lens of Jesus. Whether it's his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, or his countless parables, or his profound actions, Jesus doesn't live up to the perception of Christianity as a “don't” religion. There are still prohibitions, no doubt, but these alone don’t define the way of Jesus. Prohibitions are only known in the context of empowerment, where even the term “command” is framed positively - “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’There is no commandment greater than these” (Mk. 12:30-31).
To return to my example from camp, the “don’t” message to staff turns positive, an opportunity to treat one another with honor and respect, not just modeling an appropriate restraint (i.e. "don't"), but modeling healthy positive relationships between men and women to kids who may never otherwise experience such interaction. This is the "do" of Jesus.
It seems obvious, but we need the reminder: the way of Jesus needs to inform our definitions of Christian morality and the good life, hopefully changing perceptions as we live out Jesus’ way of positive actions rooted in a life of a love (Phil 1:27-2:11).