Wednesday, February 09, 2005
Motives for respect
Moreover, we need to take care that we don't allow manners and customs to become a law in their own right. Only the Law written in the Word of God, the Bible, is binding on the conscience of all men. Men can and do come up with many other laws, both written and unwritten. When these laws come from the governing authorities, we ought to submit to them so long as they don't contradict God's Law. In addition to the laws of government, every society has many other laws, most of them unwritten. For lack of a better word, I'll call these laws "customs". Customs ought to be evaluated in the light of Scripture. If following a local custom would cause me to violate God's Law, then I must not follow that custom, but if the local custom causes no conflict with God's Law, then my conscience is free. This means that I am free to follow or disregard the custom as I see fit. However, I also need to bear in mind the law of brotherly love. That is, if a custom doesn't conflict with the Word of God and keeping it will communicate respect to my neighbor, then I will do well to keep it, not because the custom in itself is binding on my conscience, but because God's commandment that I "love thy neighbor" is binding on my conscience. Thus, it is good and right in many cases for the Christian to respect local customs.
However, there are still murkier waters afoot, because in practice each individual may have certain standards of behavior which they consider to define respectful conduct. Although their standard may be based neither on God's Law nor local customs, they may hold it to be mandatory all the same, and may take offense if you happen to violate their standard. Now, when I'm aware of my friend's unique standards, I'll do my best to honor them out of love and respect for him, but when I'm ignorant of his standards, I may inadvertently cause offense.
Confession time: regarding local customs I've been something of a slow learner (although I'm doing very well in recent years), so in the past I've caused unintentional offense on a number of occasions. I've been single all my life (I hope to marry someday), and have only entered into courtship on one occasion, so my experience with the finer points of courtship etiquette is less than might be expected for a guy in his mid-forties. Also, having been single for so long and often having a small circle of friends, I haven't always gotten as much input into the unwritten "dos and don'ts" of our society as might be usual. I say all this only to explain that I am not a malicious rebel against society, but rather a slow learner. As people get to know me, they realize that the reason why I don't always know to say or do exactly the right thing is on account of ignorance rather than malice, not to mention that I am quick to "reform" my behavior when I do learn that I've caused unintentional offense, but sometimes when an acquaintance is new and a person doesn't understand this, they have thought that something is amiss with my attitude, when in fact the problem is much more superficial than that, and far be it from being a deep-seated character flaw, it is a fault that is easily remedied.
I share all of this to illustrate why, as we strive to treat those around us with greater respect, that we need to be careful to be patient with and forgiving towards others. Whereas it's good to examine our own heart strictly, it's good to give others every benefit of the doubt. So, as we strive to implement the lessons we can learn from the writings of Jane Austen and the best customs of the past, let's do so with kindness, patience, and charity to all!