The UK government has launched a review into occupational Health & Safety laws (OH&S). It seems to be a very popular move. Health is good. Safety is good. But the multiplication of rules purportedly designed to enforce it often leads to madness.
Most of us are aware of safety rules that seem to be either over the top or incomprehensible. We received a note from our school a few months ago, informing us that the last day of the term would be a non-uniform day, but instructing us that the children were not to wear any hats—“for health and safety reasons“. A short while later, the school sent home another note, asking us to send our children to school in hats to protect them from the sun. It’s a great school, and the teachers are wonderful people who provide the kids with an excellent education. But this shows that even with the best intentions and among the best of people, rules can easily take over from common sense.
I used to work for a company that made solar panels. We dealt with quite a number of extremely toxic gases and chemicals. Very early on in the company’s life, we had to introduce OH&S policies. I can still remember my exceedingly wise manager, who had a consistent strategy whenever we had a seminar or meeting about health and safety. If anybody ever began a meeting or seminar talking about rules, legislation or fines, then he would stop them in their tracks. He would insist that we had to begin with health and safety itself. We had to be firm on the idea that a healthy and safe workplace was good for everybody and the idea that there were real risks that we had to work together to avoid. Our aim was not to keep rules or avoid fines; our aim was to be healthy and safe, and whatever rules we put into place were only there to serve that ultimate goal. Needless to say, it was a great place to work.
There’s a parallel here with Jesus’ attitude to the Old Testament law. Jesus came into a situation where there was a lot of rule-keeping going on. People were trying to keep God’s rules. Extra rules had even been added to ensure that God’s own original rules were kept. But in many places, the point of the rule-keeping had been lost: there were rules that were over the top (Mark 2:23-24), rules that were tragically inconsistent and heartless (Luke 13:14-16) and rules that ultimately contradicted God’s own law (Mark 7:9-13). Jesus brought clarity to this situation by insisting that the rules only work when we realize that there is something more fundamental than keeping the rules: we need to know the God who gave these rules, and we need to love what God loves. That’s why the Sermon on the Mount, which talks a lot about God’s law, begins with those sayings about blessedness (Matt 5:3-10). Blessed, for example, are the peacemakers, “for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt 5:9).
As we read more of the Sermon on the Mount, we learn that if we merely live our lives doing what God wants without knowing him as Father or loving what he loves, then, in the end, we will not even enter the kingdom of heaven. But if we know God as Father and love what he loves, then the things he commands (and even more than what he explicitly commands) will be our desires too.
Our relationship with God is not defined ultimately by doing his commandments; it is defined by knowing God as Father, and it is lived through loving what God loves. If we know him as Father, we will do what he commands. If we don’t know him as Father, then no amount of rule-keeping will save us.Comments on the Sola Panel