Discerning the Principle Reflects Maturity
BAD associations spoil useful habits. You reap what you sow. (1 Corinthians 15:33; Galatians 6:7) Either physically or spiritually, each statement is an example of a fundamental truth—a principle—and each one provides a basis for laws. Laws, though, may come and go, and they tend to be specific. Principles, on the other hand, are broad, and they can last forever. Thus, God’s Word encourages us to think in terms of principles wherever possible.
Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines a principle as “a general or fundamental truth: a comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine, or assumption on which others are based or from which others are derived.” For example, to a child one might give the law, “You must not touch the stove.” But to an adult the statement, “The stove is hot” would suffice. Notice that the latter is a more fundamental statement. Because it governs what one may do—perhaps cook, bake, or turn the stove off—it becomes in a sense a principle.
Life’s key principles, of course, are spiritual; they govern our worship of God and our happiness. Some, though, retreat from the effort required to reason on principles. They prefer the comfort of a rule when faced with a decision. This is unwise and contrasts with the example set by faithful men of old in Bible times.—Romans 15:4.
Men of Godly Principle
Among imperfect men, Abel could be called the very first man of godly principle. He likely gave much thought to the promise about the “seed” and perceived that redemption from sin would involve a blood sacrifice. (Genesis 3:15) He thus offered God “some firstlings of his flock.” The phrase “even their fatty pieces” shows that Abel gave Jehovah his very best. Yet, it would be over two thousand years after Abel’s death that God would first spell out detailed requirements regarding sacrifices. In contrast with the God-fearing man of principle Abel, his brother Cain went through the motions of sacrificing to God. But his attitude left much to be desired, something about his offering indicating a heart lacking in principle.—Genesis 4:3-5.
Noah too was a man of godly principle. While the Bible record shows that God specifically commanded him to build an ark, we read of no command for him to preach to others. Still, Noah is called “a preacher of righteousness.” (2 Peter 2:5) Even though God likely directed that Noah preach, no doubt his sense of principle and his love of neighbor also moved him to do so. Since we live in times like Noah’s, let us imitate his fine attitude and example.
Unlike the clergy of his day, Jesus taught the people to think in terms of principles. His Sermon on the Mount is an example. Its whole tenor is an appeal to principle. (Matthew, chapters 5-7) Jesus taught this way because, like Abel and Noah before him, he truly knew God. Even as a lad, he revered the fundamental truth: “Not by bread alone . . . but by every expression of Jehovah’s mouth does man live.” (Deuteronomy 8:3; Luke 2:41-47) Yes, the key to being a person of godly principle is really to know Jehovah, his likes, his dislikes, and his purposes. When these fundamentals about God govern our lives, they become, in effect, living principles.—Jeremiah 22:16; Hebrews 4:12.
Principles and the Heart
It is possible to obey a law only reluctantly, perhaps out of fear of a penalty for disobedience. Compliance with a principle, however, precludes such an attitude, for it is in the very nature of principles that to be governed by them is to respond from the heart. Consider Joseph who, like Abel and Noah, lived before the establishment of the Mosaic Law covenant. When Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him, Joseph responded: “How could I commit this great badness and actually sin against God?” Yes, Joseph knew the principle that husband and wife are “one flesh.”—Genesis 2:24; 39:9.
Today the world is void of righteous principles. It feeds like a glutton on violence and immorality. The danger is that a Christian might be tempted to nibble, perhaps secretly, on the same junk food—the movies, videos, or books. How commendable, then, when we like Joseph reject bad on principle, remembering that God will preserve only the loyal ones through the coming “great tribulation.” (Matthew 24:21) Yes, it is primarily what we are in private, not in public, that reveals what we truly are within.—Psalm 11:4; Proverbs 15:3.
It follows that if we are guided by Bible principles, we will not look for supposed loopholes in God’s laws; nor will we try to see how far we can go without actually breaking a certain law. Such thinking is self-defeating; it hurts us in the end.
Look Behind the Law
Of course, laws play a vital role in a Christian’s life. They are like sentinels that help to protect us, and at their core are many important principles. A failure to perceive these principles may cool our love for the related laws. The ancient nation of Israel demonstrated this.
God gave Israel the Ten Commandments, the first of which forbade the worship of any god other than Jehovah. That Jehovah created all things is a fundamental truth behind this law. (Exodus 20:3-5) But did the nation live by this principle? Jehovah himself answers: “‘You are our father’ [said the Israelites] to a block of wood and [they cried] ‘Mother’ to a stone. But on me [Jehovah] they have turned their backs and averted their faces from me.” (Jeremiah 2:27, The New English Bible) What callous and unprincipled folly! And how it hurt Jehovah’s heart!—Psalm 78:40, 41; Isaiah 63:9, 10.
Christians too have laws from God. For example, they are to avoid idolatry, sexual immorality, and the misuse of blood. (Acts 15:28, 29) When you think about it, we can see underlying principles, such as: God merits our exclusive devotion; we are to be faithful to our mate; and Jehovah is our Life-Giver. (Genesis 2:24; Exodus 20:5; Psalm 36:9) If we both perceive and deeply appreciate the principles behind these directives, we see that they are for our own good. (Isaiah 48:17) To us, God’s “commandments are not burdensome.”—1 John 5:3.
While the Israelites at one time ignored God’s commandments, by Jesus’ time their “doctors of the law,” the scribes, had gone to the other extreme. They had formulated a mountain of rules and traditions that obstructed pure worship and buried godly principles. (Matthew 23:2, NEB) People felt resigned to failure, hopelessness, or hypocrisy. (Matthew 15:3-9) And many of the man-made rules were inhumane. When about to cure a man with a withered hand, Jesus asked the Pharisees present: “Is it lawful on the sabbath to do a good deed?” Their silence shouted no, making Jesus feel “thoroughly grieved at the insensibility of their hearts.” (Mark 3:1-6) The Pharisees might come to the aid of a stranded or injured domestic animal (a financial investment) on the Sabbath but never to a man or a woman—not unless it was a matter of life and death. Indeed, they were so obsessed with human rules and technicalities that like ants scurrying about on a painting, they failed to see the whole picture—the divine principles.—Matthew 23:23, 24.
Even young ones, however, when their hearts are sincere, can bring honor to Jehovah by their appreciation for Bible principles. Thirteen-year-old Rebecca’s teacher asked the class who would gamble. Most said they would not. Yet, when various situations were mentioned, all except Rebecca conceded that they would gamble in one way or another. The teacher asked Rebecca if she would buy a 20-cent raffle ticket for a worthy cause. Rebecca said no and gave the Scriptural reasons why doing so would be a form of gambling. Her teacher then said to the whole class: ‘In my opinion, Rebecca is the only one here who has what I call “principles” in the true sense of the word.’ Yes, Rebecca could simply have replied, “It is against my religion,” but she thought more deeply than that; she could answer why gambling is wrong and why she refused to take part in it.
Examples like Abel, Noah, Joseph, and Jesus show us how we benefit by using our “thinking ability” and our “power of reason” in worshiping God. (Proverbs 2:11; Romans 12:1) Christian elders do well to imitate Jesus as they “shepherd the flock of God in [their] care.” (1 Peter 5:2) As Jesus well exemplified, lovers of godly principles are the ones who thrive under Jehovah’s sovereignty.—Isaiah 65:14.