The Ten Commandments are more than “Thou Shalt Not”

by | Sep 15, 2022 | Blogs, Faith & Family, Spirituality

Until recently, I had not lived near a mountain range. I didn’t get to hike fourteeners on the weekends nor did I experience driving in the mountains either. If you haven’t driven in the mountains, then one thing you need to know is it’s not like driving on a flat midwestern highway. The curves, inclines, and rapid descents require a familiarity with the road and an extra layer of caution. As beautiful as the sweeping panoramas are, it is even more important than usual to keep your eyes on the road. Those aren’t ditches on the side of the road—they’re cliffs plummeting a thousand feet. In order to avoid any such disaster, I find it best to focus on the centerline, rather than the guardrail, to guide me.

I think the same can be said for Christian living. Focusing on what not to do is actually not focusing on the freedom to do. The center line guides us along the surest path, while being distracted by the guardrails only stokes the fear of disaster. I want the freedom for driving on a beautiful road and safely arriving at my destination, rather than a freedom from plummeting to whatever lies at the bottom of the mountain.  Christian freedom is most certainly freedom for pursuing a life of joyful purpose. As Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini wrote, “to do no harm to one’s neighbor is a commandant that could be perfectly completed by someone who is dead.”1

This understanding of freedom is best understood when we apply it to how we think about the Ten Commandments. Most of the commandments are stated in the negative (e.g. “thou shalt not…), but God’s desire for us isn’t primarily a negation. Rather, the commandments are meant to cultivate a freedom born of discipline and a desire to love and serve others. 

I’ve found my understanding of the commandments has grown and developed during my life, especially in the course of my Jesuit formation. One example pertains to the fourth commandment (“Honor thy father and mother…”).  It was while reading a book on spiritual direction that a passage  helped me realize how differently each of the commandments are inviting me to act now versus a decade ago.

The book is called El Libro del Discípulo: El acompañamiento espiritual, by Luis María Domínguez, SJ. One point that stuck out particularly was the following: 

“To rightly live the fourth commandment is not just a divine precept, but a natural requirement for the healthy resolution of a number of relational conflicts that at times arise. To know to love our parents, with true love, when we grow older, when they are no longer the privileged reference to satisfy our needs, when we are economically independent, when it seems that we do not need them, when they are older and aged . . . this love is not just good for them, but it makes us more human and more Christian”2

While I once might have thought of this commandment as simply doing what my parents said  (for example, “don’t fight with your brothers or sisters”), that definition alone no longer suffices.  

I recognized in a deeper way that as my parents age, I can no longer simply rely on what they tell me, or ask of me. What sort of love only does what one is told? Often, anticipating the needs or desires of another is itself an act of love. Perhaps it is the Christian difference that we are all called to fulfill, not just in relationships with our parents, as indicated in the fourth commandment, but any and all of our relationships whatsoever. 

Ignatius hoped for this sort of anticipation within Jesuit communities in the obedience displayed toward a religious superior. Rather than simply doing what we are explicitly told, or seeking permission for every last thing that we do, Ignatius hoped that Jesuits would put on the mind of the superior, anticipating his instruction. Such genuine resignation and abnegation of a Jesuit’s own will and judgment would bring him wholly into conformity with what the superior wills and judges.3

When a good report card or well-fought sporting event are no longer quite capable of making our parents proud, perhaps the way forward is less harping on the past, whether on successes or failures, as on the new invitations the present creates. Both less of the review mirror and guardrail, and more of the road ahead, with a preference towards that center line, updating the benchmarks we use to gauge our own following and fulfillment of the commandments. Perhaps this all might start with a phone call, out of the blue. We never really know what someone might share with us until we are in dialogue with them, even if it is a family or friend we think we already know well. We might all be better served by not allowing those things we’re not supposed to say or do garner more attention than they deserve. Instead, we’d do well to focus on the journey, the road, and to always remember who should be in the center. If we understand Christ to be the gate, rather than the fences or guardrails, we can be certain that our entrance will not be by any way whatsoever, but by an intentional, and personal path.4


  1. Por amor, por vosotros, para siempre: La vida consagrada, hoy, pg. 23.
  2. El Libro del Discípulo: El acompañamiento espiritual, pg. 68
  3. Constitutions, 284
  4. Lk 13:22-30

Patrick Hyland, SJ   /   All posts by Patrick