Rulers And Rebels

Just tell me the rules!

Have you ever reached that point? You can’t see a way forward or you’re not sure which way to turn and you just want a step-by-step guide?

The Internet thrives on this human desire for an instruction manual. You can get rich without labor, lose weight without sweat, and find the perfect mate without risk. Just send $19.95, and if you hurry we’ll throw in a set of steak knives.

We all know it doesn’t work that way, right? But when the storm hits and the water’s rising, I suspect we’d all like Seven Simple Steps To Drain The Swamp.

I’ve been thinking about Rules, Games and Life and my observation that life doesn’t work like a game. Today I’d like to take apart our natural approaches to rules. I see two general tendencies: rulers and rebels.


make rules to force compliance with their version of absolutes. They construct elaborate codes to address every contingency, then add new layers of rules about rules to close loopholes. Rulers derive power by controlling others’ behavior.

Rulers don’t create unified, growing long-term communities because their circles are based on coercion and force. People tend to enter and remain out of fear, so rulers retain control by fostering apprehension among the people in their circles.


defy authority and actively assert autonomy from rulers.

Rebels often have an interesting relationship with rules. They believe rules were made to be broken and loopholes to be discovered and exploited. Yet they’re quick to assert their rights and demand the protection of laws when it’s expedient. They frequently justify choices by citing technicalities that make their behavior “legal.”

Articulate, charismatic rebels attract incredibly cohesive communities. People rally when confronted by a common threat, and “the man” provides an easy, convenient enemy. Accomplished rebels identify and demonize the enemy, skillfully amplifying the threat of an amorphous “they” who’s out to get “us” because we won’t adhere to their expectations.

Rulers and rebels have a lot in common.

Both groups derive their identity from their relationship to rules. Rulers create and enforce, rebels defy and resist. Rules unite their communities and define the borders of their circles.

Both groups are highly invested in identifying “us” and “them.” They undermine proper order and trample obvious moral standards. They demand arbitrary compliance with random, unnecessary expectations.

Both groups need an enemy to unite their communities. No enemy, no one to fear. No enemy, no one to defy.

Ruler/Rebel is a continuum. Most folks probably live somewhere near the middle. They’re sometimes rulers, sometimes rebels.

It’s also interesting that the extremes resemble each other. Extremist rebel leaders encourage compliance with their non-conformist mantra, while extremist rulers actively oppose competing sets of rules. Religious and political personalities, pundits, talk show hosts, and celebrity media types often control by rebellion. Their rhetoric is more about opposition than promotion of an agenda.

A Third Option

To me, life seems like a very wide road with a lot of latitude for choice. Yes, there are boundaries, those white lines that define the edges. But unless I want to rob banks or sell heroine to kids, those lines don’t limit my choices much. I don’t find myself frequently wanting to commit murder or cheat widows out of their savings, and I’m betting that you don’t either. So “what’s legal” doesn’t really impact my choices.

The point is that I’m relatively free to choose my own lane.

Rulers use fear to narrow the road. They’d like us to believe that anyone outside their particular lane is on the road to hell and wants to take the rest of us along. Followers remain in the “straight and narrow” due to fear and obligation.

To me, their arbitrary restrictions seem irrelevant. Acknowledging their silly lines only feeds their sense of power.

Rebels actually take the rulers’ imaginary markings seriously. They purposely live at the edges and congratulate each other for violating borders that don’t even exist.

Seems like the third option involves simply ignoring the rulers’ fear-mongering.  Their lines have no relevance unless I choose to acknowledge their existence. This also makes rebelling sort of silly. What’s the point of consciously defying imaginary limitations?

WDJD? (what did Jesus do)

Jesus reserved his harshest words for those who turned worship into exhaustive, detailed lists of expectations and requirements. He knew that following rules out of fear could never lead to open, authentic relationship. He doesn’t care about religion, because He wants pure hearts.

But Jesus wasn’t into rebellion, either. He chose the path of service and sacrifice, not because He had to or needed to. He chose His path because He loved you and me.

One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” [Matthew 22:35-40]

When I understand that no one else can define the “right” lane for me without my permission, I’m free to follow Jesus. When I stop worshipping—following or defying—human-created rules, I’m free to choose agape.

Agape means real freedom. It’s not about conformity or non-conformity, it’s about choosing surrender. I believe Jesus invites us to follow Him along the blue line, the line of love. I believe it’s the path for which we were created, the path to intimacy and authentic freedom.

I don’t follow His lead very well. I often try to define my own path and tell Him where we should go. I picture Him smiling as I struggle furiously to make my way work or explain why I really know what’s best.

I’m thankful for grace, for the knowledge that He forgives my futile rule-making and silly rebellion. I’m thankful that Jesus never leaves His path of unconditional love.

I’m thankful that He continually, gently invites me to rejoin Him.

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Copyright 2010 by Rich Dixon, All Rights Reserved. Used by permission.

Rich is an author and speaker. He is the author of:

Relentless Grace: God’s Invitation To Give Hope Another Chance. Visit his web site

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