I’m a casual person. Ask my wife. Ask my friends. I sort of have to decide to get worked up about stuff. I like hanging out. It’s pretty easy for me to get goofy, be silly, and go into clown mode. I like having fun. I like my people having fun too. I’m laid back. I want people to be comfortable, to be at ease, relaxed.
But turns out casual, relaxed, and laid back didn’t make the fruits of the Spirit list. There’s probably a bit of overlap in there. Peace is calm, collected, but peace can also be militant and bold. Joy can certainly include happiness and fun, but it doesn’t have to. Self-control and gentleness have their laid back sides, but that’s not all there is to them.
And then combine casual and laid back with sinful hearts, sinful habits, sinful tendencies, and there’s no shortage of laziness, cowardice, and disrespect wound through any number of situations. It’s easier, more comfortable not to confront someone in their sin. It’s simpler, less messy to not get off the couch and discipline the child who needs it. So it’s lazy and cowardly. But it’s also ultimately cruel.
Douglas Wilson taught me years ago that etiquette and manners are just love in the trifles, love in the little things. But informality can be oppressive. Casual can be tyrannical.
Let me explain.
Order, form, rules, liturgy, dance, manners: these are all ways we express our expectations for how we will interact, how the event will be structured, how we will speak to each other, who will go where and when. And when God created the world, He set it up with order and organization. There’s a predictability to the way the planets move, the way things fall down, the way seasons cycle. Predictability is one of God’s great gifts to us. Order and form can be death. They can be oppressive in their own ways, but there’s nothing inherently stifling about learning the steps to the dance. It’s not oppressive to be taught how to hold your fork and knife so that you can enjoy the steak more easily, so that you can share a meal more graciously.
There has to be a balance between rigid, legalistic rules and casual, sloppiness. And we’ve all seen the evil, tyrannical step mothers and emperors in the movies that bark orders and grind the faces of the poor and the weak. But the most terrifying thing about those characters is not the rules or the orders per se, but rather the unpredictability of their orders and their evil hearts. When an evil man or woman careens from whim to malicious whim, demanding, executing, exploding, ordering, that is oppressive, crushing.
But the good man, the good leader who explains the rules, sets the boundaries and expectations clearly, and comes back the next day and expects the same thing, is actually giving life, he’s actually imitating God our Father who runs the world with orderliness and precision and predictability.
When children know what to expect, when rules and manners are clearly explained and consistently enforced this is giving the gift of life to your children. It’s like teaching the rules to the game, and once you learn the rules, you can freely play. But if the rules of the game are unclear, unstated, casual, informal, laid back, or constantly changing, you’re not actually helping people play. You’re helping them not play. You’re inviting confusion and frustration.
Or when a parent or teacher is casual with their children or students, we may *mean* to be nice and friendly, but ironically we’re actually creating a kind of confusion. We may *mean* love, but we’re blurring categories and distinctions. The line between someone in authority and someone under authority need not be stiff and mechanical but it’s actually a gift to uphold it. When we know our roles, when we know our parts, it sets us free to play them.
Or etiquette between members of the opposite sex: It’s trendy to be casual and easy going with coworkers or friends of the opposite sex, but few people realize how cruel it is to pretend that “we’re just friends hanging out.” The purpose of manners, etiquette, ritual, and gesture is to guard our interactions, make them safe, secure, so that we know exactly what is meant and not worry about indiscretion or innuendo. If I hold the door for a woman going into a store, everyone knows I’m not making a pass at her. If men stand at their chairs waiting for the women to be seated, they are making a statement about the difference between male and female and honoring that difference. And it’s actually the honoring of difference that allows us to be free, allows us to show kindness and love in appropriate ways. Granted, there are cultural and linguistic differences wound through the application of these principles, but the principles stand. And ironically, the demand for equality and blurring distinctions is actually a demand for dishonor, a request for abuse, just like erasing the lines in the road is basically asking for car accidents.
There’s a kind of childish legalism that always wants to know the “rules,” is always paranoid about breaking the rules, and clings to them all panicky like. But it’s a gift to know the liturgy, to know the steps to the dance, to know what to expect. And this doesn’t mean we don’t mix things up, it doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvisation. But we have to realize that the improv only works because there is such a thing as theater. Jokes only work because there is such a thing as normal, ordinary. Defending the ordinary, defending order, defending the forms, defending differences and distinctions is therefore one of the greatest ways of defending life, defending freedom, defending the extraordinary, defending grace. But the fool blurs the lines, and then says, “I was only joking.” (Pr. 26:19)