Manners are strange and wonderful things. Every culture has them, and yet they often vary widely between cultures. In Western culture, ‘ladies first’ is a way of expressing deference and honour to women, while in some black cultures in South Africa, a man is to enter every space first to demonstrate his protection of those who follow him. Ladies first would be considered cowardice. “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” often rings out in many a home in English-speaking countries, but in several African cultures, eye contact with a superior is considered effrontery and rude. Honour is shown by keeping one’s gaze down. When I lived in Taiwan, I found all my table manners were backwards. Absolutely nothing should be touched with the hands, but loud slurping, chewing and other sounds of mastication and digestion are considered normal and complimentary. Chopsticks alone must be used to pick up food, but a stray ant or bug walking across the table didn’t cause so much as a double-take. In the Afrikaans language, one speaks respectfully by avoiding direct pronouns ‘you’ and your’, so a respectful person will say something like, “Father, will Father be taking Father’s car to the shops, or may I offer Father a lift?” Funerals in the West are observed with silence and dark colours; funerals in Africa have wailers, singing, and a feast. Every culture has its manners, and as far as we can tell, no culture has been without manners. Manners were clearly present in Hebrew culture:
Leviticus 19:32 Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the LORD.
Deuteronomy 28:49-50 “The LORD will bring a nation against you from afar, from the end of the earth, as swift as the eagle flies, a nation whose language you will not understand, “a nation of fierce countenance, which does not respect the elderly nor show favor to the young.
Proverbs 30:17 The eye that mocks his father, And scorns obedience to his mother, The ravens of the valley will pick it out, And the young eagles will eat it.
What are these strange things we call manners? To explain them is like explaining a joke. You either get them or you don’t. But on close inspection, they provide much drapery and clothing to our imaginative lives. They distinguish us from mere animals, they demonstrate the transcendence of our lives. Manners turn meals into something more than sustenance, sex into more than mating, clothing into something more than covering, speech into more than sharing information. Through manners we order and arrange our lives, recognising distinctions in age, sex, office, and station in life. Not only do manners provide life with the delight of respect for person, property and occasion, manners actually shape our understanding of oughtness. Certain people ought to be treated in a particular way. Certain occasions ought to be conducted with a kind of decorum. Manners are an elaborate system of value judgements. “Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.”(1 Peter 2:17) Man judges the meaning and therefore the value of people, things, and events by clothing them with manners. He will invest life with ceremony, from eating, to queuing, to speaking, to attracting the opposite sex, to passing laws, to holding meetings, and until recently, to waging war.
Why should he do this if he is merely advanced protoplasm? Though many today argue for life without manners, man keeps defaulting back to them. Man believes there is a transcendent order, which filters down into a scale of values: some things or people deserve a certain kind of treatment. Some people and things ought to be respected. Some gestures or habits are offensive. Some things are obscene.
Yet, for all this universality of manners, manners are slippery things. Their differing, and sometimes opposite applications in cultures lead people to regard them as arbitrary. No rule-book, not even Emily Post, can finally define manners. But human life would not be human without them.
Since manners reflect a transcendent order, we would do well to ask, are there manners for dealing with God? Can one be rude to God, indecorous in His presence, disrespectful, or unmannered? The Bible suggests it is possible to be rude to God. Several Scriptures enjoin ‘manners’ before God, and rebuke the lack thereof:
Malachi 1:6 ” A son honors his father, And a servant his master. If then I am the Father, Where is My honor? And if I am a Master, Where is My reverence? Says the LORD of hosts To you priests who despise My name. Yet you say, ‘In what way have we despised Your name?’
Exodus 20:7 ” You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.
Psalm 114:7 Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, At the presence of the God of Jacob,
Hebrews 12:28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.
Ezekiel 23:39 39 “For after they had slain their children for their idols, on the same day they came into My sanctuary to profane it; and indeed thus they have done in the midst of My house.
If there are manners before God, how would we know what they are? Are the applications for these manners spelt out in Scripture? What are we to make of this? Do manners in God’s presence differ from culture to culture? How does this relate to the current worship wars? How do we learn manners before God? How should Christians teach younger Christians their manners before God? We’ll attempt some answers to these questions in this series.