Most of us have heard preachers passionately warn in their sermons, "They are not the ten suggestions; they are the ten commandments". Factually, no one can argue that point. Indeed, no one should argue that point. God gave us commandments. He did not mince his words. He said "thou shall" and "thou shall not".
Practically speaking however, as we apply the commandments to our lives, we might do well to consider them as being suggestions as well. In no way does this diminish the authoritative intent of these providential edicts. Rather, acknowledging the suggestive tone of the commandments underscores the importance of obeying them and reflects a little more on how they should impact positively upon our lives.
As commandments, or law, we all fail miserably at keeping them. Is there one who has not lied? Is there one who has not coveted? The question is rhetorical as scripture already provides the answer for us in Romans 3:23 (kjv), where it says: "For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God".
The chapter goes on to tell us that all are guilty before God. When an elderly preacher was asked by a young Christian what the word "all" meant in that verse, the wise old servant replied "All means all and that is all, all means". In other words, the verse says not some, not many, not even most, but all are guilty of sin and all have broken the commandments.
Armed with this knowledge, one might question why God gave us the commandments at all. If we were all not able to keep them, if we were all guilty of breaking them in God's eyes, then why even go through the drill of trying to keep them?
Is God testing us? Is God tricking us? Is he being some kind of a bully, who, because he has the power, can just force his will upon us and order us to keep his commandments, or else?
If one views the commandments exclusively as commandments, one might arrive at that incorrect conclusion. However, if we also view the commandments as guidance or suggestions on how to live our lives, we can draw a clearer picture on just why God gave them to us.
Simply, God knows us. He made us. He searches hearts and knows the inner-most thoughts of men and women. He understands our old nature and how it contrasts with his holiness. In a perfect world (which he tried to give to us) we would live righteously and holy. There would be no need for commandments, because there would be no sin.
Of course, this is not a perfect world. Sin is present and often wields great influence over people, even Christians. Knowing our propensity to give in to temptation, God gave us commandments that would educate us about sin. That is why he referred to the law as our "schoolmaster" in the epistles.
He didn't lay these commandments upon us because he is the boss and we have to listen to him. He gave them to us because he loves us. He knew the hardships and suffering that would come from doing evil and he wanted to protect us from all of that.
God knows that if we steal, for example, it will hurt not only those we steal from, but it will hurt us as well. First, there are the ramifications that come if one is caught stealing. You may be tasked with making restitution to those you stole from. You may be assigned many hours of arduous community service. You may even be incarcerated.
Next, there comes societal scorn and a ruined reputation as you are branded a thief. You lose friends and credibility. You have a record and authorities keep close tabs on you and your activities. It is harder to find good work. Generally, everything in life becomes a little bit more difficult for you.
Finally, if the previous results do not deter you from stealing again, your conscience might grow weak it will become easier for you to steal again. Eventually, you will lose your conscience altogether and become progressively more reprobate.
Breaking any of the commandments can have similar disastrous effects upon your life and upon the lives of those you love. For that reason, the commandments become practical suggestions on how you should conduct yourself in life.
Moreover, as suggestions or guidance, the commandments carry promises or rewards with them. For example, we are told in the fifth commandment that if we honor our father and our mother, our life will be long on the earth.
As commandments, an "or else" connotation is inferred, but as suggestions for living righteously we are given positive incentives. Without doubt, the commandments should first be viewed as commandments. They are the will of God for mankind. But they should also be viewed as providential tutorials for successful living, where God offers good results for those who keep them.
We are faced with many decisions in life. God has given us free will to make choices. This free will to choose applies to the Ten Commandments. You may choose to abide by them or you may choose to ignore them. You have free will. If you want a long and successful life, God's counsel, God's suggestion, is that you incorporate these ideals into your life.