When the lines aren’t clear

I’ve been trying to cut down on sweets, so I set a guideline that I’d only have them twice a week. I didn’t want to make it a hard and fast rule: I wanted to allow room for special occasions, unexpected gifts, etc. I had done this before with success and without incessant cravings until a family vacation threw me off course for a while. But while trying to get back on track this time, cravings were rampant.

One day last week I was planning to go grocery shopping and bring home Chick-Fil-A for lunch afterward.  My previous habit for that restaurant was to order one of their chocolate chip cookies, which would become warm and gooey from being placed on top of the sandwiches in the bag. I looked forward to that experience again . . . except for my nagging conscience. I was still within my two-sweet limit. But it was early enough in the week that having the second sweet now would make the rest of the week difficult. So the better part of wisdom would be to forego dessert this time. But my mind sought justification for indulging. “Eating a cookie isn’t a sin, after all. And this is a special occasion: it’s not like I go to Chick-Fil-A every day.”

For hours I justified myself but did not feel completely at ease. Finally something came up which caused me to put my grocery shopping off until later, sidestepping the problem. But the whole experience set off a cascade of thinking.

We’ve all known people with the attitude, “If you can’t show me chapter and verse why something is wrong, you can’t say it’s wrong.” And we’ve probably all thought that way at times. In sane moments we can set wise principles. In temptation or longing, we go beyond principle. We want a definite line in the sand, and we’ll even look for ways around that.

I’ve often wondered why God left some matters to conscience rather than spelling out His preferences. Exactly when does enjoying good food cross over into gluttony? What are the parameters of modesty? What constitutes “going too far” in a physical relationship before marriage? What is the defining line between acceptable and worldly music? What is and is not acceptable on the Lord’s Day?

Some of these and like matters allow for differences in stages of spiritual maturity. Maybe God left some things open for evaluation in order to give people room to grow. The more we grow in the Lord and in knowledge of His Word, the more we become like Him. Also, some standards change with the culture: no one imposes standards of modesty from the 1850s to the current day.

But I’ve often thought that these matters expose our hearts. What’s our basic motivation? Do we really want to please the Lord, or do we just want an excuse to do our own will? Can we follow the spirit of the law, or do we have to have the letter spelled out?

Or do we go to the opposite extreme of legalism? We don’t know where the lines are, so we draw our own. We set our standards high, feel self-righteous when we keep them, and then judge everyone who doesn’t measure up.

If God hasn’t spelled out specifics in some of these areas, and people on different sides of the issues still love God and want to please Him, then do these issues really matter? Well, yes they do. Romans 14 gives several guidelines. Do everything you do as unto the Lord (verses 5-8). We’ll give account to Him for all we do (verses 10-12). Don’t just follow what someone else does, but be fully convinced in your own mind (verses 5, 22-23). Don’t judge or despise someone who differs from you in these matters (verse 3). Don’t think just about yourself, but think also about the effect your actions might have on others (verses 14-21). Seek for what makes for peace and edifying (verse 19).

1 Corinthians helps as well:

“I have the right to do anything,” you say–but not everything is beneficial.
“I have the right to do anything”–but I will not be mastered by anything.
(6:12, NIV).
“I have the right to do anything”–but not everything is constructive.
(10:23b, NASB).

The freedom we have in Christ is not freedom to do anything we want: it’s the freedom to seek His grace to yield to Him and reign ourselves in for love of Him and others.

One of our former pastors used to say that if we truly kept the two greatest commandments, to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves, we wouldn’t need the specifics laid out. Those two principles would guide everything we do. Yet, because of our penchant for seeking loopholes and exceptions and our own way, we have to have things spelled out for us. Because we don’t keep the spirit of the law, we get the letter.

But how do we make decisions for those things that are not specifically spelled out? Is our heart’s desire ultimately to to see how close we can get to the line of sin without going over — or to please God, glorify Him, and love others?

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Tell His Story, Let’s Have Coffee,
Porch Stories, Share a Link Wednesday, Faith on Fire, Grace and Truth.

Links do not imply 100% endorsement of everything on others’ blogs)

Grace and Truth

Book Review: Walking in the Spirit

Walking in the SpiritI’ve enjoyed listening to the music of the Steve Pettit Evangelistic Team for years, and have had the privilege of hearing Steve preach in my church a number of times. So when I saw he had written a book titled Walking in the Spirit: A Study Through Galatians 5, I wanted to read it not only because I felt I could trust it (as much as one can trust a human author), but also because this is a subject and a passage I have thought about and wrestled with for years.

Most Christians are familiar with the last few verses in Galatians 5 that talk about the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit. But the context of the chapter, indeed of the whole book of Galatians, has to do with Christian liberty. Some were telling the Galatian believers that they had to keep the OT laws to be a Christian, which is legalism. But some who had gotten hold of the truth that they were no longer under that law went too far the other way: “For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (verses 13-14). Pettit says true Christian liberty is walking in the Spirit, as opposed to license on one hand (being a slave to one’s flesh) and legalism on the other (being a slave to the law).

Pettit takes us step by step through Galatians 5 and discusses what legalism and Christian liberty are, what it means to walk in the Spirit, the battle between our flesh and the Holy Spirit, the difference between what the Bible calls our “old man” which was crucified when we believed on Christ and the “flesh” that we still battle, and the evidences of the flesh and fruit of the Spirit. He discusses what our relationship to the law is and what use it is (conviction of sin, for one: “I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “You shall not covet” [Romans 7:7 NASB]. But the law can only tell us it is sin. It can’t fix us or change us. It’s the diagnosis, not the cure).

It’s hard to summarize a book like this beyond that, so I’ll just share a few quotes that stood out to me:

“Seeking to add to the work of Jesus actually takes away from it” (p. 6).

“The flesh seeks to twist a true understanding of freedom into an opportunity to gratify the flesh’s desires. But Christian liberty is freedom from sin, not freedom to sin. When Christians begin to focus on their own personal rights and freedom from restraints, liberty is abused” (p. 14).

“Walking in the Spirit demands a constant pursuit of and response to God’s Spirit. To be complacent and indifferent about one’s walk is to put oneself in a place of spiritual peril. No one is impervious to the allurements of the flesh” (p. 26).

“We are not so strong that we do not need to be warned, and we are not so weak that we cannot be free. We experience this struggle until the day we die” (p. 15).

The Christian life is not about trying harder to obey the law; it is realizing that we are enabled to obey God by the power of the indwelling Spirit” (p. 47).

“The fruits of the Spirit are of such a nature that, when they are present, the law is no longer necessary” (p. 48).

“Sanctification is the process of submitting to the Holy Spirit as He works to produce this fruit in your life, so that your daily life matches up with who you really are now in Christ” (p. 81).

The book is written as a Bible study, with discussion questions and blanks to fill in answers. It would work well in a group study: in fact, some of the questions would have been more profitable with a group contributing their insights.

The book did clear up some things for me or reminded me of things that I know but need to go over again from time to time. There were a couple of places I wish he had gone into a little more detail. But overall I found this book to be not only thoroughly Biblical but also intensely practical.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)


Fundamentals and secondary issues

I mentioned in an earlier post on fundamentalism and separatism that there are fundamentals that we cannot budge on — the Deity of Christ, for example, or the way of salvation — but there are other issues about which good people can differ.

This is something I guess I’ve known probably most of my Christian life to some degree. But it really came home to me several years ago when we had moved to a different area, visited several churches, and the one most like us in faith and practice was still very different in many respects. There were things that were considered important and just basic in my own heart and in the church I came from that were not in this new church, though we agreed on “the fundamentals.” Many of those things were issues I could have lived with, so to speak, if it were just my husband and I. But I didn’t want my children to be confused. It’s awkward to try to explain to children why they can’t participate in an activity the church allows or dress the way others at church do, etc.

I used to (naively) think that since there is one God and He speaks with one voice, then all Christians should be on the same page. 🙂 So these differences were really troubling to my spirit until one day I just cried out to God. I was going to have to come to some kind of understanding and peace about this or I was going to have to leave the church. I took a spiral notebook and my Bible and spent I don’t know how much time going over Scripture, jotting notes and verses, and drawing principles from those verses. Though there are other applicable passages, probably the premiere one is Romans 14. Now, right off the bat some people who are familiar with that passage will brush it off, thinking, “Oh, that’s dealing with the weaker brother.” It is. But that’s no reason to dismiss it when we’re not dealing with what we think are weaker brother issues (and, really, when it comes to differences of opinion like the ones I am talking about, I don’t think we really need to do a lot of posturing about which one is the weaker brother. I have seen conversations along those lines which really seem to be born out of pride.) It is not that the principles Paul brings up only apply to a weaker brother situation: it is rather that he is applying universal Christian principles to that particular situation.

So what are some of those principles?

1) Don’t despise or judge the person whose conviction differs from yours.

Romans 14: 2-4:

2 For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs.
3 Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him.
4 Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand.

Really other Scripture is on the side of the person who feels he can eat all things, but Paul doesn’t tell that person to convince his weaker brother of that. There may be a time for that kind of discussion, but Paul warns in v. 1 against “doubtful disputations.” If we can extrapolate the principle being applied here away from the specific application about what to eat, Paul doesn’t tell these people to hammer it out until they come to a consensus. He tells the person who has a conviction about an issue not to judge the one who doesn’t. Why? Because he is also God’s servant, God has accepted him, and he’s answerable to God. And that’s where most people camp when they come to this passage. But those truths also apply to the other, the one who doesn’t have the conviction, who feels it is ok to do whatever it is they have a difference about. He is told not to despise the other. We think of “despise” as meaning “really, really hate.” But in the KJV the word despise can mean to think down about. Checking this verse in the NASB, it says, ‘The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat.” And this, frankly, I see violated just as much as the other. The one who doesn’t do whatever is not to judge the other; the one who feels it is ok to do whatever is not regard the other with contempt.

2) Be fully persuaded in your own mind.

Romans 14:5: One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.

Whatever one’s convictions are, he needs to come to a conclusion in his own mind. He needs to be fully persuaded. He shouldn’t change convictions with every conversation he has on the issue. He needs to pray and study the Scripture.

3) Do whatever you do as unto the Lord.

Romans 14:6: He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it. He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks.

It was new to me, when I did this study, that people could be on the opposite sides of the fence on an issue and both be doing what they did as unto the Lord. But that needs to be the issue: to do it as unto the Lord, not as unto what this or that person says.

4) We are all accountable to God.

Romans 14: 9-12: 9 For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living.
10 But why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.
11 For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.
12 So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God.

5) We have to be careful not to make someone else stumble in what we allow ourselves to do, and
6) Conscience is not infallible, but it should not be violated.

Romans 14:13 Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way.
14 I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean.
15 But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died.
16 Let not then your good be evil spoken of:
17 For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.
18 For he that in these things serveth Christ is acceptable to God, and approved of men.
19 Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.
20 For meat destroy not the work of God. All things indeed are pure; but it is evil for that man who eateth with offence.
21 It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.

Sometimes people take verses 2-12 as a blank check for Christian liberty, feel they can do whatever they want, and anyone who has a problem with it is judgmental and Pharisaical. But Paul says there is a consideration here, and that is whether our actions, what we could allow in good conscience, might cause someone else to stumble who does not feel that same liberty. The Christian life is not one of claiming my “rights” to the detriment of other people. He gives an example of that in I Cor. 8 with the situation of meat offered to idols. Again, the overriding principle is they key here. The chapter is not just about meat offered to idols, and therefore we can breeze past it because we don’t have that situation in America. The principle is how we act when one Christian’s conscience is affected by something that another’s is not. We don’t run roughshod over conscience in the name of Christian liberty.

Conscience is not an infallible guide, despite what Jiminy Cricket says. 🙂 One former pastor used to try to humorously illustrate that this way: he would say that if he were in a jungle and met up with some cannibals, he would not tell them to let their conscience be their guide, because they would have no conscience about eating him. 🙂 In one of Isobel Kuhn’s books, she related how that the Lisu people were very gifted musically and could sing in parts naturally. As many became Christians she enjoyed teaching them hymns. Once she asked them about using a particular gourd that others used as a musical instrument. The Christians were horrified, saying that they couldn’t do such a thing because the non-Christians used them during immoral acts. Conscience is affected by what we have been taught about right and wrong. But to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean. All things indeed are pure; but it is evil for that man who eateth with offence. A gourd in and of itself is not unclean. As long as those Lisu Christians esteemed it as unclean and wrong, though, they should not override their conscience and use it. It may have been that with time, spiritual growth, and patient teaching from Scripture, they would have come to see that and have no problem using it with hymns; on the other hand, they may have concluded that, though it wasn’t sinful in itself, it was still associated with the heathen lifestyle and should not be used. But it was wise of the missionary not to push the issue. She could have tried to talk them into it, but if they used it still having a conscience against it, they would have been sinning, according to I Cor. 8 and Romans 14:13-21. That may be one of the reasons Paul warned against doubtful disputations in Romans 14:1 — not only do they generate more heat than light, but it is possible to “talk someone into” doing something that their conscience isn’t really convinced of yet (I don’t think that means we can’t ever discuss differences of opinions on these issues, but we have to be careful and gracious about it, not disputing or being pushy or opinionated). Both of these passages seem to me to be saying that it is not the particular thing in question (i.e., meat offered to idols) that is important for the stronger Christian, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost, and we should therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another. In I Cor. 8:13, Paul says, “Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.” Sometimes the stronger Christian needs to defer to the convictions of the weaker so as not to cause them to sin, because the bigger issue is not that I have liberty to do it: the bigger issue is treating our brother charitably and not wounding his weak conscience. But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ (I Cor. 8: 12). These issues, these differences are not what make up the Christian life, but rather righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost (v. 17).

Why shouldn’t one violate conscience?

Romans 14: 22-23: Hast thou faith? have it to thyself before God. Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth. And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.

Conscience can be instructed and retrained, and as we learn more of God’s Word our conscience should be adapting more and more to what we are learning. But we shouldn’t do something as long as we have any doubts about it, according to these verses.

Once a guest speaker at a church we were members of several years ago shared this story. He was there for a family conference and would be well known in fundamental circles. His wife was with the Lord by then, but he said at one point several years earlier she had come to him saying that she felt she should not wear earrings any more. He had no problems with earrings (and you can make a case Scripturally as to why they are ok, but I won’t just now.) He told her to do as she felt led. Some time later, just as the Iron Curtain was coming down in the Soviet Union, he and his wife had an opportunity to go over there. Another team from our church then also went over in the earliest days and came back saying the things that this man said, that the Christians there felt that women wearing a lot of jewelry and make-up were “worldly.” As this team returned every year, they toned down the jewelry and make-up so as not to offend, and this pastor’s wife, because she came to them that way already, had an open door to minister to the women there. Now, did those Christians need to come to understand that jewelry and make-up were not in themselves worldly and that they shouldn’t judge on that basis? Sure, eventually. But there were many other larger issues that they needed to deal with first, and this pastor’s wife and ministry team were wise to lay aside their liberty in that area in order to minister to them in ways that they needed first.

Does that mean no Christian women should wear jewelry or make-up? No, not at all, but I think if a particular Christian woman is trying to minister to someone who has a problem with that, it might be wise to set it aside for a time.

Then we get into the question of, “Well, it seems like everyone is convicted about something. Are we supposed to go around not doing anything?” Well, that would be overdoing it. It is tricky, to be sure. But with prayer and the Holy Spirit’s guidance and an attitude to do others good, I feel sure the Lord will show us how this all applies in each case.

But, getting back out of the weaker brother issues and going back to applying these principles at large, we do need to realize that people can differ over when and whether the Rapture will occur, pants on women, movies, homeschool vs. public school vs. Christian school, courtship vs. dating, birth control vs. none, Bible translations, etc. etc., etc., and we can still regard each other as good Christians who love the Lord. Unity doesn’t mean we all do everything exactly the same way. But we have unity in the diversity of personalities and preferences and gifts. And we love each other in the Lord, handling our differences with grace.