Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Inbox: What’s Right with It?

In response to an earlier post on Christian moral issues in our weekly Too Hot to Handle post, David B. writes:

“I am always reminded of a question from a youth group speaker of years gone by when he said, ‘The question you should be asking isn’t what’s wrong with it, as in how close to the edge can I get, but what’s right with it and does it bring me closer to the Lord.’

Do you feel that’s a fair question, or does it just set you up for someone to say, ‘Well, you could make that argument about anything you choose to do or not’?”

Hmmm. A very good question, Dave.

I think it’s a particularly poignant one for youth, because it is at that stage of life that the novelty of the world is most impressive to us, and the temptation is greatest to ask “How much of the world can I get?” It might even be “What can I get away with?” For the Christian young person, it might be more softly couched in a question like “What am I allowed to try?” This question is likely to be unspoken and subconscious, rather than overtly addressed.

However, I don’t think it’s a question that goes away in later life either. The yearnings for the world might be abated somewhat by age, but the mature are not immune to them; and in any case, they have probably had to struggle many more times with that sort of moral dilemma.

Two Perspectives

Let’s go to the groundwork first. In regard to these moral issues, I wonder how we think the world is sorted out; I mean, what we Christians think is the case.

Some Christians, I think, see the world as sorted into two categories: yes and no, right and wrong, good and bad, white and black, that which is consonant with the will of God and that which is contrary to the will of God.

Others maybe see it differently. There are three categories: yes, no and whatever; right wrong and okay; good, bad and indifferent; white, black and a wide middle band of gray. Some things — those things God has an interest in — are either black or white, right or wrong; but most of life is really composed of middle things, things in which God has no particular interest, and which are neither morally right nor morally wrong.

In old theology, this middle category used to be called adiaphora: things that don’t really involve any spiritual decisions. They were, so to speak, “neither here nor there”, and everybody could just do with them as seemed best to him or her.

So how do you suppose it is, Dave? Or is it possible you don’t feel very happy with either alternative? Could there be something each of the above is missing?

I think there is. The first almost certainly tends to legalism, especially when the focus of right and wrong are shifted from self-examination to the criticism of others; and the second can easily tend to libertinism, the coveting the things the world offers and to which the flesh is naturally drawn. Neither provides the perspective Christ desires us to have.

A Spectrum?

Tom suggests this: “I wonder if it isn’t better to look at choices as a spectrum. We can think, on the positive side, of good/better/best. There is probably a similar thing on the negative side: bad/awful/worst or some such. In between, there is true neutral. Paul talks about neutral for Christians in 1 Corinthians 7, where marriage is the subject, and in certain situations, he is saying the question of whether to marry at that time was genuinely neutral. ‘You have not sinned’ if you do it ... any yet he still advises against it despite its moral neutrality because of the current circumstances.”

There’s truth in this. There are certainly things that, like Martha’s serving, are good but perhaps not the premium good. And there are things that, like Paul’s discussion of eating and drinking things of unknown provenance, involve choices that are not necessarily bad in themselves, but could become bad if they create an offense against a brother’s or sister’s conscience. All that has to be taken into consideration as well.

A New Perspective

I’m going to suggest, however, that your youth speaker has caught the right note there.  Many things are permissible; but not everything is profitable.  Not all things build up.

There are many things we could do with our time in the world, and many things with which people involve themselves; but is there any moment in time when the Christian is free from the responsibility to seek out that which pleases God most? Are there any “down moments” when a Christian is not to address the world as a Christian? And are there any things that are not subject to the perspective that we have in 2 Corinthians 5:15: “And he died for all, that they who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who died and rose again on their behalf”?

That’s what’s modeled for us in baptism. Even if we never understood it, baptism role-plays a kind of death, in which not merely one’s sins but one’s personal aspirations and ambitions are “buried” symbolically in order to walk in the newness of the life of Christ. And if that is the Christian commitment, then when do we ever get to turn that off?

Now, that’s ideal. I admit that in many cases, we are all going to slip and lose that perspective. And so often as we do, we’re going to have to renew ourselves to it, aren’t we? Young people are often tempted by the world and the flesh, and falter; and older people grow weary in well-doing, and let their hands go slack. That’s the human condition.

Perfection doesn’t come to us until heaven, but being perfected is a process we need to pursue life-long. We need to remember what our job is here, which is to manifest more and more of the life of Christ in this world, until the day dawns, and we are completed in all respects by the Lord himself.

So I suggest the thing that’s missing from the two perspectives we talked about earlier is the focus on making positive decisions to support a life of increasing obedience to Christ. To ask, “What’s right with it?” is to get the focus back on track. Anything we do is supposed to be to the glory of God. And while things like eating and drinking are, for the world, just neutral, necessary activities, perhaps devoid of any moral implication, they are not so for the Christian. All things are to be made subject to the Lord.

Objection

Is that too much to ask? Let’s consider your question: “Do you feel that’s a fair question, or does it just set you up for someone to say, ‘Well, you could make that argument about anything you choose to do or not’?”

Well, yes, it does set you up for that. And I think the discussion above also answers that objection.

Yes, you could — and, I suggest, should — literally “make that argument about anything”. That’s what scripture tells us to aim for. And the fact that we sometimes don’t recognize what’s at stake in our particular moral decisions is perhaps an incentive for us to repent of our moral casualness, to redouble our personal vigilance on ourselves, or perhaps to mature to the point where we are able to discern the moral dimensions of even the smallest and most apparently-innocuous choices we make in life. That’s the aim, anyway: the fullness of the stature of Christ.

Summary

Not “What’s wrong with it?” That’s the voice of protest, by one who is seeking to get as much of the world as he can get; “What’s right with it?” That’s the voice of somebody who is seeking Christ.

If a decision looks neither wrong nor right, that may be because there isn’t an evident moral choice to be made at all. Maybe. But it also may well be because we aren’t yet attuned to all the moral implications of the choice before us. In fact, how could we be? After all, we don’t know all the future, and can’t always see what our decisions will cause. So we’re going to have to leave consequences we can’t foresee in the hands of the Lord.

Fortunately for us, the Lord is aware of our frailties, and will grant us repentance and restoration as often as we make mistakes. We’re all going to make a lot. That’s why we needed salvation from him in the first place, right?

But the walk of faith entails a steadfast focus on trying to choose for Christ; that, and regular repentance, growth, learning, improvement and a continual increase of our harmony with him.

Those are our aims, and that’s the right perspective, I think.

Does that seem fair?

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