We’ve allowed Christianity to be defined by outward things we’ve forbidden ourselves to do instead of by profound, God-ordained things we’re supposed to do.
Being of Irish extraction (and fond of recommending to my friends Thomas Cahill’s profoundly true book, How the Irish Saved Civilization), I often receive Irish jokes from said friends, inexplicably of a somewhat derogatory nature. Here’s one that came recently that seems to pose a moral dilemma for a dear Irish Catholic sister:
“Sitting by the window of her convent, Sister Barbara opened a letter from home one evening. Inside the letter was a $100 bill her parents had sent. Sister Barbara smiled at the gesture. As she read the letter by the window, she noticed a shabbily dressed stranger leaning against the lamp post below. Quickly, she wrote, "Don't despair. Sister Barbara," on a piece of paper, wrapped the $100 bill in it, got the man's attention and tossed it out the window to him. The stranger picked it up, and with a puzzled expression and a tip of his hat, went off down the street. The next day, Sister Barbara was told that a man was at her door, insisting on seeing her. She went down, and found the stranger waiting. Without a word, he handed her a huge wad of $100 bills. "What's this?" she asked. "That's the $8,000 you have coming Sister," he replied. "Don't Despair paid 80-to-1."
Some would say that sister Barbara has unwittingly committed a venal sin by winning at the ponies and needs to proceed straight to confession after returning the money. Why? Because Sister Barbara is a Christian, and everybody knows good Christians never wager on horses. Or if they do, they surely aren’t allowed to win. Really? How does everyone know that? Well, because everybody just does. There are certain activities that Christians don’t do, not necessarily because God explicitly condemns them, but because current Christian culture and tradition do. “I don’t drink, smoke, and chew. . . or go with girls who do.” Fine. But has God truly forbidden you to do so (assuming you like girlfriends who spit in a cup) ? It may not be smart or attractive or prudent to do such things, but is the decision not to do these things really a measure of spiritual maturity?
Here’s my beef. I hate it that we’ve allowed Christianity to be defined by outward things we’ve forbidden ourselves to do instead of by profound, God-ordained things we’re supposed to do. Jesus actually had some choice words for Pharisees who so warp the essence of true spirituality:
Matt 23:23"You're hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but on the meat of God's Law, things like fairness and compassion and commitment--the absolute basics!-you carelessly take it or leave it. Careful bookkeeping is commendable, but the basics are required. . . 25"You're hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You burnish the surface of your cups and bowls so they sparkle in the sun, while the insides are maggoty with your greed and gluttony. 26Stupid Pharisee! Scour the insides, and then the gleaming surface will mean something.
Those guys were meticulous on the superficial stuff, but bailed on what really mattered. Why? Because it was easier for them to keep book on tithes than it was to show compassion. It’s easier for us, too. It’s easier to swear off a stogie than it is to treat someone fairly when it costs us something. It’s easier not to put a quarter in a slot machine than to be committed heart and soul to the cause of Jesus Christ. So what happens? We subtly tend to define Christianity by external stuff we don’t do, because that’s easier than bellying up to the challenge of doing what God really wants—to love Him with our heart, souls, minds, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves! How weird is it that the perverted values of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day keep cropping up in modern Christianity? In some church circles, you can be a self-righteous, arrogant, gossipy, back-stabbing jerk and qualify as a church leader, but the minute you drink a cold beer with pizza you’re persona non grata. What’s up with that? Does not doing stuff really equate to God-honoring spirituality? If so, then a corpse wins the morality contest hands down because it never does anything!
How many folks who would truly love to know Jesus are turned off by dour legalists who forbid what God has never forbidden and thereby sully the true nature of our faith? How many spiritual seekers never get past the teetotalistic (made up word!) severity of modern day Pharisees who present Christianity as a religion whose goal is to suck every bit of joy from life through hair-splitting rules? Can you tell? I’m on a crusade against this shallow, intelligence-insulting brand of Christian legalism. It’s just too tempting to resort to pseudo-spiritual fluff like this than to do the hard work of servanthood. I say we rise up against the Pharisaical spirit and hit a lick for true spirituality. In my mind, our task is two-fold. 1) Get serious about serious stuff. 2) Don’t sweat the small stuff.
More on 1). People who don’t follow Jesus know the real deal when they see it! If Christians live selfless, giving, generous, humble, compassionate, joyful, positive, patient, courageous lives, that’s going to appeal to the soul and conscience of each one who sees them, especially if they’re living this way without the artificial pomposity of arbitrary rules-keeping.
Much more on 2) since this is where I’m going to catch the most flack! Don’t sweat the small stuff. If you’re like me and think it’s fine if, in moderation, we want to enjoy a cold beer with our pizza, or light up a Cuban stogie every so often (if you can score one), or sip a fine pinot noir with our dinners—then do so gratefully, guiltlessly, and joyfully! Please hear me! I’m not recommending social drinking, or cigar-smoking, or wine-sipping, or entertainment-wagering. I own no stock in Cohiba, and I think using the lottery to fund public education is a bad idea and I think it’s dumb (if not sinful; c.f. 1 Corinthians 6:18-20) to ruin your health with cigarette addiction. And for those who may be predisposed by family history, genetics, or personal disposition to addictive behavior with regard to alcohol or tobacco, by all means exercise wisdom and stay far, far away from potentially destructive temptation in your life.
But can the rest of us just not get our underwear in a wad about this stuff? When we do, it only makes people around us think Christians are weird and hope they’re never taken with an irresistible urge to become one! I’d much rather see us as believers speaking truth in love and keeping our hearts pure and becoming selfless servants of God and others, and celebrate at the end of the day with a prayer/praise meeting at church and with a fine Merlot later at my house .
OK. I hear you asking (yelling) some questions. Slow down and let me respond one at a time. Thanks! 1) "What does God think about this?" Well, He’s pretty clear on overindulgence of any kind, whether it’s eating or drinking or anything. For example, the abuse of alcohol is specifically condemned. It is clear, "be not drunk with wine" (Eph 5.18), and that entails moderation and temperance (1 Tim. 3.2). But assuming there is control and moderation, God delights in His children's enjoyment of fine things. He hates the legalistic spirit that reduces spirituality to forbidding good gifts given by God. That's the essence of Phariseeism which is so insidious not only because it erects arbitrary external standards for righteousness, but because in so doing it distracts from what is truly precious to God's heart. Yes, God hates the abuse of alcohol. But I believe He hates even more the denial of the proper use of alcohol as a false standard of spirituality that results in straining at gnats and swallowing camels (Matt. 23.23-24). Thus, consider 1Tim. 4:1-5:
". . . deceiving spirits . . . whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. . . forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer."
I am convinced that one of Satan's most effective strategies is to make Christians look backward, foolish, and joyless in the eyes of unbelieving people by embracing legalistic standards that have nothing to do with true spirituality. God wants us to enjoy life fully, and that includes thankfully enjoying His good gifts in those times when we are privileged to receive them. As the above scripture notes, history is full of false teachers who wrongly condemn as unspiritual the enjoyment of things like a fine chateau briand, a mellow merlot, chocolate mousse, veal piccatta, or an ice-cold beer with fajitas after a hot afternoon on the golf course. I am not one of them, and I think God is happy about that. I know I am.
2) "What does this do for the cause of Christ? . . . particularly since you are God's representative?" This is the inevitable “preacher” question which wrongly assumes that pastors have a greater responsibility to honor God with their lives than other believers. I’ll answer the question, but only after observing that we’re all on the hook together when it comes to walking uprightly!
As God's representative, I am duty bound to represent God accurately. If God is pleased when we properly enjoy His good gifts, then I believe I represent Him well by properly enjoying His good gifts. The question implies that if people knew that I enjoyed a cold beer or a fine glass of wine or a nice stogie on occasion, they would be turned off to the cause of Christ. But I disagree. My responsibility as a pastor is to live authentically and biblically, not artificially or Pharisaically. I have found that doing so, far from putting people off to Jesus, actually frees people around me to focus on issues that really matter to Jesus’ heart. That is precisely what Paul concludes in 1Tim. 4:6:
"If you point these things out to the brothers [that " everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving"], you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, brought up in the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed."
3) "What will you tell your children when they are tempted to indulge? Will your actions encourage wrong behavior? Will you be a stumbling block?" Not to be redundant, but it's wrong to abuse alcohol or cigars or fine food or anything else, and that is what I teach my kids. As to being a stumbling block, that occurs through two scenario's: if I abuse these things, or if I encourage someone else to abuse them. Lord willing, I will never do either. The practical question here, it seems to me, is how best to lead others with respect to potentially dangerous activities. Some believe we best serve our children and our friends by pushing total abstention. Thus, alcohol can be abused, therefore we forbid all use of alcohol. But cars can be driven too fast, causing accidents and even deaths; do we therefore forbid all use of cars? Desserts can be overeaten, causing obesity and heart disease; do we therefore forbid all desserts? Pain killers after surgery can become addictive if overused; do we therefore forbid all painkillers after surgery?
Obviously, the wise goal is not to protect and lead in these issues by teaching denial, but by teaching responsibility. Total denial may seem safer for our kids, but I believe it is potentially destructive in the long run because of the "forbidden fruit" syndrome. Curiosity killed the cat, and it inevitably jumps up at young people at some point in their lives when, having entered adulthood, what has always been condemned and denied to them is suddenly available. Unfortunately, those who have merely been denied and not taught sometimes go off the deep end under those circumstances. It is my fervent hope that my children will not only avoid the "forbidden fruit" syndrome by my open but responsible enjoyment of potentially abused activities, but that they will learn how to live wisely and well as they observe moderation.
By the way, I think Sister Barbara should tithe her winnings gratefully and then take all the sisters to Disneyworld ASAP! Love God. Love people. Love life. Carpe diem.
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