Monday, October 10, 2005

Reaching the Goal is not Avoiding the Boundaries

I've an increasing conviction that we in the Church have an unhealthy focus on the Dont's of the Bible. That the multitude of "Thou shall not" and "it is forbidden to" admonitions in the Bible are not what should characterize Christian behavior. That they are useful only as boundary markers on the road to Life. That they are only an indication of what not to do, and only serve us in our walk with Jesus to know that we have strewn far off the path.

Scripture makes this clear in my mind. The best example of this is in Mark 12:
28One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?"

29"The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' 31The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."

32"Well said, teacher," the man replied. "You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices." [emph.]

34When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.

See also Luke 10:
25On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

26"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"

27He answered: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"

28"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."

Paul twice confirmed this as the encompassing goal of the law:
The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself." (Rom 13:9) [emph.]
The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself." (Gal 5:14) [emph.]
Note that not only is "love your neighbor" the greatest commandment (Mark 12:31), but the sum of all commandments (Rom 13:9, Gal 5:14). Finally, Paul puts it all in perspective in the famous 13th Chapter of 1st Corinthians: If we have not love, we gain nothing. We are nothing.

So what, then, is the usefulness of all of the rest of the law? Why all the "do not" admonitions? My best judgment is that they are useful, as I said at the start, as boundary markers on the road of life. As ways for us to clearly know that we are not in the loving way. For instance, we men know that we are to love our wives as Christ loved the church (Eph 5:25). We can certainly know that we are not loving them by comitting adultery in our hearts or by divorcing them. But not divorcing our wives and not committing adultery in our hearts can hardly fulfill the commandment to love. Love can only be positive action. It can't be arrived at by simply avoiding the illegal.

I've got a purely secular, practical parable: A man was hosting a wedding party, and gave invitations to two of his friends. To one, he told "Go north on the King's Highway, turn left at Roman's road, right at the Street Called Narrow, and stop at the fourth house on the left." To the other, he said: "Do not go on Ceasar's Way. Do not go on the Damascus Road. Do not go on Appian Way. Do not go on the road to Jerusalem." He continued, providing directions only by telling the man what not to do. "Do not turn south, west, or east... do not go backwards, do not go forwards, do not turn right..." So I ask you: which of the man's friends arrived at the party on time?

When a quarterback calls a play, he directs his position players on what to do, not what not to do. Also, while on the field they have a single purpose: get the ball across the goal line. No one would suggest that the purpose of a football team is to avoid taking the ball out of bounds.

My most recent exchange on the blogosphere about this was on Adam's blog. He had started with his brother's conviction that "the Christian life is not about doing what is good or bad, but about doing what is best." I heartily agree, but I felt that Adam missed the point by returning to focus on what was permissible and impermissible situationally:
Therefore, I study the Scriptures, I reason to see when and where I can or cannot drink. So as when confronted with the decision, I can parallel it to my previous discovery and see which option is the best. I search for permissibility given all variants so when confronted with specific variants, I can know what is permissible and what is not.
Again, this is focusing on the boundaries rather than the goal. Given the specific example Adam was dealing with--whether or not to drink--the question is not for me one of turning to Scripture to see what situations are approved, but of using the judgment and liberty that God gave me as to when drinking is a loving act and when it is not. When does drinking help me serve my goal of loving my neighbor? Drinking is obviously useless as a loving act if you are doing it at an AA meeting. But it can be a way to love your neighbor if you are sharing a beer with a friend, and the act of sharing the beer helps to lower the barriers between you.

This brings us into the realm of Christian liberty. If we were only to avoid breaking the law, then liberty would be meaningless. We would be slaves to the law. However, our commandment is not to avoid breaking the law, but to keep it. And we can only keep it by loving our neighbor. To do that, we need the liberty to search in each situation what it means to love our neighbor, and know that sometimes this may look to another person like lawbreaking.

For instance, Paul was forced to deal with a controversy in the Corinthian church around certain practices. Some people were eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols, and others in the local church were scandalized and sought out Paul to settle the matter. This is how Paul responded:

Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. (1 Cor 8:1)
There was Paul, getting right to the heart of the matter: don't be a legalist, but take the loving way. We are free to act on our consciences--the essence of Christian liberty. We are not bound to do not, but to do the loving in all things. Here was Paul's guidance to the church:
Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol's temple, won't he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall. (1 Cor 8:9-13)
Thus, the only situational ethic that we need to concern ourselves with is how we love our neighbor in any given situation. We can't arrive at that solution by searching the Scriptures for knowledge about what not to do. This kind of knowledge puffs up and leads to controversy. Tell me you haven't seen that before. The legalists love controversy, because it lets them show off their knowledge of Scripture. The legalists come to Jesus to settle their debates, not to learn how to love.

Adam also brought up cussing. When is it OK to cuss? When it serves the goal of loving your neighbor, and never when it doesn't.

Now, I will be the first to admit that my use of cussing is more like carpet bombing than pinpoint targeting. I'm not even sure that I can come up with very many solid examples of when cussing can be a loving act, but my point is that if it serves love, it's perfectly legal.

I supposed one way in which cussing can be a loving act is when it forces someone to confront their issues surrounding it. A great example of this is the oft-mentioned time when Tony Campolo said to an audience at a Christian gathering, "The United Nations reports that over ten thousand people starve to death each day, and most of you don't give a shit. However, what is even more tragic is that most of you are more concerned about the fact that I just said a bad word than you are about the fact that ten thousand people are going to die today." I would say that is definitely a loving use of cussing.

In a comment I left after Adam's post, I said "As for cussing, I believe that as long as you are loving perfectly you can do whatever the f*** you want with your Christian liberty." (And I used the asterisks in the comment as well, for a very specific reason that I'll get into shortly). That provoked the following response from someone: "Boy. That's convenient."

See, some people look at the concept of Christian liberty as an excuse to sin. That we can always rationalize our sin as being somehow loving. For myself, I would much rather the debate center around love than around sin, around whether I had loved the right way in a given situation than whether I had run afoul of some Scriptural regulation. We can be right about whether Scripture has ever said not to do something and still miss the point. This is why we are repeatedly reminded that all those don'ts are really all about the Big Do: Love your neighbor.

Now, as for why I used the *** after the "f": because I wanted to provoke a response without actually using the "f" word, which I thought would have been gratuitous in that situation. Fact is, "f***" could just as well stand for flip, frik, frak, or fril, and any one of those could be used instead of the f-bomb, but everyone would know that they are just a more acceptable placeholder. A mild form of cussing, as it were. But ultimately, I wanted to stress that the illegal is permissible when it is used to fulfill the Law of Love.

Wow, that sounds so profound that I'll dub it "Zeke's Rule No. 1: The illegal is permissible when it fulfills the Law of Love." Chew on that, Adam, and let me know what you think.

3 Comments:

At 8:16 AM, Blogger nathaniel adam king said...

I do believe you misinterpreted my post my friend.

I am all for not focusing on the 'do not's' and am very much in agreement that we as Christians should live our lives focusing on the 'do's'. But, my point was that I cannot know the 'do's' unless I first figure out what the 'do's' are.

You gave one 'do', love your neighbor. I would posit a couple more, love God and glorify God. I would say that we as Christians should walk through life thinking, does by me doing this love my neighbor, love God or glorify God?

I should have sat here before responding to your post and thought of whether I should respond by thinking how can I best love Zeke. I should NOT have thought what is forbidden in this situation. I should have first thought about how best I can love Zeke.

HOWEVER, this brings me back to my initial point, how do I know what is loving Zeke and what is not.

When confronted with the decision to respond or not to respond, I should have thought that I should love Zeke the most and do whatever is in lines with loving him. BUT, how can I do that if I do not know which option is truly loving Zeke? If I respond, am I loving Zeke? If I don't respond, am I loving Zeke? Which option loves Zeke the most? I have no idea. I cannot look to the Scripture to see where it says, loving Zeke equals responding to Zeke...so I have no idea.

I do not know what I am supposed to do!!!

Which option would best be loving Zeke? To respond or not to respond, that is the question.

So, then I think, I reason, I ponder, I wonder. If I were to not respond to Zeke, he would perhaps assume that I was ignoring him. He would think that I did not give a flip about his post. He would think that I was selfish given the time he spent to read my post and respond to my post, and yet I haven't the time to respond to his...HOW JERKISH OF ME (I just made up a word - jerkish).

Therefore, in this situation, not responding would NOT be the thing to do.

That leaves me but one option, responding to Zeke. By responding to Zeke, I then figure out which way I can best love Zeke, and therefore love God more and therefore glorify God the greatest in this situation.

But notice the course of my action. I did of course first seek to love Zeke the most, but afterward, I necessarily had to ask what I was NOT to do.

This was my intention in my post. I was not saying that I should seek to above all know what I cannot do, so as to live my life by not doing that which I cannot do. I was arguing that if I was to live a life focusing on how I can love my neighbor (and God and glorify God) the most, I would then have to see how I could not do it.

The parallel I drew between cussing and drinking was the same. When confronted with the decision to drink or not to drink, I must first think of how I can love my neighbor (those around me at the time). I must think whether me drinking would be loving them properly or not. I then deduce that if my neighbor was an Alcoholic, I should not drink. I would deduce that if my neighbor was a friend who loves a drink every now and then, I should drink.

In deciding how best to love my friend, I had to then decide which option was NOT loving my friend properly. In thinking about what NOT to do, I was not focusing upon what not to do the most, I was focusing upon how better to love my friend.

The entire reason for my argument upon my post was because people misunderstand this whole idea of seeking to love your neighbor, rather than seeking to not do the 'not's'.

They say that in seeking to live your life by loving your neighbor you should not worry or focus upon the 'thou shalt nots'. You should only focus upon the 'do loves and do admonishes'.

But I argued that I CANNOT do this if I do not consider what is loving in the situation and what is not. When given two options, I do not know what is the most loving thing to do, unless I first deduce which would be the completely unloving thing to do.

Understand? I think we would be in agreement given our intentions. We both believe that we should live our lives focusing on the 'do love's'.

However, we would disagree. You would say that in so focusing on the 'do love's', we should never think of the 'do not's'. I would argue, however, that we cannot focus on the 'do love's' unless we consider likewise the 'do not's'.

 
At 8:27 AM, Blogger Zeke said...

Adam, I think we are pretty close on this one. It's a matter of focus. In my mind, the don'ts are only useful as boundary markers, but they don't provide much guidance as to reaching the goal. In fact, sometimes reaching the goal can mean going out of bounds (See Zeke's Rule No. 1: The illegal is permissible when it fulfills the Law of Love).

But I concede your basic point, which is that we should want to do best. I just think that the rules for how Adam should best love his neighbor can only be written by Adam using his Christian liberty in guidance by the Spirit. That will mean sometimes that he will wander into the fields on the Sabbath to pick grain to eat, or eat meat sacrificed to idols, or cuss, or drink, and will earn the condemnation of the Pharisees. But ultimately it's Adams job to fulfill the Law of Love in his life, and no man can be his judge in that matter even if they can show that he's violated a Scriptural "don't".

 
At 9:28 AM, Blogger nathaniel adam king said...

Oh by all means. I would never attempt to apply my 'don'ts' to another. I was not seeking whether I should or should not as to create some overarching rule that was to be applied to all.

If you notice within my post I even made mention of this. I said that the minute we attempt to apply some overarching rule such as don't say 'ass', we ignore the allowance of saying this word when in reference to a donkey. Likewise, if we were to say never to drink, we would ignore the LORD's supper.

We can no more say NEVER do this, than we can say ALWAYS do this. Hence the reason why we must always question and always think. We must always wonder how best we can love another...

 

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