One night last week, a friend cancelled our dinner date. Suddenly, as I drove home from work, I realized I was staring down the barrel of something I don’t normally see: a free night. I was dizzy with the prospect. What should I do? Should I read? Should I take a bath? Should I start my novel? No, I knew what I should do: Hit the gym!
But I didn’t.
I spent the evening in front of the TV, if you must know. I spent it shoving fist-fulls of popcorn into my face and shotgunning episodes of “Downton Abbey.” By the time the evening was over, I knew every single nuance of Matthew Crawley’s love for Mary but otherwise, I was a guilty mess.
I could’ve cried. Seriously. I couldn’t believe myself — that I would throw a perfectly good gym opportunity away for an evening of British period drama. I felt gross. I felt dumb. I felt ashamed.
Sinful — is what I felt.
The next morning, when I was able to see the situation a bit more clearly, it hit me how silly it was to feel guilt over something as benign as a trip to the gym (or failure to make that trip). I had created a problem where there wasn’t one: I had assigned morality to something (go to the gym) that was not a moral question at all. I had given moral value to something that is at its very best a healthy idea and at its perverted worst, an idol. And in my case, that’s exactly what going to the gym had become.
Before I get ahead of myself, let me clarify something. Going to the gym can be a very good thing. You’ll get no argument from me there. I feel like I could climb Mount Everest and solve the Middle East peace crisis after a solid five miles on the treadmill. I’d go so far as to say I even find joy in the Lord in a good, hard sprint, with music in my ears and my heart pumping.
But going to the gym itself, isn’t an intrinsic good — no matter how much the people around me or popular culture (or Pinterest) might praise me for doing it. And not going to the gym isn’t, on its own, sinful. The “moral value” of the action is almost wholly dependent on how I treat it. What I mean to say is, I’m not morally inferior if I watch “Downton Abbey” instead of hitting the treadmill. And conversely, I’m not morally superior when I do tie up those laces.
This can be a dizzyingly confusing concept, especially in a western culture that so highly values physical fitness.
Even though we like to think of ourselves as being “tolerant” and absent of judgment, people across the globe still assign moral value to a great many things. (And confusingly so, because we seem to not have agreed on a moral standard.) The irony is that we’ve largely chosen the wrong things.
What We Value
In the west, we tend to look more highly, for example, on the person who has a spinach-kale-fruit-mud-whatever smoothie for breakfast than the person who had a burrito. We think the person who exercises is “better” than the person who is overweight. The mom who creates intricately complicated (but wildly photogenic, of course) crafts for her kids is better than the one who’s just happy to fit in a shower once in a while. We love the well-traveled, and we adore the well-read; at the same time, we scorn those who never move away from their hometown and mock people who prefer video games to books. We applaud people with 10 diplomas and look down on those who chose a road not travelling through higher education.
In many African countries, people with lighter skin are considered “more beautiful” than others. In the northern African country of Mauritania, obese women are the “standard” of beauty. In many Asian countries, children with higher IQs are praised over those who struggle in school.
We’re all getting this morality thing wrong.
And don’t get too comfortable; it’s not just the mainstream culture that’s guilty of this. We also commit this same confusing error within our Christian subculture.
When was the last time you looked down on someone for not knowing the Bible as well as you? When was the last time you looked down on someone for not knowing the Bible as well as you? When have you felt inferior for not knowing the name of the hottest new worship band? I’ve felt superior when I can rattle off the Bible studies I’ve finished or Christian authors I’ve studied. We judge brothers and sisters who find themselves in debt. In the church, we put married people on a pedestal over those called to singleness.
We’re making sinful mountains out of amoral molehills.
Even though you may expect this to be a simple question for Christians, it’s becoming more and more obvious that we’re struggling with it. So let’s ask: If it’s not cultural consensus, what does determine whether something has moral value?
Pride and Guilt
We know, through the gift of God’s Word, that there are things which are black-and-white sinful. The Scripture makes several mentions of some very specific, very nasty sins: thing like idolatry. Adultery. Forgetting the poor. Killing other people. Stealing. Pride. Envy.
But it’s easy to see, too, that there are other, less clear-edged questions that aren’t spelled out specifically in holy chapter and verse. These are the questions that tend to confuse us the most — the ones that leave us tied up and bruised, calling innocuous afterthoughts sins and shying away from calling out true evil.
Fortunately, we’re not left to our own devices. God has also gifted us with His Spirit who, among other things, is a brilliant saint of discernment.
In Mark 7, a group of Pharisees confronts Jesus about why He permits His disciples to eat without ceremonially washing their hands first, as Jewish law commanded. In typical you-didn’t-expect-this Jesus fashion, He gives them the answer they weren’t looking for:
“Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”
This was a downright revolution to the law-obsessed Jews: that it could be the heart that matters. Dirty hands aren’t a specific sin. So whether you wash your hands or not, He seems to say, I couldn’t care less. I will only care if in washing those hands you become prideful, or if in leaving them filthy, you find guilt.
If that were the case, it would be the idol you were making out of clean hands that would be the sin.
Paul conveys a similar sentiment in 1 Corinthians 6. Some boundary-tester (after my own heart, I’m afraid) had apparently challenged Paul with the idea that if the need for the law had died with Christ, as he was teaching, then “everything is permissible” for us.
Paul doesn’t automatically negate that. Instead, he says “but not everything is beneficial.” (And away we scurry, his provoker and I, tail between our legs.)
Here is where I’m reminded of one of my favorite passages from my favorite work by my favorite British genius (aside from Lady Crawley): C.S. Lewis.
In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis tells the story of a demon training his protégé in the sport of capturing a human heart. The demon gives this advice:
He [God] wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions: Is it righteous? Is it prudent? Is it possible? Now, if we can keep men asking, ‘Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way that History is going?’ they will neglect the relevant questions.
Lewis is teaching us in the same way as Jesus and Paul before him (except he’s doing it in a British accent) that when faced with a potentially moral question, we should not ask ourselves what the “culture” would say, but rather, whether it will please the Lord, whether it might be in accordance with His will for us, whether it will exalt His name or bring Him more weariness.
So as you (and I) continue to try to search out what He wants from us in every moment, remind your heart that your instincts — which have come from both your sin nature and your cultural nurture — might need to be challenged. Ask if what you’re about to do is capital-G Good or just culturally-accepted good, and then treat it accordingly.
Fight the pride that comes with knowing you’re doing something popular culture would applaud. Fight the guilt that comes with doing something it wouldn’t.
He knows you’re trying, and He will bless you.
Because 2,000 years ago, in that garden, on the night before He went to the cross, He prayed for you — that the world wouldn’t confuse you; wouldn’t warp you; and in the end, couldn’t keep you.
Copyright 2013 Maria Baer. All rights reserved.