“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.
These words from 1 Corinthians chapter 10 were written to a church that was celebrating the freedom they had found in the grace of God. They were once under a law that was too much for them. The covenant of the Old Testament between the people of Israel and God. After many thousands of years the nation of Israel had found time and time again that it was impossible for a man or woman to live in complete accordance with these laws.
This was not unjust. The level of difficulty of a law or order has nothing to do with its rightness.
And so when this Church heard the news of Jesus and how his death had overcome sin and paid the price for them, they rightly rejoiced! The freedom that came after the burden of being a slave to sin and constantly offering sacrifices of no real power, and to find that the sacrifice had been made to cover all past and future sins meant the release of a burden that no man could bear. The celebration was justified. A peace in the heart that could never have been explained or foreseen is a cause for great joy.
But that is not what the writer of this letter is talking about. There are other actions, with less clearly drawn lines for if they are to be considered sin in the first place. I have spent a great amount of thought on these grey spaces. Some are spoken of little, and others not at all in the Bible. But there are ways to determine if they are lawful and beneficial for you or if they are unhelpful, and actually destructive, in your life.
I have heard a preacher once say that you know the things in your own life that either increase or destroy your affection for truth, Jesus, and other people, and whether or not you can handle some or any of those things.
I’ll start with an example of the sorts of things that are spoken directly to in scripture, and work into the more difficult to define.
Alcohol. Christians, as has been written by better men before me, must be “teetotalers”. We must put to death any desire in us to be seen as strong or manly in the site of others by the amount of alcohol we can consume without passing out or talking foolishly. Ephesians 5:8 states “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.” And so we have a clear guideline for the place of alcohol in our lives. Can Christians with a clear conscience take part in a glass of wine? Absolutely. Assuming we have not and are not being drawn into addiction. But what is the redirect in this verse? “But be filled with the spirit.” We know the focus of much of the world is to be filled with new and better and stronger drink. It is epidemic. But in the church our epidemic should be a desire for more and better and stronger works of the Holy Spirit. I could put it this way: Don’t worry about what you drink, but become obsessive about your pursuit of holiness and intimacy with the Holy God. As a serial hobbyist I know that all obsessions of material things will forsake you and ruin you, and the only obsession that I know will improve you and leads you to care more for others is of God’s word, his presence, and the recognition of his voice. So, let our ears be tuned to it.
But what about things that are “morally neutral”? Sure I can have a glass of wine. Sure I can spend a day playing video games. Sure I can and probably should get regular exercise. God has made the world with a myriad of good and right things that for each person, may (with a heart of glad thankfulness to God) be enjoyed for our joy and HIS glory. But some of these things may hurt you. I have found that I can’t spend multiple hours on video games. I can’t explain why and I don’t fully understand it. But for me in my life, with the personality that God has given me, I am made to feel weak to temptation, despondent, inattentive, and mentally drained when I partake. So what do I do? I abstain.
What about exercise? I enjoy running in crisp air or hiking in the woods, the rush of blood and the heightened heart rate that makes me feel alive. But what if it is taken past enjoyment of God’s creation and how he has wonderfully made us all? Am I constantly examining myself for physical improvements? Am I so focused on my flaws that I need to purge them from me by excessive exercise? Do I constantly compare myself to others and give pride yet another foothold to distract me from the beauty of the metaphysical, for God’s love and his immensity and how the way he has made us speaks to his wisdom and goodness? In all honesty, I would say: sometimes. What does that mean for me? It means that I don’t carve out my day to go running all the time. I don’t give up time with my wife and son very often for the sole purpose of physical improvement. But I do make an effort to include my family in things that benefit my spirit. Climbing mountains, walking on riversides, and taking those times to drink in the good that God declared over his creation, the bits that are still there despite the fall.
So I take my exercise in measured and intentional amounts, I don’t play video games, I enjoy an occasional drink in an appropriate setting, with those who take a similar view. There is a second part to this idea in 1 Corinthians, and that is “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” Now what does that mean? It means in the grace and power of God we take this thing one step further. We work by the Holy Spirit to identify those things that are beneficial, and which are neutral, and which tear down ourselves, but God’s work on the inside of us is always and forever making us look outward at others to see what we can do for their benefit and their good, so they would glorify HIM.
Once those things are identified and we have good conscience about all of them in light of the truth of the Bible, we must stop thinking about ourselves almost altogether, and about the good of others. Other people are going to have different strengths and weaknesses, and if we wish to live a life that puts others first, then we need to consider our morally neutral acts in light of those around. It says in Romans 14:15 in the context of whether or not someone may think eating or drinking of a certain food be sinful or not: “If your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.” So if we know that our friend can not drink alcohol, and indeed is convinced it is sin, then we abstain at the very least in his/her presence. For the Christian, we must almost universally participate in less than our conscience allows us, for the sake of others.
For the first time in my entire life, I recently had to ask my gracious and godly friend to refrain from something that was causing me to stumble. I don’t think he acted wrongly, but I could not in my heart get around his opinion on something that I held dear. I am a vegetarian, someone that Paul earlier in chapter 14 of Romans calls “the weaker brother.” And I had to ask, in a sense, for my friend to apologize to me. I had never thought of it in this light before but to plead with a stronger brother on your behalf, that you might not sin in your heart but be in good communion with the church family was one of the most humbling things I’ve experienced. I’ve rarely had a real problem doing what was right (generally, and even that not to my credit, but a gift of God), and I’d up till then held that it was a strength of character that allowed me to endure the light ridicule of others if it meant not grieving their hearts by admitting my hurt. There may still be some truth to that, and we should always try to suffer all offense graciously, but that’s not what was going on inside me.
Why do I write all this? I write it to say that you can never know if the day will come that you will be the wounded one, the weaker brother or sister, in need of the grace and kindness of your family and friends to be willing to sacrifice things they have every right to, covered by the grace of God for your benefit and yours alone.
When,–not if– that day comes, you will want to look back and see that you had always conceded your rights for the good and building up of others. Many things are lawful, but not everything is beneficial or helpful, so let us seek not just our own good, but the good of his neighbour.
In this way, we can live righteously, together in love, in the grey.