QUESTIONER: “I hope this doesn’t sound weird but I’m trying to work out how I’m supposed to behave. Thing is, some things are really easy to know. Don’t kill. Don’t steal. Don’t worship idols. etc. All those things are very clear. But what about the grey areas that aren’t specifically dealt with? Are there guidelines that I can apply so I know how to behave in those less clear cut situations?”
Right at the outset, I am going to say, “Don’t beat yourself up about this”. You see, if you are being led by the Spirit, you do not need to be in a constant state of panic or forever wondering if you’ve messed-up. That is not the state of mind and heart that is meant for God’s people. Self-awareness and self-examination are important. But we are not helpless victims who cannot prevent ourselves from being complete moral failures. We are well able to stand against testings, temptings, and assaults from the forces of darkness if we are diligent. We have the means to do so, should that be necessary. There are many places in the sacred texts which encourage us and assure us of that:
- “Be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power. Put on the full armour of God, so that you can make your stand against the devil’s schemes” (Letter to the Ephesians, chapter 6, verse 10. But read through to verse 18).
- “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” (Letter to the Philippians, chapter 4, verses 13).
- “Christ said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is perfected in weakness’. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest on me” (Second Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 12, verse 9).
However, whatever promises we are given, we have to take action. But we are not robots or puppets being controlled by God. We are responsible people who must do the necessary work as part of our growth. This is where our diligence comes into play. We do not need to be involved in 24-hour agonizing about the way we behave. That is not the way of the warrior of Christ. For we are called to be courageous victors! If we spend all our time agonizing about that, then Satan has got us by the short and curlies. What we do need is 24/7/365 diligence. Fortunately, that is supplied in unctuous quantities to those who persevere and seek only the good.
THERE ARE CHECKLISTS IF YOU WANT THEM
For those who think they need them, there are checklists of behaviours which are clearly designated as being out of bounds for the disciple of Christ and which can show us how to behave. However, I do believe that such a ‘checklist morality’ is somewhat outmoded for us who have the Holy Spirit. The children of Israel consisted of a ragtag bunch of people of whom comparatively few at any one time were truly the people of God in their hearts. So the law had to be laid down for the children of Israel as a whole in detailed checklist fashion. Much of that law was ceremonial and thus was fulfilled in Christ, so that does not apply to His disciples today.
At a very basic level the moral law of God is “written on the hearts” of everyone in this world so they really already know what is required in terms of their behaviour in this world and towards others (Letter to the Romans, chapter 2, verses 14-16). But the corruption of those hearts, unless they are transformed spiritually, prevents them from following up on that requirement. Jesus said that the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love one’s neighbour (Gospel of Matthew, chapter 22, verses 37-40). And He added that “all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments”. That is what lies behind the entirety of God’s law, about which the disciple of Christ does not need continually reminding, for s/he has the Holy Spirit, about which more will be said below.
Nevertheless, it is always good to be reminded through the checklists in the Bible regarding what God requires of us, so we can see just how far we have come in living out divinely-influenced morality in our lives. We see those delineated initially in what is known as the Decalogue or Ten Commandments: Refraining from making something more important than God; no idol-worshipping; no misusing God’s name (e.g. perjury, swearing, etc.), always honouring one’s parents (even when they may not seem to deserve it); not murdering another person (includes abortion and could include destroying someone’s life in other ways), not committing adultery (no explanation necessary); not stealing (no explanation necessary); not lying about one’s fellow humans (not only slander or calumny but could include malicious gossip); not envying or desiring what others have (underestimated pernicious trait). There is also the principle of a one-in-seven rest, although I believe that the Saturday sabbath was instituted as a ceremonial law for Israel rather than as part of the moral law and thus is not applicable for disciples of Christ today. It is nowhere reiterated as a commandment in the New Testament, unlike all the other commandments which are reinforced, many times. Ultimately, all disciples have their rest in Christ and are devoted to God 24/7, as Jesus Himself is said to be our ‘sabbath rest’ (Letter to the Hebrews, chapter 4, verses 9-11), but setting a day of rest apart from working days is a very sound principle. If you can spend it in the company of other disciples then all the better. I realise that my words will be controversial in some quarters but we have to be very careful not to saddle people with inappropriate burdens. If keeping a sabbath religiously each week is your thing because you believe that the Fourth Commandment is still in force, I will not stand against that. You are free to do it and I respect that. But you will have to allow me the same freedom. We are not under the Jewish ceremonial law. I will probably have to write a whole article about this now!
Then there are also other lists of acts which should never happen in the life of a disciple of Christ (or anyone else’s, for that matter!). Really, these things should not even need to be spelled out, as they are so obviously off the cards for a diligent disciple. But the visible church is so wayward that it seems they do need to be mentioned. Here they are:
“But to the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and sexually immoral and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur. This is the second death”.Book of Revelation, chapter 21, verse 8. I break this list down in detail on pages 601-610 in my commentary on the Book of Revelation, available freely for download here.
The presence of the word “cowardly” in that list may surprise some. But such timidity and fear should have no place in the life of the faithful. Courage goes hand-in-hand with perseverance and endurance. The word “abominable” there refers to human beings who are vile and repugnant by nature and fill one with disgust. Examples of this would be utter perverts, paedophiles, and others who commit abominable acts against living beings, human or animal, which civilized, sensitive people would normally never even think of, never mind mention. Abominable = the unmentionable acts of the reprobate.
Another list is here:
“Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, men who make themselves effeminate, sodomites, practising homosexuals (literally, in the Greek, men who bed other men), nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor verbal abusers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God”.First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 6, verses 9-10
A challenging list for a worldling but not for a true disciple of Christ. All very straightforward, although if you announce that list publicly in politically correct countries — so far has the world apostatized from moral absolutes these days — you will be accused of having a ‘phobia’ and you might even be arrested for a ‘hatecrime’! Such are the strange and telling times in which we live.
Then there is a list of “acts of the flesh” which, according to Paul, should be “obvious”:
“The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, and debauchery; idolatry and sorcery; hatred, discord, jealousy, and rage; rivalries, divisions, factions, and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God”.Letter to the Galatians, chapter 5, verses 19-21
However, for the genuine disciple of Christ, these things should not only be ‘obvious’ but also totally anomalous, even anathema. For if you “walk by the Spirit… you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Letter to the Galatians, chapter 5, verse 16). It really is as simple as that. Which disciple of Christ can look at any of the items in those lists and say, “Well, that one’s not so bad”. You know in your heart of hearts that all that stuff is wrong and you would not be seen dead doing any of it!
NEVER UNDERESTIMATE YOUR CONSCIENCE
If you are worried about your behaviour, what I want you to take away from this is that you should never underestimate your conscience. As a disciple of Christ, you have the indwelling Holy Spirit guiding you in all truth (Gospel of John, chapter 16, verses 13; First Letter of John, chapter 4, verse 6). You also have a Holy-Spirit-endowed good conscience (First Letter to Timothy, chapter 1, verse 19; Second Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 1, verse 12). In other words, if you have the slightest doubt about doing, saying or writing something — if you get a jar in your spirit about it, then do not do it. The truth is that if you are a genuine disciple of Christ who is serious about progressing in the faith, then the situations described above should not really encroach on your life except if you have slidden far backwards in some way and for some reason, or in very unusual circumstances, or because you are (by permission of God for testing purposes) under particular assault from the demonic realm. In which case, your action is clear: “Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (Letter of James, chapter 4, verse 7).
One really does need to be a very serious, dedicated, diligent person to be an active, counterculture servant of God and disciple of Christ. There is no room for laxity or taking your eye off the path and your hand off the rudder. “Be sober-minded and alert. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (First Letter of Peter, chapter 5, verse 8). That sober-mindedness and alertness is the key. And it does not have to be forced, as it will come naturally to those with the Spirit of Christ within. It only needs to be prayed for. One of the greatest facets of true spirituality, apart from showing one’s faith in love and compassion for the weaker folks, is “to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (Letter of James, chapter 1, verses 27). There is always to be this distance between oneself and this satanic world-system of corruption. This is not about being aloof but about developing wisdom and insight.
WHAT ABOUT THE GREY AREAS WHICH AREN’T DEALT WITH ABOVE? KEY QUESTIONS TO ASK ONESELF
But what if there is something you could do or get involved in which doesn’t fit any of the above situations — what could be called a ‘grey area’? Again, the answers are clearly laid out for us in the sacred texts, enabling us to ask ourselves four key questions if we want to know how to proceed. These questions are: 1) “Is it beneficial to me?”; 2) “Does it build me up in my faith, spiritual growth and strength of spirit?”; 3) “Does it overcome me and hold me in its power?”; 4) Could it possibly be a stumbling-block for others? Those four questions should always be applied in any situation of uncertainty. The four sacred texts which provide us with the basis for these questions are these:
“‘Everything is permissible’, but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible,’ but not everything is edifying. No one should seek his own good, but the good of others”.First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 10, verses 23-24
“‘Everything is permissible for me’, but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible for me’, but I will not be mastered by anything”.First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 6, verse 12
“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God. Do not become a stumbling block, whether to Jews or Greeks or the church of God—as I also try to please everyone in all I do. For I am not seeking my own good, but the good of many, that they may be saved”.First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 10, verses 31-33
“Be careful, however, that your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak”.First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 8, verse 9
What these four texts are saying — and it is no coincidence that they are all written to the same church which was somewhat all over the place morally at that time — is that even if something is technically permissible and lawful for you to do, there may be considerations which override that principle. So you have to ask yourself some searching questions based on those texts: Is it beneficial for me? Or is it the opposite. Why do it if it is not beneficial? No need to agonize. You have your criteria. Will it edify me — build up my faith, my spiritual growth and my strength of spirit? If not, why waste time doing it? Life is too short to waste on worthless activities. Is it something which will take me over and bring me under its power? Plenty of things can become addictive and rule over you without being drugs or alcohol. Television, for example. Gymnasium workouts. Chocolate! Even sexual intimacy in a marriage. And much more. In themselves, in normal doses, there is nothing unlawful about them. But if those activities master you rather than you being in control of them, then they are a bad use of God-given time and destructive to those involved. And a final question is this: Will it be a stumbling-block for others if I do it? Bear in mind that we are all examples for others. All of us. Though some are more so than others (e.g. pastors of the flock, teachers, the more mature, etc.). So I must ask myself, “If I do this thing, will it give the wrong message to someone who has a weaker conscience or spirit-power than me?” We can glean this from three sayings above, first, “No one should seek his own good, but the good of others”, and “Be careful, however, that your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak”, and “For I am not seeking my own good, but the good of many, that they may be saved”. Really, before we do anything, we have to be sure that it is not going to cause problems for someone who may not have the same level of strength as us. Let’s take this further.
A PERSONAL ANECDOTE
Let me give a personal anecdote: I gave up alcohol, drugs and cigarettes in my early 20s. That was mainly for health reasons because a few years before I had a serious illness which almost killed me and seriously weakened me and I was under advice to live a clean life. It took a few years to get all of that underway and get straight. But in the case of the cigarettes it was because I did not like being under the power of something. I was not a disciple of Christ at that point but I still resented something having control over me. However, in regard to the alcohol, I can honestly say that I am now very glad that I do not drink. I make no stipulation for others and I do not judge them. But as far as I am concerned, knowing how easy it is for people with a predilection to addiction to fall by the wayside with drink, I would not want to cause another to be waylaid by alcohol because of my example. My readiness to drink alcohol (even though I might easily cope with it occasionally myself if I drank it) would not provide a good example for others (or for children). We may enjoy an occasional glass of wine, but we must put the potential well-being of others above ourselves. This is a responsible choice we have to take when we are ready to do so.
Anyway, that is a minimalist excursion, a little primer, into the realms of morality and ethics. The reality is that the closer we are to our Divine Creator, the less we will have to ruminate over what we ought to do, about how we should do it, and the more we will simply do the right thing naturally. Genuine disciples of Christ do not really have to be lectured about how to do the right thing (though they might need occasional spiritual counselling). Neither do they need a raft of rules and regulations, or guilt-tripping by others, or ‘heavy shepherding’ in order to do the right thing. They will zealously want to do it and will automatically do it because their conscience works well within them and because the Holy Spirit is inspiring them and, as a bonus, they know that angels are watching them too (First Letter of Peter, chapter 1, verse 12), observing how those disciples being a new creation is panning out in space, time and history. That in itself is a wonderful inspiration to do the right thing and do it well !
© 2023, Alan Morrison / The Diakrisis Project. All Rights Reserved. [The copyright on my works is merely to protect them from any wanton plagiarism which could result in undesirable changes (as has actually happened!). Readers are free to reproduce my work, so long as it is in the same format and with the exact same content and its origin is acknowledged]