Two of the most dangerous words in the English language are never and always. I remember as a child being told to never say never. Something doesn’t quite sound right about that. The problem with never and always is that they foster an illusion of living in a black and white world. In a black and white world certain things should never happen and other things should always happen. But what happens when never and always collide?
A classic example of this is the story of Corrie Ten Boom. Corrie was a young, unmarried woman, living in Holland during WWII. She came from a devout Christian family that lived by a strict moral standard. Throughout her life she had been taught to be honest and to care for others. She witnessed this being lived out by her father. Then the Germans invaded Holland and occupied her town. Her brother, who was a pastor in a neighboring village, asked her to help him hide Jews from the Nazis and help them find safe passage out of the country. Corrie agonized over this decision. Suddenly her black and white world was shaken. Her commitment to never lie came in direct conflict with her commitment to always care for others, especially the disadvantaged. She found herself thrust into an uncomfortable world of moral gray.
Under normal conditions, most of us prefer an environment with clear boundaries. We want to know exactly what is expected of us at work, in the community, and at home. Ambiguity makes us nervous. There is a need within us to resolve dissonance. Yet, at the same time, we want maximum flexibility. We want to know what the rules are, but we also want the freedom to bend the rules from time to time. Increasingly, we find our “either/or” world being transformed into a “both/and” world.
When it comes to following Jesus, we constantly find ourselves being challenged with shades of gray. There are certain things that we tenaciously hold onto. Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation. A person must put their faith and trust in Jesus in order to get right with God. Jesus left no wiggle run in this area at all. Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. John 14:6 (NIV) There is only one pathway to salvation, and that is through Jesus Christ.
But, when it comes to living out our faith on a day to day basis, we discover that things are not always so black and white. I grew up in an era where there were some pretty clear cut expectations of what a Christian could and could not do. Most of these had to do with external matters like how a person dressed, where they went for entertainment, and what kind of personal habits a person had. As I entered my young adult years, I discovered that there were true followers of Christ that had a different set of ground rules than I did. My black and white world began to turn gray. What I discovered was that many of the ground rules that I had adhered to where not issues of salvation or even moral uprightness, but issues of external conduct that really didn’t affect a person’s walk with Christ. Conformity to social norms crashed into freedom in Christ, which caused a cloud of gray that was (and is) confusing and disorienting.
This is not a new issue. Paul struggled with this very issue in Romans 14. People in the church in Rome were arguing about the spiritual ground rules for the community. Some of the people were using the old Jewish standards to define what was right and wrong. Others were reacting to the pagan culture around them by trying to distance themselves from anything that might be tainted by it. Still others took Paul’s teachings about grace to mean that the restraints had been taken off. The real issue, for all parties involved, was that they were more concerned about being right then about being compassionate. Paul jumped into the fray with both feet.
Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. Romans 14:1-8 (NIV)
Paul was a champion of grace and freedom in Christ, but he never condoned turning our liberty into license. "Everything is permissible for me"--but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible for me"--but I will not be mastered by anything. 1 Corinthians 6:12 (NIV) "Everything is permissible"--but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible"--but not everything is constructive. 1 Corinthians 10:23 (NIV) Paul understood that our outward actions matter, because they affect the lives of others. So he always erred on the side of restraining his freedom for the sake of the other person. Compassion overruled correctness.
As our world continues to break down the barriers that have separated us for centuries, we find ourselves confronted with a clash of cultures. This is happening in the world, in general, as well as in the Church. The neat black and white world that many of us grew up in no longer exists. As we move into this uncomfortable world of gray, there are a couple of basic principles to keep in mind.
1. There are some things that the Bible gives clear, unambiguous teaching on. These are the essentials of our faith; our moral and spiritual compass to lead us through life. There should be no compromise in these things.
2. There are many things that the Bible is silent about. For these, we need to apply the principles of the Bible as best as we can, and leave room for the freedom of others to see things differently.
I am far more comfortable in a black and white world, but I do not live in one. And neither do you. Let us lean on the Holy Spirit to guide us through the cloud of gray, so that we can most effectively shine as lights in a dark world.