When the lines aren’t clear

I’ve been trying to cut down on sweets, so I set a guideline that I’d only have them twice a week. I didn’t want to make it a hard and fast rule: I wanted to allow room for special occasions, unexpected gifts, etc. I had done this before with success and without incessant cravings until a family vacation threw me off course for a while. But while trying to get back on track this time, cravings were rampant.

One day last week I was planning to go grocery shopping and bring home Chick-Fil-A for lunch afterward.  My previous habit for that restaurant was to order one of their chocolate chip cookies, which would become warm and gooey from being placed on top of the sandwiches in the bag. I looked forward to that experience again . . . except for my nagging conscience. I was still within my two-sweet limit. But it was early enough in the week that having the second sweet now would make the rest of the week difficult. So the better part of wisdom would be to forego dessert this time. But my mind sought justification for indulging. “Eating a cookie isn’t a sin, after all. And this is a special occasion: it’s not like I go to Chick-Fil-A every day.”

For hours I justified myself but did not feel completely at ease. Finally something came up which caused me to put my grocery shopping off until later, sidestepping the problem. But the whole experience set off a cascade of thinking.

We’ve all known people with the attitude, “If you can’t show me chapter and verse why something is wrong, you can’t say it’s wrong.” And we’ve probably all thought that way at times. In sane moments we can set wise principles. In temptation or longing, we go beyond principle. We want a definite line in the sand, and we’ll even look for ways around that.

I’ve often wondered why God left some matters to conscience rather than spelling out His preferences. Exactly when does enjoying good food cross over into gluttony? What are the parameters of modesty? What constitutes “going too far” in a physical relationship before marriage? What is the defining line between acceptable and worldly music? What is and is not acceptable on the Lord’s Day?

Some of these and like matters allow for differences in stages of spiritual maturity. Maybe God left some things open for evaluation in order to give people room to grow. The more we grow in the Lord and in knowledge of His Word, the more we become like Him. Also, some standards change with the culture: no one imposes standards of modesty from the 1850s to the current day.

But I’ve often thought that these matters expose our hearts. What’s our basic motivation? Do we really want to please the Lord, or do we just want an excuse to do our own will? Can we follow the spirit of the law, or do we have to have the letter spelled out?

Or do we go to the opposite extreme of legalism? We don’t know where the lines are, so we draw our own. We set our standards high, feel self-righteous when we keep them, and then judge everyone who doesn’t measure up.

If God hasn’t spelled out specifics in some of these areas, and people on different sides of the issues still love God and want to please Him, then do these issues really matter? Well, yes they do. Romans 14 gives several guidelines. Do everything you do as unto the Lord (verses 5-8). We’ll give account to Him for all we do (verses 10-12). Don’t just follow what someone else does, but be fully convinced in your own mind (verses 5, 22-23). Don’t judge or despise someone who differs from you in these matters (verse 3). Don’t think just about yourself, but think also about the effect your actions might have on others (verses 14-21). Seek for what makes for peace and edifying (verse 19).

1 Corinthians helps as well:

“I have the right to do anything,” you say–but not everything is beneficial.
“I have the right to do anything”–but I will not be mastered by anything.
(6:12, NIV).
“I have the right to do anything”–but not everything is constructive.
(10:23b, NASB).

The freedom we have in Christ is not freedom to do anything we want: it’s the freedom to seek His grace to yield to Him and reign ourselves in for love of Him and others.

One of our former pastors used to say that if we truly kept the two greatest commandments, to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves, we wouldn’t need the specifics laid out. Those two principles would guide everything we do. Yet, because of our penchant for seeking loopholes and exceptions and our own way, we have to have things spelled out for us. Because we don’t keep the spirit of the law, we get the letter.

But how do we make decisions for those things that are not specifically spelled out? Is our heart’s desire ultimately to to see how close we can get to the line of sin without going over — or to please God, glorify Him, and love others?

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Tell His Story, Let’s Have Coffee,
Porch Stories, Share a Link Wednesday, Faith on Fire, Grace and Truth.

Links do not imply 100% endorsement of everything on others’ blogs)

Grace and Truth

25 thoughts on “When the lines aren’t clear

  1. This is always a hard subject. I’ve been trying to notice carbs lately in the choices I make. I don’t have a set number that I’m striving for each day, but when given the choice, I’m trying to choose a lesser-carb option than a higher-carb one. Sometimes I think it is easier when we have a set rule, a solid line, that we know we can’t cross. But I am grateful for the freedom that God gives us. This is a beautiful truth to live by: “The freedom we have in Christ is not freedom to do anything we want: it’s the freedom to seek His grace to yield to Him and reign ourselves in for love of Him and others.”

    • Thanks so much, Lisa. I know I’m going to have a battle wherever I draw a line, so making a guideline rather than a hard and fast rule seems easier – but then that often leaves me too much of a loophole. Either way, it takes discipline and God’s help.

  2. I really enjoyed this Barbara. Sometimes a “hard and fast rule” when one is trying to improve lifestyle/food choices is vital. for my friend who is a recovering alcoholic and a fairly new Believer, she cannot be around anyone with a beer, glass of wine, etc., Yet she knows this is a “conviction area”. meaning, some of us are ok with having a glass of wine and some believers say they cannot. It’s not what brings us to heaven! Core Biblical Truth….the eternal matters….are what’s important. All this other stuff?? eating carbs vs eating just paleo vs eating just plants….God leaves that up to us! Know what is right for you, pray, listen to His plan and purposes for your own life and all goes smoother. I love what you said about how freedom in Christ doesn’t mean we do whatever we want….but rather…..to seek His grace……also…..he does give us free will! When we are walking intimately with Him, we will know what the Will is!! LOVED this. It really goes along with some things the Lord has been stirring up in me. Maybe I should blog about it! 🙂

    • Thanks, Faith. That’s probably yet another reason God didn’t spell out every little thing – so that we might seek Him and walk more closely to Him to know His will.

  3. This is such fresh insight. Love these thoughts, “In sane moments we can set wise principles. In temptation or longing, we go beyond principle. We want a definite line in the sand, and we’ll even look for ways around that.” So true. And I think that is wise advice from your pastors that if we truly embrace and live out the 2 greatest commandments, we don’t need the specific laid out. In the end, I think it’s about growing closer to the Lord and knowing in our spirit the right thing to do, when something becomes obsessive and “not right” for us and when it’s crossing a line. With God’s clear Word and commandments and principles, there is no wiggle room.

    • Thanks, Karen! Ultimately everything goes back to that – love for God and others. And my conflict often goes back to my own self-will. We do so much need to keep growing closer to Him.

  4. Barbara, in my absence from blogging for a while I am always encouraged when I read here…even if I have not left a comment. I’m seldom leaving comments these days until I have more time to devote to blogging. But I could not allow this post of yours to go by without telling you how refreshing it was to read here today. You have covered a topic that really can be a touchy subject, but I love how you used Scripture to back up your thoughts. Guidelines are always good and if we are keeping the two greatest commandments we won’t be looking around to see how we can skirt them. Living for Jesus…it is an area He has been working in me…not just saying the right thing but loving Him so much that my actions really speak that to others who may be around me. Thank you so much.

    • You’re always such an encouragement, Dianna. That is so much what I need to do: look to what would be the most loving response to God and others rather than just what I want in the moment.

  5. Great post. Sometimes it seems the longer we have been a Christian, the easier it is to make worthy sounding excuses. Allowing our spiritual maturity to almost work against us. Sad, but true. I’m glad I’m not the only one engaging in mental arguments – with myself:) Thanks for sharing your struggle – and the thoughtful lessons gained from a simple cookie!

    • Thanks so much, Jennifer. Yes, after walking with the Lord for a while, we can think we have a handle on things. Then something comes along to show us better. 🙂 We so need to keep growing in our love for Him and others.

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  7. I always fall back on James 4:17 – “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” That’s pretty clear. If we know what we should do… Not that I’m perfect at it, or even good at it. I’m so thankful for God’s grace. But it keeps me from justifying my sin.

  8. Barbara – I have always wished God could drop me an email and let me know exactly what is right and wrong. However, I have yet to receive it. I loved your post. Concentrating on the two verses is a great place to start. Thank you for linking up with Grace & Truth. Maree

    • I wish something like that, too, Maree – that God would write His specific will in the sky or somewhere so I would know what to do. But maybe this way helps us seek Him and depend on Him more.

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  10. Well said and something we should all keep in mind in all the little day to day choices and decisions we make. Happy to have found you via Candidly Christian!

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