LCN Article
Spiritual "Cap and Trade"?

March / April 2012

Gerald E. Weston

Over the last decade, the theory of anthropogenic (“caused by human beings”) global warming has become big business. In Canada, the government of the province of Ontario has mandated that, by a certain date, people may no longer purchase ordinary incandescent light bulbs. Instead, they must buy expensive compact fluorescent bulbs. This has angered many people, but others feel good about the mandate, thinking that they are doing something “to save the planet.”

It is a bit like the “Earth Hour” event each year, when environmentalists from the World Wildlife Fund urge everyone to turn off all their lights for an hour in order to display their commitment to the cause of protecting the planet.  On March 31, 2012, millions may go along with the idea and at 8:30 p.m. turn off their lights for an hour. But how much good it will do is questionable. If people were really serious, why not turn off their lights and all their appliances for a month or more? No question about it—that would make a difference! It would remind us of what it was like to live in the Dark Ages, literally and figuratively.lightbulb

Another “feel-good” action is for air travelers to donate their frequent flyer miles to some “green” cause. This is a way for people on the one hand to admit that their use of airplanes is doing damage to the environment, but on the other hand to help the environment a bit, as if planting a few trees can reduce one’s environmental “footprint.”

Each of these approaches can be seen as a kind of “green penance.” You can pollute the planet, but at the same time assuage your guilt for doing so.  You can feel good about what seems to be a simple solution to a very complex problem.

Cap and Trade

On a larger scale, you may be aware of a pollution-management strategy that has come into prominence in recent years. It is called “cap and trade.” Governments set an arbitrary limit—a “cap”—on the amount of carbon a particular factory may emit. By setting this limit on all factories in its jurisdiction, the government can control the overall level of pollution being released into the environment. However, it is inevitable that some factories will find it much easier than others to achieve the goals. Cap and trade allows a very efficient company to trade (usually to sell) its unused pollution credits to a less-efficient polluter.

This is an interesting management principle. But is it something we apply in our own lives, even unconsciously? Is it an approach God condones?

Consider: What would it be like if God did not completely outlaw our consumption of leaven during the Days of Unleavened Bread, but only put a cap on it? What if He gave us two “leaven credits” each day? If you only ate one piece of leavened bread, but I ate two, I could purchase from you a leaven credit so I could enjoy that glazed donut I saw in the coffee shop window.

Have you considered that people sometimes unwittingly approach sin this way? Could you be guilty of this? Might you be committing spiritual cap and trade? Scripture provides some examples of how others have done so—probably not realizing what they were doing, but doing it nevertheless. In examining their actions, we can come to understand that God’s cap on sin is zero, and that He does not tolerate trading in “sin credits.”

When the children of Israel came out of Egypt, they were commanded to leave the leaven behind (Exodus 12:15–20). The Apostle Paul explained the meaning of this seven-day festival: “For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:7–8). The Days of Unleavened Bread teach us how we should respond to Christ’s sacrifice—by repentance from sin! For the duration of this seven-day Festival, we see leaven as a symbol of sin.

Leaven is an ideal symbol—or representation, or “type”—for sin.  Just as leaven can be found everywhere, so can sin. Leaven is difficult—even impossible—to remove completely from our homes. So, too, is sin difficult—impossible by our own human efforts—to remove completely from the recesses of our minds and hearts. Just as we sometimes catch ourselves, half-way through eating a piece of leavened cake a co-worker has offered us, so we also catch ourselves dwelling on a wrong thought two minutes too late. The parallels are many, which is why God commands us to put leaven out for seven days. Doing so teaches us powerful lessons regarding sin.

Paul tells us that sin is deceitful. “But exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘Today,’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3: 13). He also informs us that there is often temporary, short-lived and short-sighted pleasure in sin. “By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompence of the reward” (Hebrews 11:24–26, KJV).

Beware of the Leaven

Jesus told His disciples, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6). The disciples did not understand, and thought He was commenting on their failure to bring bread for their lunch. Jesus had to explain Himself more directly: “How is it you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread?—but to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (v. 11). Only after this explanation did they understand  “that He did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (v. 12).

So, how did the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ doctrine relate to leaven? In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, we are familiar with how puffed up the Pharisee was. “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess” (Luke 18:11–12). But, does this fully explain the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees?

A study of Matthew 23 indicates there was more to it. The Pharisees, for example, were neck-deep in spiritual cap and trade. Notice: “For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers” (v. 14). Also: “For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (v. 23).

How did Jesus describe these people? “Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (v. 24). They focused on outward appearances, such as adorning a tomb, when they were guilty of killing the person placed in it. They cleaned the outside of the cup, but left it dirty inside. Outwardly they appeared righteous, but inwardly they were full of hypocrisy (vv. 25–30).

Mark 7 illustrates a prime example of Pharisaical cap and trade, recounting the occasion when the Pharisees criticized Jesus’ disciples for not washing their hands before eating when they came from the market. “For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, holding the tradition of the elders.… And there are many other things which they have received and hold, like the washing of cups, pitchers, copper vessels, and couches” (Mark 7:3–4).

So, what was Jesus’ response? “All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition” (v. 9). Christ then illustrated His point by showing how the Pharisees had used false reasoning to concoct an excuse for not keeping the Fifth Commandment. Their idea was that if they gave a gift to the temple, they were excused from taking care of their elderly parents’ financial needs. They traded a tradition for the commandment of God! Talk about cap and trade—they were experts at it!

Animals for Obedience

The Pharisees were far from the only ones to excel at the art of spiritual cap and trade. Through His servant Samuel, God commanded King Saul to utterly destroy Amalek—including not only the fighting men, but women and children and livestock of the Amalekites. However, instead of being faithful to God’s instructions, Saul and the people saved Agag—the Amalekite king—and “the best of the sheep, the oxen, the fatlings, the lambs, and all that was good, and were unwilling to utterly destroy them” (1 Samuel 15:8–9).

This act of rebellion against the word of God cost Saul his dynasty. He could have had an everlasting dynasty, as was given to David, but his heart was not wholly with God.

But see how Saul deceived himself. There is a powerful lesson in this for you and for me. Saul declared to Samuel, “Blessed are you of the Lord! I have performed the commandment of the Lord” (v. 13). Samuel, of course, was unimpressed: “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?” (v. 14). Remarkably, even though Saul had not obeyed God, he rationalized that he had done so! Or, is it so remarkable? Is it possible that we are sometimes guilty of the same?

Notice carefully verse 15, as there is a lesson here in human “cap and trade” reasoning: “And Saul said, ‘They have brought them from the Amalekites; for the people spared the best of the sheep and the oxen, to sacrifice to the Lord your God; and the rest we have utterly destroyed.’” Saul assumed he could disobey God’s command (the “cap”) as long as he did some other good thing in its place (the “trade” for a spiritual credit). Saul disobeyed God’s command by trading a few sacrificial animals (“sin credits”).

Saul pressed the case for accepting his trade (vv. 20–21), but Samuel laid the matter bare: “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, He also has rejected you from being king” (1 Samuel 15:22–23).

None of us will be called upon in this life to go out and kill the Amalekites, but we should not miss the lesson. Have we engaged in our own forms of spiritual cap and trade? Maybe we worked on the Sabbath (just a little), but rationalized that we could make up for it by donating our Sabbath-day earnings to God? Or can we recognize that to do this is just like what the Pharisees did, trading money in order to break a commandment—in this case, the Fourth Commandment? God was not impressed with the Pharisees’ trade, or with Saul’s. Will He be any more impressed with ours?

Another example involves how we treat other people. If we spread hurtful gossip about someone, we may try to deny that we are sinning, but deep down we usually recognize our sin. So, how do we handle it when we realize that we have “crossed the line”? Do we apologize immediately, and in prayer confess our sin to God? Or do we attempt a “trade” by saying something good about the person, as if this undoes the destruction we have already caused—another example of cap and trade?

“Sin Credits”?

We may be fairly certain that Isaiah never heard the term cap and trade, but we can see that he understood the principle. In the first chapter of the book of Isaiah, the word of the Lord came to him—addressing the leaders of Judah as rulers of Sodom, and the people of Judah as the people of Gomorrah. The fifth chapter of Isaiah gives adequate evidence as to why He addresses Judah in such unflattering terms. “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight! Woe to men mighty at drinking wine, woe to men valiant for mixing intoxicating drink, who justify the wicked for a bribe, and take away justice from the righteous man!… they have rejected the law of the Lord of hosts, and despised the word of the Holy One of Israel” (vv. 20–24).

Despite the reality of Isaiah’s description, the people of Judah thought they were okay with God. Why? They had an abundance of “sin credits”! But this did not buy favor with God, who asked them: “‘To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me?’ says the Lord. ‘I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed cattle. I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs or goats’” (Isaiah 1:11).

God was looking not for “sin credits,” but rather for repentance and obedience: “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes. Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (vv. 16–17).

The book of Isaiah ends where it began. The evidence is clear: the people were trading what they considered good for what God tells us is good. “He who kills a bull is as if he slays a man; he who sacrifices a lamb, as if he breaks a dog’s neck; he who offers a grain offering, as if he offers swine’s blood; he who burns incense, as if he blesses an idol. Just as they have chosen their own ways, and their soul delights in their abominations, so will I choose their delusions, and bring their fears on them; because, when I called, no one answered, when I spoke they did not hear; but they did evil before My eyes, and chose that in which I do not delight” (Isaiah 66:3–4).

Jeremiah was also familiar with cap and trade. He was dealing with a people who had an ungodly tolerance for sin. “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and walk after other gods whom you do not know…?” (Jeremiah 7:9). With such a list as this, so far below God’s standard, what “sin credits” could the people possibly claim to justify such actions? They took great pride in coming regularly to “warm a seat” in God’s temple. God, however, was not impressed. “Do not trust in these lying words, saying, ‘The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are these.’… and then come and stand before Me in this house which is called by My name, and say, ‘We are delivered to do all these abominations’?” (vv. 4, 10). Despite all this, the people looked in vain to their sacrificial “sin credits” (vv. 21–23).

What are we to learn from all this? The above examples make it clear that human nature does not easily accept God’s “zero tolerance” for sin. Human nature finds this unacceptable, so people make a habit of creating their own standards—“caps”—for sin. Then, to harmonize our standards with God’s, people often fall into the trap of trying to make deals with God. It can be easy to justify our sins by attempting to trade “sin credits” that come easy to us, in exchange for the sins we find hard to overcome.

Two Wrong Perspectives

Consider a hypothetical example of two mothers. One keeps her home immaculately clean, but has very little time and energy left over to care for her children. The other has a filthy home—with dishes in the sink, clothes piled high in the basement and dust everywhere, but dotes on her children. It would be easy to imagine these women explaining themselves as follows.  From the first woman: “I may not spend as much time with my children as I should, but at least I provide a safe and clean environment for them.” From the second woman: “I may not have the cleanest home, but at least I give my children the love they deserve.”

No, there is no tax collector here, but we can see the Pharisees’ cap and trade approach in action. Each excuses her weakness by trading on her strength. The Apostle Paul reminds us that God does not approve of this approach. “But they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise” (2 Corinthians 10:12). Of course, this example is not meant to judge busy mothers, with or without dishes in the sink. But it does illustrate the human tendency to justify our actions. And justifying our actions in that manner is a sin.

During the Days of Unleavened Bread, God tells us to go on a “search and destroy” mission. We are to search out the sins in our lives, and we are to repent of them when we find them. That means we must actually change, rather than justify our thoughts and actions. Sadly, in too many cases, we in God’s Church have traded a meticulous cleaning of our minds and hearts for a meticulous cleaning of our homes. Of course, we must put forth effort to remove the physical leaven from our homes, but we must not use the physical exercise as an excuse for failing to deal with our hearts and minds.

How can we walk with God if we knowingly allow sin to remain within us? “If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (1 John 1:6). Unless we search and put out the spiritual leaven, we have failed in the observance God has given us.

Some may consider cap and trade a good idea for managing man-made pollution. But when it comes to our relationship with God, it is a very bad idea. It is God who sets the cap at zero tolerance for sin—and He allows no room for trade. There is no bank account from which we can purchase “sin credits.”

There is, however, a supreme sacrifice upon which we can call. It is a free gift that pays for our sins, but it is very different from man-made efforts to justify sin.  Christ’s sacrifice allows us to be forgiven of sin when we repent (Acts 2:38). The attitude of repentance is very different from that of human justification of sin. God does not want us to trade animals or “good works” for our sins. He wants us to have a repentant attitude, and a humble, teachable, contrite heart: “But on this one will I look: on him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word” (Isaiah 66:2). That repentant attitude—not a “cap and trade” approach—is what we should be striving to develop as we prepare for the Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread.