When I was growing up, my father would occasionally tell me that I needed to clean up my room. I would clean it up, and then I would ask him to come and check it out—because I knew that, until he OK’d it, I couldn’t go out and play baseball or do whatever else I wanted to do. Sometimes he would check it out and say I needed to work a little harder. Other times he would let me go and have my fun. The same would happen when cleaning the garage, mowing the lawn, or doing any other chore that needed to be done. I was very used to doing a job and then asking my father, “Is it OK?”
Then, one day, he shocked me with a lesson I have never forgotten. I asked my father to check my work to see if it was OK, and he answered my question with a question: “Is it clean?” I wasn’t ready for that, because I had grown used to doing the least that I thought needed to be done so I could go on to the things I really wanted to do. “It is clean?” now put the question on my shoulders instead of his. I immediately felt a bit of guilt, because I knew I could have done better.
Instead of giving or denying me permission to go do what I wanted, he challenged me to think more deeply and to learn to see things the way they needed to be. How may this apply to us, especially as we approach Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread—a time for serious self-examination?
Sometimes the question “Is it OK?” is a sincere request communicating a desire to really know how one might be falling short. But too often we ask “Is it OK?” as a substitute for the underlying question: “Can I get away with this?” It is human nature to try to come, so to speak, as “close to the edge” of sinning as we can, without actually falling off the cliff. We understand from Scripture that fornication and adultery are sins, for example, but do we ever try to see how close we can come without crossing the line?
Do we seek the thrill of getting as close to the edge of the cliff as we can? Or do some of us even secretly hope that we will “trip” and fall off the cliff, planning to repent later?
Beyond “Dos and Don’ts”
Jesus had to deal with the Pharisees, who kept a long list of “dos and don’ts.” Their idea was that as long as they stayed within that detailed list of their own making, they were free to get away with anything else they wanted. Yet what did Jesus say?
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel! (Matthew 23:23–24).
Often, for those who take a “checklist” approach, there are bigger questions that are ignored or missed. Jesus Christ told the Pharisees that they had neglected the weightier matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. These are less easily defined. It is not that they are undefinable, but they require us to use righteous judgment. We must mature over time as we grow in understanding and Christ lives in us through the Holy Spirit, so that we may make godly judgments (Galatians 2:20; Hebrews 5:14). Tithing on something is rather clear cut. If someone says you must tithe on mint and anise and cumin, these are clear guidelines—how and when and how much—and we can feel very good about doing that. But without clear “dos” or “don’ts” on a point of justice, mercy, or faith, it’s not so easy to know if we have pleased God. Yet He is plain that they are “weightier matters” that mean a great deal to Him.
And it was not only the Pharisees of Jesus’ day who sought to keep lists of extrabiblical “dos and don’ts.” With the advance of technology, today’s Orthodox Jews often seek rulings as to whether or how to adapt or adopt modern innovations into their religious lives. In 2007, the Jerusalem Post reported an attempt by the Israeli Defense Force to accommodate the “requirements” of religious soldiers:
A recent decision by the IDF top brass to institute a “kosher telephone” that minimizes Shabbat desecration is yet another sign of the growing influence of religious soldiers on the army. In recent weeks the IDF purchased hundreds of telephones developed by the Tzomet Institute, a research group that finds technology-based loopholes in Jewish law, according to the army weekly Bamachane.… Dialing and other electronic operations on the “Shabbat phone” are performed in an indirect way so that the person using the phone is not directly closing electrical circuits. Instead, an electronic eye scans the phone buttons every two seconds. If a button has been pressed, the eye activates the phone’s dialing system. This indirect way of activation is called a grama (“‘Kosher phone’ helps IDF minimize Shabbat desecration,” February 14, 2007).
In other words, punching in the same numbers is not technically dialing the phone. Imagine one Israeli solder calling another on his special “Sabbath-compliant” phone and saying, “We’ve got to lob artillery fire on those people coming across the border.” Now, that would produce a good-sized fire! Yet, it was the tiny telephone circuit that was seen as desecrating the Sabbath! You will never come to an end of “dos” and “don’ts” if that’s your approach.
We at times find the same approach, perhaps less obvious, among ourselves. Consider how often the question “Is it OK?” really means “Is it a sin?” And, again, a lot depends on the spirit in which that question is asked.
The Days of Unleavened Bread teach us a lesson about sin, and we certainly do not want to commit sin. But too often people use questions like these in an effort to find technical “cover” for doing something that, deep down, they know is probably not the most righteous course of action they could take. The Apostle Paul gives us very good advice when he points out that some things may technically be OK—may not be sin—but still not be profitable: “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify” (1 Corinthians 10:23; see also 6:12).
Paul’s statement challenges Christians to aim higher—to ask harder questions. Asking “Can I technically justify my actions in the law?” is one thing. The Pharisees were very good at this. But asking questions like “Does this edify others?” and “Is it helpful to the congregation and my family?” and “Does it truly reflect God’s own mind, thinking, and desires?” is something very different. The Pharisees were not very good in this department.
Some details are clear-cut in Scripture, of course. For instance, consider the question “Is it OK to get a tattoo?” The answer is unambiguous: “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:28). But let’s look at another example that many think is similarly clear-cut, but in fact is not: “Is it OK for a man to wear an earring?” Some will argue that men are adopting a female custom if they wear earrings, so they shouldn’t do so. But what about a society in which both men and women routinely wear earrings? Proponents may go to Exodus 32, Exodus 35, Judges 8, and other chapters to point out that Israelite men at times wore earrings, seemingly without condemnation.
So, which is it? The answer to “Is it OK?” may be either “Yes” or “No,” depending on circumstances. The question, whether it is asked aloud or only internally, should not be “Can a man get away with wearing an earring?” Rather, we should keep in mind a vital admonition from Scripture: “And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight” (1 John 3:22).
Notice: “keep His commandments”— of course—but also “do those things that are pleasing in His sight.”
If we begin by seeking to please God, rather than to follow a fad promoted by a culture deliberately pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior, we will naturally ask, “Is God pleased when we try to imitate the world around us” (1 John 2:15-17)? Can we not recognize who is behind the course of this world (Ephesians 2:2)? Even if we can’t find a definitive passage of Scripture that forbids earrings on men and other body piercings the way it forbids tattoos, we can put verses together and understand something of the mind of God. Consider this vital passage from Deuteronomy:
You shall utterly destroy all the places where the nations which you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. And you shall destroy their altars, break their sacred pillars, and burn their wooden images with fire; you shall cut down the carved images of their gods and destroy their names from that place. You shall not worship the Lord your God with such things (Deuteronomy 12:2–4).
This passage is about destroying the symbols and altars of pagan gods. What is one of the most influential gods of our present society? Pride and the promotion of the self. Think of a simple baseball cap, with its visor on the front to keep the sun out of the wearer’s eyes. Is it OK to wear the cap sideways? What could be wrong with that? Nothing—or everything. It’s “just a style,” true. But is it about looking “cool” and projecting an attitude about the self—an attitude Satan would recognize as his own?
This kind of thinking—real, honest self-examination concerning our own motives and desires—is hard. Much harder than checking a list of “dos” and don’ts” to see if something is “OK” or “a sin.”
Some of you remember how members of the Worldwide Church of God reacted when their leadership told them, “It’s OK now to eat pork and shellfish.” More than a few went out to dinner that very evening, and ordered pork chops or a shrimp cocktail as soon as they knew they could get away with it. They weren’t acting on principle; they were responding to a new “do” replacing an old “don’t.”
Most of those reading this article have a good understanding about the principles involving unclean meats, but let’s turn to a touchier subject—birthdays. Some may wonder: Can I get away with observing my birthday, or the birthday of a friend or family member? And, if I can, what kind of observance can I get away with?
You can undoubtedly find some Orthodox Jewish regulations to answer those questions, and there are even some Church of God groups that will try to answer in great detail. But those questions are coming from the wrong spirit. Instead, we should ask, “What does God think about birthday observances? What is the purpose of birthday observances? What is the fruit of such observances? Do they promote the way of give or the way of get?” Answering those questions may be harder than abiding by a list of “dos” and “don’ts,” but as we answer those questions for ourselves, we will be showing God where our hearts really are.
I remember when a 16-year-old was demanding that her mother let her have a birthday party. My answer to the mother was that the question was not so much about whether a party was OK; rather, in this case, it was a matter of her daughter’s selfish and rebellious demand.
I also remember a time when a young lady asked me if it was OK to play in her school’s band concert on Friday night. I was pretty young in the ministry—not yet ordained—and I did not want to hurt her feelings, so we talked about it for a few minutes. I finally asked, “What do you think?,” and she replied, “I don’t think I should.” It was then that I realized that this was what she had believed coming into the conversation, but she had been hoping that I would give her what I sometimes refer to in these situations as “papal dispensation”—trying to see what she could get away with.
Similar principles apply to how we dress—and the controversies always seem to surround ladies’ dress styles, rather than the mistakes men commonly make. Are we wondering whether we can “get away with spaghetti straps”? Or are we thinking about how to dress in a way that pleases God? “I desire therefore that the men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting; in like manner also, that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing” (1 Timothy 2:8–9).
The principle is modesty. Spaghetti straps on a less physically mature 13-year-old are a very different matter than those worn by an older girl whose body has developed much more. We need to give some general guidelines, but must we try to make a list of modest choices that apply identically everywhere, and to everyone? Should people be required to dress the same in Canada in the cold winter as they do in the Philippines in the hot summer? Or should we look to Scripture for the proper principles to apply, asking God for His help in seeking His mind? Once again, if we focus on pleasing God, the details tend to take care of themselves.
Ask the Right Questions
As members of God’s Church, we need to learn to make righteous judgments, not simply to read rulings off of a list. This does not mean that anything goes—for instance, it does not mean that if you, as an individual, think something is modest, then it is. Nor does it mean that the older ladies should not teach younger ladies lessons in modesty. Younger ladies should value the wisdom of the older ladies who may have more insight into the message that is sent by immodest dress. The principle of modesty—not the exact dress-length down to the millimeter, not the specific kind of straps—is what is most important to learn and teach.
Paul gave us another vital principle when he wrote, “It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak” (Romans 14:21). This goes along with another, similar idea: “Give no offense, either to the Jews or to the Greeks or to the church of God” (1 Corinthians 10:32). Are we looking for the longest possible list of “dos” that will let us push the boundaries and expand the limits of what we can get away with? That is not an attitude that pleases God.
Brethren, God is writing His laws on our hearts (Hebrews 8:10), and He is seeking to reproduce the very mind of Jesus Christ in us (Philippians 2:5). We do not only strive to obey the Ten Commandments as God gave them to the Israelites; we strive to obey them as magnified by Christ. To do this, we must develop spiritual maturity.
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil (Hebrews 5:12–14).
May this Passover and Unleavened Bread season be a time of deep introspection—a time to evaluate our very way of thinking. Let us do our best to develop the discernment that God wants to see in us, so that we may draw closer to Him and His ways—and His true righteousness!