Turn the creation story on its head for a moment: Picture a starving Adam, and an emaciated Eve, our first parents, given a stunning garden and just one rule: don’t eat from that tree over there, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve, counter to the actual record, not only comply, but in their zeal to please God, they refuse to eat anything, and when the voice of God goes walking in the garden, they are discovered on the verge of death–victims of either ill-conceived devotion or false righteousness.
Imagine an adolescent so eager to prove his self-denial and his obedience, he never opens his birthday presents, mindful of past parental admonitions against vanity and selfishness. The child, in leaving the gifts unwrapped, refuses both his own joy and that of his parents. An impulse rooted in virtue begins feeling cold, evil, and lifeless.
We are commanded to avoid gluttony, and sometimes to fast, but never to starve ourselves. We are commanded not to murder, but we are also told to purchase swords for our defense. (Luke 22:36). We are commanded to avoid sloth, but never to shun rest or to go sleepless. We are commanded to remain sober, but wine is counted a blessing (Psalm 104). We are admonished to avoid youthful lusts and to abhor adultery, but never to shun the marriage bed, which is “pure” and “undefiled.” We are taught modesty is a virtue, but we are invited to consider Solomon’s bride, her eyes and her breasts and her navel, (“a goblet of wine.”) We are taught not to lie, but also not to throw pearls before swine, and, depending on the occasion, to actually deceive the enemies of God. (Joshua 2:5)
If you feel this sense of balance, intuitively, and you are not troubled by the extremes, consider yourself blessed. You are the child of God walking the high grassy plateau, properly warned about the steep cliff over there in the distance. You picnic up there on the plain, rest in your lover’s arms, enjoy the sunset, and you’re never tempted to blame God for either His blessings or His boundaries. You’re not one of those who build a windowless hovel, locking yourself inside, afraid to consider even the lilies of the field. In truth, you’re one of those who “stand fast” in the “liberty” by which Christ has set you free.
Unfortunately — in our age of the church particularly — that is not an easy freedom to embrace. Have you ever carried a heavy suitcase through an airport, remembering at the last minute it’s been built with wheels, and a handle? It’s absurdly easy once you get the hang of it, but some of us are always tempted to work harder than we need to. Freedom can be terribly difficult, in truth, to finally accept.
Last night, I read the pastoral blog of a man absolutely scandalized by the appearance of what appears to be a bottle of bourbon on the Facebook cover profile of Matt Walsh. The scandalized street preacher/blogger was startled to have so many friends who follow Matt, who “like” and share his posts. Can you imagine that? Sharing the posts of someone who preaches Christ and who gives every appearance of someone who might actually have enjoyed the wedding at Cana? The street preacher went on to share this video of John MacArthur, purporting to offer three “clear” objections to the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement. MacArthur claims these young pastors have a low view of God, a low view of scripture, and that they are unaccountable to the church, but he really offers no specific proof, other than making ominous references to “rock ‘n roll.” MacArthur worries that these pastors share pop culture references in preference to scripture, but, again he gives no examples.
To be certain, the church today is full of people throwing themselves over the cliff and deploying the cheap grace parachute. The church is not meant to be an obligation-free home for people engaging in the gross sins Paul warns about in 1st Corinthians 5. People who are unrepentant about greed, drunkenness, extortion, murder, fornication and adultery should not be in church, but when you think about it, those are pretty dramatic personal boundaries. To go beyond this standard, God’s standard, is to embrace legalism and neopietism, and when you do that, you risk turning God’s warm, loving, gorgeous bride into a cold, ornery bitch.
Why harp on this? Why bruise the tender feelings of weaker brothers? Why run the risk of encouraging, say, a substance abuser, who finds safety in temperance? Why run the risk of appearing to mock someone with the genuine gift of celibacy? Why make the mothers blush, for their children’s sake, or perhaps their own, praising, from the pulpit the notion of resting “betwixt” the breasts of the bride? Why remind the congregation about the arm-length knife plunged into the fat belly of the wicked king?
It’s pretty simple: “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil.” We properly abhor people who call evil, “good,” but do we understand how dangerous it is call God’s “good” evil?
Return, for a moment to an image I painted earlier — a teenager spiting his parents by refusing to open their gifts, and then claiming a kind of holiness for the self denial. I got a chill thinking of that image, because it’s really the spirit of Judas, standing in judgment of Jesus for allowing the beautiful woman to adorn the Master’s feet . Judas concludes — bitterly, angrily — that if the gospel is about denial, we had best put our head down and be about it. Is everyone denying themselves? Completely? No one’s looking at the beautiful, compassionate woman are they?
And I see the spooky eyes of the pasty legalist in that child who mocks their parents by not accepting their gift. “You’ve given me a few rules, mom and dad, and I resent you for it, and I’m going to take it out on you by making everything a rule, by starving myself, and you’re going to watch me die.” It’s chilling because, ultimately, the legalist really hates His Father in Heaven and has declared a rebellion against Him.
If America is ever to recover, it must recover from strength born of a vibrant, righteous, courageous church. The church is the bride of Christ, and she’s in just as much peril from those who would starve her to death as those who would put her in a brothel.