Pick Your Joneses

Christians are instructed not to be lovers of money (2 Tim. 3:2, 1 Tim. 6:10). We are instructed not to store up treasure on earth (Matt. 6:19), and to be content with what we have (Heb. 13:5). We are not to love the “stuff” (things) the world has to offer (1 John 2:15).

This is no easy task. Our sinful tendencies towards covetousness, greed, selfishness, etc. are easily inflamed and influenced by the world around us. And for many of us, we’re exposed to and surrounded by a great deal of wealth. If we are not highly intentional about our lifestyle and spending choices, it will be difficult to resist the impulse to “keep up with the Joneses.”

So, I have a suggestion: pick your Joneses. Not that you should try to “keep up” with anyone, but be aware of the natural human tendency to define “normal” based on the company you keep. If you happen to be able to afford a $1M house, perhaps there are good reasons to purchase a $1M house, but you will have to fight the tendency to assume that owning $100k cars and boats and other “toys” is normal since that’s how your neighbors will live. Even if you are intentionally not “keeping up with the Joneses,” your benchmark for “normal” is likely set by those around you. While your neighbors may trade in their Mercedes for a new one every 2 years, you are “content” to keep your 5-year-old Mercedes. But would you be content driving a 10-year-old Kia?

Assume that the Christian who earns $1M/year, the Christian who earns $100k/year, and the Christian who earns $25k/year are all living within their means and all believe that they are avoiding “extravagant” or “lavish” living. But they all have different definitions of what “extravagant” and “lavish” mean. If you are only living conservatively in comparison to your peers, then are your spending habits and lifestyle really determined by the application of Biblical principles, or are they determined by the world?

Maybe you could afford a $1M house, but you choose to buy a $250k house in a neighborhood where the average house is $200k. Maybe you could afford a $100k car, but you choose to buy a $30k car (whereas the average car in your neighborhood is a $15k car). You now have the most expensive house and car in the neighborhood, but you have less “peer pressure” to upgrade than if you were living “conservatively” in the $1M neighborhood.

This is what I mean by “picking your Joneses.” If all your friends like to eat at steakhouses with white tablecloths, your natural tendency will probably be the same. If all your friends like to eat at McDonald’s, your natural inclination to eat at “fancy” restaurants will likely be different. It’s just human nature to make judgments on a comparative basis, and those comparisons are based on what you consider “normal.” So, when you’re making lifestyle choices, don’t just consider what you can afford. Perhaps give some thought to the unavoidable influence that your peers have on you.

(A similar idea is to make it your goal to live in such a way that you are pursuing “downward mobility.”)

I Can Work With That

Adam and Eve sinned… and God said, “I can work with that.”
Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery… and God said, “I can work with that.”
Pharaoh hardened his heart… and God said, “I can work with that.”
The scribes and Pharisees conspired to kill Jesus… and God said, “I can work with that.”

Does this reflect your view of how God works all things together for the good of those who love Him (Rom. 8:28)?  Is God simply responding to bad things in order to salvage his plan?

If this is your view, perhaps you should reread Genesis 45:5-8 and 50:20 where Joseph declares that he was sent to Egypt because it was God’s plan and intention, and God’s action that brought it about (using the evil actions of Joseph’s brothers to accomplish his will).

Reread Exodus 4:21, 10:1, 10:20, 10:27, 14:4, and 14:8 where God repeatedly says that he is the one who hardened Pharaoh’s heart, because it was his plan from the very beginning to do so.  (God had a similar plan involving Sihon king of Heshbon, as noted in Deut. 2:30.)

Reread Acts 2:23 and 4:28 where it is clearly stated that the wicked conspiracy against Jesus was part of God’s predetermined plan.

If these evil deeds are intended and predetermined by God, does that make God the author of sin?  No!  The humans who sin commit their sin freely (uncoerced) out of their own evil intentions.  However, the fact of their evil deed is not just known by God, but is planned by God, and in God’s plan, he is working something good in spite of the evil intentions of the human actors.

The Unity Scale

Christians are called to unity. (John 17:21-23, Romans 12:5, 1 Corinthians 1:10, etc.). Unity requires harmony, like-mindedness, having things in common. However, until we are perfected in glory, there is an inverse relationship between the number of people with whom we have unity and the number of things about which we are unified. For example, if I state that “it’s good to be happy,” this is something that almost everyone can agree on. However, as soon as I add to that statement (for example, “watching the St. Louis Cardinals win makes me happy”), the size of the group that is in agreement will shrink.

So, in our pursuit of unity, there is a balance between pursuing unity with the maximum number of other Christians possible and pursuing unity in as many areas as possible. In the new heavens and new earth, there will be 100% agreement over all things with all people. In our current fallen world, we sometimes have to choose between limited unity with more people or more unity with fewer people.

If you take the route of pursuing unity with the maximum number of other Christians, you will find that the number of things about which you are unified must be relatively small. This can lead to a pretty anemic version of Christianity, where “doctrine” consists of little more than platitudes.

On the other hand, trying to achieve unity in as many areas as possible can lead to isolation. One of the connotations of “fundamentalism” is the idea that you only associate with those who share your opinions on just about everything. When you can’t come to agreement on an issue, you splinter off into smaller and smaller groups.

A healthy approach is not simply to find the “midpoint” where you have a reasonable level of unity with a reasonable group of believers, but to have a balance of both types of unity: a mix of basic unity with the larger body of Christ and a smaller group of believers with whom you can enjoy deeper unity on more levels. If all of your unity with other believers is at a very basic level, you’re probably lacking in doctrinal depth and missing out on the joy of pursuing and discussing rich theology with others who are likeminded. If all your unity with other believers is with a small group of others who agree with you on almost all matters, you’re probably missing out on the diversity within the body of Christ and you’re probably not being sufficiently challenged to love, respect, and work together with those who hold different convictions than you.

Be Careful Little Mouth What You Say

What are “bad words” and why are they bad?

My daughter is 6.  She is pretty sheltered, but as her exposure to the world widens and her vocabulary expands, she will start to notice some language that we don’t want her to repeat.  This has got me thinking about how best to explain to her why some words are “bad.”

Parental advisories for TV shows, movies, music, etc. usually address sexual content, violence, “adult” themes (including substance abuse), and language.  Problematic language can include swearing, cursing, “cussing,” profanity, obscenities, and maybe some other similar words such as expletives or “strong” language.  Are these all synonyms or do they have different meanings?  Why should such words be avoided?

Let’s start with some definitions:

Cursing (aka “cussing”): To curse someone is to wish something bad upon them.  It is not our place to condemn (“damn”) anyone or anything.  We are not the Creator.  God says “Vengeance is mine; I will repay” (Hebrews 10:30, Romans 12:19, Deuteronomy 32:35).  Rather, we are called to love even our enemies (Matthew 5:44, Luke 6:27,35, Romans 12:20).

Swearing: To swear on or by something is to denote the seriousness (solemnity) of our statement by association with the seriousness of the object/place/person being sworn on or by.  We have an obligation to speak truthfully at all times.  Attempting to make some speech more impactful by accentuating it with “swearing” implies that our words themselves are insufficient and casts doubt on our commitment to be truthful in everything we say.  Instead of showing our “seriousness” by drawing on the seriousness of something outside of ourselves, we should simply let our “Yes be yes and our No, No” (Matthew 5:33-36, James 5:12).

Profanity:  The essence of profanity is treating anything holy and sacred as if it were not.  Profane speech is speech that does not show God the reverence he deserves.  The name of God is holy and must be treated with reverence (Deuteronomy 10:20).  To use God’s name in a trivial manner (Exodus 20:7) or to associate God with anything that is not true profanes his name (Leviticus 19:12); it sullies his perfect righteousness and dishonors him. 

Obscenity:  Something that is obscene is something that is put on display that should not be put on display (Ephesians 5:12).  Most often, this has to do with things of a sexual nature.  Part of keeping the bed of marriage undefiled (Hebrews 13:4) is keeping it private.  Sexual intimacy is not something to be shared or brought out in public (Ezekiel 16:36, 23:18) or even talked about in a way that destroys its intimacy (Ephesians 5:4).

Vulgarity:  If any “bad” words could be defended, it would be those in this last category.  After all, the original meaning of “vulgar” was simply “characteristic of or belonging to the masses,” which was why the churchmen who wrote the Westminster Confession of Faith in 1646 advocated for the Scriptures “to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation.”  However, the more modern definition of vulgarity is of things that are tasteless, crass, crude, and generally offensive.  This could involve some overlap with the previous categories, but I am thinking primarily of words that do not fall into one of the other categories.  This would include scatological terms that are generally recognized as being indecent.  One might argue that this falls into the category of “filthy language” prohibited by Colossians 3:8.  The contents of this category could be more subject to the changing standards of what is considered “decent,” but Christians should always seek to be polite, courteous, kind, and avoid speech that is not wholesome or gracious (Ephesians 4:29, Colossians 4:6).  What comes out of our mouth is an indicator of what is in our inmost being, and our hearts and minds should be saturated with things that are pure and lovely (Philippians 4:8).

Other: Perhaps you can think of “bad” words that don’t seem to fall into one of the categories above. An example might be certain words that demean a person’s parentage. The admonitions to love our neighbor, love our enemy, and speak wholesome, gracious words extend to this “other” category also.