All things are permissible. Not all things are beneficial.
In the week following my retina surgery, I had to lay face down all the time. I could only get up to use the bathroom and eat meals. Because my limited vision in my non-surgical eye can see nothing smaller than the big E on a doctor’s eye chart, someone had to escort me everywhere, even the bathroom at three in the morning. Since Jack is nearly deaf without his hearing aids and I had to sleep in another room, this posed a problem. We worked out a deal that when he woke in the middle of the night, he would check on me.
By the fourth night, I’d had enough. Snores from the other bedroom indicated he was having a good night and I didn’t want to wait. The next morning, he asked, “Did you get along okay getting to the bathroom by yourself?”
“I did fine,” I answered. I paused and then admitted the truth. “But it was stupid.” The well-being of my surgical eye was tenuous at best. I could not afford a fall or even a run-on with a piece of furniture. Lying flat all week made me weak and unstable on my feet. Yes, I could take care of myself. But it was not in my best interest.
For some reason, that made me think of tattoos.
In my work with young people, I’ve had two young men ask me if the Bible prohibits tattoos. The first time, I hemmed and hawed, “No the Bible does not say in so many words that thou shalt not have a tattoo. But do you really want to do this? Is this smart?” I think the young man was setting me up because word got around the church that I had told him he was going to go to hell for getting a tattoo.
The next time a young man asked me, I’d grown a little smarter myself. This time, I thought of the Bible verse from 1 Corinthians 10:23,24:
“Everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.”
I repeated the first sentence to my young friend, then asked, “Do you understand what that means?” (Guideline #1 for answering tough questions from teen-age boys. Answer a question with a question. It worked for Jesus. It works today. The way they answer is a signpost of their interest in the truth.)
“Yeah.” His answer came slowly. I could tell he was thinking. Then he parroted back to me ways a tattoo wouldn’t be such a smart idea.
“Jesus didn’t put a lot of rules on us,” I told him. “We have to decide whether it’s a smart idea for us, the impact it might have on other people, or how it will build the Kingdom of God.”
Lest, like my first young friend, you think I’m anti-tattoos, that’s not my point. Jesus didn’t come to straight jacket us with a bunch of rules.
The problem is, we would like it that way. Many of us want to have a neat little rule book we can follow so we know exactly what is expected of us. It saves me from having to do any heavy duty thinking about whether a tattoo is beneficial to me in the long-term or how it’s going to impact my relationship with others. I don’t want to have to think. Just tell me what to do. Then I can reach the Pearly Gates with my little list of dids and didn’t’s and I’m free and clear.
While we like the grace of Christ for ourselves, we still have the human condition of wanting to create rules for others. Recently, my husband read an article that listed church bylaws left too long on the books. Here are some of my favorites:
No red liquid is allowed in the church sanctuary. (Uh, does that mean no Communion juice? Or is that purple and doesn’t count? Wonder what happened to that sanctuary carpet to make a church constituency rise up and insist on this one.)
The church must have three deacons at all times. (What if you can’t find three men who are biblically qualified? What if the church has only 20 members? If the church has 500 members, shall leadership be limited to only three?)
Nit-picky rules like these are often knee-jerk reactions to out-of-control situations. They might fit the moment but they quickly become outdated and someone forgets to take them off the books. That’s the practical reason. Beyond that, they miss the point of God’s grace. The need to forgive and let transformed human beings be human beings.
Jesus looks at the inner man, his motivations and intentions. He wants us to use wisdom, discernment, and discretion as we make our daily choices. He wants us to follow him out of love and trust, not obligation and duty. He wants our passionate love, not a duty-bound, begrudging discipleship. Perhaps we need to ask, “How will my action show my love for God and benefit others,” instead, “Would God allow me to do this particular thing for my own pleasure or convenience?”
The doctor never said, “Karen, thou shalt have someone escort thee to the bathroom at all times.” He gave me the guideline of “Be careful. Do nothing as much as possible. The less you do, the better you will see.” I had to figure out on my own how to put that into practice on a nightly basis. Thankfully, I didn’t have to learn my lesson the hard way through a head on collision with a wall.
Rules create a bigger problem. Human nature wants to push the limits. When the doctor told me I could get up once in a while, I immediately pushed the envelope. “I need to exercise. Can I walk to the end of my driveway?” I feel sorry for doctors who have patients like me.
Freedom in Christ doesn’t mean we have the freedom to push the limits. It means we have the freedom to figure out loving and serving God on our own. That might be inconvenient and downright frustrating at times. I’d like to make life simple and have someone tell me what to do. But in the long run, my searching for what’s best for me and for others makes me more like Jesus. If that’s my ultimate long-term goal, I’ll accept God’s mode of grace for both myself and others.