I was recently asked the challenging question, “How much of your Christianity is cultural?” Some other ways to look at this question is to ask, “What is considered righteous behavior and what is unrighteous behavior? Is there behavior that is not righteous but is also not necessarily unrighteous either? What separates the sacred from the profane and is there anything that is neither sacred nor profane?” The answer to these questions in recent years has been the trite WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) litmus test, which has led many quandaries including trying to determine if Jesus would drive under the speed limit or if Jesus would drink wine or grape juice.
I recently confronted this issue of sacred versus profane as I spoke with a twentysomething, brand-new Christian who was struggling with guilt. He was so wrought with guilt that he was making himself physically ill. The cause of this emotional duress: cigarette smoking. I confess that back in my legalistic days, I was indeed a tobacco Pharisee. If I saw someone lighting up outside a church, I questioned why this person would have the audacity to even set a nicotine-defiled foot in Church. Since that time through the grace of God, I have had a change of heart.
Why is smoking a considered a sin? The response of most Christians would center on the fact that the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, therefore, one should not do anything to harm the temple: cigarette smoking causes cancer, therefore a Christian should not smoke. So then based on that rationale, should a Christian not sunbathe because exposure to UV radiation causes skin cancer? Is eating tuna a sin, because tuna has high levels of mercury which causes neurological damage? The combustion of meat through the grilling process produces a compound that is known to be a carcinogen, thus you have to ask, is eating barbeque a sin (try telling that to the Bible Belt!)? As a toxicologist, I could go on with examples of foods that could kill you, to the point that there would be no food acceptable for a Christian to consume without sinning. Where do we draw the line on sin? I’m not advocating cigarette smoking here. Personally, I detest cigarette smoke. Smoking is not the issue. I am suggesting that we need to back down on passing judgment on the person’s heart based on external behaviors. So is smoking a sin? I do not know the answer to that question, but I know the One who does. It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict someone of the sin of “temple destroying,” after all, it is His temple. So then it is the Holy Spirit’s job to help the person to quit smoking. For the nicotine-addicted believer, the question to ask is not “Is smoking a sin?” or even “What would Jesus do?” The question to ask is “am I allowing Jesus to live through me?”
There are many examples of “cultural Christianity” including whether it’s okay to have a whiskey sour and whether it’s acceptable to use certain words. I knew a young woman who was so upset after a church service that she never came back. The reason was because the pastor used the phrase, “pissed off,” in his message. Incidentally, It was a wonderful message and she missed it because she was seething about the choice of words. Acceptable word usage changes with time and across cultures. The Apostle Paul used some pretty extreme language back in his day, language that may seem pretty benign in our culture. Values in society may change, but there is one constant: Jesus Christ. Instead of focusing on behavioral codes, we need to focus on our relationship with Him. He will give us the guidance when it comes to which words or actions are sacred, profane or neither. If we focus entirely on external appearances, we miss the gospel of grace that is the life of Christ in us and through us, and the ability to extend His grace to others. In Walk On, a book about the spiritual journey of U2, Steve Stockman wrote:
“Jesus told a parable about the Kingdom of God where the sheep enter the Kingdom, and the goats are left outside (Matt. 25:31-46). Jesus didn’t say the goats smoked, drank or swore too much. He said they didn’t get involved in changing the circumstances of the marginalized by feeding them when they were hungry and visiting them in prison. These were the issues of His kingdom.”
We cannot extend to others that which we do not have. If we do not have grace, we will not be able to extend grace. We must tap into the love of Christ in order to be able to reach out to the “least of these.”
There is something radically wrong when Christians are more concerned with external appearances than they are about reaching out to people who are suffering. The Church has become a schoolyard bully, using behavioral modification programs as a tool to manipulate. The external restraint of rules is merely religious conformity. Bono of U2 once said, “Religion to me is almost like when God leaves—and people devise a set of rules to fill in the space.” The modern Church is well described by Brennan Manning’s description of the Pharisees.
“The Pharisees falsified the image of God into an eternal, small-minded bookkeeper whose favor could be won only by the scrupulous observance of the laws and regulations. Religion became a tool to intimidate and enslave rather than liberate and empower” (Abba’s Child p. 79).
In the modern Church, Christianity has been confined to a behavioral code indicative of middle class mannerisms and has wrongly transposed this image onto the God of the Bible. On Sunday mornings we hear diatribes exhorting “don’t drink, smoke, chew or run with girls that do” and less about the grace of God and what it means to extend His grace to our neighbor. We are called to accept our salvation by grace, but we are then taught that grace in the Christian life stops there. That is not the gospel of grace. God is bigger than religious boundaries and behavioral codes. God extends the same grace offered at salvation to life after salvation. Unfortunately, it is we who will not allow ourselves to receive the grace so we strive to maintain our external behavioral code through religion. This striving sets us up for failure. Rules, behavioral codes and religion do not work. If they did work then we would have no need of a Savior.
After becoming weary of being beat up by the bondage of religious conformity, many do discover that they need a Savior beyond the moment of salvation. The life of Christ is a release from religious conformity and provides us with the relational constraint of love that then leads to obedience. The Christian life, therefore, is internalized by depending upon Jesus each moment. Instead of an external restraint of a behavioral code, this internal, relational constraint changes us so we want to love our neighbor and we want to serve others. We then offer His grace to those who are in need and are hurting. We accept others because we are accepted. That is a supernatural grace. So What Would Jesus Do? He trusted the Father for everything. He even said in John 5:31 that “I can do nothing on my own.” We are not called to simply “imitate” His behavior. No imitations, we need the real thing. We are called to follow His method, by trusting the Father for everything. Following Christ’s method is about staying connected to our life source and letting him live out of us, and that’s the real thing, baby.