Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Signs of Strength

Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

Romans 14.4


I love this verse as much for what’s wrong about it as why it’s right. Paul’s exasperation here often mirrors my own when a Christian (or group of them) usurps God’s say. Even when limited understanding leads me to agree with God-talkers, I can’t shake indignation at their gall to think they know and can speak His mind. “Now, remind me again,” I dream of saying, “Who are you?” Of course, the proper response would be, “Well, who are you?” The point is well taken. Since I’m no better qualified to judge than they, judging them for judging catches me in the same snare. Likewise, on one level, Paul’s accusatory tone puts a wrong spin on his admonition against judging. Yet his basic rationale for asking the question remains sound.

Paul kicks off Romans 14 diplomatically. “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable [i.e., personal] matters.” (v1) He cites diet, a hot issue in the Roman church’s diverse congregation. In Rome and other metropolises, meat offered to idols was commonly sold to customers or served as temple feasts. One person was fine with eating it; someone else—the weaker one; we’ll get to that—refrained, considering it tainted by pagan worship. “The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does,” Paul writes in verse 3, adding, “for God has accepted him.” Then, poor guy, he gets flustered by the boldness of anyone—weak or strong—to speak for God. “Who are you to judge?” he hisses. “You’re not the boss. Only God knows who’s right. He’ll decide who stands righteously before Him.”

How Little We Know

We attack signs of weakness in others by professing we know more than they do about God’s thoughts. All this proves is how little we know. Imagining we can judge (or predict how God will judge) reveals how clueless and powerless we really are. Conceding our incapacity to judge is a sign of strength. It places total trust in God’s justice and compassion. It also relieves us of pointless adherence to outmoded legalities, many of them hatched in our tiny heads.

The dietary controversy exemplifies how speaking for God eases into a presumption about God. No injunction against eating meat sacrificed to idols exists. In fact, Jewish believers have no problem eating idol meat because, as 1 Corinthians 8.4 explains, “We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one.” In other words, how can something that doesn’t exist corrupt anything? “But not everyone knows this,” Paul says in verse 7. “Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think… it is defiled.” He’s now describing Gentile converts who haven’t shaken their roots in idolatry. Because they think the meat is defiled, it is—to them. A baseless taboo evolves into an edict against eating idol meat. Without any scriptural support, God-talkers condemn it as though their opinions are gospel truth. Their weak conscience intimidates believers to accept its notions. In verse 2 of the same chapter, we read, “The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know.” The strong-minded believer withholds judgment by admitting he/she doesn’t know.

Sister Sally

“Sister Sally is such a good Christian. She lives right,” we say before itemizing allegedly wrong things she doesn’t do. She doesn’t drink. She doesn’t eat meat on Fridays. She doesn’t condone same-sex unions. Nobody questions her sincerity. But does Sister Sally truly know her actions reflect God’s mind, or is she conforming to dogmatic guesswork? She may abstain from certain things because they tempt her to sin. She may avoid them so others don’t fall prey to weakness by following her example. If these reasons drive her, Sister Sally is strong. Then again, she may be weak, driven by fear or lack of confidence in an all-knowing, loving, and merciful God.

When we look at Sister Sally, it’s not ours to say if she’s right or wrong. We know only God can judge based on what’s in her heart. Yet respecting her beliefs mustn’t inhibit us from living by our convictions. Conformity to another’s personal belief increases exposure to weak-mindedness. On the other hand, flaunting comfort with practices that discomfit others exposes our pride and insensitivity. Placing credence in how we judge others or how they judge us portrays deficient awareness of our limits and God’s wisdom. In common usage, “live and let live” is a lazy, loathsome motto. As to judging anyone or submitting to another’s judgment, however, Paul describes living by our convictions and allowing others to do the same as signs of strength.

When taboos ease into dogma, weak-minded believers accept it as gospel truth. Strong-minded believers know not to judge others or worry about how others judge them.

(Tomorrow: Mentors and Mantles)

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