Friday, April 24, 2009

The Good, The Bad, and Everything In Between

My husband and I have elementary school-aged children, and like many parents, we have always made it a priority to try and shield them from negative influences.  We don't get cable, we restrict what cartoons they can watch, and we monitor the games they play on the internet.  The worst offending influence we had to correct in their preschool years was the "just believe in yourself" pop psychology that is so prevalent in kids' cartoons.

Our job became much harder when our kids entered public school, as we expected it would.  Now they often come home and ask about an offending word or gesture, or talk about why so-and-so's parent is in jail.  It can be stressful at times, but I hope that as we teach them to think through these issues, they will be able to make good choices when we are not around.

A couple weeks ago, though, our kids were at a friend's house and were exposed to a very violent video game.  I was very dismayed when I heard about it later, as they were describing what they saw.  I was even more dismayed when they tried to argue with me why the game was OK, even after I told them why it was a bad game.  I finally had to say, "That game is BAD.  You don't not play that game EVER.  If a friend has that game, you say your Mom does not allow you to play or watch that game EVER."

Kids think in terms of black and white.  They have to be told "this is bad" and "this is okay."  It's hard to explain the subtleties of morality to a five-year-old.  Thus the world is cast in black and white for little eyes.  Everything falls into two categories--good/bad, permissible/not permissible, moral/immoral.

Part of growing up, then, is realizing that the world really isn't black and white.  It's black and white and a million shades of gray.  There is moral, immoral, and amoral.  There is sometimes moral under some circumstances and immoral under different circumstances.  Very few things in life are cut and dry.  I think of 1 Corinthians 13:11: "When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me."  We have to put childish reasoning aside in order to fully mature.  That means we have to set aside our tendency to see everything as either "all good" or "all bad."

The Christian life would be easier if it were a set of rules.  We could have our list of what was good and what was bad and check it off as we go.  We could feel pretty confident we were doing things right.  God gave the Law to Israel, arguably the ultimate list of "right and wrong."  It became a burden because they could not live up to it, and those who tried often lost the whole spirit of the Law that calls people to love God and love other people.  We as Christians do not live under the law (which is a good thing for many reasons, not the least of which is that cotton/polyester blends are much easier to iron).  But we do well to observe many aspects of the law (such as the "do not murder" part).  Then Jesus came along and upped the ante.   Calling your brother a fool could be akin to murder, and lusting in your mind is adultery in the heart (Matthew 5:21-30).  

If we try to apply the Bible to our lives as merely a rule book or a guide for daily living, we are going to run into obvious problems.  Take "do not murder," for example.  Seems simple enough.  But then we run into the tricky issues of war, euthanasia, the death penalty, and so forth.  What started out as a black and white issue now has a whole spectrum of moral decisions that don't seem so clear.  

Take lying for another example.  We could find many examples in scripture that support the idea that lying is a bad thing.  Yet Rahab, who lied her face off to protect the Israelite spies, is commended in Hebrews 11 as an example of great faith.  (I'm waiting for the day when my ever-perceptive children come home from Sunday School class and ask me about that one!)

There is true freedom for the Christian: "'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" (1 Corinthians 10:23-24).  Rather than a list of rules, we are told to put the good of others above our own self-interests.  That's messier business than a list of rules, but it allows the nuances needed in dealing with people.  We don't live in a one-rule-fits-every-circumstance world, and God gave us the freedom to be guided by His Spirit and our own discernment to respond to each situation as needed.

I've encountered many adults in the last few weeks who are still seeing the world in stark contrasts.  They have labeled "good" all that they consider "good," and everything else is as evil as the fire of hell itself.  Trying to reason with them to take a more nuanced approach is about as effective as trying to get my 5-year-old to reason through the moral complexities of a violent video game.  I expect it from a child, but I get a little exasperated when I'm talking with an adult.  While there certainly are issues that I view as black and white and non-negotiable, that list is a lot shorter than it used to be.  And I hope I am not belligerent when I discuss those issues with others.  I obviously have a long way to go in the process of maturing, but I can recognize a few areas where I've put away childish thinking (through a rather painful process, but it happened eventually).  Ultimately, when it comes to an issue where I'm unsure of the morality/immorality of it, I try to err on the side of love and grace extended toward people.

A final thought-- Jesus said that "anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it" (Mark 10:15).  So on the one hand we are to mature, yet we are still to be like little children.  Having kids has helped me to understand this verse.  I don't think having a "childlike faith" means never questioning anything and taking everything blind.  On the contrary, my kids are incredibly inquisitive and question things all the time.  But they look to us for guidance, and they long to be with us and do what we're doing.  They don't have egos or agendas when it comes to spending time with Mom and Dad.  In the same way, we should approach our Heavenly Father with all our childish questions and let Him guide our thinking.  The world will still be black and white and a million shades of gray, but we will start to see it with His loving eyes.

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